- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

PARIS — The French referendum on the European Union Constitution may depend on voters in a string of palm-fringed islands thousands of miles from Paris.

With the referendum on May 29 too close to call, “Yes” campaigners are wooing the 1.2 million voters in France’s overseas departments and territories. They include the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and Tahiti in the Pacific.

Voters are being treated to an “awareness” campaign reminding them of how much they gain from the EU — or stand to lose — in an attempt to secure their support, and the European Commission has substantially increased funding this year to some of France’s former dominions, including subsidized airline tickets.

Opponents of the constitution, which is supported by France’s two main political parties, call the official campaign blackmail.

“The establishment in France is running scared,” said Nicolas Dupont-Aignant, leader of a Gaullist “No” faction within the ruling UMP party. “They will stop at nothing to secure a “Yes” vote, including blackmail.”

French President Jacques Chirac knows well that hundreds of thousands of overseas “Yes” votes in 1992 saved the government over the referendum to ratify the Maastricht treaty. Seventy percent were in favor, helping to push the “Yes” camp to a majority of just 540,000 and paving the way for the introduction of the euro.

At the time, opponents accused President Francois Mitterrand of “blackmailing” local officials into ensuring a “Yes” vote or risk losing significant French and EU subsidies.

France has four overseas departments or DOM: Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana in South America and Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean. All are considered part of the mainland and receive generous European funding.

Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana and Reunion alone received $4 billion in European structural funds from 2000 to 2006. France has doubled its budget to the DOM-TOM — the overseas territories worldwide — to $1.5 billion for this year.

There are three overseas territories in the South Pacific — New Caledonia, Polynesia, and Wallis and Futuna islands — and two more loosely linked islands: Mayotte, between Madagascar and Mozambique, and Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, south of Newfoundland. All are eligible to vote in the forthcoming referendum.

In the DOM-TOM, voters are being told that they could be France’s answer to Florida, which swung the American presidential elections in 2000 in President Bush’s favor.

On a recent visit to Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister and a Socialist “Yes” campaigner, said that the region could become the “Florida of the referendum” but also warned that voters could be “held responsible” if they came out against the constitution.

“EU money is channeled into almost every aspect of life overseas,” said Chantal Cransac, a ministry spokesman. “We want people to be aware of this, so that if they vote ‘Non’ and lose out, they can’t plead ignorance.”

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