October 28, 1999

French premier promises Caribbean more leeway in trade pacts

                  FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique (AP) -- Trying to soothe fears that the
                  French Caribbean is missing out on free trade alliances, French Premier
                  Lionel Jospin on Thursday promised the islands more freedom to forge
                  pacts with their neighbors.

                  "The government wants to help you to build up new links with the Caribbean
                  states. I want to give you a new impetus," Jospin told officials in Martinique
                  on the second day of four-day visit that also will take him to Guadeloupe.

                  He said a new law governing France's overseas provinces would give more
                  flexibility to local officials and allow them to lead negotiators or help
                  represent France in regional al council president Alfred Marie-Jeanne,
                  refused to take part in that meeting because he favors independence for the
                  island and thinks local leaders should be allowed to negotiate trade pacts
                  directly, with no reference to Paris.

                  The French leader also said the new law would help create jobs, especially
                  for young people, but he gave no details.

                  The economically depressed islands have a 30 percent unemployment rate,
                  and envy members of the Caribbean Community trade group who are
                  moving toward a single market. By 2005, other countries hope to establish a
                  free trade zone that would encompass the entire Western Hemisphere.
                  France's minimum wage makes salaries and therefore any produce from
                  Martinique many times more expensive than in the rest of the Eastern

                  The French islands import everything from butter to bottled water from
                  mainland France and Jospin noted that only 10 percent of their trade is with
                  other Caribbean countries. He said he wanted France's ambassadors to
                  come up with ideas to change that.

                  He favored changes proposed by Sen. Claude Lise of Martinique that would
                  allow islands to directly negotiate pacts with other countries. But he added
                  they "must be made more precise in the future law."

                  He said the government also would review the system of granting visas to
                  take into account the French Caribbean's neighbors.

                  Officials in Guadeloupe and Martinique complain their needs are often are
                  ignored in Paris and Jospin's visit -- his first official tour since becoming
                  premier in June 1997 -- is an attempt to respond to those complaints.

                  "We have come to listen and talk and examine all problems," he said. He is
                  accompanied by a half dozen government ministers and secretaries.

                  On Thursday, he met with Fort-de-France Mayor Aime Cesaire then
                  traveled to the southern town of Vauclin to talk with residents and Mayor
                  Raymond Occolier, a fellow Socialist.

                  He also met members of Martinique's Chamber of Agriculture in an effort to
                  defuse resentment over new challenges to Caribbean banana exports, and
                  promised compensation to sectors suffering from international competition.

                  Farmers in Martinique have accused Jospin's government of failing to defend
                  European trade preferences given to the region's bananas. The World Trade
                  Organization has ruled the perks are unfair, and local banana growers are
                  afraid Europe will soon be flooded with cheap Latin American bananas.

                  On Monday, angry banana farmers used tractors to force their way into the
                  naval base in Fort-de-France to demand more action by the government.
                  They occupied the base for several hours before leaving peacefully.