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
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
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.