Two weeks ago the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, made a one day visit to Havana. His principal objective was to deepen the relationship between the two nations and to place Cuba nearer to the centre of his government’s interest in a significantly closer engagement with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. In doing so, he noted the significant role Cuba plays in the hemispheric construct, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This is for many an alternate political body for the Americas to the Organisation of American States (OAS), as CELAC expressly excludes the US, Canada, and Europe’s overseas territories, including at present the French départements d’outre-mer (the DOM) which are constitutionally integral to, if remote from Europe.
What he told journalists suggested that France intends playing a significant role in facilitating a political dialogue and co-operation agreement between Cuba and the European Union; negotiations for which are due to begin on April 29 and 30 in Havana. More tangibly he opened an office in Havana for Ubifrance, a public institution devoted to supporting French investment and trade.
Mr Fabius’ visit takes one step further the engagement of France and the DFA, (the Départements Français d’Amérique: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana) with the Caribbean and Central America. It reflects a policy that has been little written about that in part seeks to more closely integrate France and ‘France in the Caribbean’ with CARICOM and the OECS, Cuba, the Central American Integration System (SICA) and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS).
It stems from a desire to have a greater political and economic role in the Americas, a continent, Mr Fabius wrote in Le Monde in February 2013, ‘whose influence in the world is becoming apparent’. This involves what might best be described as building a series of concentric circles of influence in a manner that involves France and the DFA jointly constructing an international role, deepening their engagement at an all EU level, and pursuing closer relationships regionally through a mix of public and private diplomacy.
It is a policy that accepts the need for greater autonomy in decision making in the French Caribbean; the need to diversify DFA economies so that they are better integrated into the region in which they are located; France’s broader desire as a regional nation to have a greater presence in an area it regards as strategically important; and a desire for increased investment and market share in those countries in the region that are proximate to the DFA or have high growth rates.
As a result the relationship is now changing in a number of ways.
France is seeking to have its major companies engage in five key markets: Panama, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Trinidad and Haiti. At a conference held last December at the French Senate, politicians, officials and major companies discussed in detail the challenges and opportunities. In wide ranging exchanges, participants considered issues from the recognition of legal judgments, through the difficulties of inter-regional shipping and air transport, to investment opportunities directly or through the DFA in areas such as energy, power generation and transmission, transport, healthcare, and education.
France is also encouraging the closer integration of the DFA into regional institutions. The ability of the DFA to do so, despite being part of France, changed definitively in late 2011 with the possibility of DFA membership being confirmed in mid-2012 by Mr Fabius for France’s socialist government. As a consequence, Guadeloupe and Martinique have been able to become associate members of the ACS, are observers in SICA, and associate members of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). They are also seeking closer integration with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States and CARICOM by becoming associate members.
Serge Letchimy, the Socialist member of the French National Assembly for Martinique who is also President of the Regional Council of Martinique, has been assiduous in seeking to further deepen the relationship. This has involved him speaking to CARICOM Heads at their inter-sessional meeting in St Vincent in March, visiting CARICOM states to seek their support with associate membership, offering the opportunity to individual CARICOM leaders to address Martinique’s local assembly, increasing airlift to encourage a greater number of inter-regional visitors, receiving business delegations, and hosting regional events like the 2014 Carifta games or the Caribbean Tourism Organisation’s annual state of the industry conference.
In the OECS in particular there is interest in the relationship going further. A recent report for the St Lucia Government identifies broader advantages in a closer relationship for those nations that have geographic proximity. It suggests, within the framework of the OECS, that countries might seek through the DFA to persuade the government of France, and by extension the EU, to support an economic integration strategy that could involve energy, transportation agreements, modernised food production systems and joint ventures. It also argues that by permitting the inclusion of the départements of Martinique and Guadeloupe within the regional integration process, ‘to the maximum degree constitutionally and practically possible’ this might create ‘greater practical diplomatic access’ to the EU at a time of economic constraint. Others like St Vincent’s Prime Minister, Ralph Gonsalves, have suggested that education and health care, equity participation in LIAT, and an extension to all OECS citizens of travel to Martinique and Guadeloupe for up 15 days without a visa might also be possible.
Where this will lead is still far from clear. The issue of regional integration of the DOM is not without practical difficulties. CARICOM’s negative tariff list, which under the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) covers the DFA as if they were physically in Europe, includes many products and services that the French Caribbean would like to supply. There are also local tax and regulatory structures in the DFA that discriminate against CARICOM businesses; there are problems with access to DFA ports by regional vessels, and there remain some potentially very difficult legal issues involved in the adherence of the DFA to regional treaties given they remain integral parts of France.
How this plays out amongst those CARICOM states that are not geographically proximate, or with individuals or nations that cannot easily come to terms with France or any other external actor, finding new ways to more directly engage, remains to be seen. Despite this, it is clear that France’s desire for closer engagement, and Martinique and Guadeloupe’s interest in finding an expression of their Caribbeanness while maintaining their French identity, represents an interesting new departure for the region.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at email@example.com