FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — Identity is always on everyone's mind in the French Caribbean. More than 20 years ago, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, making the first official visit by a French president to the French island of Martinique, looked out across a chanting, cheering crowd of thousands of black and brown people and shouted to them, "My God, my God, how French you are!"
De Gaulle's words reflected the status and much of the reality of the French Caribbean, then and now. Since 1946, Martinique and its sister island of Guadeloupe have been departments of France, legally as much a part of France as Normandy and Brittany. But more than legality is involved. French culture runs deep in these islands.
Yet not everyone would agree with De Gaulle, then or now. Dr. Claude Makouke, leader of the independence movement on Guadeloupe, said over dinner on a recent evening: "We are of the Caribbean. We are Americans."
People of Two Minds
Many of the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique would accept Makouke's description--but only if they could call themselves French as well. Only a tiny minority of Guadeloupians share Makouke's desire for independence. Independence has an even smaller following on Martinique.
The 650,000 people on the two islands have an artificial, dependent and depressed economy. Some might even call it a colonial economy. The islands attract a decreasing number of tourists, manufacture almost nothing and grow crops like sugar and bananas that are in depression.
A tourist hunts in vain for any native product other than rum. Souvenir shops on Guadeloupe sell T-shirts made in China, picture postcards printed in European France, shells packaged in the Philippines. More than a quarter of the workers are unemployed. Government spending by Paris keeps the islands going.
Not So Bad Off
Yet while the islanders may want something better than this, they do not want anything worse. They know that almost all the citizens of the independent nations of the Caribbean are in far worse shape than the French citizens of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
There is something troubling about the French Caribbean. Guadeloupe has been beset in the last couple of years by separatist bombs and racial riots. Martinique has escaped such violence. Six years ago, however, the white minority on the island was shocked when the deputy leader of the largest political party announced, "European friends, start packing your bags. Let us separate like brothers while there is still time."
But perhaps even more significant and troubling, the islands strike an outsider as a political puzzle. Most islanders want to remain French, but they seem to want something else as well. Yet it is not clear what. Much of the political talk is ambiguous.
Urges Double Identity
President Francois Mitterrand, in an official tour of Martinique and Guadeloupe in early December, reflected this ambiguity when he included a plea for a double identity in every speech he made in every hamlet and town on the islands.
Stressing that his government's decentralization program had given the islanders more control of their own affairs, Mitterrand told a crowd at Abymes on Guadeloupe, "From now on, at the same time, you can be Guadeloupian, flatter yourself as Guadeloupian, pride yourself as Guadeloupian, and conduct yourself as Guadeloupian, all while being proud and happy to call yourself very French, citizens of the French Republic."
The islanders may have overwhelmed De Gaulle with their Frenchness two decades ago, but most other visitors from France would probably be struck more by how Caribbean the islands and the people are.
Don't Look Like France
The islands do not look like France. They are languid, lush green, small and hilly, with narrow, crowded roads shadowed by an overgrowth of sugar cane and bananas. Some of their antique buildings are embellished with the elaborate, curving wrought-iron designs that French architects favored for the tropics in the 19th Century.
Like most others in the Caribbean, the French islanders are a handsome, mixed people, descended mostly from African slaves, partly from colonial slave holders. Many speak what is known as Creole, an amalgam of French vocabulary and African grammar that developed on slave plantations and still has the rhythm of a West African tonal language.
Despite these similarities, the influence of French culture and the special relationship of the islanders with France do make Martinique and Guadeloupe different from the rest of the Caribbean. The career and attitude of the distinguished Martinique poet and politician, Aime Cesaire, probably illustrates this best.