Martinique: How are metropolitans perceived?


A government reshuffle which places the Ministry of Overseas Territories under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior and a debate in the National Assembly which rejects the amendment on the adaptation of the purchasing power premium to the overseas territories, will have been enough to revive the tensions between overseas and French politicians.

These tensions should be mirrored with others that exist within the very territories in which ultramarines and metropolitans live. Our recent work explores these complex identities and interactions based on a field survey conducted from 2010 to 2014 on the metropolitan population in Martinique, updated between 2016 and 2020.

To better understand the meanings of their presence in these French territories far from France, and in which they are immediately assimilated to migrants by the local populations, we questioned metropolitans in Martinique from their migratory project, their experience there, to their prospects of staying or leaving.

There are many themes related to this migratory experience that highlight tensions between metropolitans and the local population. Whether it concerns local preference for employment, the fight against real estate speculation, the defense of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, opposition to the authorities regarding the health crisis management (Covid-19), these themes build representations of the social relationships between the groups involved.

Taken over by local media, even initiated by social media, public discussion on these divisive themes sometimes adopts a tone of humour/derision, sometimes that of social, cultural or political protest.

Beyond the perception that metropolitans have of themselves, as well as the way in which they are perceived by the local population, it is important to see what place the actors' discourse holds in the local public space.

Claims in August 2021 in connection with the chlordecone scandal and resistance to sanitary measures in the West Indies.

Who are the Metropolitans?

Metropolitans are first of all those white settlers who come to settle in another land from the colonial metropolis during the XVIIe century. Having become planters, they dissociate themselves from them culturally today, through the creolization carried out over several generations (Békés).

The foundation of the colony of Martinique by the French in 1635 (Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc). Oil on canvas, between 1839 and 1845.
Collections of the Palace of Versailles, Théodore Gudin (1802-1880)/Wikimedia

The term metropolitan then qualifies those who form new waves of arrival, through the operating posts of thelocal colonial state (governor, administration, army, nursing staff, and from 1870, teaching staff) until 1946 with law 46-451 tending to classification as French departments of the Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion and French Guiana.

From the 1970s and 1980s, the effects of specific legislative and fiscal measures favored and diversified metropolitan migrations. Civil servants and private entrepreneurs, encouraged by the financial benefits (surcharges, tax exemptions, etc.), are now joined by retirees (peaceful life, favorable climate, etc.), small craftsmen who are sometimes “adventurers” (earn a good living, make money, etc.) or even people in a precarious situation (poverty less visible in the sun).

Whatever the motivation behind the desire to migrate, metropolitans project themselves. Even those who are the subject of a professional assignment (three or four consecutive years), have previously spent holidays there, or have benefited from friends on site who have ensured a transition to this passage. There is something of the order of the protocol and the sector, fed by a kind of imagination of the French tropics.

Finally, the metropolitans are those white French people from France who go overseas for professional or personal reasons, and stay there for a variable period. They are part of the very socio-historical construction of these French possessions.

Martinique, funny from France… Mohr Simone, RTS documentary, 1978. YouTube.

A “double presence” of the French

In France, no Frenchman calls himself a metropolitan from the outset, while overseas, no one is surprised by this denomination, not even those who are caught up in this categorization. The qualification is noted as if the relationship to the former colonial metropolis continued to define a “double presence” of the French in these former colonies. We grasp the bias of this social construction when we notice that several paths of identification are offered to the actors.

On the spot, the metropolitans are easily identifiable (appearance, conduct) in relation to the majority group (religious rites, family celebrations, etc.). They develop forms of circulation and anchoring in connection with their own projects, of course, but within pre-established formal social frameworks that are familiar to them.

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Some think of their territorial proximity as a distance from the local population, transpose their lifestyles prior to their arrival, build sealing areas : places of residence, choice of school, types of leisure.

Others think of their inclusion as “localism”, try to get closer to local universes, respect social distances conducive to their recognition (participation in local festivals, respect for social rhythms, friendly and family relations). A quantitative study still to be done should provide a refined representation of the forms and degrees of integration of the metropolitan population on the spot.

Three fishermen return from a boat trip to Sainte-Marie in Martinique
Return from fishing in Sainte-Marie. Some metropolitans try to get closer through localism.
Stephane Romany/Wikimedia, CC BY-NC-ND

Metropolitans only exist when named by a term that refers to a distinct geographical location (metropolitan France); to designate them alone, as French when the ultramarines are also French, leads to suspicion of separatism whoever designates.

It is the autonomy of the actors, through various processes of identification offered to them, which makes it possible to grasp at what moment the metropolitan ceases to be a “migrant”. It is she again who authorizes any non-white coming from France to perceive themselves and/or to be perceived as metropolitan.

Separate media treatment?

Seized by the discourses of which it is the object, the metropolitan also proceeds from media formats. Its phenotype and tonic accent, stigmata in terms of social representations, highlight the stereotypes of a homogeneous group distant from the local population, and whose members appear socially dominant.

A continuum of discourse on metropolitan overseas migration, bounded by the daily life time on one side, and the time of social crises on the other, brings out a permanence of themes related to this migration, but also a similitude of their forms of treatment.

Metropolitans are frequently mocked by local populations who maintain a series of prejudices against them. These categorizations present ways of looking at those who come from “out there” (them vs. us); they are regularly revisited by artists who take up recurring situations in these intergroup relationships.

Laurence Joseph and Laurent Tanguy – The black. Youtube.

Exacerbated inequalities

All these stereotypes refer to cultural difference as much as they reveal exacerbated social inequalities. Experiencing their digital minority on the spot, metropolitans note differences between mainland France and the overseas territories that they question through complaints and value judgments, or in the sense of adaptation to local life.

On the other hand, metropolitans are regularly featured in their role of dominant social actors). Either they are representatives of the state on the spot, or they are holders economic, financial or cultural.

From this point of view, the multiple confrontations between gendarmes and young people are reminiscent of well-known scenes in the sensitive suburbs of large French cities, except that here, the troublemakers belong to the ethnic majority of the population on the territory.

Other less extreme social relationships featuring teaching or caring staff, business leaders or service managers lend themselves to the same analysis.

Visible frustrations and imbalance

The metropolitan presence enjoying favorable conditions while all the poverty indicators are higher than those of l'Hexagone is not without arousing frustrations and denunciations against unfair situations lived on place. This observation is no less real despite the notable evolution of the spectrum of migrants, from the figure of the secure “expat” to that of the ill-informed “adventurer”.

Finally, the spatial distribution of metropolitans comes under a specific and visible territorial inscription.

Overrepresented in seaside tourist areas, they are present in other business areas, compared to sectors less endowed with facilities and activities. If there is a personal part in the desire to migrate from metropolitan France to the overseas territories, it seems difficult to rule out the system effect through the action of political and institutional, legislative and administrative, economic and social, cultural and artistic, support for a migration to transnational representations.

For the most part, and whatever their ideological orientation, metropolitans do not reflect on the place they occupy, the role they collectively play overseas.

The denial of colonial history is nestled in the meanings they give to the evidence of their presence in these territories, which could well constitute the singularity of this migration.

Olivier Pulvar, Lecturer (information and communication sciences), University of the West Indies

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image credit: / Damien VERRIER

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