Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Fragments of France

A naïve American tourist reviewing the place on TripAdvisor might put it something like this: "The building is completely unsuitable to house a restaurant – we ate with two feet of water covering the floor, the tables and benches sloped in all directions, there was graffiti all over the walls, and – worst of all –  no rest rooms."

Well, it is curious how the uutterly prosaic can be repackaged as super-romantic. We'd taken a boat trip in the huge marine nature park of the Grand Cul-de-Sac Marin, in the French overseas region of Guadeloupe. "Vous allez manger, les pieds dans l'eau," said Barbara, who sold us the trip. "Les pieds dans l'eau" is a bit of sales cliché when you are looking for a suitable apartment to rent in this archipelago, which is politically, if hardly geographically, part of France. It is not supposed to be a literal truth.

Déjeuner sur l'eau!

But in this ramshackle cabin, clinging to a sand bank just below the water's surface, you really do have your feet in the water as you eat. And it is great fun! Our captain, Arnaud, originally from Marseille, had already demonstrated just how fast it is possible to drive a 12-seater twin-engine boat through choppy seas, and now he was proving he was equally adept at barbecuing chicken and fish for a party that included, beside ourselves, eight Club Med guests from Nice and couple from the Champagne region.

Yes, Guadeloupe, being "part of France", inevitably attracts most of its sun-seeking guests from the Metropole. But anyone who has tried to holiday in France "out of season" (be it after August almost anywhere outside Paris, or during the appealing shoulder months in the Alps after the skiers have gone home) will testify that the French are very much creatures of habit when it comes to les vacances.

With an office these days comprising little more than a good Internet connection, we decided to take the rare opportunity to live in the sun for a month and, having recently visited Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, chose to sample the French version of the Caribbean, in the weeks running up to la grande arrivée of the hordes from France in mid-December.

 Guadeloupe is big enough to offer deserted beaches for those who look!

Besides the obvious allure of swapping single-figure temperatures for 28C every day, I have a particular fascination with these fragments of France scattered across all the world's oceans, bar the Arctic. It is a given that places like Guadeloupe enjoy both visible and less visible subsidy from the state. French citizens in the archipelago enjoy among the best living standards in the Caribbean, including all the attributes of the motherland's welfare system.

But this is the 21st century and most other major powers divested themselves of most of the remnants of their colonial past decades ago. France clings tenaciously to hers and there is little sign of that changing any time soon. Indeed, the Republic's answer to territorial claims by the Comoros islands, off Madagascar, over the French islands of Mayotte, was to integrate the latter wholly into France and the EU, of which it is now an "outermost region". It's as though France enjoys watching the irritation caused by these far-off fragments, which are like annoying splinters lodged in the flesh of their larger neighbours. France recently reopened a territorial dispute with Canada over the waters around St Pierre et Miquelon, tiny islands in the Gulf of St Lawrence, which may contain reserves of oil and gas.

But back to Guadeloupe: we were chatting with Ève, another Niçoise, who had moved to Guadeloupe quite recently to join a friend in expanding his business servicing holiday apartments and villas. She loves Guadeloupe and speaks of buying a plot and building a house. Her brother (curiously, also called Arnaud) is with her on holiday and senses that something is about to take off in Guadeloupe. He compares the archipelago (home to more than 400,000 people) favourably with nearby Martinique,which he finds still stuck in a bit of a colonial rut and far less cosmopolitan than Guadeloupe. Of Ivorian and French parentage, he felt uncomfortable in the more polarised community of Martinique.
Market in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe

And while he feels the time is not yet right to transfer his photographic business from France, that day might yet come. Driving change, he says, is the extension of the traditional holiday peaks driven by French custom and habit into a longer season. This is thanks not just to more charter flights from across the EU, but also to the arrival of low-cost carrier, Norwegian, which not only links Guadeloupe several times a week to major east coast US cities but, by virtue of its new transatlantic services, to Europe, including the UK.

Indeed, during our time here thus far, Americans have been the most frequently encountered non-French visitors, followed at a distance by Germans.

I'd like to think that Arnaud could be right about good times being just around the corner: Guadeloupe may be better off than its Caribbean neighbours, but the look and feel of the place suggest that wealth is less equitably distributed than in the Metropole. And while Guadeloupean produce enjoys tariff-free access to the EU, the converse is also true and evidenced by the availability of everything from butter from Brittany to Swedish matches in the shops. Government policy is aimed at encouraging local entrepreneurship, but it is a slow process and people like Ève and her business partner suggest it is not necessarily islanders who will seize the openings that may arise from a growing economy.

For me the big question is whether a prosperous Guadeloupe can act as a catalyst for improvement across the wider Caribbean region, or if being tied to the apron strings in this way merely stifles initiative and ultimately creates greater dependence.

We get chatting a lady serving in one of Guadeloupe's wonderful beach bars one evening: her daughter is studying tourism and languages at university in Bristol – in a pre-Brexit world (and, just for the record, I increasingly doubt that the insanity of Brexit will ever come to pass) she has the same right to study and live in the UK as someone from Paris or Nice. it is also worth remembering that the converse applies to young people in the UK seeking a bit of life experience in the sun. My advice would be to make the most of the opportunity now.

Of course no blog about Guadeloupe would be complete without reference to Meutres au Paradis, or Death in Paradise as it appears, undubbed, in the UK. Indeed it was the lady in the bar who got talking about it, when we mentioned we would be spending a week in Deshaies, the prime shooting location for the popular who-dunnit. The show airs for a sixth series next year after filming again in 2016 and is major driver of new tourism. I bought  a local newspaper on arrival here. The headline was about an 83-year-old man found tied and garroted in his flat a few miles from our own. Perhaps not the most welcome example of life imitating fiction…