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Regional 16 Dec, 2019 Follow News




The French government is deploying reinforcements to French St Martin to quell a disturbance which erupted over the past week.

Groups of people have resorted to setting up roadblocks with rubble and setting vehicles alight.

They are protesting against the imposition of state regulations stipulating strict controls now taking effect on rebuilding following devastating Hurricane Irma in 2017.

There have been clashes with Gendarmes in which teargas was used to disperse crowds of protesters.

The disturbance has disrupted traffic and commerce between the two sides of the island shared by France and Holland.

A request by French officials based in Guadeloupe, the regional headquarters for the French north-east Caribbean, to use the large port in Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch Sint Maarten to land reinforcements was denied by the St Maarten local government.

They were redirected to the smaller port in Galisbay on the French side.

French president, Emmanuel Macron was due to issue a statement on the crisis in the collectivite’ or commune - the constitutional status of French St Martin in the French Republic.

The intensifying protests which mimic the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) of mainland France - but without the yellow jackets - are in opposition to the imposition of new local building regulations instituted by the French state.

In some instances, property owners are barred from rebuilding on land in families for generations but now declared unsafe, or ‘red zones’, due to environmental and storm risks.

The handling of the process has infuriated locals especially who have been on the lands for generations, much of it on the seafront, and now regarded of high commercial potential.

The issue has pit residents against the locally-elected government, and the local government against the French state represented by a Sous Prefect (the Paris-appointed equivalent of a governor).

Another contentious issue thrown up in the dispute is the question of land title with many residents not able to prove ownership; property having been loosely passed down through families over generations.

The crisis is already giving vent to other underlying long-standing unresolved issues in French St Martin, especially those with have been festering since the 2017 hurricane.

One of them is the quality of drinking water with some residents have been complaining of abnormally high volumes of bromate chemicals in the water.

The local government has now assured residents that the water quality issue has now been brought under control.

Although the French state was praised for its initial rapid response following Hurricane Irma, there’s been growing concern over the dragging effect of emergency measures put in place.

There were worrying scenes of videos posted online showing a vessel being pelted with objects thrown from a bridge and elsewhere running classes with police.

There are no reports serious injuries, deaths or arrests.

However, concerns have been expressed by local officials of some persons exploiting the unrest for commercial gain.

There are reports extortion, with drivers traversing the border between the Dutch and French sides of the island being demanded to pay an illegal toll.

The open European border between French St Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten is a critical artery for one of the most prosperous tourist economies in the Caribbean.

The Dutch side of the island is the main air and sea entry point, but in recent years French St Martin has seen considerable investment in its port and other vital infrastructure.

Residents of both sides of the island tend to live and work across the borders of the shared island which has a thriving and critical cross-border economy.

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