Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
French President Emmanuel Macron has troubles at home this week. France’s second biggest union, the CGT, is leading public sector, rail and energy workers in local strikes in protest at Macron’s proposed deregulation of the labor market.
The protest is planned to culminate in a major march through Paris on Tuesday afternoon.
Yet Parisians won’t have an easy escape route to the provinces. In protest against measures introduced by the previous government, carnival operators are also barricading roads around several northern French cities. Some are in costume. Politics in a nutshell: You start by picking a fight with rail unions, and you end up facing down a horde of angry clowns.
So where is Macron at this time of crisis? Posing with a patriotic strikebreaker in the Alsace? Engaging in hand-to-hand combat with a Groucho Marx impersonator in Rouen? No. On Tuesday afternoon, the French President will be flying into the Caribbean island of St. Martin to oversee French aid efforts. During the most difficult week of his early presidency, he’ll be more than 4,000 miles away from Paris.
Why has Macron arranged this visit? Sure, Hurricane Irma has concerned TV viewers all over the globe, and there’s nothing more reassuring than a youthful politician personally delivering succor to stranded children. You’d be forgiven for assuming that the French President’s trip is a standard humanitarian PR job, a distraction from bigger troubles.
You’d be wrong. However intense the strikes at home, however unstable Macron’s hold over his legislature, nothing is as politically dangerous this week as the impact of Hurricane Irma on French identity.
In France – as in Britain and the Netherlands – Irma has exposed an inconvenient truth. All three nations still govern overseas colonies, over an ocean away from their old imperial masters.
Many of the residents of these territories still hold a strong affection for the host country. In a 1993 plebiscite in Dutch Curaçao, for example, only 0.49% of the population voted for absolute independence.
But when a hurricane hits and citizens begin to die, many begin to question why rescue decisions are being made from Paris, London or The Hague.
The governments of all three Western powers have faced questions about the efficacy of their response to Hurricane Irma – implicitly, the strength of their commitment to economically dependent subjects that largely represent a different race and language.
On Monday, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon hit back hard at criticism, pointing out that the British had acted long before hurricane season to station RFA Mounts Bay, a 16,000-ton aircraft carrier, in calm Caribbean waters with stacks of aid on board.
He also said that such superior UK advanced planning meant that France had relied on British aid to help its own people. This is a game of European one-upmanship, played out against emergency relief tents in the Caribbean.
Yet the European colonial overlords are well aware that Irma has rocked their seats in the region. As France’s Macron flies out to visit St. Martin, Dutch King Willem-Alexander will be on St. Maarten, the Dutch-speaking side of the same island. (The island of St. Martin is the smallest inhabited island in the world divided between two nations. Several deaths have been confirmed, and looting on both sides of the island is now a major problem.)
In Britain, a row is brewing. After pressure on senior ministers or royals to match the Dutch and French visits, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has announced that he too is on his way to visit Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean.
It doesn’t help that most mainland Brits are ambivalent about the nation’s relationship with overseas territories. For most, the phrase British Virgin Islands means only a tax haven, even though the vast majority of the people born on those islands likely work in the hospitality and tourism industries and don’t reap any of the riches from evading tax rules.
That’s if Brits are aware at all that their old colonies are still subject to the Queen. For many, watching UK ships head (slowly) to the Caribbean has been a guilty post-colonial wake-up call.
Hurricane Irma is unlikely to wreck the relationships between Europeans and the Caribbean islands completely. But the colonial cleanup operation won’t end when power is returned to homes and running water is flowing again.
It will require a postmortem of whether the governing powers served their subjects well in an hour of need. For European leaders such as Macron, that has more potential to topple a ruler than any strikes on the streets of Paris.