St. Pierre Journal: Far From France, Island Outpost Is Never Far From French Politics

General, World News

“Why not try Le Pen? Macron won’t do anything for us. He’s just twisting and turning like a flag in the wind,” she added, referring to Emmanuel Macron, the centrist candidate. Mr. Macron, the favorite, and Ms. Le Pen will face each other in a runoff election on Sunday.

For the people of St. Pierre and its sister island of Miquelon, mostly descendants of fishermen from Normandy and Brittany who came in the 19th century for the abundant cod, the electoral battle in France is a pressing reminder of their relationship with the distant republic.

More than 4,000 miles from France and its struggles with terrorism and cultural identity, the islands are a self-governing “overseas collectivity” bound by the French Constitution. The people vote in French elections, are represented in the French Parliament, use euros and rely on millions of euros in subsidies from France and the European Union, even as most goods are imported from Canada. About 40 percent of residents are on the public payroll. Most young people leave for universities and careers in France or Canada, and many don’t return.

“We’re French but far away, and we have our own ideas,” Jean-Pierre Jezequel, 63, a retired technician, said as he sipped an aperitif at Le Baratin, a bar not far from Général de Gaulle square.

Over the din of a televised soccer game, Mr. Jezequel said that the European Union, which a few years ago gave the archipelago 26 million euros spent on new ferry boats to Newfoundland and other infrastructure, has a big impact on their daily lives.

Mr. Jezequel voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate who won the first electoral round in the islands, but said he planned to vote for Mr. Macron — who favors keeping France in the European Union — in the second. “Le Pen wants out of Europe and that can be dangerous for us.” Ms. Le Pen finished second and Mr. Macron third.

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“We’re French but far away, and we have our own ideas,” said Jean-Pierre Jezequel, 63, a retired technician. Credit Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

He has little hope the next government will be able to steady St. Pierre’s listing fortunes. Efforts to boost tourism from Canada have been thwarted by a stronger euro and exorbitant travel costs that often make flights to Quebec and beyond more expensive than those from Montreal to Paris, given the lack of demand or competition.

Yet Mr. Jezequel is proud of the French culture etched into St. Pierre’s old bones. “We have good food and good wine, so it’s still paradise,” he said.

Nobody here needs reminding that St. Pierre is a part of France. On a recent afternoon, posters of the presidential candidates and Miss France contestants graced windows around the town, a rainbow of colorfully painted clapboard houses lining narrow streets with names like Rue Louis Pasteur and Rue de Paris.

On a recent morning, bakeries were redolent with the scent of warm baguettes. One shop displayed a sign emblazoned, “Je Suis Charlie,” a popular slogan of solidarity for the victims of the 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. A group of men tossed steel balls in a lively round of pétanque, a lawn bowling game played mostly in Provence. Few people speak English, and everyone greets each other with a double kiss on the cheeks.

Many residents are temporary transplants from France lured by hefty government bonuses to work as police officers, teachers or administrators. But Roman Bourgeois, 33, a native of Burgundy, arrived last year on his own to share his passion for wine. These days he works in the main imported-goods store, which sells more than 250 kinds of French wines and numerous types of pâté de foie gras.

“I’m very happy to be disconnected from France’s problems with security and unemployment,” he said, holding a $1,635 bottle of Château Margaux 2005. “Here people know how to live together. In France we’re losing that.”

Claimed by France in 1536, the archipelago spent the next few centuries in a colonial tug of war with Britain before becoming French for good in the early 1800s, the result of negotiations to preserve France’s access to the cod then teeming in its surrounding waters. During Prohibition, Americans bootleggers used these shores as a hub for Canadian liquor smuggled into the United States. In World War II, supporters of the French Resistance seized the islands, which were then a colony under Vichy rule.

In the 1970s, Canada and France established a maritime boundary between Newfoundland and the archipelago. But they continued to dispute fishing rights until 1992, leaving a baguette-shaped corridor to international waters. An international moratorium on cod and flounder that year cost hundreds of jobs, which have not returned.

“We are still looking for our economic future but haven’t found it,” Karine Claireaux, St. Pierre’s mayor and a French senator, said in an interview at her office as the tricolor flapped outside. The islands have developed a small scallop farming industry, and each summer, up to 15,000 tourists arrive, often by cruise ship. A few years ago, the European Union installed a ground sensor station for its Galileo global satellite navigation system on St. Pierre.

Ms. Claireaux said she has tried to emphasize the islands’ geographic importance to the candidates. “Thanks to St. Pierre and Miquelon, the sun never sets on France,” she said.

Still, some locals would prefer to get less attention from their biggest benefactor. “Before we were more free, but now the administrators are trying to push all the French regulations on us,” said Claude Gautier, 53, the latest in a family line of St. Pierre butchers going back more than 150 years. Mr. Gautier said he was not swayed by Ms. Le Pen’s nationalist campaign, or by her rival’s promises of economic deregulation.

“We have to choose between two sicknesses,” he said. “At least in St. Pierre there’s less chance of catching something.”

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