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Voters in Martinique, French Guiana Reject Efforts to Reduce French Control

Those supporting greater autonomy for France's overseas departments of Martinique and French Guiana are voicing disappointment after voters rejected the drive in referendums.

Voters in Martinique and French Guiana resoundingly rejected efforts to reduce French control of the two overseas departments. Results from Sunday's referendums showed that nearly 79 percent of Martinique residents and almost 70 percent of those in French Guiana voted against greater autonomy.

In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the outcome, saying it reflected the strong ties between the territories and metropolitan France. Both Martinique, in the Caribbean, and South America's French Guiana were granted French department status, when Paris relinquished total control more than half a century ago.

Champions of greater autonomy have argued it would allow the territories greater say in key issues like development, education and employment. And some - like politician Alfred Marie-Jeanne, a leader of Martinique's independence movement -- voiced deep disappointment at the results.

In remarks broadcast on French radio, Marie-Jeanne said the loser of the referendum was Martinique -- and that the vote reflected people's fears, not their aspirations.

But others, like Chantal Meignan, a senior member of Mr. Sarkozy's ruling UMP party in Martinique, said the vote marked a victory for the population.

Meignan told French radio the Martinique residents had other concerns than wanting more autonomy. She says the next step is to simplify administration procedures for the territories. Voters in both departments will vote on that measure in separate referendums, later this month.

The referendums come a year after Martinique and another overseas French territory, Reunion, were rocked by violent protests and strikes caused by low wages and high prices. Unemployment in France's overseas territories is generally far higher than in mainland France. Reports show food and fuel are also more expensive - despite government efforts to cut prices.