Some corners of the Caribbean that are forever France

General de Gaulle, in a moment of irritation (and there were many of those in his mighty career), dismissed demands for independence from Martinique and Guadaloupe by referring to the islands as "pieces of dirt" in the Caribbean sea.

He was, I suppose, technically correct, but his insult rankled even a generation later, as so many of us activists sought, in the 1970s, to dismantle the regimes throughout the Caribbean which maintained a flag, a national anthem and a seat in the United Nations, but which continued with colonial-style societies and economies.

Those two lost souls, Martinique and Guada-loupe, remain trapped in France's colonial grip. They hadn't managed even the symbols of independence. The agitation of the 1970s passed them by. On my current journey through the Caribbean - to make a Channel 4 film - I took in Martinique en passant and headed straight for the office of the prefect.

The two islands are no longer colonies; they are now departments of France. The prefect's imposing office sits at the heart of Fort de France, the capital, surrounded by streets named after heroes of the republic. Victor Hugo in particular stands out. There, too, on a plinth is a statue of Josephine of pas ce soir fame. The prefect, a rotund and jovial character, greeted me: "Welcome to Europe." Now, I know from childhood that hidden in the Caribbean landscape is a whole range of natural illusions. But that these illusions could take political forms was completely beyond me. Martinique had become Europe, according to the prefect. He is constitutionally as right as rain, but the illusion continues to befuddle.

If Martinique was France, then what was Dominica, the tiny island only 25 minutes away? Soon after his recent election victory, the prime minister of Dominica, Rosie Douglas, a friend of mine for 30 years, announced that there were more Dominicans in jail in Guadeloupe than in Dominica. Upon this weird logic, he approached the president of France, Jacques Chirac, and asked him to give Dominica the same status as Guadeloupe. Dominica, a country the size of Slough, faces enormous difficulties. No national economy exists; it never did. Dominicans do things such as planting bananas and growing vegetables, as their parents and grandparents did. They have no need for a state, and therefore no sense of responsibility to it.

Years ago, President Reagan's army was on its way to invade Grenada when the White House suddenly decided that, to meet the requirements of international law, its soldiers should have an "invitation" from another Caribbean country, allegedly threatened by the island's upheaval. A call to Eugenia Charles, then prime minister of Dominica, solved the problem. She was promised an airport, which didn't materialise. But Reagan did have his soldiers build a road around the island. Nobody can convince me that there exists a greater feat of engineering incompetence than Reagan's gift: so many cars end up in the sea as they travel around the coast.

About 20 years ago, another leading politician colluded with the Ku Klux Klan to seize power from the legally constituted government, declaring part of the island a free port for shipping arms to South Africa. The world was outraged, but most people in Dominca didn't know about it, let alone care.

Were Christopher Columbus to return there, he would recognise it immediately in every detail, although he might be perplexed by the demand for an entry visa.

In this viciously changing world, Dominica cannot remain virginal for ever. Gang rape by multinationals and the tourism industry is certainly one option. The other, announces the prime minister, is some associate relation with France, which requires nothing more than lowering the flag and cancelling the anthem. Meanwhile, Dominica drifts between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, innocent of the swirling and changing currents about her.

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