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The French Caribbean - Croissants and Créole

By: James Henderson September 2005

I am sitting under a palm tree with a perfect tropical scene around me … sun, electric blue sea, sand… Yes, this is definitely the Caribbean. And yet I have just been given my change in Euros. Curious. But then, officially, I am actually in France as well as in the Caribbean. 

Where Britain gave most of its former colonies their independence, France took a rather different view and embraced hers more closely. Life in the DOM/TOM (Départements and Territoires d’Outre-Mer) is supposed to be exactly as it is in France, in everything from the cost of a croissant or a Citröen, to service compris and service militaire (or until recently, that was). 

There are an unexpected number of DOM/TOMs: four main Caribbean islands (Martinique, Guadeloupe, St Martin and St Barts), French Guyana in South America, Réunion in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific scatterings of New Caledonia and French Polynesia (Tahiti) and a few other tiny blips such as St Pierre and Miquelon (off Newfoundland in Canada). 

They are emphatically French -- much of what we all love about France is there, alongside a few familiar Gallic annoyances too – but in Martinique and Guadeloupe particularly, you will find that the French way has been adapted into a new and unique, créole way of life. 

There the music is zouk, a bustling, relentless Afro-Caribbean beat which resounds through every bus and bar. They have the French sense of style and coquettish manner, but with a Caribbean sense of fun. The official language is French of course, but the island language is Créole. And there is the same glorification of cuisine. Their apéritif is not a Pernod. It is the petit ponch – white rum, cane sugar, fruit juice and a local lime squeezed to near obliteration. The food is spiced with the East because of the many islanders of Indian descent. 

Of course, as Caribbean islands, there are all the beaches that you could want – Grande Anse des Salines on the southern tip of Martinique is fantastic, as are the beaches on the eastern tip of Grande-Terre in Guadeloupe. St Martin and St Barts are fringed with them. There are the sailing grounds around the islands of Guadeloupe – the Saints are some of the prettiest small islands in the region – and there are also fantastically beautiful rainforests and rivers, and reefs for scuba diving. And of course there are hidden coves with rickety bars that have a superb sunset view through the palms. 

But, for those who love France the most memorable moments are tangled meetings, when French and Créole get confused. One evening, after a creole version of the gastronomic steeplechase – an avocado féroce (with a spiced fish filling), z’habitants (crayfish in a broth), a fish ‘blaff’ (seasoned with onion, thyme, peppers and clove) and a rum digestif (rums actually have vintages here, like brandies in Europe) -- I fell in with an after-dinner Martiniquan crowd, the chef and friends. 

One guest, inordinately proud of his French Caribbean heritage (isn’t there something curiously French about that too?), was ranting about a twelve-year old who had told him off for speaking Créole. ‘Bah!’, he said, exasperated, ‘Créole is part of her culture…, it is a way of life, and she calls it a baby language and a decadent culture. I was so angry,’ he said ‘I was like a bottle of Champagne, shaken up and fit to burst!’ 

The choice of simile spoke volumes.