French interior minister visits Caribbean ex-colonies

France 's outspoken interior minister a leading presidential hopeful heads Wednesday to the Caribbean in a bid to calm tensions with the French government over its colonial past. Nicolas Sarkozy was traveling to Guadeloupe and Martinique , both French overseas departments, in the first visit by an interior minister in 20 years. He had postponed a trip in December because of planned protests over a French law citing "the positive role of colonialism." French President Jacques Chirac has since said that the law was dividing the French and should be revamped.

Other incidents also have fueled tensions recently between France and its overseas territories. Sarkozy angered many immigrants with his hard-line reaction to riots in French suburbs last year. And last month's killing of a French policeman in Saint Martin, which is administered from Guadeloupe, has raised accusations of racism. In a letter addressed to the Caribbean population, published Monday in the daily "France-Antilles," Sarkozy spoke of the "need for appeasement gestures and a new beginning."

Sarkozy planned to visit the wife of policeman Raphael Clin, who claims her husband's death was racially motivated. He was fatally hit by a motorcycle on Saint Martin, which shares an island with the Netherlands Antilles just 155 miles (250 kilometers) north of Guadeloupe.

Investigators said Tuesday that hostile and racist threats had been made against other policemen at the scene of Clin's death. On Thursday and Friday, Sarkozy planned to meet local officials to discuss ways to fight illegal immigration, delinquency and drug-running. He will also hold public meetings to study economic development in the region, where unemployment on the French islands is around 30 percent.

A leading Martinique statesman and poet, Aime Cesaire, is refusing to meet with Sarkozy, citing anti-colonialist principles. Guadeloupe and Martinique are shaping up to be important in the run-up to next year's French presidential election. In 2004, the two islands registered some 570,000 voters out of a total 1 million population. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, another leading would-be candidate, also said he would visit the region this year. As French departments, the islands' budgets are funded and laws are set by Paris , and islanders carry French passports and spend euros, reports the AP.


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