In St. Martin, French Touch Meets Caribbean Twist

The island of St. Martin is a choice destination for Americans but little-known in France, and hit the front pages following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Irma on September 6, 2017. This territory jointly owned by the Dutch and the French is located between Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico but has staunchly American leanings. And while the "Friendly Island" mainly relies on U.S. tourism, it flies the flag of French art de vivre.
The 18th-century Fort Louis overlooks Marigot, the capital of St. Martin. © Alamy

Incoming planes skim the heads of tourists on Maho Beach before landing at Princess Juliana International Airport. The landing in St. Martin is one world’s most spectacular (and most dangerous) and may be the only image of the island everyone is familiar with.

St. Martin was discovered by Christopher Columbus on November 11, 1493, and is named after the day’s patron saint. In a similar way to the coat of St. Martin of Tours – that he tore in two to give half to a beggar – the island is shared between two sovereign powers. The French territory (22 square miles) covers two thirds of the hilly land that once produced cotton, sugarcane, salt, and indigo dye. The brightly-colored Creole architecture and the picture-postcard backdrop of white sandy beaches and turquoise water offer a total change of scenery. Despite the French flag flying at Fort Louis overlooking the capital, Marigot, locals like to say that “here, we’re French, but we’re not in France.”

The island was populated in the 17th century with the arrival of colonists from European countries such as England, the Netherlands, and Spain, and the surrounding islands. The late 20th century saw an exodus of people from Martinique, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Guadeloupe, some of whom came illegally. And while French is the official language of administration and education, the streets are filled with the sounds of English and Creole.

The island of Tintamarre, located two miles off the coast of St. Martin. © Agnès Etchegoyen

A French Island in the Caribbean

“St. Martin is France, just in the Caribbean,” says Daniel Gibbs, president of the Territorial Council. “Being governed by the laws of the French Republic has not prevented the development of a strong local culture and traditions.” The island became independent from Guadeloupe in 2007 to become an Overseas Collectivity as defined by Article 74 of the French Constitution, and traditionally votes right-wing.

Villages are dotted along the main road, where drivers interact via a clamoring of car horns. Visitors can discover Les Terres Basses and its multimillionaire-owned villas (including Donald Trump’s Château des Palmiers which was destroyed by the hurricane), the Marigot marina where yachts are moored, the residential neighborhood of Colombier, Grand Case and its myriad of restaurants, Marcel Bay and its horseshoe-shaped marina home to luxurious hotel resorts, and the old Cul-de-Sac fishing village. Flat-roofed houses in reinforced concrete inspired by Ali Tur are found next to Creole huts in carved wood and two-story bourgeois mansions.

A discreet column symbolizes the border between France and the Netherlands. But the Dutch side has traded in its authenticity for vast apartment buildings, casinos, and nightclubs. The territory also offers a deep-water port for the thousands of tourists arriving by cruise liner, and an international airport.

An American Clientele in French Territory

“The first tourists arrived in the 1950s,” says Christophe Henocq, archeologist and founder of the Marigot Museum. “North Americans like St. Martin because they can speak English while enjoying French art de vivre with excellent wines and a sense of customer service.” Americans make up 75% of the visitors, with Miami and New York less than three and five hours away by plane respectively.

Grand Case is known as the gourmet capital of the Caribbean, with “lolos” (beachfront restaurants) serving Creole cuisine for lunch and dinner. Ribs and grilled chicken cooked on the barbecue are enjoyed with rice and beans, plantain, and sweet potato fries. Several French restaurants have opened in this area. The menu at Sol e Luna features Côte-Rôtie and Château Petrus wines to accompany its king scallops, foie gras, and fish caught fresh daily. A little further, the Bistrot Caraïbes offers lobster thermidor and a variation à la Provençale.

The streets of the island feature a variety of architectural influences. © Laurent Bayly

The mass tourism of Sint Marteen on the Dutch side has not taken root on the French territory, which welcomed just 5% of the 2.5 million visitors in 2015. Cruise tourists travelling by bus or four-wheeler barely stop to admire the immense beach on Orient Bay, a magnet for water-sports enthusiasts. “Tourists on our side are looking for authenticity, not conformity,” says photographer Stéphanie Deziles.

Daniel Gibbs believes the main priority now is to “develop a wider, more upmarket touristic offering.” The only five-star hotel, in Les Terres Basses, was damaged by Hurricane Irma but should reopen by the end of the year. Leading hotel chains such as Marriott, Rosewood, and Carlton are currently negotiating their arrival on the French side, which until now has been spared the vast resorts of the Dutch territory. “The sale of duty-free luxury projects is a draw for American customers, who are also interested in variations in the euro-dollar exchange rate,” says a tourism office representative.

“Métros,” Saint-Martinois, and Caribbeans

Another of the island’s challenges is uniting communities living alongside each other but separately. The métros (mainland French people, les métropolitains), civil servants, and entrepreneurs who came to do business in the 1980s frequent Marigot and Orient Bay. They buy newspapers abd magazines such as Le Point, Paris Match, and Le Canard Enchaîné at the marina bookstore and soak up the island’s idyllic setting and warm ambience. “Life is good here,” they say in knowing tones.

With their cable hooked up to U.S. and Spanish television, the Haitians, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Martinicans, and Guadeloupeans live in the working-class areas of Sandy Ground and Quartier d’Orléans. The dramatic increase in the population of St. Martin is partly linked to both official and illegal Caribbean immigration.

The prominent families of St. Martin are scattered across the territory and make up one third of the island’s inhabitants. The Flemmings, Richardsons, and Gumbs descend from the colonists who arrived in the 17th century. In this little slice of France where everyone knows one another, the Saint-Martinois can be heard speaking in their own form of Creole. And although long considered to be “poor English,” this oral language underpins their identity. Any métros tempted to say that French should be spoken in France… should think twice!

The Catholic church of Saint-Martin-de-Tours in Marigot. © Dick Ebert

Promoting Local Culture

Aside from fishing and a few local plant cultures such as arrow root, sweet potato, and guavaberries, most of the products sold at the Super U and Coccimarket supermarkets are imported from France. The local stores and delis display prices in dollars and offer a selection of American products. Even the island’s typical dishes of oxtail stew and goat curry are made with non-local meat. Only the local beer, Carib, served cold with a wedge of lime, can claim to be an authentic regional product.

Aware of the limits of its tourist mono-economy, St. Martin is now trying to incite its young people to come back after their studies in Guadeloupe, North America, and mainland France. And a tourism course should soon be offered as part of the professional diplomas available at local high schools.

The island is also looking to become a laboratory for bilingualism. Six schools ranging from kindergarten to middle school now offer classes taught equally in French and English, while children mostly speak Creole, Spanish, or Saint-Martinois at home. Training teachers in French as a foreign language is now the latest flagship project led by the local school authorities, who hope to turn this multilingualism to its advantage.

Education, training, and rebuilding infrastructure are just a few of the challenges faced by the local government, elected just five months before the hurricane. But the reconstruction is not yet over and another stormy season is on the horizon. However, despite certain difficulties, the island is readying for the tourists to return in fall, wah come, come, as they say in Saint-Martinois. “Come what may!”

Article published in the July 2018 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.