French President Emmanuel Macron will visit the Caribbean on Tuesday in an effort to persuade locals on the Irma-devastated islands of St. Martin and St. Barts that Paris has not abandoned them.
Macron, whose popularity has plummeted at home, is taking flak from political opponents and islanders on the French territories for what they consider to have been inadequate hurricane preparations and a slow response to the mass destruction of homes and infrastructure.
He was traveling to St. Martin, a Franco-Dutch island, on an overnight flight aboard an Airbus carrying aid and emergency supplies. During his whistle-stop visit, he is also expected to travel to St. Barts, a French territory 20 miles to the southeast.
Fourteen people were killed on St. Martin -- 10 on the French side of the island, four on the Dutch side -- after Hurricane Irma struck on Wednesday. Damage to the island is estimated at more than $1.65 billion by the French state-run reinsurance body, the CCR, which specializes in natural disasters.
Homes, shops, boats and cars were destroyed, electricity and water supplies cut, and looters were filmed rampaging through the wreckage. More than 1,500 police, gendarmes, soldiers and emergency workers have been sent to the islands to quash outbreaks of violence and pillaging. An additional 500 are on their way.
A second hurricane, José, that passed 100 miles north of the islands on Sunday held up recovery efforts across the region.
Around 60% of homes on St. Martin were destroyed and the local authorities have established about 1,500 emergency shelters. St. Barts was also severely hit, but no deaths have been reported.
Paris had sent two navy frigates with helicopters ready to fly in supplies to the area in anticipation of the hurricanes, but the strength of Irma took them by surprise.
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, defeated by Macron in May’s presidential election, lambasted the French government for having “totally insufficient” emergency precautions.
“Nothing was prepared, nothing was anticipated,” she said.
Eric Ciotti, a member of Parliament for the opposition Republicans, demanded an inquiry into whether all had been done to help the islanders.
Macron announced his Caribbean visit following an emergency meeting at the Elysée Palace on Sunday. Afterward, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb defended the government’s response to the hurricanes.
“From the start, the state has addressed the situation and foreseen the worst,” Collomb told journalists. Collomb said Macron would stay one night on St. Martin and that the state had done all it could to help those affected.
“He’ll spend the day on the island to talk to inhabitants…and local councilors,” Collomb said. “This isn’t the time for arguments, it’s time for action.”
On Monday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said he was appointing an official to coordinate the reconstruction of the two islands in a “logical and lasting” manner.
Macron can ill afford to leave France this week. On Tuesday, the country’s most militant union has called workers to the streets for a day of action to protest labor law changes being pushed through Parliament by special decree later this month. Public sector, transport and energy workers are expected to join the demonstration.
On a visit to Greece on Thursday, Macron vowed he would not be swayed by “the lazy, the cynical and the extreme,” causing critics like the hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon to accuse him of despising the French. The Elysée quickly reacted, saying Macron was calling his presidential predecessors lazy, not the French unemployed.
Willsher is a special correspondent.