Residents of French Guiana and the Caribbean island of Martinique are heading to the polls to decide whether or not to seek more autonomy from France.

On Sunday, voters in both departments will choose whether to allow local governments more administrative freedom while remaining a part of France.

"If we don't take this small step, we will deprive ourselves of an extremely important development tool, and we will send an extremely negative signal to France", Claude Lise, Martinique's general council president, said.

If the referendum is approved, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, will determine the extent of both departments' autonomy.

Demonstrations

Sarkozy first suggested the referendum in June last year following lengthy strikes in Martinique and the neighbouring island Guadeloupe.

In violent demonstrations, residents expressed their discontent at the high cost of living and perceived social inequalities. The unrest paralysed the economy, shuttered schools and drove away tourists.

At the time, Sarkozy said he could not defend the status of overseas departments
because it perpetuated a system he called "unfair, obscure and biased".

Supporters of Sunday's referendum in Martinique said it would help revive the island's economy.

Growing support

Garcin Malsa, the mayor of the southern town of Sainte Anne, said there is growing support for moves towards independence from what he describes as the legacy of French imperialism.

"The level of unemployment here is approaching 30 per cent. That is a form of colonialism that we denounce," he told Al Jazeera.

"There's a class of [the predominantly white, originally French] Beke that is very important A small minority of one per cent of the population that controls all the economic power."

The majority of opponents are right-wing politicians who say the status quo provides more security than the proposed referendum, and they argue that the departments have not taken full advantage of their relationship with France.

"Why risk the department's status at a time when Martinique's local government is broke and has turned toward the mainland?" Louis-Joseph Manscour, deputy mayor of the northeastern community of Trinite, said.

Guiana vote

The referendum is a first for French Guiana. Martinique presented a similar measure to voters six years ago.

In French Guiana, six of eight political groups have said they support the referendum, while two reject it, French Overseas Radio-Television reported last week.

In October 2003, Jacques Chirac, the former French president, allowed four islands to hold a referendum, including Martinique and Guadeloupe, but not French Guiana, which objected to its exclusion.

Martinique and Guadeloupe rejected the measure, which would have combined the islands' two legislatures into one. Proponents had said the referendum would give provinces power to govern more efficiently, while opponents viewed it as a step toward independence.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies