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Mar 15, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen, the treaty…

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Ah. The Franco-Swedish treaty. We’ve been talking about it for decades now. Interpretations of the document are hardly lacking; there is one for just about any taste. For some, it is THE key document, the clincher, because it alone can provide the justification to protect the fiscal exoneration that St. Barthelemy has enjoyed since the Swedes handed the island back to France in 1877. For others, the treaty lost its value twenty years ago and became nothing but a useless dog-eared parchment. That was when the State Council decided that all direct national taxes are as applicable here as they are in any other part of la patrie.
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Oddly, though everyone had formulated some type of opinion on the topic, no one here had really scrutinized the terms of this famous treaty to find out whether, legally, the international act had any contemporary bearing on the fiscal level.
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The St. Barth Friends of Sweden Association, ASBAS, thought it might be a very good idea to do just that, particularly in the wake of intensified efforts by the French revenue service to collect its dues. Six months ago, the association, whose primary objective is to preserve and protect the Swedish legacy, got in touch with six legal experts-French and Swedish international law professors-to learn the low-down on the highly-touted document. ‘The truth’, or at least the experts’ analysis of it, was made public in the commission report they published two weeks ago.
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To resume a rather complex research job, the experts developed two central points. To begin with, they conclude that St. Barth was, in fact, accorded a specific fiscal regime and that the treaty created the rights that it wished the island’s residents to have, rights that must, of course, be honored by France. Though recently, members of Prime Minister Jospin’s government have indicated otherwise, they feel that this privilege does not go against the constitutional principle of French citizens’ equality when it comes to taxation. Specifically, after an attentive examination of a decree issued in 1811 which ordered the administrative organization during the Swedish colonial period, the experts have indicated that the treaty provided for sweeping exemptions and above all, a large share of fiscal autonomy and self-determination.
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To say that the community enthusiastically welcomed the conclusions would be an understatement. The business association, who supported the ASBAS initiative, has been given reason to hope, precisely at a time when certain association members are embroiled in merciless legal battles with the French revenue service. The island’s elected officials, who have been doing a lot of foot-dragging when it comes to playing the Swedish card, congratulated themselves on a conclusion that will add clout to their own battle for institutional change.
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What’s left to do now is convince the French political powers-that-be, and that’s not going to be a picnic. In order to soften the current stance and to draw national attention to the matter of St. Barth’s alleged right to fiscal exemption, the ASBAS launched a national public awareness program. It began on February 20- in full electoral campaign season-with the publication of a 2-page open letter to the French president that ran in the daily newspaper, Le Monde. As the experts had instructed them to do, the ASBAS publicly reminded the republic’s chief that it was his duty, as stipulated in article 5 of the French constitution, to ensure that France respect the terms of the international treaty. Other public relations coups are in the works, with speculation that the next phase has been strategically time-released for sometime between the primaries and the second round of voting in the presidential election. In these parts, when it comes to choosing between this year’s two major presidential candidates: Jacques Chirac and prime minister Lionel Jospin, it’s a no-brainer. The country’s current president ordered that the fiscal status quo be maintained in 1986 and has been rewarded ever since with political support. Jospin’s socialist ministers have been putting pressure on the number 1 contender to Chirac to apply full taxation to St. Barth. But, public awareness begins in your own back yard, and part of the challenge will be swaying local public opinion to support what lies past the immediate fiscal issue of maintaining the status quo. The more global issue the community must grapple with is the transformation of St. Barthelemy’s current status into that of a territorial collectivity. If the local leadership is clamoring for greater autonomy, it will have to find the financial means, regardless of what the Franco-Swedish treaty says, to support its independence. What people here are really going to have to understand is that France cannot and will not do it all. Treaty or no, we’re going to have to dip into our own pockets.

Yves Bourel

Yves Bourel


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