Recently by William F.S. Miles:

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I park my scooter and enter the office of the collective taxi station at Pointe Simon. The smiling black receptionist with the straight hairdo and metropolitan French accent tells me, politely but insistently, that she prefers I actually meet with one of the social workers before being issued the application form. She gives me a number, and I take a seat — among the host of black single mothers.

Interminably, I wait for my number to come up on the screen above. At first, I calculate that I can safely absent myself for 30 minutes, given the delay between numbers called and my own 124.  But the numbers seem to jump erratically — in no time at all, 125 flashes across the screen. There is nothing to do but eavesdrop on the two women speaking Creole behind me. They are in agreement about the bad behavior of some nine-year-old kid — “he’s almost ten already, he should know better.” Complaining — be it in the tongue of Molière or the abbreviations of Creole – is de rigueur in the Antilles.

Thus, have I entered one of the sacrosanct institutions of the French overseas departments: the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales, familiarly known as the CAF, part of the ubiquitous welfare system of la République. Just for having children, the French state gives you money. My children are French; we are entitled to apply. But even to pick up an application form, you need to wait 45 minutes.

Never mind that I am not French. In the overseas departments, unlike in metropolitan France, the man is automatically, officially, the head of the family. Even though it is my wife who is French (and Martinican), and it is she whose bank account will be fattened by the child payments, I, the man, must apply as head of household.  “Oh, there are many differences with France,” the social worker explains to me. “It is 7,000 kilometers away.” More… “American Welfare Dad in the French Antilles”

William F.S. Miles is a professor of political science at Northeastern University and an affiliate of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Brown University. His Elections and Ethnicity in French Martinique was published in France as Paradoxe au Paradis: de la Politique à la Martinique. A specialist on former French colonies in the developing world, Professor Miles has also published books on Niger (Hausaland Divided), Pondichéry (Imperial Burdens), and Vanuatu (Bridging Mental Boundaries). His articles on the French West Indies have appeared in French Politics, Culture & Society; Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs; Caribbean Studies; New West Indian Guide; Anthropology; and Nations and Nationalism. Recipient of four Fulbright fellowships, Miles has held appointments with l’Université de Maurice and l’Université des Antilles-Guyane. His travel writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, WorldView, The Antioch Review, Transition, and Contemporary Review.

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