Préfet: ‘After five years of crisis St. Martin deserves to be at peace’ | THE DAILY HERALD

Préfet Vincent Berton (Robert Luckock photo)

 MARIGOT–Préfet Vincent Berton (56) is a busy man. Hardly a day goes by without a field visit here or there, whether it is viewing association Compagnons Bâtisseurs’ post-Irma repair work in French Quarter, visiting social insertion associations in Sandy Ground, or observing the recent student road safety programme and demonstrations at Cité Scolaire, La Savane, it is all part of getting fully acquainted with the territory and the key players.

“I still haven’t met everybody. I’m working my way through meeting as many people I can in the political, social and economic sectors,” he said during an interview in his office. “I do like to meet people, listen to their stories and concerns, and feel the temperature.”
Appointed Préfet Délégué for St. Martin and Saint-Barthelemy after the departure of Serge Gouteyron, Berton began his official duties in St. Martin on March 28. He hails from Lorient, Brittany, and is a graduate of the prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. He had not been to St. Martin before but was familiar with Guadeloupe and Martinique, having visited those two islands several times.
“I was very happy with my assignment to St. Martin which brought me back overseas again,” he said with a smile.
The first part of his career was in the French Navy, beginning in 1991 with two years enrolled as a student officer at the Naval Commissariat School. It was around this time that he passed close to St. Martin on the naval cadet training ship Jeanne D’Arc, unaware that years later he would be a Préfet on the same island.
“It was entirely natural for me to join the Navy, as my father was in the Navy and I was always fascinated by the sea,” he explained, “and the Brittany coast has rich maritime traditions.”
From 1993 to 2004 he held positions on Navy frigates as purser, supply officer (in charge of logistics, administration, public relations and legal matters) and navigation officer. In 1997 he was appointed professor at the Naval Commissariat School and in 2000 as human resources consultant in charge of reclassification of officers in the civilian sector. In 2001 he was appointed assistant to the major general of the navy as Chargé de Mission for the Director General of the Navy.
The navy offered many opportunities to travel and see the world, which he fully appreciates looking back.
“On my first ship we were in the Indian Ocean on the east coast of Africa in Djibouti. It was a very interesting place, full of smugglers, pirates and bandits, because at the time there was a war going on in Somalia and the Americans had an operation in Mogadishu. I took part in that operation with my ship.
“Also, we were in charge of controlling the embargo against Iraq after the first Gulf War. Our job was to control the application of the embargo which meant controlling cargo and goods to be sure they were not illegally exported to Iraq.”
One of the ships to which he was assigned was a submarine hunter.
When the opportunity to command a ship did not present itself, he decided to change career and entered the civil service. His first posting was as Sous-Préfet and Cabinet Director in Corsica in 2004 at the age of 37. That was followed by a posting in 2006 to French Guiana as Chief of Staff in the Préfecture. There he was confronted with illegal gold mining, illegal fishing and illegal immigration among his normal day-to-day duties.
Other appointments followed: Deputy Civil Administrator and head of the Police Officers’ office in the human resources administration in 2008; Head of the Police Officers’ office in the human resources administration in 2010; Secretary-General of the Vosges Préfecture in 2011; Chief of Staff to the Préfet in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region; Préfet of the southern defence zone; and Préfet of Bouches du Rhone in 2013.
His last posting before coming to St. Martin was Secretary-General of the Hauts-de Seine Préfecture in 2017.
However, it was his time as Sous-Préfet in Calais in 2016 that he describes as the most memorable and challenging of all his appointments.
“It was the time of the ‘Calais Jungle’ and all the illegal immigrants trying to get to England by any means possible. I was in charge of security. The place was a ghetto, but set up like a camp or small town with bars, places to eat and little shops. There were 7,000 of these immigrants, trying to jump over the fences and sneak into lorries going on to the ferries.
“It was very dangerous work for the police. We were working closely with the UK Border Protection Force and in the end, I was able to evacuate the whole jungle. For me that was a special experience. “
As the State representative in St. Martin, Berton said his job is to ensure State services are operating efficiently in terms of security, the law, hurricane protection, and that Government’s public policies for social cohesion, inclusion, and care for the vulnerable, etcetera, are applied.
Second to that, the State representative supports the local government (Collectivité) with advice and European funding.
Berton was already aware of what would be on his plate following the handover from the previous Préfet allowing for a seamless continuation of the files. The health crisis, supervision of elections (now the upcoming legislative elections), public security, economic development, hurricane preparedness, reconstruction of public buildings, land use planning in partnership with the Collectivité, cooperation with St. Maarten, are all topics in his in-tray.
“The Collectivité as an overseas local government has quite a high degree of autonomy, more important than in France or in Guadeloupe or Martinique which are Departments,” he noted. “My duty is to respect and work closely with the elected officials to help them apply policies within the law. “
Asked what his management style is, he replied: “I’m direct and frank. I like efficiency. It’s a responsibility to be efficient on behalf of the people.”
Reminded that the territory was blighted by the civil unrest in 2019 over the controversial natural risk prevention plan PPRN, Berton acknowledged that mediation between parties would always be part of his job.
“One always wants to keep society as peaceful as possible,” he said. “This island needs peace and a quiet time to develop its economy. It’s been five years now that the French side has been in crisis.”
He confirmed that the latest PPRN version has been validated and is now ‘case closed’. It will be applied to this hurricane season and beyond.
Another hot topic is the land issue. It is hoped the special mission from Paris that is coming to St. Martin shortly to study the issue will do for land-owners what the Lacroix mission did for the PPRN.
“It’s a very important subject to be resolved, not just for the Webster family but for all St. Martin land-owners who are now unsure of their rights to their land,” he said.
Berton met Dutch-side Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs first on April 13. Needless to say, cooperation with the Dutch side is very important on many levels.
“We don’t have a legal border between the two sides and we are working on that. That includes Oyster Pond, where we need to get Captain Oliver’s Marina rebuilt and the ferry service to St. Barths restarted. Paris and The Hague assure us that this will be resolved by the end of this year. I think it’s realistic. But what might take longer will be the signing of a treaty.
“Security cooperation on the sea is a protocol we are working on to allow vessels of either nationality to enter the other’s territorial waters,” he continued. “And we also want to create a centre of police cooperation, a security centre in which Dutch-side police and Gendarmes would work together. We are working an agreement for that. I think this will make for a great improvement in cooperation.”
Another aspect of cooperation that interests Berton is the sharing of potable water networks, in terms of making water available on one side to the other in case of a crisis experienced on one side.
“This can reinforce our autonomy, because both sides use the same method of production from sea water.”
Finally, Berton confirmed that construction of the new 38-million-euro multi-purpose Cité Administrative et Judiciaire will start in 2023 for delivery in 2025/6.
Préfet Vincent Berton has three national decorations to his name: Knight of the Order of National Merit, Knight of the Legion of Honour, and Knight of Maritime Merit.

Source: The Daily Herald