After decades of haggling, blocking, referenda and timeline confusion, this week the Indian Ocean island group of Mayotte (lying in the Madagascar Strait circled in red on the above map, hosting a population of approximately 200 000) acceded to France as its 101st department, dropping its overseas collectivity status and joining Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, and French Guyana as the fifth department located outside of Europe. While the change has long been sought by residents of this easternmost of the Comoro Islands, culminating in a 2009 referendum which saw a massive 95.2 percent of Mahorans vote to join France directly, it’s been a very bumpy path to get there.
Mayotte was part of the Comoros, a French colony since 1841. In the aftermath of World War II, as with most French African colonies, there was a great push for independence in the rest of the Comoros, but not in Mayotte. The Comoros achieved self-rule in 1961 and in 1973 began negotiating for independence in 1978. The government deputies from Mayotte did not participate, and in two independence referenda in 1974 and 1976, the island’s population overwhelmingly voted to remain under France. The rest of the Comoros did not wait for negotiations to finish and unilaterally declared independence in 1975, claiming Mayotte as part of its jurisdiction.
The four main islands of the Comoros: Grande Comore, Mohéli, Anjouan, and Mayotte. An alternate definition would define Mayotte as simply the group of islands furthest to the east with Maoré as the main island.
While the rest of the Comoros devolved into one of the poorest countries in all of Africa, riddled by coups, invasions, mercenaries, and secession attempts by both the Anjouan and Moheli governments (sometimes aspiring to rejoin France), Mayotte became relatively prosperous. International perception was different, with the United Nations persisting in recognising France as an unlawful occupier of Comorian land until 1995 (only the exercise of France’s Security Council veto prevented a 1976 UN condemnation of France on the subject from passing). The Comoros and the African Union both condemn the 2009 referendum as being illegal dating back to a 1960 UN resolution guaranteeing territorial integrity after decolonisation. The move toward further integration with France is seen by many and an entrenchment of outdated colonialism (and a convenient way to counter the influence of Iran in the rest of the Comoros) rather a choice made by local residents. The Comorian position certainly has not changed (as symbolised by the four colours and four stars of its national flag introduced in 2002), but realistically there is little the impoverished country can do to alter the situation at this time, and Mahorans have no great desire to rejoin one of the world’s poorest countries over one of the world’s richest. As one analyst states, ‘Would you ask the residents of Guadeloupe if they want independence and the same bad standard of living as Haiti?’
Source: R. Kaupp, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mayotte_topographic_map-fr.svg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
To add to the confusion, this week’s first meeting of the newly elected department assembly that was expected to ratify Mayotte’s accession only had 11 of the 19 elected councillors show up, as the councillors on the right tied to Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) refused to show up, preventing the selection of a department president. The French overseas minister then announced she would not be arriving until Sunday. The French government decided to proceed regardless with formal accession, stating that the presence of an assembly quorum was not needed.
One issue that will surely be contentious is the matter of adjustment to France’s secular laws. Mayotte is 97 percent Muslim, and operates using a traditional court system blending Koran teachings with African and Malagasy customs. Polygamy is legal, and the age of consent is 15 rather than France’s 18. Residents will also have to start paying property taxes. There is also the issue of large amounts of clandestine immigration from the deteriorating Comoros, as people look to establish residency on the far richer sister island (and potentially French and EU citizenship). The Red Cross estimates the number of clandestines in Mayotte at 65 000; Mahoran officials state 20 000 people a year are deported. 200 to 500 people a year die attempting the 75-kilometre journey across the strait.
For France, incorporating a new department into the country, especially one with a per capita income barely one-sixth that of the rest of the country (Mayotte is far richer than its Comorian neighbours, but is much behind its parent with a per capita income of US$6 500 versus US$40 500 for all of France), will means having to try and bring Mayotte up to snuff with the rest of the country in terms of living standards. The island is not self-sufficient, and unemployment is in excess of 25 percent. Social programs and benefits will be introduced over a period of twenty years so as to ease in the transition, knowing it will be a long process. This won’t be easy.For example, while ahead of the rest of South America, French Guiana per capita income remains at less than half that of metropolitan France despite being becoming a department back in 1946; Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion are much closer to the mainland in terms of income.
Cannuel, E. (2011). EU shores spread to Indian Ocean island. Deutsche Welle, 31 March 2011. Available at http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,,14957924,00.html.
Chrisafis, A. (2009). Welcome to France: home of sun, sea, sand, polygamy and the Indian Ocean. The Guardian, 26 March 2009. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/26/mayote-referendum-polygamy-islam. Accessed 1 April 2011.
Elzas, S. (2009). The fight over the island of Mayotte. RFI English, 26 March 2009. Available at http://www.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/111/article_3288.asp. Accessed 1 April 2011.
France 24 (2009). Mayotte readies for referendum on overseas department status. 29 March 2009. Available at http://www.france24.com/en/20090328-mayotte-france-referendum-overseas-department-status-vote. Accessed 1 April 2011.
Integrated Regional Information Networks (2008). Comoros: Hope is a boat to Mayotte. IRIN News, 16 January 2008. Available at http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=76277. Accessed 1 April 2011.
Integrated Regional Information Networks (2009). Comoros: Reforming ‘the coup-coup islands’. UNHCR, 25 February 2009. Available at http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/49a660d5c.html. Accessed 1 April 2011.
Postmedia News (2011). Mayotte France’s 101st department. Windsor Star, 1 April 2011. Available at http://www.windsorstar.com/news/Mayotte+France+101st+department/4540190/story.html. Accessed 1 April 2011.
Telegraph, The (2009). Mayotte votes to become France’s 101st department. 29 March 2009 .Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/comorosandmayotte/5072354/Mayotte-votes-to-become-Frances-101st-dpartement.html. Accessed 1 April 2011.