The crisis in Mayotte is a sobering example of France's colonial legacy

An African archipelago is facing troubles at a time of growing unrest in far-flung outposts of the former empire

People react during the demolition of an informal settlement in Langoni, Mamoudzou, on the island of Mayotte in April. AFP
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Eight thousand kilometres from Paris, off the east coast of Africa between Mozambique and Madagascar, a small archipelago that is legally as French as the Champs-Elysees is in turmoil amid attempts to reverse a tide of unwelcome immigrants.

In 2011, Mayotte, a relic of the African exploits of colonial France, became the republic’s 101st fully fledged “department” – essentially a county, giving its people the same rights as those living in Paris, Brittany or the Cote d’Azur – two years after a referendum produced an emphatic 95 per cent vote in a favour, from a fairly high turnout of 61 per cent.

Today, at least one third (but on some estimates half of its population), which has almost doubled since the poll to about 350,000, do not have French nationality but have been drawn from the neighbouring Comoros Islands by hopes of less impoverished lives.

The journey involves a precarious crossing by boat, especially from Anjouan, 70km away and the nearest of the Comoros Islands. The approach to Mayotte, whose two main islands are Grande-Terre and Petite-Terre, can be treacherous. Ancient Arab sailors negotiating its surrounding coral reefs knew it as the “island of death”.

Since the referendum, the influx has included pregnant women hoping that by giving birth on Mayotte, their children will qualify for French nationality, and young men seeking to proceed to the supposed “El Dorado” of metropolitan France. Whatever dreams they hold, even if they make the voyage safely in their flimsy kwasa-kwasa boats, they typically end up in filthy, unhealthy ghettoes where conditions and a sense of despair have helped to generate serious outbreaks of crime.

There is little doubt that the Comoros are islands of grinding poverty. On Mayotte, the attachment to France and therefore the EU means the currency is the euro and the administration of daily life is theoretically indistinguishable from what people experience in Paris, Marseille or Bordeaux. More and more people speak French as well as their native languages.

The weighty problems facing Mayotte seem a consequence of one part of the Comoros archipelago choosing to be part of France while the rest remains independent, but its people impoverished and envious

In practice, however, social difficulties are proving hard to resolve. A 2018 report from France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies found huge unemployment, 77 per cent of the population living below the French poverty line with sheet metal huts accounting for four homes in 10 and as many as 30 per cent of them having to make do without running water.

Still, even with this high level of poverty and deprivation, Mayotte offers a better life than many would ever know in neighbouring Comoros Islands.

And the exodus predates the 2009 referendum. Between 1995 and 2016, 50,000 people – many of them women and children – perished while attempting the crossing in these rough seas, according to a senior Anjouan official. The death toll reached 10,000 even on French figures. On either count, one diplomat and researcher, Ahmed Thabet, likened the sea separating Anjouan and Mayotte to “the widest cemetery in the world”.

In response to the crisis confronting Mayotte now, a French government operation known as Wuanbushu – a Mauritanian term meaning recovery or “take back” – was ordered by the interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, eager to show himself as tough on immigration ahead of a possible bid for the presidency in 2027, with the aim of clearing the slums of illegal immigrants. Despite the misgivings of human rights groups, opposed to what they considered an inhumane attack on the poor, the action has the support of Mayotte political leaders and, apparently, a large number of native inhabitants.

The drive to destroy the sprawling shanties and remove illegal immigrants got off to a chaotic start. The authorities faced obstruction in the courts and from Comoros, which said it would not accept boatloads of its returning nationals. Such defiance was not unexpected. Backed by repeated UN votes, vetoed by France, Comoros challenges the referendum’s validity and claims sovereignty over Mayotte.

The weighty problems facing Mayotte seem an inescapable consequence of one part of the Comoros archipelago choosing to be part of France while the rest remains independent, but its people impoverished and envious.

But there is also deep sadness at the unpromising start to its departmental status, darkening the dream that alignment with France would bring relative prosperity and the social support system – family allowances, unemployment benefits and superior health and education services – to its Muslim-majority population.

At the time of the 2009 referendum, optimism was high. The positive feelings were eloquently summed up by the late Abdoulatifou Aly, a centrist deputy (MP) representing Mayotte in the French national assembly, when he said: "Mayotte is a crossroads of civilisation: western, eastern and African. Not only are we people of colour, we are Muslim and we want a European way of life. It's a mix that couldn't happen anywhere else but Mayotte. We are going to give France its true 'universal vocation’.”

But integration with France has come at a time of growing unrest in far-flung outposts of the former French empire. The Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are far from content with their treatment by Paris, while voters in the Pacific archipelago of French Polynesia have just voted to give the pro-independence Tavini Huiraatira party a majority in the regional assembly. This is expected to lead to increasing pressure for a referendum on ending the territory’s status as an overseas collectivity of France.

The centre-left French newspaper Le Monde has been scathing in its analysis of French policy on Mayotte, describing its failings as a gift for the far right, with “vain gesticulations on the issue of immigration … which seek to give credence to the absurd idea that the situation prefigures the future of all of France”. Despite Le Monde’s indignation at such populist rhetoric, polls show Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is now France’s most popular party and that she is far ahead of the president, Emmanuel Macron, in personal approval ratings.

And not even Mayotte is immune to her appeal. The 2022 presidential election saw her win 59 per cent of Mayotte’s vote against 41 per cent for Mr Macron. This result was, according to the partisan but hardly exaggerated view of the Black Agenda Report website, a reward to Ms Le Pen for an “anti-immigration, Trump-like and populist agenda”.

There is no simple solution to the crisis. For all its hopes that making Mayotte properly French would help counter growing Iranian influence in the region, France may now regret that 2009 vote. And for all the rivalries pitting the people of Mayotte against their close neighbours, some observers insist there is far more to unite them – including faith, native languages and culture – than to divide.

“These populations, whether they were born in Mayotte, Anjouan or Grande Comore, share the same language, practise the same religion, have the same concept of kinship, and continue to intermarry,” Sophie Blanchy, an eminent ethnologist and expert on the region, told Le Monde. “There is nothing to distinguish between them, except that some find themselves in a territory with French nationality and others do not.”

Published: May 08, 2023, 7:00 AM