Eight thousand kilometres from Paris, a disputed part of France provides an unlikely Indian Ocean setting for a crisis that turns Europe’s immigration issues upside down.
Mayotte, an overwhelmingly Muslim island midway between the northern coasts of Madagascar and Mozambique, has been in turmoil for a month. A general strike and blockades have paralysed daily life while threatening to degenerate into violence.
Yet at the heart of the turbulence is the desire of Mayotte’s people to keep out other Muslims – specifically migrants from neighbouring islands of the Comoros.
Alone in the archipelago in insisting on remaining French when Paris organised a referendum on independence in 1974, they have experienced mass immigration from the other Comoros islands where life, without the generous support Mayotte enjoys from mainland France, is significantly poorer.
They feel victims of lawlessness and an unbearable strain on public services.
A high-profile visit last week by the French overseas minister, Annick Girardin, was insufficient to answer their grievances – protest leaders said President Emmanuel Macron and his prime minster, Edouard Philippe, should have gone – even if there are signs a fudged agreement is within reach.
Mayotte is the 101st and most recent department or administrative area of France.
With its abundance of fauna and plant life, from tulip trees to wild orchids, a 100-kilometre hiking trail and a coral reef bordering one of the world’s largest enclosed lagoons, it ought to be a magnet for more adventurous tourists.
But poor infrastructure and the insecurity of which residents complain set it years behind such other Indian Ocean destinations as Mauritius, the Seychelles and – also French – Reunion.
The direct link with France, with Mayotte essentially being as French as Paris or the Cote d’Azur, makes the difference and should in time make the island a good deal more attractive to visitors.
Thirty-five years after rejecting independence from France in the 1974 referendum, islanders voted in a 2009 to become a formal overseas department and regional territory. The 1974 poll led to the United Nations passing a series of resolutions deploring French claims to Mayotte but without effect.
And Mayotte’s special status in a deprived region makes it a haven for migrants from the other Comoros islands, refugees but people seeking better lives.
Among these, notably, are the pregnant women determined to give birth on French soil and obtain entitlement to French nationality.
Within this wave of arrivals has come a lawless element. Strike leaders say their security concerns have not been properly recognised by Paris.
Rare among Muslim voters in French elections, many in Mayotte back the centre-right and even the far right; the anti-immigration Front National’s Marine Le Pen took 43 per cent of the second-round vote in last year’s presidential election. Polling booths were again open under high tension on Sunday as the island held partial parliamentary elections that some politicians felt should have been postponed.
Only two-thirds of the people living in Mayotte were born there, and 28 per cent are Comorian immigrants, according to a 2007 census.
Islanders say the immigrant population has greatly increased, especially since Mayotte became a French department. But the figures are in dispute, as are claims that most births in the capital Mamoudzou are to “clandestines”.
When France’s state-owned France Info studied official data, it concluded that while 73 per cent of mothers giving birth in 2016 were foreign – and mainly Comorian – the percentage fell sharply when the fathers’ origins were taken into account. In only around 40 per cent of cases were both parents foreign.
How long the protesters are prepared to maintain their struggle is open to doubt. What is beyond question is the sentiment underpinning their sense of grievance.
“The choice for the Mayotte people in the referendums was simple: remain a highly subsidised French citizen with an open door to Europe or join one of the poorest and unstable of African countries, live in dire poverty, suffer disease and raise illiterate children,” wrote George Kaziolas, a seasoned American commentator long based in Paris. “The Comoros have suffered some 20 coups d’etat and attempted coups, often with French involvement, since independence.”
Mr Kaziolas told The National he expected the Macron government's promises to combat illegal immigration to translate into mass expulsions of the thousands of Comorians who have tried to make new homes in Mayotte, with its GDP per inhabitant 13 times higher than in neighbouring islands.
He believes Mr Macron’s vision of France’s place in modern Africa may become more progressive in time than that of his predecessors, but fall short of French recognition of Comorian claims to sovereignty over Mayotte. There is, he says, little prospect of France abiding by repeated UN votes, endorsed by the African Union, on Mayotte’s status “since I don’t find it in the French tradition to have a guilty conscience”.
He also questioned the morality of France's attachment to the island, recalling that as a radio producer for state-run France TV in Paris, he encountered colleagues in Mayotte who refused to broadcast items condemning Al Qaeda-inspired murders at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015.
The Comorian authorities are outraged by the “stigmatisation” of those who have migrated to Mayotte.
“They are not highwaymen or rapists,’’ said Mohamed Daoudo, the interior minister. “They go there for work or for care.”
And underlining Comorian claims to sovereignty over Mayotte, he added: “In any case, they are in a regularised situation – they are at home.”