On March 31, 2011, the European Union expanded, adding 144 square miles (374 km2) and almost 200,000 persons. The population of this new UE territory is almost entirely Muslim (97 per cent). It is also, by European standards, quite poor, with a nominal per capita GDP of only US $6,500. Oddly, the land in question is not even physically located in Europe, situated instead thousands of miles to the south. But despite these unusual features, the European Union’s most recent addition received little mention in the international media. Most outlets ignored it altogether.
The land in question is Mayotte, an island group in the Comoros Archipelago, located off the East African coast northwest of Madagascar. Mayotte joined the EU as a matter of course when it became an overseas department (département d’outre-mer, or DOM) of France, joining the roster with French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion. Mayotte had previously been under the sovereignty of France, but as a quasi-colonial dependency rather than an integral portion of the country. Today it is as much part of France as Hawaii is part of the US.
Until 1975, France controlled the entire Comoros Archipelago as a colonial dependency. In a 1974 referendum, the inhabitants of the other islands voted for independence, but those of Mayotte elected to stay under French rule. The newly independent State of Comoros (as it was then officially called) contested the maneuver, arguing its case in the United Nations. In 1976 the UN Security Council voted in favor of the Comorian claim, but France vetoed the motion. For the next two decades, the UN continued to apply pressure for decolonization. The people of Mayotte resisted such demands, their identification with France only increasing as economic and political conditions deteriorated in independent Comoros (as will be discussed in the next GeoCurrents post). Eventually, they sought full union with the metropolitan state. In a 2009 referendum, “95.5 per cent voted in favour of changing the island’s status from a French ‘overseas community’ to become France’s 101st département.” Neighboring states were not pleased. The African Union opposed the change, while the vice president of the Comoros said that the vote was tantamount to “a declaration of war.”
In voting to join France, the people of Mayotte expected to reap economic benefits while acknowledging that they would have to reform their own legal and social frameworks. Whereas Islamic law had previously been informally used for family matters, French law will now have to be instituted; polygamy will no longer be allowed, and girls will no longer be allowed to marry at age fifteen, having to wait until they reach eighteen years of age. Language is another issue: according to the BBC, only about half of the island’s residents can read or write French. Demographic issues present yet another challenge for integration into the French Republic. According to a March, 2011 Deutsche Welle article:
Every third inhabitant of Mayotte is either a foreigner or a refugee, and new immigrants arrive every day. Every year, the island expels some 24,000 illegal immigrants, one reason why France has sent hundreds of extra police to Mayotte.
Mayotte attracts numerous immigrants and refugees due to the profound economic advantage that it enjoys over the Comoros proper and other near-by countries. Many Mahorans (as residents of Mayotte are called) expected that such disparities would expand significantly and immediately with ascension to France. Thus far, their expectations for an economic boost have not been met, generating mounting frustration. In late September 2011, protests and rioting broke on Mayotte, focused on the rising cost of living and more specifically on the large profit margins enjoyed by big French retail chains. Police responded by using tear gas grenades and “flash-balls,” which likely contributed to the death of one demonstrator. In mid-October, French Secretary of State for Overseas Territories Marie-Luce Penchard visited the island, hoping to quell tensions. Her arrival coincided with an intensification of the disturbance, with looters ransacking a major supermarket. Penchard subsequently “promised to probe profit margins enjoyed by large retailers” and to “make sure that measures are taken and, if necessary, sanctions handed down.” Due to the unrest, France’s recent Socialist Party primary election could not be held on Mayotte.
In explaining the situation in Mayotte to my students, I noticed more than a few dumbfounded expressions. Why, I was asked, would France want to take on such a burden? “Pour la gloire!” I was tempted to respond, but I could not come up with a satisfying answer. Evidently, some people in France are asking the same question, if the comment thread in a recent Rue 89 article is any indication. As one commentator asked:
A question all the same: what interests has our government encouraged to integrate this island? Nothing in their history, Muslim and clannish morals, or local political or economic context moves them closer to us except to ostracize the foreigner who robs them. This department will remain a weight on our country. So who will respond to this question: why was this loaded referendum proposed?*
Several Rue 89 responders cited “geostrategic advantage,” the only answer that made much sense.
*”Une question tout de même : quels intérêts notre gouvernement a-t-il favorisés pour intéger cette île . Rien dans leur histoire , moeurs musulmanes et claniques , contexte politique et économique voisin… , ne les rapproche de nous sauf pour ostraciser l’étranger qui les vole . Ce département restera un poids pour notre pays. Donc qui répondra à cette question : pourquoi avoir proposé ce référendum pipé ?”
(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for help with this post.)