Contested French Islands and Sea-Space in the Western Indian Ocean
As was recently discussed in GeoCurrents, France’s incorporation of Mayotte as an overseas department has been attributed by some to the quest for geo-strategic advantage. It is difficult to see, however, exactly what advantage is gained. It is true that the possession of Mayotte gives France an extensive maritime realm by way of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that is attached to all land holdings. But France already possessed both Mayotte and its attached sea-space before the island was transformed into an integral part of the French republic. France’s hold on this area was perhaps solidified with Mayotte’s political transformation, as the island’s previous quasi-colonial status gave it some vulnerability. Still, it was not exactly as if the people of Mayotte were clamoring for independence. In the end, it seems likely that the French government acted largely out of a sense of fair play; the people of Mayotte clearly wanted union with France, and as a result their wish was granted. Whether France will now provide the island with the economic resources that its people regard as rightfully theirs by virtue of their full membership in the French nation is another matter altogether.
Regardless of the status of Mayotte, France clearly has a strong geopolitical position in the western Indian Ocean. As the maps indicate, the possession of numerous islands in the area gives France several large exclusive economic zones. French sea-space almost encircles Madagascar. Two French holdings here are overseas departments, integral parts of the republic: Réunion, which became an overseas department in 1946, and Mayotte, which joined the republic in March, 2011. France’s other maritime zones in the vicinity derive from its ownership of the so-called Scattered Islands, officially the Îles éparses de l’océan indien. The terrestrial extent of these islets is not large. The total land area of the Glorioso Islands, Juan de Nova Island, the Bassas da India, Europa Island and Tromelin Island totals 38.6 km², of which 28.0 km² are accounted for by the giant of the group, Europa. The Bassas da India, in contrast, totals all of 0.2 km², yet its EEZ covers 123,700 km² of maritime space.
France’s terrestrial and maritime claims in the area have not gone uncontested. As we have seen, the Comoros continues to claim Mayotte and its EEZ, despite the expressed desires of the people of the island. Madagascar claims the smaller islands in the Mozambique Channel: Europa, Bassas da India, and Juan de Nova. Tromelin, east of Madagascar, is claimed by both Mauritius and the Seychelles. The five square kilometers of the Glorioso Islands, along with the surrounding seas, are claimed by no less than four countries: France (which has control), the Comoros, Madagascar, and the Seychelles. As a result, this speck of an island is one of the world’s most contested zones, although it does not really compare to the Spratly Islands, all of parts of which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. (The Spratly Islands dispute is also much more hotly contested than the obscure Glorioso disagreement.)
Outside of densely populated Mayotte and Réunion, the French islands in the vicinity of Madagascar lack permanent human habitation. All but the Bassas da India, however, boast landing strips, meteorological stations, and small French garrisons. According to the Wikipedia, the total “population” of the Îles Éparses is fifty-six. Of all the Scattered Islands, only Europa is really large enough to potentially support permanent human inhabitation. Several settlement attempts were made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but all failed. As the last map indicates, the remains of an old sisal plantation are evidently still visible.