Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Economic Geography, Protest Movements, Sub-Saharan Africa, World

Mayotte: The EU’s—and France’s—Troubled New Exclave

Submitted by on October 27, 2011 – 3:10 pm 11 Comments |  
Modified Wikipedia map of France with its Overseas DepartmentsOn 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.

Modified Wikipedia World Map of France 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.

Map of the Comoros and MayotteUntil 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.)


Previous Post
Next Post

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.

  • I was one of most EU citizens who did not notice Mayotte’s integration at all. It is not in the euro bank notes I have checked (but maybe it is newer ones?).

    Being part of the EU is bad idea, as show the examples of the other French overseas departments (Guiana, Guadaloupe, Martinique, unsure about Reunion), which have brutal levels of chronic unemployment. I checked more than a decade ago an they were already in figures of 40%, what is incredible, specially as all other Caribbean neighbors, independent or not but out of the EU, did not have such horrible figures.

    The cost of life I guess and something that is damaging also now mainland European zones. IMO the high value of the euro, which has appreciated almost 50% in relation to the US dollar since 1999 (and that means also the yuan and most other currencies) is the main reason why southern European economies are collapsing. But a reason that is not being addressed at all (largely because Germany and such get benefits from cheap imports).

    • Excellent point regarding the Euro. Although I emphasized the fact that Mayotte joined the EU when it became an overseas department of France, more significant is the fact that it also joined the Euro zone. Although the economies of Mayotte, Guadeloupe, etc. look good in nominal per capita GDP terms compared to their neighbors, Maju is absolutely correct that they suffer from high costs of living and high unemployment. (Reunion does indeed seem to be in better condition.)  I also agree that the Euro has caused major problems in southern Europe, and I am not convinced that it will prove sustainable. I’m not so sure about the German desire for cheap imports being behind the problem, but this is not an issue that I have examined in any detail. 

    • Anonymous

      The Euro has not risen against the USD as much as many believe. It’s the USD that has fallen against the Euro and most (all) other traded currencies – eg

      2001 AUD1.00 = USD0.56, today AUD1.00 = USD1.07 – + AUD0.51
      2001 EUR1.00 = USD0.95, today EUR1.00 = USD1.32 – + EUR0.37
      2001 AUD1.00 = EUR0.59, today AUD1.00 = EUR0.75 – + AUD0.16

      If all other currencies had remained at their 2001 values then today the AUD would be about USD0.80.  The AUD is strong because a) it did not buy into the 1990’s DotCom bubble & bust fiasco; b) its retail banks stayed out of the mortgage derivatives casino; c) prior to the events of 2007 Australia had little sovereign debt and accumulated budget surpluses.

      If Germany wanted cheap EU imports it would revert to the DM and let the Euro devalue – which is what the PIIGS, Kosova, Montenegro, Guadelope et al need.  The advantage that Germany gets from using the Euro is that it makes its exports cheaper both inside & outside the EU. 

      However, France & the US cannot allow Germany to leave the Euro; first France would lose its AAA, then the French banks would need French taxpayer bailouts, which would trigger calls on CDS contracts, including those under US-FDIC protection.  That chain of events would almost guarantee the defeat of the French & US Presidents in the respective 2012 elections.   

      The Wallis & Futura islands use the CFA, they appear to be doing better than their independent neighbours (Tuvalu, Tokelau), I wonder if Sarkozy also has his eyes on those islands.

    • Maju, so are you suggesting that mainland France be part of the European Union and not the overseas departments?

  • “Language is another issue: according to the BBC, only about half of the island’s residents can read or write French” — According to the Ethnologue report on Mayotte, only 2,450 people (just over 1%) speak French, although that number probably refers to native speakers only. A comparable number speak Swahili, some 39,000 speak Bushi (an Austronesian language related to Malagasy) and some 92,800 speak Maore, the indigenous language of Mayotte, closely related to Swahili. However, it should be noted that the numbers given in the Ethnologue report do not add up, with some 50,000 people not speaking any language at all! (Perhaps some of the discrepancy has to do with the statistics being from different years).

  • Ambergris

    Another aspect of this absurd situation is the presence in the search of of a better life and opportunities of an estimated 100,000 Comorians in Marseille and its surrounding area. The cultural gap and tensions between the Comorian immigrant generations (traditional for the older set and a hybrid form of modernity for the younger ones) leads to a high level of dysfunctionality and the inevitable petty ciminality among the youth who have problems adapting to the new social reality and competition in France. The community’s presence and number is used by the National Front as a bugbear to denounce uncontrolled immigration. Interestingly enough, it is estimated that up to half the births on Mayotte are from women smuggled (a lucrative people smuggling trade) onto the island. Birth on Mayotte confers French nationality to the child and the right to stay as well as social benefits or the mother. The Mayotte people denounce in turn this “uncontrolled migration” to their island. The other Comorians often work on Mayotte’s “black economy” for unskilled labor. Like the Haitians in Guadaloupe and Martinique they are accused of provoking the rise in criminality and disease. The whole system is irrational and dysfunctional engendered perhaps by France’s need not for gloire but bases anywhere around the globe (usually on what is called the confetti of their old empire) to enhance their much diminished strategic reach.

    • Many thanks for the fascinating and deeply informed comment. I had no idea that the Comorian community in France was so large. “Irrational and disfunctional” may indeed be the appropriate terms.

    • Many thanks for the fascinating and deeply informed comments. I had no idea that the Comorian presence in southern France was so large. “Irrational and disfunctional” may indeed be appropriate terms. 

    • Many thanks for the fascinating and deeply informed comments. I had no idea that the Comorian presence in southern France was so large. “Irrational and disfunctional” may indeed be appropriate terms. 

    • Many thanks for the fascinating and deeply informed comments. I had no idea that the Comorian presence in southern France was so large. “Irrational and disfunctional” may indeed be appropriate terms. 

  • Ambergris93

           A further update to my previous comment on the perverse effect of French policy on Mayotte and its more general negative impact on the Comores should help explain the underlying reasons for the current wave of unrest and the uncertainty for the future. For the last two months there have been widespread demonstrations and violence  (including one dead) in reaction to the deteriorating social and economic situation. With half the population under 20 years old and a demographic bombshell in gestation, pressure for employment is extreme in an economy which produces very little. The principal employer is the state through civil service jobs. Local politicians engineer a vast network of clientelism through the doling out of civil service jobs. Inefficiency and corruption have become the watchwords. More than half of the island’s seventeen towns as well as the island legislative assembly have been placed under direct French government authority.

          Further counterproductive aspects of the French presence is the opening up in 2012 of rights to a minimum national revenue known under the French acronym as RSA, albeit at €120 (about $160) only a projected quarter of the metropolitian rate. Negotiations are currently underway to raise this to 50%. Indeed it is only the massive transfer of funds from France that enables the island to keep its head above water. The model in the back of the minds of local Mayotte politicians, specially the ambitious young President of the Regional Assembly Daniel Zaidani is the Indian Ocean island of La Réunion which became a French départment in 1946. In this way waning funding from metropoliitan France can be compensated by greater European handouts from Brussels. This is manna from heaven for an island with few resources.

           The social model for the emerging local middle classes and the aspirational youth is France with consumption as the driving force. Since the mimimum wage is set at 85% of France’s at around €1000 (about $1350), those who have employment enjoy a standard of living well beyond what the local economy can generate or justify. But since almost all foodstuffs and consumer goods are imported and through a handful of mostly French importer, the cost of living for a French-style living standard is exhorbitant. This has led to frustrations sparking off demonstartions spearheaded by civil service unions and discreetly backed by religious and local authorities seeking to squeeze more out of the French presence. Tension against the French on the island, accused of profiteering, and the Comorran “wetbacks” (attracted like a magnet to this veritable eldorado compared to the parlous economy in the Comoros) pointed out for putting a strain on social services like healthcare and education and being a source of crime (drug dealing), is running at fever pitch.

           Given that this artificial “development” model can only lead to enhanced dependence and bitterness as in Guadaloupe and Martinique, French authorities can only keep the lid on the cover by the continued inflow of funds. With an expanding population a powderkeg situation could develop. Local politicians have learned how to play the game. It is remarkable how their support of protests can accelerate the loosening of strings on the French money bags as they try to buy complaisancy.