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Wednesday, October 19 2011
Overseas France/ Riots in Mayotte
The Muslim island is rioting for more French welfare. Lots more.
Mayotte, a tiny but overpopulated island (376 square kilometers, 186 452 inhabitants) in the Indian Ocean, is rioting. The youth is fighting a street war against the gendarmes. Most employees are striking. Many shops have been looted. Some Caucasian residents have been molested.
Violence started only one month ago or so, on September 21. But conditions have been steadily deteriorating since April 1st, when the island, hitherto merely a French overseas dependency, was turned into the 101st French county (département). A classic case of a small nation resisting being incorporated into a larger one ? Actually, just the opposite.
County status was approved by 95,2 % of Mayotte inhabitants – the Mahorais –in a local referendum in 2009. And they had been begging for it for over thirty-five years.
Formerly a part of the French Comoros archipelago, Mayotte seceded upon Comoros’ accession to independence in 1974 in order to stay French. Ever since then, it has demanded full-fledged citizenship. The French, as far as they were concerned, were lukewarm, to say the least. The Mahorais may love France, but they can hardly be described as a lost Gallic tribe. Most of them don’t speak French, but shimaore, a dialect of swahili, and shibushi, a dialect of malagasy. They are devout Muslims. They practice polygamy.
The driving force issue beyond Mayotte’s insistance on being given county status was welfare. French overseas counties (DOM’s in French bureaucratic parlance) enjoy exactly the same rights and the same welfare benefits as mainland counties, from free top-notch medecine to guaranteed minimum wages to child rearing allowances.
As a French postcolonial dependency, Mayotte was already much richer than its neighbours. It enjoyed a per capita GDP of 4500 US dollars in 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook, against Mozambique’s or the Comoros’ 1000 dollars, and Madgascar’s 900 dollars. As a French county, however, it is poised get much closer to France’s staggering 40 000 dollars.
Until 2007, successive governments in Paris, both Right and Left, manoeuvered to postpone départementalisation for as long as possible. Then, Nicolas Sarkozy came. He decided that France was already too much involved with Mayotte and that county status would not make any real difference. The 2009 referendum and a subsequent vote at the French parliament, in 2010, took place at his request. The French nation as a whole was not consulted, which is against the literal reading of article 53 of the constitution and relevant precedents notwithstanding (referendums had been organized in France proper both regarding the independance of Algeria in 1962 and a reformed statute for New Caledonia in 1988).
Sarkozy was wrong. County status did make a difference in Mayotte : it sharpened the islanders appetite. The Mahorais want their standards of living to improve quickly. France – broke and deep in debt – has offered to raise it step by step. The islanders are demanding something more drastic. The least they have in mind is parity with the other DOM’s : a per capita GDP half of mainland France’s, around 20 000 US dollars.
Meet the real world : France is the last oceanic Empire in the world. Gone are the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch overseas Empires. Direct British overseas dependencies are scarce. The US relinquished – for not clear reason – the legally stolen Panama Canal Zone. But the French are still present in the Western hemisphere (Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Barthélémy, Saint-Martin, Guyane), in the Indian Ocean (Réunion, Mayotte, the Kerguelen Islands) and in the Pacific Ocean (New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, Clipperton). All in all : 120 000 square kilometers, or approximatively one fifth of France proper. And 3 millions people.
Why did France keep so many overseas dependencies or counties ? One explanation is that they had been indeed part of the French national destiny for several centuries, or have been partially settled by European French people. But contemporary geopolitical interests were also at stake. In order to become a nuclear power, France needed Polynesia as an experimentation ground. In order to become a spatial power, it need the Kourou launching site in Guyane. And finally, controlling hundreds of islands and islets all over the world meant controlling huge economic exclusive maritime zones around them : France comes second in the world in this respect, with a global 11 035 000 square kilometers exclusive zone, just behind the United States 11 351 000 square kilometers zone.
In order to keep such an Empire in a postcolonial and politically correct age, one has to fully integrate the overseas realms in legal terms or at least overflow them with benefits and privileges. The cost, for France, has been very high, and is getting higher year after year.
Besides welfare payments, there are the demographic and cultural implications. When you hear that the French population is currently 65 millions, it really means that 3 millions Overseas French are being added to the 62 mainland French. But the demographic share of Overseas France in Global France is even bigger, since many French citizens born overseas – up to 2 millions, according to conservative estimates - live now in mainland, European, France. And while most of them are much closer to mainstream French society than the Mahorais, the Overseas French, either at home or in France proper, retain a distinct identity in many respects. Many of them tend to coalesce with the Neo-French, the largely Muslim Arab or African community that immigrated en masse over the last forty years.
It even does not stop here. Most DOM’s are seen as shortcuts to mainland France by potential illegal immigrants from the rest of the world. Day after day, French-speaking Haitians and English, Spanish or Portuguese speaking Caribbeans or Latin Americans infiltrate the West Indian DOM’s or Guyane for that purpose. The same holds true for many Africans who flock to Indian Ocean France and especially to Mayotte, which is both geographically closer and less well managed than Reunion Island, one of the oldest – and ethnically most balanced - French overseas territories. According to Bernard Lugan, one of the best French experts on Africa, pregnant women from the Comoros, Madagascar, East Africa or even the Democratic Republic of the Congo come to Mayotte to give birth. Under French law, any child born on French soil is granted citizenship. And all his or her relatives may be allowed, under family reunion dispensations, to join him and live with him on French soil as well.
But the major case against the French politically correct Neo-Empire is that it does’nt work well even in the overseas territories. There were riots, in the French Caribbean Islands in the late 2000’s. Because the locals had a feeling that they were too much behind the French average in per capita income. And now, there is Mayotte.
(c) Michel Gurfinkiel, 2011
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