Mayotte — a tiny, overpopulated island (376 square kilometers, 186,452 inhabitants) in the Indian Ocean — is rioting.
The youth are 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, on September 21, but conditions have been steadily deteriorating since April 1, when the island — hitherto a French overseas dependency — became the 101st French county (département).
A classic case of a small nation resisting incorporation into a larger one? Actually, just the opposite: county status was approved by 95.2% of Mayotte inhabitants (Mahorais) in a 2009 referendum. And they had been begging for it for over thirty-five years.
Formerly part of the French Comoros archipelago, Mayotte seceded upon Comoros’ ascension to independence in 1974 in order to stay French. Ever since then, Mayotte has demanded full-fledged citizenship. The French were lukewarm, to say the least — the Mahorais may love France, but they can hardly be described as a lost Gallic tribe. Most don’t speak French, but Shimaore (a dialect of Swahili) and Shibushi (a dialect of Malagasy). They are devout Muslims, and practice polygamy.
The driving force beyond Mayotte’s insistance on being given county status was welfare.
French overseas counties enjoy exactly the same rights and the same welfare benefits as mainland counties, from free medicine to guaranteed minimum wages to child-rearing allowances.
As a French postcolonial dependency, Mayotte was already much richer than its neighbors. It enjoyed a per capita GDP of $4500 in 2010 according to the CIA World Factbook, greater than Mozambique’s or the Comoros’ $1000 and Madagascar’s $900. As a French county, however, Mayotte is poised to get much closer to France’s comparatively staggering $40,000.
Until 2007, successive governments in Paris, both right and left, maneuvered to postpone départementalisation for as long as possible. Then, Nicolas Sarkozy came. He decided that France was already too involved with Mayotte, and that county status would not make any real difference. The 2009 referendum and subsequent 2010 vote at the French parliament took place at his request. The French nation as a whole was not consulted, which is against the literal reading of article 53 of their constitution and relevant precedents (referendums had been organized in France proper regarding the independence 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 – deep in debt — has offered to raise them step by step. The islanders are demanding something more drastic. The least they have in mind is parity with the other overseas départements (the DOM’s, in French bureaucratic parlance): a per capita GDP half of mainland France, around $20,000.
Meet the real world: France is the last oceanic empire. Gone are the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch overseas empires. Direct British overseas dependencies are scarce. The U.S. relinquished — for no 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 most of these places are départements.
When you hear that the French population is currently 65 million, it sums as about 62 million in France and three million overseas. From another angle, it can be argued as well that the real demographic share of Overseas France in Global France is much higher, since many French citizens born overseas — up to 2 million, according to conservative estimates — now live in mainland 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.