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The Newest French Department

By Marsha Larned

MAMOUDZOU—Last week, France welcomed Mayotte, a small island between Madagascar and continental Africa, into its fold of overseas departments. The tiny nation in the Indian Ocean becomes the 101st department of this kind. It will now be fully absorbed into the French governing system: abiding under the same laws and reaping the same benefits—tax, social, civil—that exist in mainland France.

What will departmental status really mean for this small island nation? Becoming French is locally synonymous with wealth: the territory will most notably see a rise in its standard of living. Roads and infrastructure, local sanitation, and regular garbage collection will improve the face of Mayotte. Standards in quality of education, security and rule of law—along with basic social services like low-income housing and unemployment benefits—will improve daily life for the average citizen.

And for the French? The jury is still out. While there is a military base and presence on Mayotte and a neighboring island, La Reunion, “It may be purely symbolic at this point” says Marie Carpanin, a French historian based in La Reunion. There is some talk that the new arrangement will give France a strategic advantage in fighting piracy and accessing shipping routes surrounding the Horn of Africa. However, “it is uncertain whether the French will actually exercise military capability in the region,” says Carpanin.

For all of this, has Mayotte truly hit the jackpot of richesse? “I don’t think that a majority of the locals realize what departmentalization will really look like here,” explains Émilie Briard,a lawyer based in the capital of Mamoudzou. “Higher taxes are one thing, but there will also be a significant shift in the culture and society.”

Mayotte and its neighbors—Grande Comore, Moheli, and Anjouan—make up the Comoros island archipelago. Each shares a long history with France. The four islands first became French colonies in the mid-1800s. Following a 1975 parliamentary decision, the Comoran government declared independence from the Fleure-de-Lis. Mayotte abstained from the vote and remained administratively French until March 2009 when, after a long anticipated referendum, 95 percent of the population voted to become a department. Last week, it became official.

The people of Mayotte are Maoré, an ethnic group that traces its roots to Arab Muslims from East Africa. A form of traditional Muslim culture survives on the island. Polygamy has been practiced for centuries, and men often father up to 15 children in a lifetime. (Under French law, polygamy is now banned.) The local dialect, Shimaore, is spoken widely; schools will now see a shift as French language and culture are emphasized in the classroom.

In addition, the island will solidify its status as a beacon of relative prosperity in an otherwise unfavorable neighborhood. The other islands in the region are some of the world’s poorest and most economically vulnerable nations; the Comoros has an estimated GDP per capita of 820 dollars.

Unlike Madagascar, the mammoth island to their south, the Comoros does not boast an enormous land mass or extensive natural resources. The volcanic history here has scarred the soil with lava, rendering the land useless for agricultural development and making the population largely dependent on foreign food sources. Mayotte, which would otherwise be in the same situation, has long been exempt from such severe economic suffering thanks to France, which has been pumping resources into the local economy for years. 

Departmental status will widen the gap between wealth and poverty in this region. Mayotte already draws thousands of economic refugees every year. In 2010 alone, more than 24,000 such people were arrested and deported.  Although official records place the population at 200,000, medical and food services are outputting supplies for over 300,0000 people, according to Hélène Merceron, a midwife who works in a hospital on Mayotte’s west coast where these statistics are kept.

A good deal of tension exists between Mayotte’s Maoré people and residents from their poorer neighbors. The Maoré often deny that their island is even part of the Comoros and many openly express disdain for those from neighboring islands. Their new relationship to France may feed this sense of privilege, which in turn could raise tensions, making it harder to maintain economic and social stability in the archipelago.

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Marsha Larned, a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal, is a freelance writer and teacher based in Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marie Sophie-Creamarie-Kazamarie

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