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African islands say 'oui' to France: the population of the tiny archipelago of Mayotte has chosen to bid a political 'adieu' to the Comoros and a rousing 'bonjour' to France in a referendum that will wed them forever to La republique. Report by Tom Nevin.

Voters on Mayotte, a tiny island group in the Indian Ocean, have opted to become a fully fledged part of France. Nearly 96% of the poll wants to turn Mayotte into a departement of France even though that means the end of local traditions such as polygamy and Islamic courts. The change of status will require the island to align itself with French law.

Mayotte, 400km east of Mozambique and 300km west of Madagascar, is in the Comoros archipelago, but voted against independence in referendums in 1974 and 1976.

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Instead it maintained a 'collectivity' association with Paris, with a status allowing legal differences from the mainland. This will now be upgraded to a departement.

The islands have a population of around 186,000 people, of whom 95% are Sunni Muslims. Many do not speak French. At least a third of the population are illegal migrants who abandoned their homes on the islands of the independent Comoran state to find a better life on Mayotte.

"We may be black, poor and Muslim, but we have been French longer than Nice," says Abdou-latifou Aly, a Mayotte legislator.

The French government expressed satisfaction with the referendum's result.

"This will reinforce the place of Mayotte in the republic, reaffirming our founding values, particularly equality between men and women, the same justice for all, and the place of the French language," said Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

President Nicolas Sarkozy had promised a referendum during his 2007 election campaign and now, after the sweeping "oui" vote, the island will become France's 101st departement in 2011.

Joining the French fold might not automatically end Mayo-tte's economic problems. Currently unemployment runs at 25%, social services are under-resourced and in need of an upgrade and infrastructure is generally lacking. The French government says budget constraints will limit the rate at which it can overhaul the islands.

Big changes ahead

However, a more secure French connection would boost the islands' economically, ushering in a wider range of social benefits and opening channels for EU infrastructure development and social funding. In return, the islanders will be faced with higher taxes and more efficient means of collecting them, and they will have to ditch some of the customs and traditions they hold dear in conforming to French law.

As things stand now, Mayotte comes under Islamic Justice and that will have to be replaced by secular courts with qadis, Islamic religious scholars, retaining a consultative role. For now, men can have several wives and can divorce them with a simple repudiation. In the new French order, polygamy will be outlawed and the marriageable age will be raised from 15 to 18 years.

As reconstruction socially and structurally transforms Mayotte, France will be faced with the reality of having a portion of La Belle France side by side with the impoverished Comoran state, one of the world's poorest.

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Title Annotation:MAYOTTE
Comment:African islands say 'oui' to France: the population of the tiny archipelago of Mayotte has chosen to bid a political 'adieu' to the Comoros and a rousing 'bonjour' to France in a referendum that will wed them forever to La republique.
Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Date:May 1, 2009
Words:477
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