Marine Le Pen in Mayotte (Photo by Ali Al-Daher)

The empire strikes back

France is going to the polls in the shadow of its colonial past

Artillery Row

“My compatriots in Mayotte, you are French since 1841. That is for a longer time than Nice or Savoy. We should not and cannot forget that.” Nicolas Sarkozy, 2010

French electoral analysis focuses on five exhausted genres of thought: typically recycling outrage about Le Pen, distrust in the establishment, wokeism on the left, vacuity on the centre-right or demographic changes that promise to sink the whole ship. Within this narrative France is framed as a predominantly European, post-imperial power.

According to this dated vision, its largest cities and peripheries are exceptions and appendages, adding diversity but not subtracting from the nation’s fundamental character. While this may have been true under Jacque Chirac, it’s not been since. Diversity, dysfunction and a Kafkaesque state now reign. There is no better place to explore this explosive mix than the nation’s one-hundred-and-first departement, Mayotte.

The Comoros Union’s auto-dismemberment may have proven wise

Part of the Comoros islands, an archipelago located in the Mozambique Channel off Africa’s east coast, Mayotte shares a sea with three other major islands: Moheli, Anjouan and Grande Comore. While the Union of the Comoros was granted autonomy in 1961 and broke all ties with France in 1975, Mayotte held its own referendums. The first in December 1974 resulted in a 65 per cent vote against independence from France. The second, just over a year later, delivered an astounding 99 per cent outcome in favour of remaining loyal to la mere patrie. Sincerely or opportunistically, it advertised itself as possessing a Creole personality in a manner similar to Reunion Island or the Seychelles.

Despite the eccentricity of this position, its auto-dismemberment may have proven wise. The Comoros Union has done little more than lurch from crisis to crisis in the past half a century. Since independence it’s suffered an unnerving twenty coups d’etat — though admittedly some can be attributed to French mercenaries such as the late Bob Denard and his merry band of brothers, Les Affreux (The Terrible Ones).

Two of the islands (Moheli and Anjouan) even attempted to repeat Mayotte’s trick and demanded “recolonization” by France in 1997, though it politely refused to oblige.

The nascent “international community” didn’t approve. Letting France retain a substantial chunk of a colony in an era when the “winds of change” were meant to have swept the world, was hardly good PR. The UN had historically adhered to the uti possidetis principle, requiring post-colonial configurations to respect the territorial integrity of the pre-colonial unit. A UN Security Council resolution (1976) even attempted to recognise Comorian sovereignty over Mayotte, only to be vetoed by France — the only time it has cast a lone vote.

Meanwhile, France pondered on how to integrate the island. Nicolas Sarkozy converted Mayotte from its transitional status as a “Collectivité Territoriale” into the country’s fifth overseas department, mainly as a rather cynical ploy to harvest gracious votes, on 31 March 2011 (it barely worked with Hollande registering only two per cent fewer). The EU immediately recognised the state as one of its “outermost regions” and has sent 43.5 million Euros per annum since 2012, mysteriously believing the island bestows “enhanced legitimacy” upon the superstate. Even this total is dwarfed by French annual subsidies, which on average total 680 million Euros.

For the Mahorais, this means modernity is less on a march than a sprint. They’ve swapped corrugated iron shacks for swanky new builds, sandalwood paste for sun cream, and Shimaore (a Swahili dialect) for pidgin (73 per cent of school-leavers have difficulty reading French). Its people use mobile phones, drive mopeds and watch satellite TV. The economic disparity between it and the remainder of the archipelago has provoked mass (illegal) immigration. Thanks to the fact that France’s borders now stretch to the Indian Ocean, Mayotte looks increasingly like its equivalent of Lampedusa.

Each year 25,000-35,000 Comorians make the attempt to reach Mayotte, usually from Anjouan. This includes desperate parents who send their kids unaccompanied. Human Rights Watch claims at least 3,000 of these “orphans” currently reside on the island. Now only 45 per cent of the population are native Mahorais, and roughly 70 per cent of babies born in the largest city of Mamoudzou were born to migrants. In financial terms approximately 70 million Euros are spent struggling against illegal immigration — just to keep the island from exploding into civil war.

Perhaps in time the French system will touch souls rather than wallets

This situation carpets a society that has its own complex tensions. Marriage between cousins is practised on a prodigious level and conflates immediate family with clan interests. This has the effect of elevating slights, real and imagined, into violence at which the Montagues and Capulets would have winced. When students import bricks, crowbars, machetes and even guns into school rather than textbooks, the only recourse French teachers have is to constantly stage strikes. The educators themselves are a potential source of disruption, given they receive a wage that’s seven times higher than what’s paid to their indigenous colleagues.

The causes of these conflicts would barely reach a small claims court in healthier societies. Yet on Mayotte anxieties around social status compound matters. From the arrival of the Shirazi Arabs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, trade in vanilla, cinnamon, ylang ylang and cloves (now paltry exports when compared to cultured fish) took a backseat in favour of slavery. As late as 1865 roughly 40 per cent of the population were slaves. Though the institution has long ended, norms still enshrine the social background of each family with entire cities graded according to complex hierarchies.

Perhaps in time the French system will touch souls rather than wallets. For now, the overwhelming impression is that Mayotte enjoys lingering behind Mariannes’s financial aegis rather than beneath her cultural boot. Polygamy is outlawed and yet proliferates. The local Shafi’i qadis are irrelevant on paper — reduced to the status of dignitaries — and yet their traditions are often more important than French chits when it comes to settling conflicts. Locals confide that they trust “our” [Islamic] justice more than its “French” counterpart — a Freudian slip if ever there was one.

Not so long ago Mayotte might have been framed as occupying a slightly eccentric third position between France and a colony, an island whose inevitable costs were justified by the presence of a military base protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean. In reality, only 300 foreign legionnaires are garrisoned on Mayotte’s Petit Terre, France’s equivalent of Gibraltar. Surely Reunion Island with its naval base is a much more important node in that system, and could “hold the fort”. Even Mayotte’s ace, a huge satellite listening post at Dziani Dhaza, could be moved to Reunion without much disruption.

The Romans suffered exactly this relationship with the Germanics

Complicating matters is the spectacle (going back to at least antiquity) of third-world powers trying to extract the maximum gold from a notional first-world ally. Major Comorian politicians such as Azali Assoumani sporadically visit the Élysée and threaten to unleash the “kwassa kwassa” (fishing boats named after a popular Congolese dance rhythm which means “shaky shaky”) if a whimsical cash sum isn’t wired. This charade even formed part of a gaffe in 2017 when President Macron complimented a fishing fleet on the Atlantic coast, joking that he’d heard of the “kwassa kwassa” but suspected it yielded Comorians rather than fish.

“History doesn’t repeat itself but rhymes”, wrote Mark Twain. It’s true that the Romans suffered exactly this kind of relationship with the Germanics. As everybody knows, the latter won. Why today’s political commentators think it’s obvious that the Franks will be around forever is rather baffling. Mayotte has become part of France in the same way that the Franks became part of Gaul. Mayotte may even have more in common with France than the Franks ever had with their Roman cousins.

Other than its location Mayotte is not particularly exceptional. Its patterns of dysfunction are replicated all over France; the differences are more in degree than type. The novelty of 43 per cent of an Islamic population voting Le Pen in order to cut themselves off from the immigrants they dislike, for instance, is not the abnormal situation some might wish.

It takes remarkably little foresight to see that the dynamic of immigrants “pulling up the drawbridge” could become a familiar phenomenon across Europe. The island’s patchy birth-rates — with the majority of the sky-high ones belonging to immigrants — is hardly foreign to France west of Alsace. The fact that unemployment vexes most of its youth population who then turn to gang cultures (which revolve around a drug known as chimique) makes Mayotte fit the pattern of mainland cities more than la France profonde.

On paper, France hopes to export its “Mission civilisatrice”. In reality, we might be looking at the Mayotte-ification of France.

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