Bowermasters Adventures — Becoming a French state

Dozens of small tri-colored French flags hang from the awning of the bar 5/5 on Mamoudzou’s seafront. A Malagasy polka/country/blues/rock band plays to a mixed crowd of blacks and whites. Two weeks ago a historic vote turned the street out front into a riot of celebration when 95.5 percent of voters on this tiny island of 186,000 people voted to officially become French citizens.

Though Mayotte is closer to Mombassa than Paris, its traditional dish is manioc eaten with boiled fish, is 98 percent Muslim and known for cultivating the sweet-smelling essence ylang ylang (which made the perfumery Guerlain famous) it is now the 101st department – or state — of France.

A celebratory hangover lingers. I talk with a pair of women sitting in the back of the bar, taking advantage of a cool breeze blowing off the nighttime sea. They are all for the changes French citizenship will bring once the deal is formally signed in 2011: Social security benefits (though not for 25 years!), a new educational system, Islamic judges traded in for French ones and even the income taxes they will eventually have to pay. But they tell me they are also for a couple things the vote will outlaw: Polygamy and child marriages. “Those are from another time,” says one, her face masked by a traditional beige-colored paste of ground coral and sandalwood meant to keep the sun away, skin younger.

That its overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population is set to become full-fledged French citizens seems a bit odd to me. Having lived in France for nearly a decade I have seen how the French in France often treat Muslims living there, rewarding them with a high rate of joblessness, apartments in the poorest banlieues and even traditional headscarves banned from schools.

Not everyone is happy about the outcome of the vote. According to the U.K’s Guardian, in an in-depth pre-election report, the African Union and the Comoros administration – which sees Mayotte as an “occupied” territory” – denounced the referendum. There are economic disparities too: About a third of Mayotte’s residents are undocumented workers who arrived illegally from the three other Comoros islands; while Mayotte’s GNP is only a third of that of another French Indian Ocean island Reunion, it is nine times that of the neighboring Comoros.

During a walk through the streets of the capital city and talks with some of its savvier business people it becomes clear the vote was a power play masked by populist vote: Mayotte is a strategic asset in a much broader international power play as France tries to counter Iran’s growing influence on the Muslim islands off Africa’s east coast.

France is already struggling to deal with a wave of illegal immigrants from the other three impoverished Comoros islands, which risk their lives to reach Mayotte by boat despite the growing number of shipwrecks and drownings. Expectant mothers hope to give birth here and young people hope for jobs or a chance to get to mainland France and Europe. The European commission has criticized the dire conditions in Mayotte’s French-run immigrant detention centers.

But France is concerned with the strategic importance of bringing Mayetta into its fold. Last month’s visit to the Comoros by Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad highlighted the Islamic republic’s growing presence on the three islands, building schools and mosques and tightening ties with the current Comoros president, Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, who studied in Iran.

Standing at the 5/5 bar I ask the bartender if he’s worried about the influence of Ahmadinejad and his Iranian bosses. He laughs. “I would love for them to come here and live for a few months, to try an island life. Maybe that would make them see the world in a different light.”

Read more from Jon at Bowermaster’s Adventures.