To Be or Not To Be... French

Distant frontiers of the EU shift as two islands voice their will

News | Agnes-Julie Martin, Christopher Anderson | May 2009

The recent downturn in the global economy has had a powerful effect on small countries and territories that depend on the West. Political developments in two of France’s oversea territorial islands, Mayotte and Guadeloupe, paint a complex picture of the effects of globalization on the fringe members of the European Union.

For some, like Guadeloupe, it has provoked a desire for more independence, for others like Mayotte, the tiny island between Mozambique and Madagascar, it has meant a push for accession. Guadeloupe hopes to free itself from its French post-colonial "shackles;" For Mayotte, it has meant the end of a decades-long struggle to become a French département, the equivalent of "state" status in the U.S.

Located in the eastern Caribbean along with its sister département Martinique, Guadeloupe is one of France’s DOM (Départements d’Outre-Mer) and legally part of the European Union. The official currency is the euro. And the signs of the French Métropole are everywhere: the Tricolore, the white arrow street signs, the boulangeries with baskets of baguettes, the Peugeuts and Renaults, the Carrefour mega-shopping centers, and even a French-style McDonald’s.

The only problem is that the costs of living are currently twice as high as in mainland France. Milk costs 44.7% more and rice double. This is because only four families control all of Guadeloupe’s imports, according to the trade union, Komité kont pwofitasyon (LKP), Creole for the "committee against profiteering."

The butterfly-shaped island known for its natural beauty is a beloved holiday-destination for the French. But the disastrous conditions led to a 44-day strike Jan. 20 through Mar. 5, described as the most significant in the island’s history, when roads, schools, gas stations and public transport were closed down and hundreds of extra police were deployed from homeland France. Even Guadeloupe’s carnival had to be canceled.

The strikes also bore a racial undertone; the ruling class – 10% of Guadeloupe’s population – are descendants of the white colonists and slave masters, while the rest are of African descent or mixed race descendents of both. Upper class Guadeloupians have been accused of monopolizing retail and construction to maintain high prices and a privileged lifestyle. With unemployment at 23%, the island is one of the EU’s poorest corners.

The LKP has demanded that the price of petrol and basic food items be lowered and the low-wage incomes be supplemented with a €200 bonus. Following the strike, the French government offered a 165-point-deal, to improve living standards.

On the other side of the world, the negative effects of dependence on France don’t seem as apparent. Mayotte’s 180,000 residents see a better future with the motherland, and the island has finally achieved a 50 year-old dream of full citizenship.

Geographically part of the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean, Mayotte’s living standards have always been higher than those of the neighboring islands, probably due to its status as a French territoire. Ever since Charles de Gaulle’s promise to support Mayotte in its fight to become a département, the Mahorans saw this as an advantage.

France spent generously to support the campaign in Mayotte and all parties on the island strongly promoted the affiliation with the former colonizer. The referendum itself had the air of a huge carnival, not unlike the one the Guadeloupians had to cancel.

The result of the Mar. 29 referendum was no big surprise: a resounding 95% "Yes" for obtaining full DOM and EU membership by 2011. The Mahorans will enjoy the full advantages of the French health care system, receive EU funds and be represented in the French parliament. This legalizes a situation they have long perceived as fact.

"We may be black, poor and Muslim, but we have been French longer than Nice," said Mahoran legislator Abdoulatifou Aly in an interview with l’Express.

There is, however, a thorn in Mayotte’s side, and that is its Sunni Muslim majority. Still ruled by Islamic Sharia law, Mahorans have agreed that elements of Sharia such as polygamy and superstitious methods like voodoo will have to be renounced before 2011. With the referendum’s result, the current legal system will be replaced by the French civil code. To most, the political advantages of membership outweigh the cultural ones.

But to give up their own identity for the benefits of "big brother France" isn’t a good idea, argues the French Communist Party (PCF) chief Jean-Louis Le Moing. Traveling to the island prior to the referendum, Le Moing warned, "Departmentalization is not a way of development," and urged more resonable development "not based on colonial grounds."

These developments in Guadeloupe and Mayotte have provided a twist in the narrative of EU membership. The post-colonial model has generally not meshed well with the structures of the EU. The gradual withdrawl of the Dutch Antilles from the Netherlands and the EU, last December’s referendum in Greenland for full independence and the Guadeloupe case imply that many fringe entities no longer benefit from EU membership.

Yet, Mayotte appears to be separating from the Comoros Islands and joining the EU as a solution to poverty. Such a move recalls the Kosovo example; and the Islamic undertone reminds Europeans of the implications of possible future membership of Turkey.

Among other things, these decisions simply show the power of a democratic majority on the international political sphere. How their futures pan out will provide new evidence of the relative benefits of EU affiliation and independence.

Other articles from this issue

  • Bumming in Style

    Stylishly redone, the hostels in Austria’s capital are repairing the negative image of the budget accommodation
    On The Town | Philipp Conrad
  • Turkey’s Own Ways

    U.S. President Barack Obama’s support of Turkish accession into the EU brings waves of uncertainty for many Europeans
    News | Nayeli Urquiza
  • Tschuschen:Power?

    A new mini-series by the ORF hopes to empower immigrants in Vienna by giving them a chance at Austria’s center stage
    News | Vera Mair
  • A Croatian Tradition

    From a small Adriatic fishing town to the streets of Vienna
    On The Town | Michael R. Weingartner, Dardis McNamee
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review May 2009