Mayotte: A Site of French PostColonial Republicanism



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Map of Mayotte. / The Funambulist (2016)

There are the dead and there are the dead.
Ours are more easily forgotten.

Because they were born on a forgotten shore of the world.
The world of the powerful has no pity for the People of the Dhow (…) How can I be a foreigner or an illegal in the country of my ancestors?”(From the poem by Comorian writer Soeuf Elbadawi, “Un dhikri pour nos morts,” 2013.)


In the global machinery of imperialist control, islands served as stopovers for commercial ships, penal colonies, or military bases. In the current global machinery of control, they have become sites of detention camps in our world of walls, closed borders, controlled migration, and deals between States over the number of refugees they are allowed to expel, accept, or harass. They can be found in the Mediterranean, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. The islands of the Mediterranean have embodied this new role, because they are the last spaces of containment to protect Fortress Europe. There is however another island, further away from the European gaze, that has also become a space of containment, in the deployment of European police control: Mayotte, a small “French” island, of the Comoros archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Hundreds of drowned bodies have washed up on its shores in recent years. A reader unfamiliar with the coloniality of the French Republic may be surprised by the expression “French island.” Did not the French colonial empire end in 1962 with the independence of Algeria?

But this would mask the reconfiguration of the Republic’s space and its hold on territories in the Caribbean, South America, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. The French Republic inherited these territories from its first colonial empire (slave colonies set up in the 17th century (Guadeloupe, Guiana, Martinique, Reunion) and the Second Empire (the Pacific Territories, New Caledonia, Mayotte). In 1962, the “invention of decolonization,” as historian Todd Shepard has called that moment, led many to believe that the Republic was done with coloniality. Yet, studying its role in various strategies of control and surveillance of the French State brings to light the intersection between race and migration, the modes of fabrication of what lives matter, and the militarization of migration control. With the deployment of militarized and racialized policing in its overseas territories, which makes France the second world maritime power and expands its national surface area, the French State is contributing to the global network of surveillance and punishment. These punitive policies remain ignored because French postcoloniality is more often than not analyzed from within the “Hexagon,” or European France. The island of Mayotte, though, displays ways in which race informs the practices of the French Republic.

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(1&2) Photographs of Mamoudzou, Mayotte by Rasande Tyskar (2015).
(3) French Legislative Council (Conseil Général) of Mayotte. / Photograph by David Stanley (2013)
(4) Mamoudzou City Hall on Grande Terre, Mayotte. / Photograph by David Stanley (2013)

In 2011, Mayotte became the 101st French department. Situated in the Mozambique Channel, the island, populated by Malagasy and Bantu, was a sultanate. Bought by the French in 1841, it became a sugar colony and the administrative center of the Comoros archipelago. Reunion settlers joined French plantation owners to colonize and exploit the island. Uprisings were crushed, their leaders exiled. When, in the 1960s, the demand for independence of the Comoros started to gain ground, the ruling class, encouraged by the French government, asked to remain French. Michel Debré and Pierre Messmer, both French ministers and partisans of the French colonial empire, reminded President De Gaulle of the geopolitical importance of the island — 80% of oil tankers go through the Mozambique Channel and it represented a perfect place for surveillance — and in 1961, Jacques Foccart, De Gaulle’s so-called “Monsieur Afrique,” warned that if Madagascar had control of the archipelago, French interests would be threatened. He was also considering making the Comoros islands sites for nuclear tests. In 1975, when the Comoros became independent, a referendum was organized for the inhabitants of Mayotte, asking them if they wished to remain French. The reasons for which the majority of the population said yes have been analyzed: pressure by the ruling class, historical rivalries between islands, and fear of poverty.

By transforming Mayotte into a department, the French State made resident Comorians into “migrants” in one of their own islands, and instituted a series of measures to criminalize their presence. Mayotte inevitably became a point of attraction for the inhabitants of the other Comoros islands fleeing poverty, many of them having families in Mayotte. Kwasa kwasa, as the small boats carrying the migrants are called, started to cross the ocean. People started to drown. The French State opened detention camps and organized the expulsion of Comorians, and Mayotte became the department with the highest number of persons expelled in the entire French Republic. In 2011, 21,762 people, among them 5,369 minors, were expelled from Mayotte, and in 2014, 20,000 people. According to a 2012 report by French senators, 7,000 to 10,000 people have died since 1995 in the lagoons of the Indian Ocean island. According to statistics, one third of the population of Mayotte is “illegal.”

This has created a situation full of tensions and conflicts: both between Maores and inhabitants of the other Comoros Islands, and between the French administration and the local population. Indeed, it must be said that in French overseas territories, the dividing line between those allowed to enter and those who are not, between those who matter and those who do not, is clearly drawn. In Mayotte, on the one hand, Comorians are harassed and expelled; on the other hand, French civil servants are invited to fill up posts created by the island’s new status in hospitals, schools, the administration, the police, and the army. They receive — as do all civil servants going to work in French overseas territories — higher salaries than in France and other financial compensations, pay less taxes, and benefit from the higher social and cultural status directly linked with the legacy of white colonial privilege. The argument is that life is more expensive than in France, yet local civil servants occupying the same positions do not to receive similar salaries, and minimum wage and social benefits are lower than in France and other overseas territories. In 2015, a general strike was launched for the application of equal rights, but was interrupted by the state of emergency; in 2016, there was another general strike for equal rights. Maores are learning that being integrated into the French postcolonial republic does not mean the application of equality.

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(left) French police officers (gendarmes mobiles) arresting a pacifist demonstrator in Mamoudzou in November 2011. / Photograph by Lebelot. (right) French soldiers (Légion étrangère) asigned to Mayotte, in a training exercise. / Photograph by Davric (2007)

Specific articles are added to laws when applied to French overseas territories. In Mayotte, the conditions for giving an entry visa are tougher, and whereas in the Hexagon migrant families may be allowed to leave detention camps, the measure does not apply to Mayotte. In violation of their rights, minors are either locked into detention camps or expelled; health and education are affected by the policies of control.

The criminalization of the Comorians as unwanted migrants has led to rampant xenophobia. In January 2016, groups of Maores organized themselves into an armed militia and attacked the homes of migrants, burning them and beating their occupants. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed. An NGO opened a safe space in the open, but many Comorians did not want to be stuck there. In many cases, the police did not intervene to protect the Comorians; in fact, French gendarmes proceeded to expel migrants from their homes. The declaration by the French officials was shameful, asking for restraint, whereas the situation was their responsibility, and Seymour Morsy, the Prefect declared that the State would pursue its anti-migrant mission with more vigor. He refused to build more housing and announced that there would be more policing, more controls, as well as more drones and more radar.

The status of “department” has meant pacification with some modernization, integration with militarization, assimilation with marginalization or destruction of local legal forms, criminality and unemployment, inequalities and increased dependency, a dysfunctional system of education where the French language is forcibly imposed, a foreclosure of the colonial past, and the requirement that Islam submit to French “laïcité” (secularism). The historical links of the Comoros to East Africa and Madagascar — cultural, religious, social, economic — are ignored.

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A billboard in Moroni, Comoros reads “Mayotte is Comorian and will remain so forever.” / Photograph by David Stanley (2013)

To resist these strategies, artists, writers, and activists in Mayotte are analyzing the form of republican postcoloniality that is being exercised. Among the figures of resistance that they are reviving is the mutoro — the Comorians who refused the colonial system of forced labor instituted to replace slavery in 1846. The singers M’toro Chamou, Saïd Ahamadi, and Dénetèm Touambona have embraced the figure of the mutoro as a Maroon, a revolutionary who is today engaged in the struggle against new forms of dispossession and colonization.

Mayotte is a contact zone in the global cartography of sites of control to facilitate capital mobility, freedom of trade, and the fabrication of racialized disposable people. It must be studied as a site in the model of a free world in which the freedom for the few rests on the immobility of the many, and as a site of resistance. People who flee war, dictatorship, poverty, desertification, floods, and droughts disturb a global order based on national sovereignty and established borders. They belong to the long history of the fabrication of precarious lives, of superfluous beings, and to the long history of the organization on the global scale of a mobile, gendered, and fragile workforce.