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France

Mayotte readies for referendum on overseas department status

Video by Lucas MENGET , Johan BODIN

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-03-29

The Indian Ocean island of Mayotte is set to vote on whether to become France’s fifth overseas department and the first with a 95% Muslim population. France 24 special correspondents Lucas Menget and Johan Bodin report from the field.

The citizens of Mayotte will vote on Sunday in a referendum on whether to become a French overseas department. Currently, the French dependency holds the hazy status of collectivité d’outre-mer (overseas collectivity). If the "Yes" vote obtains a majority, as expected, Mayotte would be on its way to becoming France's fifth overseas department and the first with a 95% Sunni Muslim population.

The referendum is the last stage of a process that began in 1974, when the island, part of the Comoros archipelago not far from the island of Madagascar, chose to remain French while neighbouring islands opted for independence, becoming the Union of the Comoros. Political instability and violence have plagued Comoros ever since, and many observers say that a "Yes" vote in Mayotte could be more about keeping a safe distance from regional violence than linking more closely with France.

Becoming an integral part of France will mean a few changes for the average Mahorais as the island brings its judicial, economic and social practices into line with French law. Traditional local court systems – which blend principles from the Koran with African and Malagasy customs – would give way to a justice system based on the French model. The practice of polygamy would be banned, and the legal age for women to marry raised from 15 to 18 years.

France's social services system would not, however, be extended to Mayotte any time soon. The French government foresees only a gradual extension of benefits over 20 years before Mayotte would be brought into line with metropolitan France. Even if Mayotte votes to change its status, it would not become a veritable overseas department until 2011.

Some imams have called for a "No" vote, but most Mahorais, religious or not, seem to have decided that the advantages of French citizenship outweigh those of maintaining local customs. All the island's main political groups are backing the "Yes" campaign, although those who are for the "No" are also making their voices heard.

The imam of Mamoudzou, the capital, for instance, argues strongly against the abolition of polygamy. "It's a catastrophe," he said. "The law of the Koran permits a man to have two or three wives. I'm polygamous. I've already let go of two or three wives in the past."

Date created : 2009-03-29

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