Residents of the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte have voted overwhelmingly to become France's 101st department, early results indicate. FRANCE 24 special correspondents Lucas Menget and Johan Bodin report from the field.
The citizens of Mayotte are voting 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 (out of 101 French departments in total) and the first with a 95% Muslim population.
By midday, 26.4% of the population had cast their ballot. “This is a higher turnout compared to previous polls. People have come out to vote despite the crushing hot weather,” said Lucas Menget, FRANCE 24’s special correspondent in Mayotte.
“For several decades, France has promised the Mahorais that the territory could become a French department if they wanted,” added Menget. “President Nicolas Sarkozy made a campaign promise to allow a referendum on the issue”.
Sarkozy promised during his 2007 presidential campaign to allow the people of Mayotte to decide their status.
The referendum is the last stage of a process that began in 1974, when the island, part of a small archipelago not far from the island of Madagascar, chose to remain French while neighbouring islands opted for independence, becoming the Comoros islands. Political instability and violence have plagued the 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 island today has a traditional Islamic justice system with "qadis" or religious scholars who act as judges. The practice of polygamy would be banned, equal rights for women would be guaranteed 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 anytime 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.
The islanders do stand to gain economically from the change of status, as they would eventually become eligible for social benefits as well as EU funds. Paris has also promised an economic development fund to boost the island's infrastructure.
However, islanders would see their tax bills increase on an island where unemployment runs at more than 25 percent.
Mayotte, 400 km (250 miles) east of Mozambique and 300 km west of Madagascar, has a population of about 186,000 people.
Many islanders do not speak French, and a third of the population are illegal migrants, mostly from Comoros.
Date created : 2009-03-29