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French minister arrives in Mayotte as rage grips tropical island

@AnnickGirardin (Twitter)| Annick Girardin, France’s overseas territory minister, meets protesters in Mayotte, March 12, 2018.

Annick Girardin, France’s overseas territory minister, arrived in Mayotte Monday following weeks of protests across the Indian Ocean archipelago. But few believe Girardin can solve the chronic problems confronting Mayotte’s residents.

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Rubber tyres and tree trunks block roads in these tiny Indian Ocean islands, traffic slows to a crawl and protestors have been taking to the streets over the past three weeks in the French territory of Mayotte.

Situated in the Gulf of Mozambique, between Madagascar and the coast of southeastern Africa, Mayotte has sun, sands and is ringed by a coral reef rich in marine life, all of which makes for a tropical paradise tourist destination.

But it has also turned into a destination for desperate migrants from Comoros, an archipelago nation that declared independence from France in 1975. Mayotte was the only one of the four main Comoros Islands that voted to remain part of France. In 2011, Mayotte became an overseas French department following a 2009 referendum, which made the tiny sliver of terrain into the 101st French administrative department and the first with a Muslim majority.

Mayotte’s status as a French overseas department -- and a member of the EU’s Outermost Regions -- has incited a massive influx of migrants arriving from Comoros on dilapidated kwassa-kwassa fishing boats, flooding local schools and hospitals, stretching resources, and spreading discontent across the territory.

Today, only 45 percent of Mahorans -- as the people of Mayotte are called -- were born in Mayotte. About 70 percent of babies born in the largest city of Mamoudzou were born to migrant women without immigration papers, according to a 2017 study by INSEE (Institut national de la statisque et des études économiques).

Mahorans these days say they have plenty to be upset about: violence is increasing, illegal immigration rates continue to rise, as does a pervasive sense that Paris is paying scant regard to this overseas French territory. An insensitive joke about the kwasa-kwasa by French President Emmanuel Macron that was caught on camera last year has added to the sense of disaffection.

On February 20, trade unions and civil society groups issued a call for a general strike that has since effectively shut down Mayotte.

“Clearly, we can say that the movement is not running out of steam, we are in the middle of the rainy season and despite the storms, despite the heavy rains, Mahorans are still mobilised," Cyril Castelliti, a journalist who has been covering the protests, told FRANCE 24 last week.

Engaging with protesters at a roadblock

With Mahorans showing no signs of winding down their protest campaign, Girardin, the minister in charge of France’s overseas territories, arrived in Mayotte Monday on a mission aimed at starting a dialogue between citizens and the local government, according to a ministry communique.

Video footage posted on her Twitter account, showed Girardin seated on the grass at a roadblock in the island of Petit-Terre. “I am here to discuss land security measures and measures to fight immigration with you," she told protesters. Girardin later held an open meeting with elected representatives, trade unionists, and civil society members at Mamoudzou’s central Place de la République.

Shortly before her arrival, organisers of the general strike blasted Girardin's “ignorance of the territory", and demanded a visit from "someone who can engage the government", such as the head of state, prime minister or interior minister.

Police don’t bring peace

Girardin’s arrival in Mayotte coincided with the opening of local schools after the spring break. But many schoolchildren stayed away from class Monday with parents worried about an increasing spate of violent incidents inside and near schools.

These incidents have sparked work stoppages by high school teachers and school bus drivers, whose vehicles have been regularly stoned.

In an attempt to address the deteriorating law and order situation, French officials posted extra police officers in Mayotte last week. Demonstrators however have vowed to continue their strike until they see their demands being met.

"It's not the police that will bring peace to Mayotte," fumed Rivo Rakotondravelo, a trade union activist, in an interview with FRANCE 24 before Girardin’s arrival.

"The quality of life must improve, social equality does not exist here,” said Rakotondravelo, noting that a 2013 study found that 500 classes had been cancelled, classrooms were routinely overcrowded even as classes were held on a rotating basis, and about 80 percent of schools lacked health and safety approvals.

Illegal immigration tops the agenda

The islands have witnessed periodic protests over rising prices due to the cost of importing goods from mainland France as well as the lack of infrastructure.

But for most native Mahorans, illegal immigration remains the most pressing issue, one that has seen growing support for Marine LePen’s far-right National Front party in the predominantly non-white, Muslim-majority region.

During a visit to Mayotte last week, Laurent Wauquiez, head of the centre-right Les Républicains party, called for a reform of the law granting French nationality to children born on French soil.

"The question of immigration must obviously be taken into account, it is a problem. It’s incongruous that Mayotte alone has to deal with this problem,” said Rakotondravelo. “If this problem is to be tackled, it is also necessary to find solutions to manage and improve the reception of these people.”

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