French migration move fails to quell Mayotte protests

Women chat near a roadblock set up by residents of surrounding villages to protest against living conditions and insecurity on the island of Mayotte, on February 13, 2024. Picture: JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

Women chat near a roadblock set up by residents of surrounding villages to protest against living conditions and insecurity on the island of Mayotte, on February 13, 2024. Picture: JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

Published Feb 14, 2024


A French concession over citizenship has failed to calm anger on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte where protesters demanding better security are vowing to keep up the pressure.

Mayotte has been struggling with social unrest and a crippling migration crisis, linked to the arrival in the French overseas territory of thousands fleeing poverty and corruption in the neighbouring Comoros Islands.

The influx has caused major tensions, with many Mayotte locals complaining about crime and poverty and demanding better police protection for their homes and businesses, which are often targets of gang violence.

After weeks of protests, exacerbated by a months-long water crisis, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced at the weekend that the government would revoke birthplace citizenship on Mayotte.

Mayotte, which lies northwest of Madagascar, is the poorest French department, even if its French infrastructure and welfare are attractive for Comorans.

Part of the Comoros archipelago, Mayotte voted to remain part of France in 1974, when the other islands sought independence, becoming the Comoros Islands.

More than 40 percent of Mayotte islanders survive on less than 160 euros (around $170) per month, according to the French statistics institute INSEE. Nearly half of island residents do not have French nationality.

Darmanin's announcement, which caused an uproar from opposition politicians on the French mainland, made little impact in Mayotte, where protesters say the measure would do little to alleviate their immediate grievances.

Since January 22, transport has been at a near-standstill as citizens' collectives maintain roadblocks all over the 375-square-kilometre (145-square-mile) archipelago.

"We're not lifting the roadblocks, not tomorrow, and not this week," said Salama Faradji, a protest leader in Tsararano, a village in central Mayotte that has been the scene of much gang violence.

"We need answers that will end this migration plague and this insecurity," she said. "We're not going to stop, we're going to see this through."

A sign on one roadblock says that only police, firefighters and health workers can pass.

- 'Going out too dangerous' -

Wearing black T-shirts with the logo of their movement Forces Vives ("Dynamic Forces"), protesters have a nail-studded plank ready to rip up the tyres of any car that defies their ban.

The protesters say what they want most is for the French government to abolish a rule that restricts foreigners with a long-term visa from travelling anywhere in France outside Mayotte, effectively forcing them to stay on the island.

"More than anything we want the end of the territory-bound visa," said Faradji.

Darmanin has promised to meet that demand, but Mayotte's demonstrators said they wanted a written assurance.

"In Mayotte, we shout, we scream, we cry and we go on strike, but at the end of the day we always get swindled," said a 28-year-old construction worker who calls himself "Corporal".

In the meantime, "going out is too dangerous after dark", he said. "We don't have much of a life."

Rachma, a nurse, said she was disappointed by what she called Darmanin's "silence on the insecurity question".

"Corporal" said he had been taking part in nightly patrols to keep a lid on youth violence in the poverty-stricken village.

"We talk with them, and ask them what they're up to," he said. "Sometimes we go see the parents and show them how their kids loiter at night."

The nightly patrols kept the violence under control for a while, but then it flared up again.

A woman who gave only her first name, Sinina, and who has been helping organise roadblocks, said she remembered similar crises in 2011 and 2018 that she said changed nothing for the island.

"All we want is to live in dignity," she said.

Will things improve? "I've given up hope," she said.

The Comoros meanwhile took a swipe at Paris's plans to curb migration by limiting citizenship rights.

"We are entitled to wonder if the stated desire to abolish birthplace rights in Mayotte would not, finally, be the beginning of a fresh questioning of the so-called belonging of the island of Mayotte to France," the Comoran foreign ministry said late Tuesday.