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The Mysterious Allure of Being French

5 October 2020

On Sunday New Caledonia voted to remain French by a majority of 53.3% to 46.%. That’s hardly an overwhelming majority, but it was the second referendum in two years to reject independence in the South Pacific archipelago, so we may take it as a done deal.

The odd thing about that outcome is that almost three-quarters of the islands’ 270,000 people are not of European descent. They are ‘Kanaks’ (descended from the original Melanesian inhabitants), other Pacific islanders, or Asians, but a substantial proportion of them want to remain citizens of a European country more than 16,000 km away.

Yet it’s not unique. While the other powers of Western Europe gave all their colonies independence more than a generation ago, France stays on not only in the South Pacific (New Caledonia and French Polynesia) but in Africa (Mayotte and Réunion), in the Caribbean (Martinique and Guadeloupe) and in South America (French Guiana).

Moreover, it does so with the approval of the local inhabitants, although nowhere are ethnic French people a majority. What is the mysterious allure of being French that persuades so many non-European people to vote in favour of living in ‘overseas departments’ of France itself?

A large part of the allure is spelled M-O-N-E-Y. If you live in an overseas department of France, then you get a good, free education and a French level of public and social services. Per capita income in New Caledonia is ten times that in other nearby island nations like Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, and the Solomon Islands.

Mauritius and Réunion are almost identical large islands off the east coast of Madagascar. They even both speak French, but Mauritius fell into British hands in 1810 and got its independence in 1968, whereas Réunion stayed under French rule and is now a overseas department of France. Per capita GDP in Mauritius is $11,203 a year, in Réunion $25,900.

It’s the same in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe and Martinique, each with around 400,000 people, have GDPs per capita of $25-27,000; the two nearest ex-British islands, Dominica and St. Lucia, are in the $7-10,000 range. And French Guiana has the highest per capita income in all of South America (though that is largely due to the fact that it hosts the European Union’s main spaceport).

Most startling of all is the Comoro Islands, north of Madagascar. Three of the four main islands voted for independence in a 1974 referendum. The fourth island, Mayotte, voted to stay with France then, and chose full ‘overseas department’ status by a 95.5% majority in another referendum in 2009.

The proudly independent ‘Union of the Comoros’, one million people strong, has a GDP per capita of $1,400. Mayotte’s is ten times as high, and half of its quarter-million people are illegal immigrants from the other islands.

The African Union still insists that Mayotte’s status is illegal, because it didn’t decolonise with the other islands, but the Mahorais aren’t interested, especially since the Union of the Comoros is also the world capital of military coups. They also don’t seem to mind that traditional Islamic law is now being replaced by the French civil code (or at least the female half of the population doesn’t).

None of these places is an earthly paradise, and none enjoys as high a living standard as France itself. There were violent independence movements in several of them in the 1970s, before France hit on the strategy of showering them with economic benefits.

It makes perfectly good sense for a New Caledonian or a Réunionnais to trade in the doubtful blessings of impoverished small-state nationhood for the citizenship of a First-World country and access to all its benefits, without even having to leave home.

And if you do want to leave home, you can move to France (as many do) or anywhere else in the European Union, for that matter. The real puzzle is: what’s in it for the French?

It’s certainly not economic gain: the subsidies France pays far outweigh any profits it might get from privileged access to the limited resources of these small territories. The benefits for France are almost all psychological.

Most other European empires were run as pragmatic business ventures. If the colonies are not turning a profit any more, perhaps because they are getting too expensive to control, then walk away and leave them to their own devices.

France had a bigger emotional investment in empire, perhaps because it was in steady decline from being the greatest European power in the 18th century to a much humbler status today. It could be pragmatic if necessary (as when it gave all its mainland African colonies independence in 1960), but it’s willing to pay for the privilege of having small bits of France in other continents.

Who could criticise the residents of those places for taking advantage of this foible?
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“Mauritius…$25,900″; and “None…benefits”)

Mayotte Gives Up On Africa

24 March 2009

Mayotte Gives Up On Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

On Sunday (29 March), the 180,00 people of the island of Mayotte will decide whether they would like to become the 101st department of France. They live on a tropical island in the Indian Ocean, they are almost all Sunni Muslims, and their cultural heritage is overwhelmingly African and Arab. They could become independent just by ticking the right box — but they will vote instead to become fully, irrevocably French. Why?

Sure, it’s the money. Per capita income on Mayotte is $2,600, compared to $1,142 in the other Comoro islands (the other three islands of the group declared independence from France in 1975), and even less in Madagascar, Mayotte’s giant neighbour on the other side. But why does being ruled by France make Mayotte richer?

There hasn’t been much by the way of subsidies from France over the years, and even after Mayotte becomes a full-fledged department the money is not going to flood in. The population will have to give up local customs like Islamic courts, polygamy and child marriages right away to conform to the French legal code, but they will only gradually gain access to French social benefits over the next twenty-five years.

Nor has Mayotte a very advanced economy. Most of the population works in agriculture, and there’s no big export crop. Somehow or other, just making sure that all the kids are in school, and that everybody has enough to eat, and that there is a reasonable degree of public security and official honesty, produces a much better economic outcome. Is that enough to make a large majority of them decide to be French? Apparently so.

This is not about how wonderful France is. It’s about how awful Africa is for most of the people who live there. So awful that most other people in the continent would, like the citizens of Mayotte, vote to be French if they were given the choice. Or Hungarian or South Korean, for that matter.

You’re not supposed to say this, but it’s the most obvious thing about Africa. There are oases of hope here and there — most other Africans would also vote to join South Africa, for example — but most countries in the continent are broken. Consider what the people of Mayotte see when they look at their neighbours.

South of them is Madagascar, where the latest coup took place just last week. It has been lucky as African countries go: no civil wars, and none of its dictators were monsters. But are its people any better off economically than they were when Madagascar got its independence from France 49 years ago? Not much.

Madagascar’s economy has grown since independence, but average income barely kept up with population growth for the first forty years.

There was then a twenty percent rise in average income over the past decade, but the present and prospective political upheavals will probably cancel that out. As for democracy, it comes and it goes, but mostly it’s gone.

Mayotte’s other neighbour, the Union of the Comoros, has had TWENTY military coups in its thirty-four years of independence, some of them carried out by foreign mercenaries (mostly French) who were hired by the various local rivals for power. Two of the three islands even seceded in

1997 in an attempt to put themselves back under French rule, but France refused to take them on and the revolts were bloodily suppressed.

Population growth is high, and per capita income has been falling for decades.

On the whole, you would not choose to be born in the Union of the Comoros. Indeed, almost one-third of Mayotte’s population is made up of people from the other islands who have moved there to place themselves back under colonial oppression.

So now Mayotte will become an integral part of France, and in another generation or two it’s likely that most people there will speak nothing but French. (Only slightly over one-third of the parents of school-age children are fluent in French, but almost all of the 10 to 14-year-olds are.) Living standards on Mayotte will probably never match those of metropolitan France, but they will draw further and further ahead of the rest of the neighbourhood.

Becoming an overseas department of France is not a “happy ever after” ending. Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, other islands with the same status that Mayotte seeks, have all seen major social unrest in recent months, mainly because of the huge income differences between local white minorities and the rest of the population. But most Africans would still choose these problems over those that they have now.

There will be a great outburst of indignation and much anti-imperialist bluster by the representatives of Africa’s ruling elites after Mayotte’s voters make their choice. But not one of those privileged people would be willing to live as an ordinary citizen of the Union of the Comoros, which is the only practical alternative available to the residents of Mayotte. And most of their own fellow-citizens at home would make the same choice as the voters of Mayotte if it were offered to them.

You can discuss it and analyse it as much as you like. You can hypothesize causes and postulate solutions. But half a century after the first great wave of decolonisation gave most Africans back their independence, this is the bitter truth about the continent.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“So now…have now”)