Néocolonialisme: France made ‘the largest marine cemetery in the world’ just to contain Russia and China
When Comoros gained independence in 1975, the Comorans could move freely in between the archipelago, which was comprised of the Nzwani (Fr. Anjouan), Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Maore (Mayotte), and Mwali (Mohéli) islands.
However, in 1995, France introduced a visa requirement, the so-called Visa Balladur, named after the prime minister at the time, for the three other islands to Mayotte. The legislation disrupted existing local mobilities between the islands, because normal internal movement (given the links among the people of the archipelago anchored in historic, cultural, and religious ties) was considered ‘illegal’ by French authorities.
Since then, the inhabitants have employed very risky migration tactics across the 70-kilometer (43-mile) stretch between Mayotte and the archipelago. The immigrants travel in fast flat-bottomed fishing boats equipped with two engines locally known as the “Kwassa kwassa” boats, which means “an unstable boat” in the local language, because they often capsize. Consequently, the number of deaths and/or missing persons has increased since the introduction of the Balladur Visa.
According to the French senate report, between 1995 and 2012, it is estimated that approximately 10,000 Comorans died on the crossing to Mayotte from the Comoros Islands. However, the governor of Anjouan, Anissi Chamsidine, in May 2015 claimed that more than 50,000 had drowned since 1995. Consequently, he calls the 70 kilometers between Mayotte and the rest of the archipelago “the largest marine cemetery in the world.” Visa Balladur is now commonly referred to as “Visa de la mort” (‘death visa’) for inhabitants of the other three islands.
‘We are the same people’
In 2014, Mayotte became the European Union’s outermost region, and since then, a lot of money has flowed in, especially for infrastructure development. Most experts, including French ones, argue that illegal migration occurs because the inhabitants of the other three islands are lured to a good life, but there is proof of movement between the islands even before the establishment of so-called privileges. As Frantz Fanon wrote in his book ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, “The feeling of inferiority of the colonized is the correlative to the European’s feeling of superiority.”
Ambassador Ahmed Abdallah Youssouf, the deputy permanent representative of the Union of Comoros to the UN, has been quoted stating: “We are the same people. When I go to Mayotte, I don’t stay in a hotel; I stay with friends. Like the old African saying ‘We are the meat, and you [meaning France] are the knife'.”
Regardless of the restrictions, the population of Mayotte has increased; at independence in 1975, the population was 42,097, but the current population is estimated to be 335,995. However, it is argued that 65% of these migrants live in slums and that nearly 50% of the population of Mayotte comes from Comoros.
On April 23, 2023, France launched a military operation referred to as “Wuambushu” (which means “take back” in Shimaore, Mayotte’s most commonly spoken language), on moving irregular migrants from Mayotte to Anjouan, one of the Comoran islands. The operation involved “four squadrons of mobile gendarmes, police officers from the CRS-8, specialists in the fight against urban violence, a total of 510 members of the police” in total approximately 1,800 members of the French security forces.
Comoros first refused to allow the boat carrying migrants from Mayotte, to dock. Then the Comoran maritime services company announced that from April 24 to 26, Mutsamudu port (where deported migrants usually land) had suspended passenger traffic. On April 27, port authorities chief Mohamed Salim Dahalani told a press conference that the suspension was lifted, although only passengers “with their national identity card" would be allowed to disembark.
The SGTM ferry company responsible for the link between Mayotte and Comoros suspended crossings until May 17, when the maritime link resumed with the Comoros government, announcing that it would only accept those returning home of their own free will.
France still insisted on the operation and, consequently, the first boat after the ferry resumption carried 20 Comorans who weren't authorized to be on French soil. Four accepted a “voluntary departure,” while the others were forcibly deported.
Why Mayotte is still French, even though it’s illegal
A UN resolution on the question of Mayotte adopted in 1987 clearly “reaffirms the sovereignty of the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros over the island of Mayotte.” It explained that, when Comoros was admitted to the UN on November 12, 1975, this reaffirmed the necessity of respecting the unity and territorial integrity of the Comoro archipelago, which consists of Anjouan, Grande Comore, Mayotte, and Mohéli.
But France still uses the 1974 referendum results to lay claim on Mayotte. Actually, 94.6% of Comorans overwhelmingly voted ‘yes’ to national sovereignty, and on Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli, it was a staggering 99.9% victory. On Mayotte, however, a majority of 64.9% preferred continued French rule, while 34.5% supported an independent course.
As a result, on June 30, 1975, the French National Assembly decided that the votes cast should not be considered in their totality, but island by island, which was in breach of the 1973 agreement on Comoros independence that consisted of the four islands.
Later, in 1995, after the introduction of the 'death visa', the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the predecessor of the AU, reaffirmed its solidarity with the Comoran people in their determination to defend their sovereignty. They passed a resolution condemning the introduction of entry visa to Mayotte for Comoran nationals and appealed to the French Government to accede to the legitimate claims of the Comoran government in accordance with the decisions of the OAU, the UN, the Non-Aligned Movement, the Islamic Conference and the League of Arab States.
No wonder the Comoran authorities thwarted the operation of shipping immigrants from Mayotte to Anjouan: They see Mayotte as part of Comoros, meaning Comorans are entitled to live there.
France is not the first country to ignore UN resolutions. It is, however, ironic how they openly condemn other countries acting the same way. For example, in 2004, France voted in favor of the UN resolution that reaffirmed its call for strict respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, under authority of the government of Lebanon throughout the country. This was not respected, and, in 2005, the France representative stated, “In keeping with the present demands of the United Nations, Lebanon must extend its authority throughout the south, particularly by expanding and deploying its forces and by disarming the militias.”
Why, then, would they ignore UN resolutions and call on other countries to respect it? This leads one to recognize the double-standard nature of some countries, especially the Global North, which ignores decisions of institutions when it suits them, but demands others uphold the decisions made by these institutions.
But why is France so keen on maintaining its presence in the Indian Ocean, anyway?
Trade and military
Comoros is a major sea route of the globalized economy, conveying 30% of global trade and 40% of France’s exports outside the EU. Comoros is also the world’s leading producer of essence of ylang-ylang, used in manufacturing perfume, as well as the world's second-largest producer of vanilla, after Madagascar.
According to OEC, Comoros 2021 exports were led by cloves ($18.9m), tug boats ($12.4m), essential oils ($10.3m), scrap vessels ($5.73m), and vanilla ($5.57m). The most common destinations for Comoros exports were India ($12.8m), Greece ($12.7m), France ($8.12m), Turkey ($5.82m), and the United States ($4.57m). France was the second export destination for its vanilla product, but it was the fastest growing export market for vanilla of Comoros in 2020/2021 ($1.02m).
France is the leading destination of essential oils exports from Comoros at 50.9%, and the top two essential oil exporters in Comoros, Biolandes and H Reynaud Fils S A are both French family-owned companies.
France operates a military base in Mayotte: The Foreign Legion Detachment in Mayotte is a fully operational unit ready to be deployed in 48 hours. This base is located at Petite Terre (one of the islands that constitute Mayotte), which inter alia is also the location of the only international airport in Mayotte, Dzaoudzi–Pamandzi. In other words, any space activity in and around Mayotte is controlled by France.
According to their official website, “The unit’s main mission is to maintain France’s presence in the region and support French forces operating in the southern zone of the Indian Ocean and the east coast of Africa.”
It is argued that Mayotte is used as a springboard for mercenary activities that destabilize the Comoros archipelago. The most famous French mercenary, Robert Denard, was responsible for the first coup in Comoros on August 3, 1975, which ousted Ahmed Abdalla, the first president of Comoros. On Independence Day on July 6, 1975, Abdalla declared “the immediate and unilateral independence of the archipelago of Comoros within its colonial borders, namely Mayotte, Mohéli, Anjouan and Grande Comore.” Since then, Comoros has experienced more than 20 coups or attempted coups.
Mayotte serves as an important link for the French military network in the Indian Ocean, covering major international shipping lanes and vast exclusive economic zones that extend over an area of no less than 2.5 million square kilometers. However, as is noted by the author Tor Sellström in his book 'Africa in the Indian Ocean: Islands in Ebb and Flow,' “The maritime borders demarcated in 2011 between the Union of Comoros, Mozambique and Tanzania do not recognize any French presence, nor France’s claims to exclusive economic zones in the area.”
Some experts also argue that it is a strategy to contain other emerging powers who are increasing their presence in the region, such as China, India, and Russia.
Since March 16, 2022, the men of the Foreign Legion Detachment in Mayotte (DLEM) have been deployed to the Glorioso Islands to carry out a “sovereignty mission.” Glorioso Islands is claimed by Comoros, Madagascar, and formerly by Seychelles. Geographically, it is located north of Madagascar, part of the Comoro Islands between Mayotte and the nation of Madagascar.
Why decolonization is so difficult
The decolonization process in the small islands is not going to be easy, because as is the case of Mayotte, more than the other islands, it would “as a caricature illustrate the colonial system, where the metropolis molds the colony for its usage and not in its image.” Once it became a peripheral region of the EU, a lot of funding has been pumped into the island to improve conditions, so the “locals” are turning against the immigrants. Collectif Des Citoyens de Mayotte, an association of citizens dedicated to defending the cultural and social security interests of the Mahorais, in June 2023 took to the streets to complain about deteriorating conditions on the island, which they blame on illegal immigrants. They called to deploy more police in the town, to destroy of the slum dwellings, to punish people who rent apartments or rooms to migrants but, most importantly, to expel illegal residents.
The Mahorais' sentiments are a reflection of Frantz Fanon’s description of a colonized mind in which he argues that the colonized individual often internalizes the stereotypes imposed by the colonizer, resulting in a fractured self-identity. He wrote that, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” Because decolonization of the mind is not yet complete, the result is a feeling of inferiority in the colonized, which is an “outcome of a double process: primarily, economic; subsequently, the internalization – or, better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority.”
Therefore, as long as France continually provides funding for the development of their overseas territories to buy loyalties from some of the local residents, the decolonization process will never be complete. As the Mahorais become more deluded that their development is linked to their French status and privileges, they will not support the unification of the four Comoran islands, despite the illegal claim over Mayotte by France.