The 1-4 February visit to Mayotte by Christelle Dubos, who holds the position of Secretary of State to the Minister of Solidarity and Health, is the latest call on the Indian Ocean département by high-ranking officials in the Macron Government, as it works to address the economic and social challenges confronting the island territory.
The visit by Ms Dubos is part of the French Government’s National Strategy for the Prevention and Reduction of Poverty (Stratégie nationale de prévention et de lutte contre la pauvreté), unveiled by President Emmanuel Macron on 13 September 2018. In her role as Secretary of State, Ms Dubos is charged with implementing, on behalf of the Health Minister, the Macron Government’s anti-poverty and family welfare policies and improving healthcare access for the least well-off.
Prior to her four-day stint on Mayotte, Ms Dubos spent two days on La Réunion, which is one of the ten territories chosen as locations for the initial implementation of the Strategy, due to their high incidence of poverty. During her time in the two départements, Ms Dubos attended the regional anti-poverty conferences on each island. Such stakeholder discussions are a key component of the government’s poverty reduction strategy.
The strategy is intended to function as a whole-of-government approach, bringing together the central and département governments in partnership with organisations such as the Red Cross and children’s welfare group Mlézi Maoré, that are working on the ground on Mayotte. Shortly after her arrival, Ms Dubos met with local residents in the shantytown district of Kawéni, before announcing that Paris had allocated €1.9 million ($3.1 million) to Mayotte for the financial period 2019-2022. The bulk of that sum is to be distributed to local anti-poverty groups, such as those mentioned above.
In the context of Mayotte, the sectors that have been identified as priorities for job creation are nursing (large numbers of expectant mothers make the often dangerous sea crossing from the islands of the independent Union of the Comoros to give birth on Mayotte) and construction. The government has the ambition of replacing the tin shacks in such areas as Kawéni, by building 500 homes per year for the next ten years. The realisation of such goals will require improved education and skills training, not to mention the funding to go along with it.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimated in its 2018 report ‘A Broken Social Elevator? How to Promote Social Mobility’, that it takes six generations for a person born in France to escape the cycle of intergenerational poverty (as opposed to an OECD average of five generations). Given that that figure relates to France on the national level, on Mayotte we can only expect that period to be prolonged; hence the focus of the Macron Government’s poverty reduction efforts on addressing the circumstances of disadvantaged children and young people. On Mayotte, that not only includes extending the requirement to remain at school or in training from the age of 16 to 18 (from September 2020), but also enabling children to travel to and from school safely and, in many areas, the provision of breakfasts at schools.
In the case of Mayotte, the need to address poverty is thus both compelling and acute. Nationally, ‘France has 8.8m people living in poverty, equivalent to 14 per cent of the population, of whom one-third are children’, reports the Financial Times, citing INSEE, the French national statistics agency. On Mayotte, those dismal figures become even worse.
The poorest of all the 101 French départements, Mayotte consistently records the highest levels of unemployment and living costs, together with the greatest number of people living below the poverty line and the lowest average incomes. According to local Red Cross director Michel Henry, 84 per cent of the population of Mayotte lives below the poverty line. Unfortunately for local residents, the competition for employment, education and medical care is often exacerbated by the high rate of illegal immigration from the neighbouring independent Comoros, where opportunities and living standards are considerably lower than those available on Mayotte.
In the long term, the challenge for Mayotte will be that, as the improved living standards that ought to result from the government’s anti-poverty are hopefully realised, the disparity between the conditions on Mayotte and those in the Comoros is likely to grow, too, despite the best efforts of the Comorian and French Governments. Under such circumstances, the attractiveness of Mayotte to illegal immigrants will only increase, with the island’s needs very likely to exceed the capacity of the government’s efforts.