Immigration, Security and Economic Development Headline Presidential Visit to French Indian Ocean Territories

23 October 2019 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

French President Emmanuel Macron is in the middle of a four-day official visit from 22 to 25 October, to the Indian Ocean island départements of Mayotte and La Réunion. Included in Mr Macron’s itinerary is a brief, yet symbolic, stop on the island of Grande Glorieuse, which is claimed by Madagascar.

At the top of the President’s agenda are the issues of illegal immigration and unemployment. The flow of illegal immigrants continues to be of extreme concern to residents of Mayotte, whose hospitals and schools are struggling to cope with the large numbers of people sailing to the département from the independent Comoros islands.

Comment

Accompanied by the Interior and Overseas Territories Ministers, President Macron is making his first visit to the two Indian Ocean départements since his successful 2017 presidential election campaign. Arriving on Mayotte on 22 October, border security and illegal immigration (and the effects thereof) were at the top of the agenda during the 24 hours that the President spent on the island.

The presidential party viewed the implementation of Operation Shikandra, a joint civilian-military effort launched in August 2019 to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants arriving by boat from the Comoros. Shikandra has boosted the personnel numbers and interception capabilities of the police and paramilitary gendarmerie, while working more closely with local and Comorian authorities to repatriate 25,000 illegal immigrants by the end of 2019.

Although Mayotte has the lowest living standards and incomes of all 101 French départements, the employment opportunities, educational standards and living conditions available are markedly better than those available on the independent Comorian islands. According to the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), just under half of the 256,000 people living on Mayotte were born overseas. Of that figure, 95 per cent are Comorians.

Responding to the main concern of residents, Macron promised more ‘concrete measures’ to combat illegal immigration and announced €1.6 billion ($2.6 billion) worth of spending on health, water supply, education, housing, and improvements to the island’s port, airport and transport infrastructure. What many Mahorais, confronted by overflowing schools and hospitals and growing instances of delinquency that are blamed upon illegal immigrants, may want is the complete suspension of the droit du sol birthright that grants French citizenship to anyone born on French soil. Although the acquisition of citizenship has been restricted on Mayotte for the last year, the leader of the right-wing Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, has again called for the end of droit du sol in the island. Illegal immigration is the main reason for her party’s strong polling on Mayotte.

Travelling from Mayotte to Réunion on 23 October, the President’s itinerary included a detour to the northern entrance of the Mozambique Channel, with a short stop on Grande Glorieuse, the largest of the Glorieuse Islands, over which both Madagascar and Comoros have irredentist claims. Regularly patrolled by French naval vessels, garrisoned by up to 14 soldiers (on deployments of around 45 days in duration), a permanent police presence in the form of a sole gendarme, and small teams of meteorologists and scientific and ecological researchers, the remote islands are important for their high level of marine biodiversity. They are also suspected to contain subsea hydrocarbon deposits and, as French territories, the islands add to France’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the largest in the world.

The waters of the Îles Glorieuses are protected by the 43,000-square kilometre Glorieuses Marine Natural Park (Parc Naturel Marin des Glorieuses), created in February 2012. The island group constitutes an important node in the monitoring of weather conditions and for the study and protection of marine and terrestrial plant and animal life.

Even though Macron and Malagasy president Andry Rajoelina earlier this year discussed [in French] the possibility of changes to the governance of the entire Îles Éparses territory (which also includes Tromelin, Juan de Nova and Europa Islands and Bassas da India atoll), the stop on Glorieuse is, nonetheless, a highly visible demonstration of continued French sovereignty. At stake for both countries, and, particularly for the Malagasy leadership [in French], of possibly just as great a value as the supposed hydrocarbon deposits and the EEZs that the islands confer, is a sense of national pride. The fact that the two leaders appear committed to the establishment by June 2020 of a joint commission to explore the options for the Îles Éparses hints at a possible change of course from France. In the event that any such change can be perceived as a loss of French territory, Macron would be wise to expect populist politicians such as Ms Le Pen to seize upon it for political gain. In Madagascar, the importance of the issue to the country’s 25.6 million citizens is questionable. In a country in which many are regularly confronted by such concerns as corruption, poverty, health issues and environmental damage, the sovereignty of some small, uninhabited islands that, during the colonial era, had previously been administered from their country, would seem to be a less-than-pressing issue.

The remainder of Macron’s time in the Indian Ocean region will be spent on La Réunion, where the focus will shift from border security to the economy. After a spate of strikes, residents there will be hoping for initiatives that reduce unemployment and increase economic development on an island that has an official unemployment rate of 24.3%, as compared to the national rate (excluding Mayotte) of 9.1%. As on Mayotte, the President may have a hard time convincing everyone that he brings the answers to their territory’s problems, but residents can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that the President is at least monitoring their concerns first-hand.

 

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