World News

Indian Ocean island votes to become fully French

PARIS (Reuters) - Voters on Mayotte, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, chose by referendum Sunday to become a fully fledged part of France -- a change of status that will end local traditions such as polygamy and Islamic courts.

Authorities said 95.2 percent of those who voted opted to turn Mayotte into a “departement,” strengthening ties with Paris and requiring the island to align itself with French law. Only 4.8 percent voted no. Participation was 61 percent.

Mayotte, 400 km (250 miles) east of Mozambique and 300 km west of Madagascar, is in the Comoros archipelago but voted against independence in referendums in 1974 and 1976.

Instead it stayed French, with a status allowing legal differences from the mainland.

It has a population of about 186,000 people, of whom 95 percent are Sunni Muslims. Many do not speak French and a third of the population are illegal migrants, mostly from the nearby islands which make up the independent Comoran state.

“This will reinforce the place of Mayotte in the republic, reaffirming our founding values, particularly equality between men and women, the same justice for all, and the place of the French language,” said Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.

Many islanders were keen to boost ties with mainland France, which have kept Mayotte richer and more stable than the Comoros.

“We may be black, poor and Muslim, but we have been French longer than Nice,” Abdoulatifou Aly, a legislator from Mayotte, was quoted as saying in the French weekly L’Express.

President Nicolas Sarkozy had promised a referendum during his 2007 campaign. After Sunday’s vote, the island is on track to become France’s 101st departement in 2011.

The referendum follows unrest in another French overseas departement, the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, which was rocked by a general strike for pay rises in February and March.

That suggests that becoming a departement will be no panacea for Mayotte, where unemployment runs at more than 25 percent.

The islanders stand to gain economically from the change of status, as they will become eligible for a wider range of social benefits as well as EU funds. Paris has also promised an economic development fund to boost the island’s infrastructure.

However, residents will see their tax bills increase and have to abandon certain customs to conform to French law.

For now, men can have several wives whom they can repudiate unilaterally, and women do not have equal inheritance rights. The island has a traditional Islamic justice system with “qadis” or religious scholars who act as judges.

Mayotte will have to ban polygamy, raise the minimum age of marriage to 18 from 15 years old, and give women equal rights.

The Islamic justice system will be replaced by secular courts, though qadis will retain a consultative role.