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France plans to terminate Mayotte’s ‘droit du sol’ citizenship benefits

France plans to terminate Mayotte’s ‘droit du sol’ citizenship benefits
French Interior and Overseas Minister Gerald Darmanin (C) walks on the Hopi site during a visit on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, on June 25, 2023. (Photo by Chafion MADI / AFP)

The decision would deprive Mayotte of its ‘birth citizenship’ status to discourage immigration from the neighbouring Comoros.

Mayotte’s status as a French department — despite being located in the Comoros archipelago off Africa’s east coast — continues to produce unique dilemmas.

In February, French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin visited Mayotte to announce a proposed amendment to the French constitution aimed at addressing irregular migration from the nearby Comorian islands. 

He said the amendment would abolish France’s droit du sol in Mayotte. This “right of the soil”, or birth citizenship — entitles anyone born on French soil to become a French citizen, regardless of parentage. The constitutional change would reduce “the attractiveness” of Mayotte for prospective immigrants, Darmanin said.

France ostensibly intends the measure to benefit the people of Mayotte (Mahorais) — many of whom have become increasingly angry at the influx of migrants from the Comoros. It’s estimated that about half of Mayotte’s population of around 350,000 is non-Mayotte, mainly Comoran.

One could regard Mayotte’s problem as a microcosm of the larger migration issue in the Mediterranean. In both cases, desperate people board unseaworthy vessels to hazard a voyage from Africa to Europe in search of a better life.

Comorians are attracted to Mayotte because its living standard is higher than in Comoros — even though Mayotte is regarded as the poorest of France’s 101 departments. The in-migration has created tensions with locals, who blame migrants for a perceived increase in crime, and competition for social services and other resources. When Darmanin visited Mayotte, roadblocks had been erected for almost three weeks by “citizen collectives” protesting against insecurity and uncontrolled immigration, according to RFI.

French nationality for their children

France’s decision to rescind the droit du sol was motivated by the belief that some Comorians migrate to Mayotte to give birth there, thereby obtaining French nationality for their children, which entitles them to stay there.

This measure could be considered a part of Operation Wuambushu, which the Mayotte authorities — effectively France — launched almost a year ago. The operation cleared irregular migrants from Mayotte’s slums and shipped them about 70km to the nearest Comorian island of Anjouan. The project stalled when the Comorian government refused to accept the deportees.

‘Discriminatory and racist’

The decision to abolish droit du sol has provoked considerable criticism. It was welcomed by those Mahorais who had complained about irregular migration. But others condemned it as discriminatory and racist as it only applied to Mayotte. 

The announcement also rekindled the lingering colonialist debate. In 1975 when the rest of the Comoros archipelago won its independence from France, Mayotte decided by referendum to remain part of France. In 2011 it was upgraded to a “department”. But Comoros still officially regards it as part of its territory, and both the African Union (AU) and United Nations regard the matter as unfinished decolonisation business. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Violence flares in Comoros following opposition claims of election rigging by President Azali Assoumani

RFI quoted Nadia Tourqui, of the Comorian non-governmental organisation Stop Wuambushu collective, as saying: “I think this confirms once again that the fundamental principles of the Republic stop at the Mayotte coral reef. Today, it is land rights that are in question. Tomorrow, we may be able to question the death penalty, the social model.

“It is clear that there will never be a solution for peace and security in Mayotte as long as we do not want to see this problem in its entirety of the sovereignty of the territory of the Comoros as recognised by the United Nations.” These calls for Mayotte’s independence seem to emanate mainly from Comoros rather than Mahorais.

Reaction in France

In France, the political reaction was mostly predictable. The left denounced the measure as a racist attack on French values while the right, being anti-immigrant, welcomed it. Boris Vallaud, head of the Socialists in the National Assembly, said they would oppose the constitution’s revision. “Birthright citizenship is not negotiable,” he said. French campaign group SOS Racisme also denounced what it called “a particularly spectacular calling into question of the principle of equality,” The Guardian reported.

Éric Ciotti, leader of the right-wing Republicans, welcomed Darmanin’s proposal — though he complained it didn’t go far enough. “What is happening in Mayotte risks hitting mainland France tomorrow,” he posted on X. “The measure should be applied across the whole of French territory,” Ciotti said. 

Microcosm of Med migration issue

One could regard Mayotte’s problem as a microcosm of the larger migration issue in the Mediterranean. In both cases, desperate people board unseaworthy vessels to hazard a voyage from Africa to Europe in search of a better life.

The difference is that Mayotte, though an integral part of France politically, is not France or Europe socio-economically. Its nominal GDP per capita in 2019 was US$10,850 — eight times larger than Comoros but only 26.4% of metropolitan France’s. France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies reports that more than 40% of Mahorais survive on less than €160 a month. 

Perhaps one could blame that on France for failing to uplift its Mayotte department. On the other hand, returning Mayotte to Comoros, as the AU and UN officially demand, wouldn’t address the problem. 

Forcefully repatriating Comorans, as tried last year, was unacceptable and unworkable. It’s also unclear whether abolishing the droit du sol would have much impact. 

“This decision will come with major costs, including putting people at risk of statelessness, creating a tiered citizenship system, deepening political divisions between Comoros and Mayotte, and costing some Mahorais their access to French citizenship,” says Institute for Security Studies Senior Research Consultant Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo. “Some Mahorais may think it will be to their benefit, but the perceived political gains will prove short-sighted and don’t outweigh the costs.”

Sophie Blanchy, Mayotte expert and Emeritus Research Director of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told ISS Today that abolishing droit du sol wouldn’t work. She said migrants didn’t travel to Mayotte to become French, but simply to have a better life than they had in Comoros. 

‘De-territorialise’ residence permits

A better way to reduce irregular migration would be to “de-territorialise” residence permits, which Blanchy said were now only valid for Mayotte. That would allow migrants to reside anywhere in France. She also criticised France for not providing adequate social services to integrate particularly migrant youth into Mayotte society to discourage delinquency. 

Ultimately, Blanchy suggests the only solution is to eradicate the socio-economic disparity between Mayotte and Comoros, since that drives migration. But doing so would require either returning Mayotte to Comoros, “which would be ethnically problematic towards the Mahorais” — or upgrading Comoros to Mayotte’s level, which seems politically impractical, not least because of Comoros’ governance problems.

Peter Fabricius, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Consultant.

First published by ISS Today.

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