Breakthrough to end protests on French island Mayotte

Cécile AZZARO, Ornella LAMBERTI
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Protesters gathered in Mamoutzou, on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, March 13, 2018, against insecurity and immigration. The French government is trying to end weeks of unrest with promises of action against the influx from neighbouring African islands that has strained public services

Protesters gathered in Mamoutzou, on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, March 13, 2018, against insecurity and immigration. The French government is trying to end weeks of unrest with promises of action against the influx from neighbouring African islands that has strained public services

The French government hoped Wednesday to have brokered an end to a month of protests on its Indian Ocean island territory of Mayotte, where locals have been blocking streets to protest living standards and security problems.

Mayotte, an island of 250,000 people that is part of the Comoros archipelago of islands off southeast Africa, has been in turmoil since mid-February.

Violent clashes between rival gangs at a school sparked anger over spiralling crime which many residents blame on migrants from non-French Comoran islands.

Five hours of negotiations late on Tuesday between protest leaders and France's minister for overseas territories, Annick Girardin, appeared to have provided a breakthrough.

"A plan to tackle security problems has been confirmed," said Fatihou Ibrahime, a spokesman for the protest movement, adding that there had been "real progress".

At a major rally in the main town of Mamoudzou on Wednesday, the protest leaders are set to propose lifting road blocks that have paralysed the island.

- Migration pressure -

The island, which voted to become an integral part of France in 2009, has been plagued by strikes, demonstrations and road blocks aimed at drawing the attention of the government in Paris to the situation.

Per capita economic output on the island is a quarter of that on the French mainland and the unemployment rate of 25.9 percent is over double that in France as a whole.

Ahead of her visit, Girardin promised to tackle the phenomenon of pregnant women arriving by boat from nearby islands to give birth on French soil, as a way of obtaining French and EU citizenship for their child.

Around 70 percent of the 10,000 babies born every year in the maternity hospital in Mamoudzou are born to illegal migrants, mainly from the nearby Comoran islands of Anjouan, Moheli and Grande Comore, according to official statistics.

Girardin has suggested giving the hospital special "extra-territorial" status so that children born there do not automatically qualify for citizenship by birth.

The Comoros, one of the world's poorest countries, was a French colony until 1975 when it declared independence. But Mayotte opted to remain part of France.

The French island is not the only overseas territory that has become a magnet for migrants while itself trying to play catch-up with mainland France on health, housing and education.

French Guiana, situated between Brazil and Suriname in South America, has experienced a surge of arrivals from Haiti and neighbouring countries in recent years that has also put pressure on under-resourced hospitals and schools.

That led to months-long protests ahead of France's presidential election last year, which prompted promises of extra security forces and funding.