Indian Ocean island votes to become fully French

PARIS, (Reuters) – Voters on Mayotte, a tiny island  in the Indian Ocean, chose by referendum on 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 Madagas-car, 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.

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