The Union of the Comoros and Mayotte
Mayotte is a French overseas department. At European level, it enjoys the status of Outermost Regions (OMR).
Mayotte is itself a small archipelago of 376 km2 made up of two main islands, Grande-Terre and Petite-Terre. The population of Mayotte is concentrated in an urban area: Mamoudzou, the capital city of the department. It is also France’s youngest population.
Q: What was Mayotte’s status before the Union of the Comoros gained independence?
A: The ties between France and Mayotte are older and closer than those with the other islands of the Comoros archipelago. Mayotte became an official French colony in June 1843. In 1846, slavery was abolished there. Forty years later, the three other islands in the archipelago, Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli, became French protectorates (with agreements in 1886 for Grande Comore, in 1887 for Anjouan, and 1892 for Mohéli). They only became colonies in 1912, 70 years after Mayotte.
From 1912 to 1946, Mayotte and the three Comorian islands were grouped with Madagascar under the Act of 25 July 1912 to form the Madagascar and Dependencies colony.
In 1946, the Comoros archipelago became a French overseas territory with its capital in Dzaoudzi, Mayotte. The Territorial Assembly of the Comoros was founded, with representatives from all four islands. The territory maintained close ties with Madagascar.
In 1958, Mayotte, Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli adopted different institutional approaches. At its 11 December 1958 session, the Territorial Assembly of the Comoros opted to maintain its status as a French overseas territory, with 25 votes for and four against. The four dissenting votes were from Mayotte, which wished to become a French overseas department. In 1968, each island set up its own institutions. From this point onwards, each island managed its own affairs through a constituency council, which voted on its own budget, tax rate and taxes.
Q: Why did Mayotte stay French after the Comoros became independent?
A: On 22 December 1974, an independence referendum was held in the Comoros. Three islands chose to become independent. In Mayotte, however, 63.8% of the population voted to remain part of the French Republic.
On 6 July 1975, the Comorian authorities unilaterally declared their independence. On 8 February 1976, France organized a second referendum to determine whether Mayotte residents wished to become part of the new Comorian State. This second referendum showed even stronger support for staying in the French Republic, with 99.4% of the population voting in favour.
Q: Has Mayotte’s desire to remain French been confirmed since then?
A: It has been reaffirmed twice:
- On 2 July 2000, 73% of Mayotte residents voted for the island to adopt a new status so it could become an “overseas departmental communi”;
- Then, in 2009, 95.2% of Mayotte residents voted for the island to become an overseas department. In 2011, Mayotte became France’s fifth overseas department, and its 101st department. In 2003, Mayotte was included in the French constitution. Since 2014, Mayotte has been one of the European Union’s outermost regions.
Q: Has France complied with international legal principles?
A: The Comoros’ independence and Mayotte’s decision to remain part of France complied with international legal principles and rules for decolonization. Mayotte was not detached from an independent State with borders recognized by the international community.
Mayotte clearly and freely refused independence at the self-determination referendum which took place on 22 December 1974.
Since the Comoros was admitted to the United Nations on 12 November 1975, France has respected the will of the Mayotte population and the “territorial integrity of the Comorian State”. This was clear in 1997 when it refused a request by the island of Anjouan to become part of France, arguing that doing so would not respect the territorial integrity of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros Islands. In 2008, France provided political and logistical support to the African Union operation seeking to restore the Comorian State’s authority in Anjouan.
Mayotte’s continued inclusion in the French Republic results from the application of a fundamental international legal principle: a people’s right to determine their own destiny, or the right to self-determination. As indicated by the International Court of Justice in its judgment of 30 June 1995 (East Timor-Portugal v. Australia), self-determination is an erga omnes right (enforceable against all), and a fundamental norm of contemporary international law enshrined in the United Nations Charter.
This principle underpinned the 1974 and 1976 self-determination referendums, which led the Mayotte population to vote to remain part of the French Republic, a desire that French authorities were duty bound to take into account.
Q: What is the framework for dialogue between France and the Union of the Comoros on Mayotte?
A: The joint statement by Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and his Comorian counterpart, Mohamed El-Amine Souef, on 6 November 2018 reflects the countries’ shared desire to:
- step up dialogue;
- make reciprocal decisions and commitments to fight uncontrolled population movements and human trafficking;
- tackle the root causes of migration, which affects the region’s economic and social equilibrium, through an ambitious development programme.
These recommendations were included in a framework document jointly written with Mayotte elected officials, which was signed between Mayotte and France on 22 July 2019. It was supported by a development plan which provides for the implementation over three years of €150 million in projects the sectors of health, education and youth employment.
Updated: April 2021