Indian Ocean former colony votes on becoming French
The Indian Ocean island of Mayotte looked set Sunday to become an integral part of France in a referendum that would bring an end to local traditions like Islamic courts and polygamy.MAMOUDZOU - The island's 71,122 registered voters were being asked if they wanted their mostly Muslim island to end its status as a French overseas "collectivity" and become the country's 101st department.
They are likely to say yes, according to most observers, and thus by 2011 complete a process begun in 1974 when Mayotte remained French as the three other islands of its archipelago chose independence and became the Comoros.
Both the African Union and the Comoros administration -- which sees Mayotte as a territory "occupied" by France but which should be reunited with its sister islands -- have denounced the referendum.
The Comoros have seen regular coups since independence and are far poorer than Mayotte, which has remained stable and whose relative wealth makes it a magnet for illegal migrants who make a perilous boat ride there.
About a third of the 200,000 residents of Mayotte are illegals from the Comoros.
"Our elders fought so that we we could remain part of France. It's up to us to finish that work," said Youssoufou Majouai, a 39-year-old gym caretaker, as he cast his vote in a school in a working class area of the capital Mamoudzo.
"We have wanted this for a long time, to be like mainland France, with good schools and good salaries," said Inoussa Abdallah, 58, as he voted in Mamoudzou town hall.
The vote follows unrest in three of France's four overseas departments, with the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe being the worse hit by rioting during a lengthy general strike for pay rises that ended this month.
All political parties and trade unions on Mayotte, which lies between northern Madagascar and northern Mozambique and where French is spoken by less than half the population, have called for a yes vote.
The only dissenting voices were some Muslim clerics who fear their influence will decline if French ways are imposed on the population, most of whom speak a dialect of Swahili.
If Mayotte does become fully French, men would no longer be allowed to have several wives, Islamic courts would lose most of their power, and equality between the sexes would be enforced.
Mayotte is seen as a strategic asset as Iran seeks to boost its influence on on the Muslim islands off the east coast of Africa.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last month visited the Comoros on a brief trip aimed at boosting cooperation between Tehran and the archipelago.
The Comoros federation's president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi trained as a religious leader in Iran.
France currently has four overseas departments, the far-flung remnants of an empire that once spanned the world.
Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, French Guiana on the northern coast of South America, and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, are all integral parts of the country and thus of the European Union.
Between them they have nearly two million residents.