Why is France revoking birthright citizenship in Mayotte?

France announces constitutional amendment aimed at curbing immigration in its overseas territory near Madagascar.

Zenabou S, a Comoros woman married to a French man in Mayotte and her French daughter, stand at their door step as they prepare to move, in the Talus 2 district of Koungou, in the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte Saturday,
The announcement by French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin came amid protests and discontent of Mayotte's residents [File: Gregoire Merot/AP]

France has announced a controversial plan to amend the constitution to restrict citizenship to people born to immigrants in the overseas territory of Mayotte in a move aimed at curbing immigration to the Indian Ocean islands.

The move has been welcomed by the far-right but opposed by socialists who say birthright citizenship rule is “non-negotiable”. Leftist leaders fear the constitutional amendment will open Pandora’s box as the far right will try to emulate it in mainland France.

The announcement comes less than three weeks after France’s highest court scrapped large parts of a new immigration law designed to toughen access to welfare benefits for foreigners and curb immigration –  a hot potato in the country.

Here is more about Mayotte – an archipelago between Madagascar and the African mainland – and why the change has triggered controversy.

What has France announced?

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin on Sunday announced that children of immigrants born in Mayotte, comprising of two islands, would no longer automatically become French citizens.

The decision comes after weeks of protests in Mayotte, which has seen the deterioration of living conditions blamed on immigration from impoverished Comoro islands.

“It will no longer be possible to become French if you are not the child of a French parent,” Darmanin said.

France currently grants citizenship through both parentage and birthplace. The latest proposal would cause further political tensions in France in the wake of the adoption of a new immigration law.

But the French interior minister assured that the “radical measure” would be “limited to the Mayotte archipelago”.

Where is Mayotte?

Mayotte is one of the five overseas departments of France located in the Indian Ocean, off the East African coast comprising of two islands.

The others in the surrounding archipelago sought independence, becoming the Comoros Islands.

The Muslim-majority overseas territory, which voted to stay part of France in 1974, became a full-fledged French department in 2011.

What are French overseas territories?

France administers 12 territories outside of Europe, known as French overseas territories. These territories exist under various statuses as part of the French state and are largely remnants of the French colonial empire.

The French overseas territories, which are divided into three categories: overseas departments, overseas communities, and special territories, are collectively home to more than 2.6 million people.

The territories, collectively known as overseas France, are subject to France’s constitution and the local administration cannot devise their own laws and regulations.

Why is France planning to revoke birthplace citizenship in Mayotte?

Sunday’s decision by the French interior minister came in a bid to curb immigration in Mayotte, which has seen gang violence amid declining living standards. Darmanin said the reform was the idea of French President Emmanuel Macron.

Mayotte residents say the arrival of immigrants has put health, housing and education services under pressure. In the capital Mamoudzou, several hundred protesters greeted Darmanin and his entourage with boos and shouts of “Mayotte is angry” amid the lack of basic amenities including water shortage.

Darmanin said the measure would reduce “the attractiveness” of the archipelago for prospective immigrants.

According to France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), the 375sq km (145sq miles) island is home to around 310,000 people, but officials say this figure is seriously underestimated.

More than 40 percent of the islanders survive on less than 160 euros ($172) per month, says INSEE.

Residence permits issued to foreigners in Mayotte are only valid for the island and cannot be used to travel to mainland France. The scrapping of that system is one of the key demands of the protesters.

Darmanin said the authorities would abolish the measure as part of the reform, which some protesters welcomed.

What are the reactions to France’s announcement?

Boris Vallaud, head of the Socialists in the National Assembly, said they would oppose the revision of the constitution. “Birthright citizenship is not negotiable,” he told a local broadcaster.

The decision was also denounced by Manon Aubry of the far-left France Unbowed (LFI) party. President Macron’s administration was “attacking the very concept of nationality, the foundation of the Republic”, she wrote on X.

French advocacy group SOS Racisme also denounced what it called “a particularly spectacular calling into question of the principle of equality”. Centrist MP Aurelien Tache told local media that “if this provision is enacted and if Marine Le Pen then comes to power, it will be the end of birthright citizenship in France”.

But Eric Ciotti, leader of the right-wing Republicans party, welcomed Darmanin’s proposed reform – but complained it did not go far enough. The measure should be applied across the whole of French territory, he said.

Sebastien Chenu, spokesman for Le Pen’s far-right National Rally took a similar line.

Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal of the far-right Reconquete party, also welcomed the announcement.

Has France had tensions with other overseas territories?

Macron has proven unpopular throughout France’s overseas territories. In the last presidential election, majorities of voters throughout the overseas territories voted for far-right candidate Marina Le Pen over Macron. Le Pen won 41 percent of the vote.

This distrust in the system stems from the discriminatory treatment of the territories as compared to mainland France.

After Macron was elected in 2017, a social movement sprung up in French Guiana in protest of inadequate public service in the region. The president responded saying he is no Santa Claus. During his election campaign, he also incorrectly called French Guiana an island.

Later, Macron’s government shut down France O, a television channel featuring programming from overseas departments.

French departments Martinique and neighbouring Guadeloupe also saw street demonstrations and unrest following mandatory vaccination rules for health workers.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies