Supplies of fuel, drugs and other essentials are running dangerously low on the island of Mayotte, with a population of some 250,000 off the southeast Africa and Northwest Madagascar as protesters dig in for more funding and empathy from Paris.
The spice island in the Comoros archipelago, which has been governed by France since the mid-1800s, is the fourth overseas territory to be paralyzed by strikes over living conditions in the past decade.
An attack by a gang on a school lit the fuse on frustration over illegal mass immigration and growing lawlessness in France's poorest department, which many link to the influx of arrivals by sea from neighboring non-French Comoran islands.
Visiting Minister for Overseas Territories Annick Girardin failed to convince the demonstrators to abandon the barricades this week, despite a promise of police reinforcements to combat crime and a clampdown on illegal migration.
France's collection of overseas territories stretches from the islands of Wallis and Futuna in the South Pacific to Saint Pierre and Miquelon in the northwest Atlantic to Reunion island off Madagascar.
These holdovers from another era are also technically Overseas Countries and Territories of the European Union, holding a special status.
The people of Mayotte in particular voted to politically remain a part of France in 1974 and to become an Outermost Region of the European Union with an overwhelming referendum result in 2009.
Attachment to the former colonial empire is generally strong, particularly in the five overseas departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Mayotte and Reunion island.
Unemployment is at 25.9 percent, double that in France as a whole, and public services are woefully deficient: Mayotte had 18 doctors per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, compared to an average of 201 in the rest of France.
While poor in European terms, Mayotte is a beacon of prosperity for residents of the severely impoverished, coup-prone Comoros. The problem of illegal mass immigration is comparable with the situation in Southern Europe. In scenes reminiscent of the Mediterranean, thousands of Comorans pile into rickety boats to make the 70-kilometre crossing to Mayotte each year, including large numbers of pregnant women. Some 9,600 children were delivered in Mayotte's hospital last year – a record for a French hospital – of which 70 percent were born to immigrant parents hoping to secure French citizenship.
Schools are also bursting at the seams, creating resentment among locals who fear being further pauperized by the situation.
The French government this week suggested giving Mayotte's hospital special "extra-territorial" status so that children born there would not automatically qualify for French passports.
Half-way around the world, in northern South America, a wave of illegal immigrants has also piled pressure on public services in French Guiana, a vast, forested territory with an acute lack of schools and paved roads.
Protesters shut down Kourou spaceport, a major launchpad for satellites of the European Space Agency, for several weeks last year to demand a "takeoff plan" for the area. During a visit in October President Emmanuel Macron promised to limit benefits for newcomers "to reduce the attractiveness" of the territory. He also declared he was "not Father Christmas" accusing previous governments of making "too many unkept promises."
In 2009, the then government agreed to a system of salary top-ups to offset high living costs in Guadeloupe and Martinique, which were ground to a standstill by month-long general strikes. The people of Mayotte insist they are not looking for handouts. "The Mahorais (Mayotte residents) fought to be French and to be free," Hachim, the protest leader told Le Monde. "We are not beggars," he said.
For Claude-Valentin Marie, a sociologist at the French Institute for Demographic Studies, they just want what those on the mainland take for granted. "They want to be like other French departments in terms of education, economic activity, health and security," he told AFP. "They no longer want to be the exception."
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