Will Africans choose Ségolène Royal as France’s first female President? Since the 19th century, many African voters have influenced French polls, but in this year’s presidential elections, only inhabitants of the Indian Ocean islands Réunion and Mayotte are to cast their vote. Campaigning is already fierce. In the two overseas territories of Réunion and Mayotte, people are vigorously discussing who would be the best candidate for President of the French Republic. Should they vote for Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, socialist candidate Ségolène Royal or the centrist François Bayrou? They are the last Africans being able to influence whether Ms Royal will become the first woman to rule France.
Before decolonisation, inhabitants of France’s vast African empire were drawn to the French polls. Although their votes counted less than metropolitan French votes, the African quota of the Paris parliament steadily increased. Several West Africans served as ministers and deputy ministers in French governments, including Félix Houphouët-Boigny and Léopold Sédar Senghor, who later became the fist Presidents of Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal.
With the French colonial empire having shrunk into a handful overseas departments, African, Pacific and Caribbean voters have fewer representatives in the French parliament, but now at least, their votes are counted on an equal basis as those from metropolitan France. In the two chambers of parliament – the Senate and National Assembly – the two islands are even over-resented compared to their population.
With only 190,000 inhabitants, Mayotte sends two representatives to the Paris Senate and one to the National Assembly. The larger island of Réunion, with its 700,000 inhabitants, has three representatives in Senate and five in the National Assembly.
In the French presidential polls on 22 April, the two African overseas territories will vote as other Frenchmen. The 900,000 islanders of Réunion and Mayotte represent about 1.4 percent of the total French population, and their percentage of the electorate is about the same. In a close poll, therefore, the African votes could indeed make the difference between Ms Royal and Mr Sarkozy – if those two make it to the final round.
So far, islanders are ambivalent about the three top candidates. In the latest elections to the Paris parliament, right-wing and centrist candidates have swept the polls. Only one socialist sits in the Senate and another in the National Assembly, both from Réunion. On both islands, traditions are rather conservative and women have yet to gain their place in politics.
In a normal election, Mr Sarkozy would therefore have the best chances in both Réunion and Mayotte. But the rightist leader has been too tough on immigrants and non-ethnic French in the metropolitan territory, casting doubts over his ability to treat inhabitants from overseas territories as equals. Mr Sarkozy in February nevertheless visited potential voters in Réunion and managed to gather a crowd of 4,000 enthusiastic voters.
Ms Royal, who was born in Senegal, was the first to visit the French overseas territories, campaigning in Réunion in October last year and greatly improving her popularity. She gained big applause after strongly criticising the Paris government’s slow reaction to the chikungunya epidemic, which had jeopardised the island’s key tourism industry. Ms Royal in January also visited the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which have around 600,000 potential voters, and impressed islanders by addressing them partly in Creole language.
Also the centrist candidate, Mr Bayrou, who is closing in on Ms Royal, this weekend went on a two-day visit to both Mayotte and Réunion, where crowds of people listened to his election speeches in Mamoudzou and Saint Denis. Especially in Mamoudzou (Mayotte), large crowds gathered to praise the candidate. He is now headed for the French Caribbean.
In Mayotte, there are two pressing issues that interest voters – immigration and the island’s statutes. Mayotte has seen a surge of illegal immigration from the neighbouring Comoros islands, and by now, a quarter of the population comes from abroad. Islanders want a stricter immigration control and an improved coastguard – something all three candidates have pledged on a French national level.
Mayotte voters also want their island’s status to lifted up from an overseas territory to an overseas department – in line with the situation in Réunion. This would give them more political and social rights. Independence is out of the question for voters, as Comoros has historic claims to the island that are recognised by the African Union. But these claims also complicate a possible upgrading of Mayotte’s status as they could cause a diplomatic headache.
Also voters in Réunion are concerned by immigration, but their remote island is still much less affected than the French mainland and Mayotte. The most important issues in the campaign there have therefore been economic development, social services, education and infrastructure.
So far, Ms Royal seems to have gathered most sympathy in France’s last African territories. According to a telephone survey made among 786 potential voters in Réunion by the journal ‘Ipsos Océan Indien’ one week ago, Ms Royal can expect 44 percent of the Réunionaise vote in the first poll round. Mr Sarkozy stood at 34 percent and Mr Bayrou at 10 percent. In a hypothetic second poll round between Ms Royal and Mr Sarkozy, the socialist candidate would beat Mr Sarkozy by 57 to 43 percent.
But Ms Royal’s position is getting steadily weaker among Réunionaise voters. The same survey was also made in December last year. At that point, Ms Royal would have beaten the rightist candidate with an impressive 70 percent of the vote. In that case, African voters could have made a real difference in French politics.