the tricolore over a government building in St. Pierre, Reunion
Most people are from the “main” parts of a country. If you’re born in mainland United States, it is easy to forget that the “United States of America” actually encompasses not only the forty-nine states in North America, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, but also a large number of small territories and possessions scattered around the world, each of which has a somewhat different legal status with respect to the U.S. government. For example, people born in Guam are American citizens, but people living in Guam do not have the right to vote in the U.S. Presidential election (although they do participate in the party primaries). People born in American Samoa are not automatically U.S. citizens, though they have the right to live anywhere in the United States. The story of colonization is far from over, with many places in the world maintaining stronger or weaker legal relationships with the larger nations that once colonized them or won them as spoils of war.
Today we flew to Reunion, an island in the southern Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius, that is today still a part of its colonial “owner,” France. One interesting thing about Reunion, though, is that despite its small size and tremendous distance from France, and the fact that the vast majority of the population is not of white French ancestry but are mostly black or Indian, Reunion is fully a part of France—using the U.S. analogy, it is legally more similar to Hawaii than to Puerto Rico or Guam. People born and living in Reunion are full French citizens, elect representatives to go to Paris, and are also citizens of the European Union. Cars on Reunion have French license plates, the money is the Euro, and both traffic infrastructure (roundabouts included) and bakeries are similar to those you’d expect in European France. Technically, Reunion, Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana are referred to as the “overseas departments,” but they have the same legal status as the regions and departments within European France.
Mayotte, pictured in Air Austral’s route map above, is even more of a demographic outlier, with almost its entire population black and Muslim. It is also the overseas department to attain its status most recently, through a 2011 referendum which yielded a 95% “yes” vote. From Mayotte’s perspective, it isn’t hard to see the advantages of becoming a full part of the motherland. Mayotte is very substantially poorer than “metropolitan France,” and becoming a full part of France will over time result in substantial inflows in infrastructure expenditure and social safety programs. The Reunionnaise apparently enjoy nearly a European standard of living, likely largely subsidized by taxpayers in Europe. Whatever loss in autonomy Mayotte will suffer, voters decided, is well worth the financial benefit.
I do not know the politics of all this, but am tempted to admire France for its inclusion of these territories as full and equal parts of the nation. Puerto Rico, which has a population greater than twenty of the U.S. states, favored statehood in a non-binding election in 2012, but the U.S. Congress did not even acknowledge the request with an up-or-down vote. Even the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, doesn’t have equal representation in government—something recognized by the local license plates which include the revolutionary refrain, “Taxation Without Representation.” What keeps the U.S. from providing equal rights to all under U.S. jurisdiction? Largely partisan politics. Statehood for the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico would have immediate consequences on federal elections—namely, a benefit for the Democratic Party. As long as voters in D.C. or Puerto Rico remain likely Democrats, the Republicans have a strong incentive keep them from gaining equal representation in government. It is a markedly unjust outcome.
Might there be other, less overtly political, factors? It is tempting to say that racism and xenophobia play a part. Even Hawaii, America’s most recent and least white state, is majority non-hispanic white and asian (the latter being, arguably, the non-white “race” least threatening to white American identity, if only because of numbers). D.C. is largely black, and Puerto Rico of course almost entirely hispanic. But I think it also has to do with our country’s relationship to colonialism. Americans tend to think of colonialism as “European colonialism,” the period of time when Europeans such as British, Spanish, and French gathered territories around the world. But America, despite having started as a colony itself, was also an active participant. The thirteen original states may have been colonies of Britain, but basically every other state is a result of further colonization of the North American continent by the United States. By purchase or invasion, the United States acquired these additional territories, colonized them, and made them states. The land acquisition extended overseas—with some properties that were eventually spun off, such as Cuba, the Philippines, and the Panama Canal Zone, but others retained, such as Puerto Rico and Guam. I think that countries that are more self-aware about their colonial/imperial history, such as France, may be more likely to recognize the genuine historical connection and responsibility they maintain with their overseas possessions. In American’s minds, even Puerto Rico, with its large population and proximity to the mainland, is an afterthought, a strange historical quirk we’d almost like to forget.
For a somewhat similar though more detailed post on India, see my post of 20080316 Parts of India. Also, this post has also been inspired by C.G.P. Grey’s excellent videos on the American Empire and the European Union.