Islanders beg Paris to take them back

After 21 years of independence, the tiny Indian Ocean island of Anjouan, has had enough. It wants, once again, to be part of France and, especially, part of the French welfare system.

More than 7,000 people marched through the capital at the weekend carrying the tricolour and a portrait of President Jacques Chirac. After throwing a few stones at the gendarmerie headquarters, their leaders declared independence from the Comoros group and begged Paris to "hear their cries of distress".

The Comoros government dismissed their pleas; but so did France. Paris maintains excellent relations with most of its former colonies and does not want to encourage the disintegration of former colonial boundaries. It is unlikely to want to take over responsibility for an impoverished, overcrowded island (250,000 people in an area the size of the Isle of Wight, with a annual average income per head of about pounds 300).

The inhabitants - Les Anjouanais - look enviously at the similar-sized island of Mayotte, 60 miles to the south-east, which refused independence in a referendum in 1974. Mayotte, as part of France, has a higher standard of living, free education, a minimum wage, family allowances and social security. The separatists say Anjouan has been "ignored and humiliated" in the last two decades by successive regimes in the capital Moroni, on the Grand Comoro island, to the north-west.

The dispute sounds like the plot for an Evelyn Waugh novel. But it has its darker side. Although the weekend protest passed off without injury, Comoran soldiers fired on a similar demonstration in March, killing one person and injuring a dozen. There were also violent confrontations, leading to two deaths, when thousands of Anjouanais poured onto the streets on 14 July to celebrate the French national day. Inhabitants of the third, and smallest inhabited island in the group, Moheli, have also started to agitate to be returned to France.

The French foreign ministry has made it clear that it has no interest in regaining these scraps of empire, formerly separate Arab-controlled emirates, annexed by France in 1912. France, the ministry said, remains committed to the "territorial integrity of the Islamic Republic of the Comoros. It hopes that, in this internal Comoran affair, a spirit of negotiation will prevail".

The President of the Comoros, Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim, has recently taken a conciliatory line, offering the smaller islands greater autonomy and an opportunity to draw up a short-list from which their governors would be chosen. But the Andoujan revolt, led by Abdallah Ibrahim, 71, has gathered considerable popular support in the last four months.

In the referendums held on the islands in December 1974, Andoujan voted overwhelmingly for independence as part of the Comoros Republic. The count was 99.92 per cent in favour of separation from France, with only 44 voters against. Mayotte, with a population of only 94,000, voted 64 per cent to remain as a French territory. Since then, Mr Ibrahim claims, the smaller islands have been starved of whatever economic developments have occurred in the coup-haunted Comoros.