Page last updated at 13:28 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 14:28 UK

Ties that bind: Comoros and France

Relatives of passengers in Charles de Gualle airport, Paris, 30/06
Many of those on the crashed plane were French, or held dual citizenship

By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Many of the passengers on board a Yemenia Air plane that crashed on its way to the Comoros Islands were French - reflecting deep historical ties between the two nations.

More than most African nations, Comoros has struggled to establish a stable government since independence from its former colonial power, France.

French forces took over the Indian Ocean island-nation in 1886 and made it a fully fledged colony 26 years later.

The country was the scene of battles during World War II, when British forces ousted the government, which was loyal to the France's Nazi-backed Vichy administration.

1886 - 1975 France rules islands as protectorate and colony
1974 Mayotte votes to remain French
1975 Three islands become independent, but their government overthrown
1975 - 1995 French mercenary Bob Denard organises coups, runs presidential guards
2009 Mayotte islanders vote to deepen ties with France

The British handed the islands to Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces.

Over the next three decades, the islands gradually loosened ties with Paris, becoming an overseas territory before declaring independence in 1975.

But the separation from France was not smooth.

One of the islands, Mayotte, did not join the other three main islands in embracing independence.

Its 200,000 people - roughly a quarter of the Comoran population - voted to stay a part of France in 1975 as an "overseas collectivity".

Earlier this year they voted in a referendum to fully integrate with France.

The vote caused huge tensions within the island grouping - with one Comoran official describing it as a declaration of war.

Mercenary intervention

The three main islands making up the Union of the Comoros - Anjouan, Moheli and Grande Comore - believe Mayotte should be part of their country.

But the people of Mayotte believe they have powerful reasons for remaining a part of France.

Firstly, Mayotte's economy hugely outperforms its near neighbours.

And secondly, Mayotte has avoided the recent history of coups and instability that have blighted the other islands.

Bob Denard in 1995
Bob Denard was eventually arrested and convicted of various crimes

Since independence, Comoros has experienced about 20 coups.

Its first post-colonial government was deposed just a month after it declared independence.

And a Frenchman was at the centre of the drama.

Colonel Bob Denard, who became a pivotal figure in Comoran politics, led a group of mercenaries in overthrowing the government.

Over the next two decades, he is suspected of orchestrating another three coups in Comoros. He was also tried, and cleared, of taking part in the assassination of a Comoran president.

He served as head of the presidential guards and lived on the islands for a decade - but ironically Denard's final coup attempt, in 1995, was thwarted by troops from France.

Since then, Comoros, excluding Mayotte, has largely drifted away from France's political sphere of influence.

There are still some indelible links between the nations.

A significant Comoran diaspora lives in France - as many as 200,000 according to France's ministry of foreign affairs.

And French, alongside Arabic, remains an official language of the predominantly Muslim islands - although even on Mayotte, only an estimated 50% of the population are able to read or write in French.

But as the influence of the old colonial power fades, stability still remains out of reach.

The islands remain largely impoverished and prone to political infighting.

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