The French claimed Mauritius in 1715 and renamed it Ile de France. It became a prosperous colony under the French East India Company. The French Government took control in 1767, and the island served as a naval and privateer base during the Napoleonic wars. In 1810, Mauritius was captured by the British, whose possession of the island was confirmed 4 years later by the Treaty of Paris. French institutions, including the Napoleonic code of law, were maintained. The French language is still used more widely than English.
Mauritian Creoles trace their origins to the plantation owners and slaves who were brought to work the sugar fields. Indo-Mauritians are descended from Indian immigrants who arrived in the 19th century to work as indentured laborers after slavery was abolished in 1835. Included in the Indo-Mauritian community are Muslims (about 15% of the population) from the Indian subcontinent. The Franco-Mauritian elite controls nearly all of the large sugar estates and is active in business and banking. As the Indian population became numerically dominant and the voting franchise was extended, political power shifted from the Franco-Mauritians and their Creole allies to the Hindus.
Elections in 1947 for the newly created Legislative Assembly marked Mauritius' first steps toward self-rule. An independence campaign gained momentum after 1961, when the British agreed to permit additional self-government and eventual independence. A coalition composed of the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP), the Muslim Committee of Action (CAM), and the Independent Forward Bloc (IFB)--a traditionalist Hindu party--won a majority in the 1967 Legislative Assembly election, despite opposition from Franco-Mauritian and Creole supporters of Gaetan Duval's Mauritian Social Democratic Party (PMSD). The contest was interpreted locally as a referendum on independence. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, MLP leader and chief minister in the colonial government, became the first prime minister at independence, on March 12, 1968. This event was preceded by a period of communal strife, brought under control with assistance from British troops.
Alone or in coalition, the Mauritian Labor Party (MLP) ruled from 1947 through 1982 and returned to power in 1995. The Mauritian Militant Movement/Mauritian Socialist Party (MMM/PSM) alliance won the 1982 election. In 1983, defectors from the MMM joined with the PSM to form the Militant Socialist Movement (MSM) and won a working majority. In July 1990, the MSM realigned with the MMM and in September 1991 national elections won 59 of the 62 directly elected seats in parliament. In December 1995, the MLP returned to power, this time in coalition with the MMM. Labor's Navinchandra Ramgoolam, son of the country's first prime minister, became prime minister himself. Ramgoolam dismissed his MMM coalition partners in mid-1997, leaving Labor in power save for several small parties allied with it.
Mauritius became a republic on March 12, 1992. The most immediate result was that a Mauritian-born president became head of state, replacing Queen Elizabeth II. Under the amended constitution, political power remained with parliament. The Council of Ministers (cabinet), responsible for the direction and control of the government, consists of the prime minister (head of government), the leader of the majority party in the legislature, and about 20 ministries.
The unicameral National Assembly has up to 70 deputies. Sixty-two are elected by universal suffrage, and as many as eight "best losers" are chosen from the runners-up by the Electoral Supervisory Commission using a formula designed to give at least minimal representation to all ethnic communities and under-represented parties. Elections are scheduled at least every 5 years.
Mauritian law is an amalgam of French and British legal traditions. The Supreme Court--a chief justice and five other judges--is the highest judicial authority. There is an additional right of appeal to the Queen's Privy Council. Local government has nine administrative divisions, with municipal and town councils in urban areas and district and village councils in rural areas. The island of Rodrigues forms the country's 10th administrative division.
Ambassador to the United States--Chitmansing Jesseramsing
Ambassador to the United Nations--Wan Chat Kwong
Mauritius maintains an embassy at 4301 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-244-1491)
Economic performance has been impressive for the past 15 years, with real growth averaging 7% between 1985-90 and 5.4% between 1990-97. GDP grew 5% in 1997, with strong performances in all major sectors. Annual economic growth is likely to hover between 5% and 6% over the medium term; neither a recession nor a boom is forecast. Inflation was 6.6% in 1997 and is likely to remain in single digits over the medium term. Unemployment is growing but manageable. The jobless rate was about 6% in 1997, nearly double previous estimates. The upward trend is causing concern in a society grown accustomed to full employment. Chronic trade deficits are normally offset by surpluses in tourism and other services. The Mauritian rupee is freely convertible.
The economy faces daunting challenges. The country's two principal exports--textiles and sugar--rely on preferential access to markets in Europe and the United States. As World Trade Organization regulations come into force and textile quotas disappear, Mauritius will face increased competition from low-cost producers in Asia and South America. The price it receives for its sugar in Europe and the United States--two or three times the world market price--will almost certainly fall. Both industries are responding by placing more emphasis on productivity. Also, many of the country's most successful companies and banks are expanding outside the country and establishing operations in India and Africa. For its part, the government is encouraging investment in services with the goal of establishing Mauritius as a regional trade and financial center for commerce between Africa and the Far East.
There are about 275 textile factories in Mauritius exporting to Europe and the United States. Products range from simple garments to fashionable sweaters and other apparel sold in the finest shops. Raw material--yarn and fabric--comes primarily from India and China.
The sugar industry comprises 20 estates, 17 mills, and 35,000 small planters. Production ranges between 600,000 and 650,000 tons per year. More than 90% is sold to Europe, the remainder to the United States. An increasing number of mills are investing in power plants fueled by coal and bagasse, the residue left from crushed sugarcane.
More than 90 hotels serve the tourism industry. They range from modest bed-and-breakfasts to five-star resorts. Tourist arrivals exceeded 500,000 in 1997 and are expected to reach 600,000 before the turn of the century.
Banking and other financial services form the most rapidly growing economic sector. Some 6,000 offshore companies were registered as of 1997. Freeport facilities, including warehouses, commercial exhibition space, and modern cargo handling systems, opened in 1997, primarily to serve trade between Asia and Africa.
Trade, commitment to democracy, and the country's small size are driving forces behind Mauritian foreign policy. The country's political heritage and dependence on Western markets have led to close ties with the European Union and its member states, particularly the United Kingdom and France, which exercises sovereignty over neighboring Reunion.
Considered part of Africa geographically, Mauritius has friendly relations with other African states in the region, particularly South Africa, by far its largest continental trading partner. Mauritian investors are gradually entering African markets, notably Madagascar and Mozambique. Mauritius coordinates much of its foreign policy with the Southern Africa Development Community and the Organization of African Unity.
Relations with India are strong for both historical and commercial reasons. Foreign embassies in Mauritius include Australia, the United Kingdom, China, Egypt, France, India, Madagascar, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.
Relations between the United States and Mauritius are cordial and largely revolve around trade. U.S. exports to Mauritius are modest but growing, particularly in telecommunications and other high-technology fields. In 1996, Mauritius imported U.S goods valued at $25 million; the same year, the United States imported $238 million in Mauritian products--mostly knitwear, other textiles, and sugar.
The U.S. funds a small military assistance program focused on Coast Guard training. The embassy also manages special self-help funds for community groups and non-governmental organizations and a democracy and human rights fund
The U.S. embassy in Mauritius is located in the Rogers House, 4th floor, John Kennedy Street, Port Louis (tel. 230 208-2347; Fax 230-208-9534; E-mail: email@example.com.)