The following is a translation of a text retrieved from Lundi Matin, published on Nov. 26th 2018. It is a dispatch from the French territory of La Réunion: an island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. It was translated by Otto Mattick and edited by Ediciones inéditos.
The Yellow Vests movement on Reunion Island
The trigger of an historic awakening
You have probably already read it somewhere: “Reunion Island is all fire and blood”, “riots”, “outbreaks of violence in Reunion Island”. Since the beginning of the movement, on 17 November 2018, and for nine days now, Reunion Island has experienced a social revolt on a scale never known before. A curfew was introduced on November 20, and lifted this Sunday, following a respite. A new week of blockades is expected both on the roads and at strategic points, such as the East Port, the prefecture or Gillot airport.
The confused media and politicians are trying to demonize the movement with provoking phrases, some rumors of anti-white racism follow by the usual discourse aimed at separating the “nice Yellow Vests” from the “bad young casseurs“1. However, the reality is much more complex than the Reunionese and [French] metropolitan media suggest.
For to depict it accurately would be to admit a form of failure, the fact that attempts to “nationalize” the island through political and social manoeuvres have only benefited a privileged part of the Creole population, the middle class, the one that earns barely more than the SMIC2 and drives in Dacia Duster [a compact SUV] on credit. It would be to admit that the Creoles are not this naive people, good only to welcome tourists, to provide métis Miss France and to produce rum. This would undermine a post-colonial universe that is pleasant for everyone, suitable, a model of republican success after centuries of domination, deportation and slavery. In Reunion Island, y’a bon3, everything is beautiful, everything is joyful and the zorey4 walk barefoot, sipping their Dodo on the waterfront of St Leu while a magnificent sunset disappears behind the waves. What a wonderful picture, which must not be tarnished at all, otherwise the golden hen, the Grail, will be lost: tourism, the island’s main economy. Moreover, politicians know this and hold this argument like a sword of Damocles above our heads. Some elected officials have therefore made it their battle horse, to preserve these few jobs at the expense of all reasonable voices. The coastline, from St Pierre to St Paul, is bought off by restaurants, hotels, bars, nightclubs and expensive clothing stores, and beware of anyone who wishes to question this monopoly.
At the same time, the island is completely dependent on its cars. With a dysfunctional bus network, almost non-existent in some parts of the island, and with the gradual disappearance of local jobs and shops, Creole people love their car, because even when they are precarious, it guarantees them freedom of movement. And that’s when they own one. Because, here, we are getting to the heart of the matter. Here, more than 40% of us live below the poverty line, and half of the youth are unemployed. Moreover, even with a baccalaureate5 in hand, it is very difficult to find anything other than a sponsored contract6, or a “contrat pro”7. Thus, Reunion Island’s youth have only two choices: live below the poverty line on Reunion Island, or go into exile in mainland France in the hope of earning a minimum wage. However, in recent years, Reunion Island has been presented to metropolitan executives as the ideal place for a change under the sun. Thus, 70% of managers and executives in Reunion Island… are [French] metropolitan. Not to mention the rehabilitation in the seaside areas, the creation of brand new and expensive roads, the flagrant corruption of elected officials (causing an abstention rate that continues to increase in every passing election), all this at the expense of a population increasingly stigmatized by the media, precarious and living in abandoned & working class neighborhoods, a bunch of substandard housing where crime increases with general indifference, where the only political response is an ever more violent repression.
For thirty years now, each social movement has been provoking riots in these same neighborhoods. Riots of this forgotten, mocked youth, often reduced to the stereotype of the young zamal8 smoker, lazy and eager for social assistance. What then links them to the “original” Yellow Vest, which, although it comes from the Reunionese working class, often salaried, transported about and also suffers the torments of the island’s economic situation? The answer is simple: the cost of living in general is much higher than in mainland France. Whether it is the price of groceries, real estate or leisure, everything is excessively expensive. Access to property and the social elevator are blocked, accessible only to a higher middle class who have long since lost interest in the island’s social problems and are satisfied with their privileges while despising their poorer compatriots, who are scorned and jeered: the Creole is said to be alcoholic, lazy, jealous, not sophisticated enough, supported by social assistance… and so on. The slightest claim is then considered envy. How is the love of Creole for their natural heritage? Anti-white racism. Because yes, here, refusing to allow natural areas to be destroyed by mass tourism is considered racist. Demand more equality and opportunities, in order to be treated as metropolitans? It’s seen as nepotism or worse, jealousy. The Creole man and woman are then portrayed as grotesque beings, behind their time, reduced to their social problems and addictions in the local media, which like to emphasize extreme miscellaneous facts.
So when the Yellow Vests start blocking the roads, people from these neighborhoods, not just young people, join them. The precarious Reunionese population goes down on the roads, and shares their anger. Their anger of being forgotten, mocked, subjected to the humiliation of poverty and lack of future; their anger of being ultimately only a group of second-class citizens, as if Reunion Island was just this image of a postcard on glossy paper, a giant amusement park for tourists and metropolitans in need of sunshine and exoticism.
Evening riots only affect symbols of ultra-consumption, fast foods, car dealerships, mobile phone sellers or supermarkets. Some would like to read here that they are two distinct populations: one that peacefully protests during the day, and the other that burns and destroys at night. The reality is that it is a spontaneous and broad-based movement, and there is no radical split between these two entities. I am not saying that all Yellow Vests join the evening riots, the majority do not, but it would be a lie to say that this movement has excluded the “casseurs“, who are an integral part of it. It would be a lie to say that these are only stereotypical young people from the city. The Reunionese media themselves are struggling to impose this vision on the population, and, since the beginning of the movement, these media have lost for many Creoles the little credibility they had left. A certain radio station9, for which some had fought in 1991, including by rioting, was accused live of screening its calls, so that only negative opinions about the movement could be heard, and also of relaying libels such as road blockers attacking Zorey motorists.
Moreover, politicians themselves are struggling and failing to recuperate the movement. During rallies, the microphone is removed from their hands to prevent them from drawing attention on themselves, and often end up leaving the place under the booing of angry demonstrators. For the most part, this is a certainty: yes to spokespersons, those who will be able to translate the movement’s demands without compromise, no to corrupt politicians, who, according to the Reunionese Yellow Vests, only have their own success in the political establishment in mind.
In the field, blockages are spontaneous, and are organized by neighborhood, through social networks and word of mouth. Most demonstrators make a point of staying, even after curfew. Today, the roads are still blocked, with more or less 30 roadblocks per day. Depending on the district, and its population, the blockades can range from about ten people to about a hundred participants. Some roadblocks are even entirely organized by people who are not wearing the yellow vest. These are usually barricades, made of barriers, pallets, mobile traffic signs, branches or rocks, placed on the road to deter those who would like to accelerate. The curfew is here considered a joke, few take the obligation to stay home seriously, and at 9pm, everyone is still outside, as are families and onlookers. Moreover, to motivate the troops, sounds systems have been installed, including open mic, at the East Port, in front of the prefecture and on other roadblocks… This is a far cry from the image of the population frightened and hiding in their homes.
The island’s economy has been seriously slowed down. While some local shops, bazaar shops or small mini-markets, open during the day, most shops, bakeries or restaurants have had their curtains down for a week. Some supermarkets open a few hours a day, but it is impossible to do real shopping there, as the queues are so long and the shelves much less full. People are therefore set for the minimum, and, still on social networks, solidarity is organized here and there: people share places where farmers sell their production, where to find eggs, milk for children, or carpooling to relieve traffic congestion. The prefecture’s current strategy is to raise the blocked population against the blockers. It is still failing miserably, because at the Gillot roadblock, even freight carriers, while waiting in line like everyone else, get down and offer food to the demonstrators. Local residents come to give meals and water, farmers set up stands at barricades all over the island to sell their production. There is an awareness on the part of the population: consuming differently becomes possible.
Off-road blockades have been organized in recent days to prevent access to strategic points, such as the East Port, where goods arrive by boat, or even Gillot Airport. One of the key points, the SRPP10, is a field of regular conflict between CRSs [anti-riot police] and demonstrators. Indeed, the police, assisted by military reinforcements and CRS, blocked the sector to ensure convoys of tanker or supplies trucks. Their under-staffing prevents them from being present in other blocking areas, but helicopters regularly control the zone and tension remains high. Some roadblocks have been the subject of violent clashes between CRS and Yellow Vests. However, these clashes often took place in the face of peaceful gatherings, and the districts affected by the riots were often spared.
It seems that the headcount is not enough for them to dare to approach places where gatherings are more crowded and where the balance of power would not work in their favor. So for the moment, they just shoot flashbang grenades, tear gas and charge families and activists who raise their arms in front of them, singing. Apart from the ridiculous situation, it would seem that, given the current movement taking place in mainland France, they are not in a position to ensure the repression promised by Emmanuel Macron. I hope it continues.
1 Term used by media and politicians to demonize rioters.
2 French minimum wage : 1150 euros/month.
3 Racist advertising slogan of a famous french chocolate powder brand.
4 Creole word for stranger and more specifically metropolitan.
5 National secondary-school diploma.
6 Precarious and low-paid contract partly financed by the State.
7 Part-time job poorly paid alongside a professional training.
8 Creole name for cannabis.
9 Radio Freedom, whose ban in ’91 led to riots in the Chaudron, a district of Saint-Denis, Reunion Island’s capital city : https://www.zinfos974.com/Le-23-fevrier-1991-le-Chaudron-prenait-feu_a26037.html
10 The main Reunionese company in charge of fuel distribution.