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Revolt in French Colony of Reunion: Yellow Vests and Beyond

08.12.2018

On 1 December, the Minister for Overseas parts of France, Annick Girardin, left Reunion after a 3-day visit. She announced a series of measures that were supposed to reduce inequality, create jobs, make institutions less opaque and give consumers in Reunion goods at the same prices as in France. What happened to produce this sudden change in attitude, after decades of neglect?


This article is about what happened during a 14-day period of barricades and revolt in Reunion. They took place in the general context of the Yellow Vests movement. Put simply, these two weeks showed the determination and creativity of ordinary people in their collective quest to force the Government to recognize the legitimacy of their demands, disparate as they may be. There is an immense power differential: the whole French militarized State v/s the ordinary people, colonized and oppressed but in open revolt. But the State trembled.


The Yellow Vests movement began in Reunion and France on Saturday 17 November 2018. It all started with a Facebook message calling on people to place their fluorescent vests (that car drivers are forced to carry) on their dashboards on that day. They were then to drive on to the motorway, switch off their engine and get out of their car. This would block traffic. It was about a month before the movement started that the message was posted. Messages were forwarded and re-forwarded, posted and re-posted. The aim was to protest against the increase in the price of fuel – petrol and diesel. This increase was the result of a new tax, designed to be a green tax, to be imposed by the Macron regime.


There was a build-up in Reunion from before the date set. But, no-one had any idea of the vast scope the movement would gather, how many different crossroads and roundabouts would get involved in the barricades, what forms of violent action might be set off. In fact, two weeks before the planned date, people, not necessarily Yellow Vests already seized the occasion of Halloween celebrations to break up a few cars and shops. This has never happened on Halloween night before, so it gives an indication of the rising tensions in society. It was like the first blast of a pressure cooker – showing that, though not the same people in it that later donned Yellow Vests, there was generalized anger under rising pressure.


And finally, by 17 November, when the day came, there were some traffic jams, but the Yellow Vests allowed cars through on a drop-by-drop basis, as they put it. At nightfall, protests were replaced by attacks on shops and setting cars alight. But those involved in the actions did not wear Yellow Vests. There was, it seems, more generalized anger being expressed once a date had been fixed. One woman on Reunion television said, Bann la pran nu pu kuyon! They think we’re dumb. This one phrase, giving the idea of they and us. This one phrase also, leaving us in no uncertainty that people were expressing feelings of neglect and oppression, long pent-up.


While the protest was planned as a one-day affair, the next day people gathered and blocked the roundabouts once again. Then, too, most people thought this might last, say, until the end of the weekend, and that when Monday came, everything would be back to normal. But on Monday, barricades were up again. So the Authorities decided to act with severity and, in preparation, closed all schools and colleges from midday. But by that day, the movement had become somewhat disorganized and the predominant mode was one of “terrorizing” drivers – shaking their cars, some people even extracting money from drivers. And on the Monday night, pillage of shops and arson started up again.


New Ways of Organizing


The Authorities in Reunion imposed a curfew and even banned alcohol sales in some areas. But the movement did not stop. As the days of mobilizing and organizing proceeded, so people, ordinary people, realized how they can organize their own supplies, for example. Those manning the barricades soon invited producers of local fruit and vegetables to come and sell their wares at the barricades. To those manning the barricades and those stuck in cars. Street food merchants made their appearance. And some roundabouts built their own huts with coconut leaves for shade and shelter. Al Jazeera had an excellent young reporter over, it seems, with a team from South Africa, filming this touching reality. Ambulances, doctors and nurses and physiotherapists and other para-medics, whether on the way to and from work, or to and from home visits, were allowed to circulate, at the show of their badges. Via Facebook, a network sprang up allowing people in the movement to share child-care, to swap food ... and this network just operated, without any reference to, or taking a position for or against the movement. It was just a new way of organizing daily life. People began to post information about which filling stations were open, where food was on sale and so on.


A group of motorcyclists set themselves up as a way of getting information to circulate amongst the 44 or so barricades on Reunion, passing information about what was happening from one to another barricade. Reunion TV had a nightly map with the barricades marked with crosses – just as though it was a weather report. Political parties and political party agents had no voice in the movement, except if they gave up their party loyalty and participated as citizens. Quite spontaneously, the Yellow Vests said they had no leaders. They said they would name a spokesperson every day, a role that would be shared in turn. At night they would meet to decide what to do the next day.


And so it came about that the pillaging and rioting of the first two days, stopped completely after the second night. For a while, there was some confusion, what with two movements at the same time, but slowly people began to say they support for the Yellow Vests, and that they condemn the pillage and arson. One group blocked the Port for 14 days, but the Prefect, a kind of Governor from France, assured that petrol stations were supplied with fuel at 3 a.m. some days, with the army escorting it. The army was brought in from Mayotte, an island France stole from Comoros. Radio reports say some 3,000 containers were blocked and ships were having to go to Mauritius to unload goods, or even just carrying them on to faraway destinations. In Mauritius, some opportunists in the commercial classes were jubilant, announcing that one man’s bad luck can be another man’s good luck. Television reports announced that night flights from the two airports were also completely shut down.


Demands


At the level of demands, at the beginning it was only the price of fuel, but with the speed of light demands grew : the waste propagated by the elected MPs, why people are allowed so many mandates, taxes that have eaten into peoples’ monthly revenue, the price differential between France and its colony, Reunion, while social aid and the minimum wage are the same, inequality amongst civil servants (who make up 20-25 % of the work force) because some are now employed on sub-contracts with short term duration and without the civil service guaranteed workers’ rights, including a kind of bonus to cushion the cost of living in Reunion. People also protested against the fact that some 140,000 working people are jobless, while there is no proper training for unemployed young people so that they can get jobs. ... They also said loud and clear that the Reunion Prefect is not the person they will negotiate with, thank you. He is not elected, and he has not got any power other than what Ministers give him, and they had to wait for 12 days for the Minister to arrive in Reunion.


That was by Wednesday 28 November. As if to show their determination, the Yellow Vests announced a general blockade – and that they would only let the essential services through the barricades, and stop even the drop-by-drop passage. And so there was total shut-down.


The lack of a Program


Other sectors came and joined the movement after about a week. Taxi drivers came in. Lorry drivers did too. These were on the question of the price of fuel. Small entrepreneurs came in against a tax that makes their businesses difficult, if not impossible, to run. Some political parties sent their members to give a hand, or to give contributions to some of the barricades. On the other side of the barricade, the cane planters and big bosses went and met the Prefect calling on him to do something to restore order because they can’t cut their cane, they can’t get animal food for their stock, and they are missing out on sales. Some planters, however, decided to block the roads with their lorries, in support.


So, within the movement there were people all protesting together on different issues ... All are saying, We are sick and tired of this but not making it too clear what exactly this is. People with diametrically opposite interests were protesting alongside each other. For example, some were manning the barricades because they oppose taxes on their wages going to those lazy unemployed who sit around twiddling their thumbs! Other were protesting for taxes to be lowered so that they could pay their employees better. For many, they deplore Government’s inability to run the capitalist system properly. and call for the capitalism to be made more efficient, and to stop the waste it produces. So in the end, there was not the process of the building up of a shared vision of a political program for change. The movement has, up to now, been the sum of the anger of each one added to the list of complaints of the others, making up a list of contradictory and thus inapplicable demands. But demands, they sure came up with.


Without a marxist analysis, people often conclude that exploitation and inequality continue because there is not a good enough leader yet. Without the input of some political theory and understanding, people don’t get to see the big picture, where production is run, under capitalism, through the permanent exploitation of one class of people, those seeking profit, over another class, the majority that are desperately trying to protect their livelihoods by working for the first class. What is positive in this struggle, over these first two weeks, is that many ordinary people in Reunion, who work for a living or want to work for a living, realize for the first time the huge potential that they, themselves, have when they organize to change the balance of class forces in their favour.  This episode of November 2018 will stay engraved on the bodies and in the minds of all the working people as a time when they at least saw the power they have.


Specificity of Reunion


This movement, in the form it took in Reunion is very different from what is happening in Europe. Reunion is marked by suffering the anachronistic colonial form of imperialism. The rate of unemployment is very high, the cost of living exorbitant, 40% of people live under the poverty line, inequality is a glaring reality. So, there is an aspect of the struggle that is against the colonial centre, anti-metropolitan. This is because in reality those who come over from France have a better living than people who are of Reunion. ... This is true because no-one leaves France to settle in Reunion unless they get a good job here. In addition, French people have a 4 times higher rate of post graduate diplomas, thus get the higher paid jobs that are going. The question of training for young people was put on the agenda, as was the need for giving jobs to people from Reunion first.


The “historic bourgeoisie”, descended from cane oligarchs and big businesses in commerce, have quasi monopolies (or price alignment collusions) for the importation of vehicles, food and things like construction materials. They benefit from high selling prices, tax avoidance and pharaoh-inspired construction projects initiated by the Regional Council.


People want them to be reined in, and want all the inequalities to be addressed. So, this puts another issue on the agenda: the need to get peoples’ control over the elected MPs, and to put a stop to their clientelism and their habits of buying over agents by offering them future jobs in Government, using money from the rich. And to put a stop to their visible support to this handful of “families” that run the economy.


Another issue on the agenda is now is housing. This is a problem because in the past 50 years, the population has doubled (from 428 000 to 867,000) without housing keeping up.


Minister’s Announcement


The measures the Minister announced include the alignment of prices of 100 basic items of necessity with the prices in France. A committee has also been announced to study the tendency towards monopoly in importation that stops competition working to keep prices down. The President of the Region apologized formally for not realizing the gravity of the problems earlier, and promised to resign from one of the many boards he presides, and to ensure that in future elected people have only one mandate, and can only fill one elected post at any one time. There is also a proposal that Reunion becomes a Free Zone. Taxes on the bosses have been reduced so that this will, supposedly, stimulate the creation of employment. Taxes will be reduced on investment in housing to supposedly stimulate the building of new housing. To respond to the demand for peoples’ participation, there is a project being considered for ordinary people to become representatives who sit on committees to control prices, on the basis of a drawing of lots. There will also be the setting up of an observatory on public spending and how contracts and tenders are awarded. There will be budgets given to neighbourhood associations, and co-operatives or other associations that do not run for a profit.


But despite all the Minister for Overseas parts of France’s proposals, the revolt in Reunion has put the question of colonization on the agenda. And this comes at the time of economic crisis.


Written by JY Reunion on 1 December, and with bits added by LALIT members who saw them on different TV stations, checked by him on 7 December, 2018.


P.S. Al Jazeera TV showed one night, when the police or armed forces were attacking the demonstrations, the youngsters in Reunion had made the formation that the Romans used to call “the tortoise”, moving in on the armed forces behind a line of green dustbins on wheels instead of Roman shields, and with the invention of a second line of protesters carrying crowd-preventers in the wake of the dustbins, if need be, one assumes, for quick getaways. i.e. preparing to use the crowd-preventers as police-preventers.