It’s been over two months since I arrived on the small tropical island of La Réunion as an Erasmus student. Approximately 60 kilometres from tip to tip, La Réunion lies roughly 500 kilometres to the east of Madagascar, and about 200 kilometres from Mauritius.
The island is a part of France – an overseas DÉPARTEMENT – of equal status to all mainland départements. French is therefore the official language of La Réunion, though it is by no means the only language spoken on the island: Réunionais Creole is spoken by all natives, and there are also some Asian languages (Tamil and Mandarin) spoken by minorities.
Debate has been raging for decades as to whether Creole should gain greater public recognition and importance. Most children on the island grow up knowing Creole, yet, after nursery, French is the language in which they are taught and expected to learn.
In an article from 2010, a prominent UNIVERSITÉ DE LA RÉUNION academic, Axel Gauvin highlights some of the incompatibilities of the French national curriculum to La Réunion: pictures of warm coats, hats and gloves tell Réunionais’ nursery children that winter starts in December, yet La Réunion has just two seasons- and by December summer has well and truly arrived. Fortunately for Erasmus students, the academic calendar is the same here as in France but, unfortunately for native students, they have to work through the swelteringly humid summer months.
they have to work through the swelteringly humid summer months
Tension between mainland France and La Réunion has been exacerbated by the high level of unemployment on the island, which rests currently at 36%. Youth unemployment almost doubles that in some areas, and measures 60% across La Réunion. According to a BBC investigation, many young people on the island feel that France is not doing enough to solve the problem, merely treating it with job-seekers’ allowance.
The alienation felt by many here occasionally manifests itself in violence. In 2012 mainland riot police were sent to La Réunion to deal with violent protests at the rising cost of living. While such demonstrations are sporadic, the anger sometimes lingers: on one bus journey into St. Denis, a local woman took exception to my presence.
The alienation felt by many here occasionally manifests itself in violence
In a fluid mix of French and Creole, she expressed her view, to anyone who would listen, that La Réunion is experiencing difficulties due to the European presence here. “You come here and take the school places which should be kept for Réunionais children, and think of us as savages.” Albeit extreme, such accusation paints a picture of the extent which anti-French thinking has reached: “Réunion pour les Réunionnais”, she concluded.
On the way back from a bar on our first night, a friend and I were accosted by four men who stole my friend’s wallet and my watch and phone. Little did we know that the quartier we’d just walked through was one of the least affluent of St. Denis, notorious for risk of that sort of thing, and the site of violent riots in 1991.
It has been suggested by a number of commentators that those riots were a response to the sense of disenfranchisement from the (French-speaking) administration held by a large number of the (Creole-speaking) population. “We are exiles in our own country”: translated from Creole, the response of a Réunionais local in the aftermath of the 1991 riots.
We are exiles in our own country
For the foreseeable future, this Indian Ocean outpost will remain a French overseas départment, but one of my lecturers believes its society will continue to have a communal Creole identity. Recognition of this information should lead to a bilingual system, as the Creole language is the only way to articulate a truly enfranchised Réunionais population. This does not mean a total rejection of French, but an acknowledgement of La Réunion’s “bilingualisme” and “biculture”.
Image by Alex F via Flickr