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Sunset in Reunion

More and more people from Reunion are moving to France but do not always expect the cultural gap between the Mainland and the island

By Cecile Bussy

There’s an island in the Indian Ocean where Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese Taoists and Atheists come together to celebrate their respective religious festivals. Welcome to Reunion Island!

Reunion in the world
Reunion Island on the map – Public Domain

The former French colony welcomed migrants from Europe, Asia and Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. This explains its ethnic diversity today. In 1946, it became a French department, a status that provides to Reunionese the same rights and duties as any other French citizen living in France.

Roxane Mak-Po-Pan was born to a father of Chinese ancestry and a mother who is of mixed Indian and African descent. The religious and ethnic diversity makes Reunionese people mixed-race.

“People think that I’m Vietnamese or Indonesian when they see me,” said Mak-Po-Pan. She moved to France for her bachelor’s degree at La Sorbonne university six-years ago.

“Why aren’t you black?”, “Do you speak French?”, “Do you have roads in Reunion?” are some of the questions Mak-Po-Pan has faced since she moved to Paris. They highlight how little French people know about the country’s overseas departments.

“Apart from speaking about Reunion’s highest mountain during geography classes, there’s no education about the island,” said Bastien Laurent, a 32-year old business-owner based in Paris. “The people who know Reunion better are from African countries, Pakistan or China,”

Laurent’s father is from Reunion but he was born and raised in Paris. He said there is a lack of recognition of Reunionese in France.

“We’re often forgotten, confused with people from Northern Africa, or misrepresented.”

Laurent owns a Reunionese food stall at a Parisian food market. He launched it to represent Reunion in the mainland and to bring comfort to homesick Reunionese in Paris. Unlike French cuisine, food from Reunion is flavourful and spicy, a mix of Indian, Chinese, African and French cuisine.

Food from Reunion
Reunionese traditional dish is made of rice, beans, meat and a side of chilli. Photo by Bastien Laurent

“Paris still considers overseas territories as colonies”

Apart from the lack of recognition, language also makes it difficult for Reunionese to make the transition to living in France. Although the official language in Reunion is French, 80 per cent of Reunionese consider Creole to be their first language.

“Creole plays a big role in the Reunionese identity,” said Valentin Chambon, the president of the Reunionese Student Union based in the Mainland (UERH). “There is a stigma around Reunionese Creole and until recently, Reunionese civil servants were completely forbidden to speak Creole.”

Last month, a high school teacher was asked to switch from Creole to French while he was speaking outside the classroom with his students. He received a warning from a school inspector.

“I still think Paris considers overseas territories as colonies,” said Chambon.

Historically, France is known for adopting a cultural assimilation strategy in its colonies, compared to say Britain, which was generally more tolerant of local cultures and religions.

Nathalie Kouyate, the communication officer of the Interministerial Delegation of Equal Opportunities for French Overseas is aware that overseas citizens struggle when they move to France. For instance, they cannot receive state benefits because their national insurance number is linked to the overseas social security office.  

“The government knows the difficulty faced by overseas students, that’s why we launched the “Overseas Student Forum” last year,” said Kouyate. “The forum helps them to build a professional network, open a bank account, find housing so they can start their journey in France on the right foot.”

Valentin Chambon welcomes these moves to be more inclusive to overseas French citizens. However, he maintains that Reunionese identity is different differs from mainstream French identity in France: “The people of Reunion have an Indian Oceanic identity defined by a cultural and religious blend from Asia, Africa and Europe. France was never colonised, our identities are therefore very different.”  

Racial diversity of Reunion: Thomas, Antoine, Matthieu, Pauline and Roxane (quoted above) – Photo By Cecile Bussy