In my previous article, I discussed the interesting history of former French and British colony Mauritius. In fact, equally interesting is Mauritius’s “sister island”, Réunion, which is about the same size as Mauritius and lying some 170 kilometers southwest of it.
Like Mauritius, Réunion also used to be a French colony. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British invaded and conquered Mauritius in order to use the island as a strategic outpost for the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean.
However, the British didn’t go on to take the neighboring island of Réunion as well, and instead, they allowed it to remain under French rule.
That’s because all the British were interested in at that time was to control the Indian Ocean and secure the shipping route between South Africa and India rather than seeking territorial gains.
As long as the French no longer posed any threat to their hegemony in the region, the British were more than happy to co-exist peacefully with them and leave Réunion alone.
Yet unlike Mauritius, Réunion didn’t seek independence after the Second World War, and still remains a French overseas dominion today. Given that, Réunioneses are all French citizens as well as French passport holders by birth, and can therefore enjoy visa-free treatment whenever they travel to any European Union member state.
Apart from that, thanks to the juicy subsidies provided by the French government, Réunion has the highest GDP per capita in the region.
Often dubbed “Africa’s Hong Kong”, the tiny and tranquil island of Réunion had remained little known to the rest of the world until three years ago, when several pieces of suspected debris of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 were found washed up on its coast.
The French invasion of Madagascar in 1883 and its subsequent colonization had enormous political and economic impact on Réunion, as the two islands were closely related in historical, cultural, ethnic and economic terms. In fact, the close connection between Madagascar and Réunion in those days was just like that between Hong Kong and the mainland today.
At first, the Réunioneses welcomed the colonization of Madagascar by France, as they believed it would work in their favor. In particular, the vast population size of Madagascar was seen as a potentially huge market for Réunion’s sugar exports.
At one point, there were even calls for Réunion to merge with the administrative region of Madagascar in order to achieve economies of scale.
However, it didn’t take long for the people of Réunion to realize that what Madagascar was presenting was actually competition rather than business opportunities, not to mention that the vast majority of Malagasy were looking upon the Réunioneses, who regarded themselves real French, with suspicion and hostility.
In the wake of the Second World War, when decolonization movements were sweeping across the African continent, Réunion also saw a rise in nationalist sentiments. However, after having seriously weighed the pros and cons of independence, the Réunioneses eventually chose to remain a French dominion.
And Réunion’s decision to stay in France has definitely proven a right choice, as today the island is much better off economically than its neighboring countries. In contrast, Madagascar, which gained its full independence in 1960, has become one of the poorest countries in the world.
The prosperity of Réunion is, to a considerable extent, a testimony to the success of France’s policy towards its overseas territories: by holding on to its small overseas colonies that are scattered in almost every corner of the world and using them as strategic leverage, the French are able to maintain their diplomatic influence and even military presence in America, Africa and Oceania.
And the fact that French overseas territories such as Réunion, the St Martin island in the Caribbean and Tahiti are often much better off economically than their neighboring sovereign states can also foster the international image and “soft power” of France.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 21
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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