Thirty-seven percent of Réunion's population of 700,000 is unemployed, with the figure rising to 60% for under-25s. Per capita gdp is less than half the French average, yet food costs 30% more. You are seven times more likely to die of an alcohol-related accident or ailment and, if you're a woman, twice as likely to be raped. "If you had the same social indicators in some parts of mainland France, the bomb would already have gone off," says Thierry de la Grange, director of the Réunion Development Monitor, a consultancy based in the administrative capital of Saint Denis.
The last time Réunion exploded was in 1997, when French civil servants who are paid 53% more than they would be for doing the same jobs on the mainland protested plans to end their privileged status. That insensitivity has contributed to sporadic outbreaks of violence among this Creole community. "The younger generation doesn't really have any hope," says Jean-Michel Grosset, a high-school principal and resident of the town of L'Entre-Deux (pop. 5,000). "They live off benefit payments and anesthetize themselves with alcohol and marijuana. It's a breeding ground for despair."
The local sugar industry is uncompetitive and, because it's part of the European Union's single market, unprotected. The result: in 1999, Réunion's balance of trade was in the red to the tune of over $1.9 billion. At the same time the island has been experiencing a demographic explosion, with a birthrate almost double the European average. "Two worlds coexist here," says Paul Vergès, president of Réunion's regional council. "People who work many of whom are overpaid colonial civil servants and people who survive thanks to French benefit payments. Welfare protection has deepened the social divisions of the colonial era and created an artificial economy."
Given the cost of propping up Réunion's economy, a whopping $2.7 billion per year in benefit payments alone, why does France do it? "It's more sentimental than rational," says De la Grange. "Réunion was a desert island before the French settled it in the 17th century."
It may also have something to do with votes. After 1980 the left and right were so close in the opinion polls in mainland politics that the combined weight of the four overseas départements the others are Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana could swing an election. As a result these tiny colonial hangovers have formed a compulsory pilgrimage destination for any candidate seeking national office. "Our overseas territories are like a woman," Jacques Chirac told an audience in Réunion during the last presidential campaign. "You have to love her. And when you love her, you can't refuse her anything."
In practice, that love finds expression in huge sums of public money flung at the islanders. Traditional houses of wood and corrugated iron are steadily being replaced by the ugly concrete housing projects that ring all French towns. The revenu minimum d'insertion (rmi) a low-level unemployment benefit created in 1988 provides a financial lifeline to one-fifth of the island's population.
The result has been a brain-jarring shift in lifestyles and new aspirations for European standards of living. "The island's completely changed over the past 30 years, creating a gulf between the generations," says one school social worker. "Today, everything revolves around consumerism. The kids want trendy brands."
The problem, however, is the kids don't have the money to pay for all those trendy brands. So the number of robberies has almost doubled over the past 10 years. "For decades the rmi and other welfare payments bought social peace by replacing viable economic policies," says Vergès. "But we've come to the end of that logic. Consumer goods are being presented ostentatiously to a growing population that can't afford them. In the future, that could have very serious consequences."
Not everyone takes such a pessimistic view. "The problems of Réunion Island are no more serious than those you'd find in the suburbs of a mainland city," insists a source close to the Secretary of State for Overseas Territories in Paris.
During the recent campaign for mayor in L'Entre-Deux Grosset, the unsuccessful Socialist candidate, sat in his kitchen wearing a pair of shorts, chain-smoking and drinking coffee. The corrugated iron roof creaked as the morning sun pushed the temperature up toward 30°C. Somewhere outside, a loudspeaker vehicle exploded into life, sending the lilting zouk rhythms of his campaign song ricocheting off the walls of the surrounding buildings at earsplitting volume. Grossat reeled off a few statistics about his town: 40% of the people are illiterate, unemployment runs at 41%. As Réunion's voters filed into the polling booths, local papers warned of a volcano alert. In the event, it didn't blow. But one of these days it just might.