Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Imperial leftovers

You probably don’t know it, but Réunion Island has been racked by riots about the price of gas last week. For those of you who happen not to be specialists of African geography, Réunion Island is a French département, roughly half the size of Rhode Island, located in the Ocean Indian, not far from Madagascar. It is officially a part of France, even if, of course, Frenchmen care about it only when it affects the mainland, such as when a chikungunya epidemic threatened to spill over Southern France.

It is not the only such island. France has kept from its colonial days a collection of smallish islands of dubious economic value, the average Frenchman will never put his foot on. Some are departments, ruled from Paris, others are more or less autonomous, one is ruled by a triad of tribal kings. With the exception of New Caledonia, and of those islets without any human permanent population, all of them are utterly dependent  on subsidies from the mainland for their economic survival.

At the origin, they were sugar islands or strategic havens on the roads to India or China. This made them tremendously important in the  wars which opposed France and Britain for the control of maritime trade roads during the XVIIIth century. After the fall of Napoleon, the advent of industrial society and the digging of the Suez Canal, however, they quickly lost their relevance. Today, they mostly live off tourism and government subsidies, which basically amounts to the same : wealth produced far away dumped on territories without any kind of natural resources.

Their economy stunted by the legacy of slavery and early trade union with a generally far better endowed metropole, those territories never developed a viable industrial sector and cannot compete with their poorer neighbors in the agricultural domain. As a result, their economy has become parasitic.

As everything has to be imported from France, the coast of living is significantly higher than on the mainland, while salary tend to be lower, and unemployment greater, which leads to regular troubles. Thus in 2009, Guadeloupe Island was shaken by a general strike which degenerated into a near-insurection. The government reacted by lowering the price of basics and by granting even more subsidies to economies,  have become embarrassingly dependent of them.

Needless to say, this will only make things more difficult down the road.

Those territories are quite hospitable. A few may be drowned by sea level rise, but most are volcanic in nature, with a rather rugged relief and a fertile soil. They were inhabited before the beginning of the industrial age, and it is likely they will still be relatively densely populated when it will be a mere memory.

On the short term, however, things look far less rosy. In an ideal world, our overseas territories should prepare for independence, export their surplus population to the metropole, disengage from globalization, tourism and cash crops focused agriculture to adopt a relocalized way of life.

As everybody has probably noticed, however, we are not in an ideal world. Even in those territories with a native population, there is no clear majority for independence. It is not difficult to see why. The French overseas departments have allowed themselves to be trapped in a vicious spiral of dependency. The same could be said, by the way, for Netherlands Antilles, which were supposed to transition toward independent after WWII, but never did so, and have been recently dissolved, its constituent parts becoming either "countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands" or mere dutch municipalities ruled from the Hague.

An independent Republic of Guadeloupe or Réunion, would have to support a French style state apparatus with a third world economy based upon tourism and vanilla or banana growing. This is clearly impossible and locals are understandably in no hurry to try. In fact, another Indian Ocean island, Mayotte,  recently voted to become a full French department, which will enable its inhabitants to benefit from the RSA (the French guaranteed minimal income, roughly 500 $).

The problem, of course, is that, with the age of cheap and abundant energy, France, and presumably The Netherlands and Britain as well, will be less and less able to afford those imperial leftovers at the other side of the world. At some point of the future, they will have to get rid of them, and violence is very likely to be a part of the equation.

French overseas territories are very dependent on oil. Unlike in France proper, most of their electricity is produced by diesel generators. As I have said, nearly everything has to be imported and the tourism sector is highly dependent on the continued availability of a reasonably cheap air transport.

As energy becomes increasingly rare and expensive, the cost of living in the French overseas territories will rise accordingly, while non-state-related revenues will plummet. This will lead to another round of civil unrest, like in Guadeloupe in 2009, in Mayotte in 2011 or in Réunion Island last week. The state will react the way it always does, raising wages, granting subsidies and sending a few rioters to jail. Local economies will be made yet more dependent.

At some point, something nasty is bound to happen, especially in those islands where social hierarchy is still partially based upon skin color. Old simmering feuds dating back from the colonization or from the age of slavery will resurface and being a member of a local minority will probably become very unhealthy. Please note, by the way, that "member of a local minority” does not necessarily means "white". The population of the former sugar islands is often quite mixed, with substantial Indian and Chinese minorities and New Caledonia (arguably a special case) harbors a strong Polynesian (mostly Wallisian) minority, which could be in an awkward situation should the conflict between Kanaks (Melanesian aborigines – roughly 40% of the population) and Caldoches (descendants of French settlers and convicts – roughly 30% of the population) erupt again.

New Caledonia and Polynesia are likely to break away, turning their anger toward France, which is probably the healthy thing to do. Since they have native populations with a reasonably functional culture and some people remembering how one can survive on a small island in the middle of nowhere, they are likely to reach the far side of the Hubert curve in a reasonably good shape. Places like the Marquesas Islands, may even fare better than before the colonization.

The other territories will cling to France like a castaway to his plank... and will be abandoned, either formally, or more probably informally. Like all European countries France will be forced to concentrate the resources it will be left on its core territory, which will increasingly mean Paris and the big provincial cities – this process has already begun, by the way. The administration will grow thin on the ground and local authorities will have to take over, probably in a disorderly fashion since they definitely don’t want to take over, and establish trade and cooperation networks with their neighbors rather than with far away Paris.

There have been a lot of precedents in history, and, to tell the truth, the outcome has not always been good. Sub-Roman Britain fell into warlordism when the Roman left but the Norse colonies in Greenland and the Polynesian settlements in Henderson and Pictairn islands died out, leaving only grassy ruins behind them.

I do hope that such a fate shall not befall our last colonies, as I do hope that the people who will build a sustainable civilization there centuries from now will be the descendant and the cultural successors of those who inhabit them now – they deserve better than the perpetual dependency in which we have entrapped them.

It will nevertheless be a long way down.