For Reunion Island, the 20th century was one of massive change. Reunionese men went off to fight in the trenches during the Great War, waves of immigrants from China and Madagascar continued in the 1920s, the Second World war brought great hardship to the island, the rise of communism had a huge impact on the island during the 1950s and 60s, and let’s not forget the arrival of the supermarket and the accompanying consumerism in the 80s and 90s.
Looking at the last century, there is one family which does stand out from the others. The name is Vergès, and whether it’s the patriarch Raymond, the two twins Paul and Jacques, or the grandchildren Françoise, Laurent or Pierre, no-one can deny that the family has had an incomparable influence on the island.
Born in Reunion in 1882, Raymond Vergès was both a doctor and engineer, with many travels taking him to work in China, Siam, Thailand and Laos. It was in Siam that he met his first wife, and two twins were born in 1925. His wife died three years later and, back in Reunion in 1931, he became a French Member of Parliament.
His two anti-colonialist sons would continue to make the headlines. They were both members of the Free French Forces in WW 2, and Paul was even parachuted into France behind enemy lines. Reunion then became a French Department, and in 1946 Paul was accused of organising the assassination of political rival Alexis De Villeneuve, who was gunned down in the street. Paul Vergès launched the Communist Party from 1959, and has been an MP, an MEP, a Senator and President of the Regional Council.
His brother’s path lay beyond the shores of Reunion Island. While studying to be a lawyer in Paris, Jacques became close friends with future Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. He rose to notoriety when defending an anti-French Algerian guerrilla who was convicted of blowing up a café and killing eleven people inside it. She had been sentenced to death, but with Jacques as her lawyer, she was pardoned and freed. Jacques converted to Islam, and they married some years later.
His further clients included Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, and the former Khmer Rouge head of state. He offered to represent Serbian tyrant Slobodan Milosevic was even on the shortlist to defend Saddam Hussein back in 2003. He died in Paris in 2013.
On a personal note, I have had the honour of interpreting for Paul Vergès, and found that his messages about overpopulation and the importance of energy autonomy are warnings that must be heeded as the 21st century progresses.
trenches – les tranchées
hardship – rudes épreuves
to stand out – se démarquer
whether – que ce soit
twins – jumeaux
to make the headlines – faire la une
gunned down – abattu par balles
lawyer – avocat
blowing up – faire exploser
to heed – tenir compte