Emmanuel Elong (TéléObs)
(Translated by GRAIN)
He testified against Bolloré: “Of course I’m worried”
Emmanuel Elong, the farmer who came from Cameroon specifically for the lawsuit filed by the Bolloré group against France 2, tells of the psychological pressure you are under when you confront a major group in Africa.
By Véronique Groussard
Emmanuel Elong is an independent grower in Cameroon. His village lies within the Socapalm plantation in which the Bolloré group has a stake. He is also the chair of the Synergie Nationale des Paysans et Riverains du Cameroun (Synaparcam). On 3 April, he was present at the Nanterre High Court, which examined the defamation suit filed by the Bolloré group centred around a portrayal of the businessman broadcast on France 2. He testified in favour of the journalist Tristan Waleckx, attesting that the living and working conditions on the palm oil plantations are, in fact, the way they were shown in the contested report; in other words, deplorable. On the eve of his return to Cameroon, Emmanuel Elong reveals his anxiety and concerns about facing the group he testified against back home.
TéléObs. Was it easy to obtain a visa to come and testify in the trial?
Emmanuel Elong. I submitted a visa application on 1 March at the French embassy in Douala. My supporting documentation was very complete: plane ticket, hotel booking, travel insurance, marriage certificate, birth certificate for my children, bank statements and, most importantly, a subpoena to testify sent by the Nanterre prosecution and an invitation from France Télévisions... On 15 March, they refused my visa application because – according to the reason provided – they were afraid that I would stay in France. France 2’s lawyer intervened. I was asked to appear again at the embassy 50 kilometres from my home. But transportation there not very practical. I had requested a visa for 15 days. When they gave me the passport, the visa was for... six days.
Had you already been to France?
- Yes, in 2014, on the invitation of the Bolloré group, who were looking for means of having dialogue with locals. That time, I did not have any problems getting my visa. In 2017, I was invited by the Sherpa association, which supports our movement. We were going to put forth our demands before the chair of Bolloré during the General Shareholders’ Meeting. I did not obtain a visa, and the two other Cameroonians invited did not obtain theirs either.
How did people around you react to your subpoena to testify?
- I tried to keep it secret. Nonetheless, the information that there would be a court case in France spread very quickly, because another witness who wasn’t able to come (he didn’t have the necessary papers - ed.) bragged about it a lot. You see, going to Europe changes your status; people can’t just talk to you however they want anymore. In February, I was at some funerals in Douala, and a Cameroonian from France who I didn’t know came up and spoke to me: “Cousin, I heard you’re going to France to testify for Antenne 2. What are you going to get out of that? If you want, I can take you to see a communications manager from Bolloré at Camrail (rail transport - ed.). You’re poor, they will transfer money to your account. Don’t go to Paris.”
Were your friends and family in favour of you coming?
- No. They said to me: “It’s a big trial with high stakes, between two big companies. What will you gain from testifying against Bolloré?”
Why did you keep your invitation a secret?
- I avoided talking about this trip for my own safety. Last week, I was riding my motorcycle to Douala and noticed a car was following me. I stopped, and the car went past. I set off again and I saw that it was waiting for me a bit further along. I started to fear going to Douala. I’m more vulnerable there than in my village. I stopped going out much at night because the area I was in is badly lit. And I took public transport rather than my motorcycle. People only knew for certain about my trip to France very late on, because of the French press, in fact.
- Two days before I left, the Socapalm consultant, who has a mediatory role between the company and the local people called me: “You’ve been keeping secrets from me... When are you leaving?” I lied, assuring him that I was leaving the next day. I turned off my phone when I would have been on the plane and I didn’t go outside anymore. I didn’t want to risk being harassed or someone stealing my passport. I left Cameroon with this pressure on me. It was arranged that Tristan Waleckx would come and pick me up from Charles de Gaulle. For me, France represents safety. But someone else came to pick me up, telling me that Tristan had been robbed in the night, that he was shut up at home and was barred from coming. And there was no way to reach me because my phone from Cameroon did not work in France. That scared me. As a result, France Télévisions put me up in a different hotel to the one they had planned.
France Télévisions put you under protection, you and Tristan Waleckx. Did this situation surprise you?
- I had decided to come and testify in France because you can express yourself there without fear...
During the trial, there was the question of a worker who stated in the documentary that he was 14 years old. This employee of a Socapalm sub-contractor later retracted this, saying that his uncle had forced him to lie. The Bolloré group’s lawyer, Olivier Baratelli, stated that the uncle is you...
- No, absolutely not. This young boy is not my nephew.
You are not employed by Socapalm but you work with them and represent the local people. What is your relationship to this company?
- After we first mobilised in 2013, a consultant in charge of mediation offered me various perks: laying tiles on the floor of my home, paying for my children’s schooling, paying my rent for two years... A Socopalm executive told me: “Before sweeping your neighbour’s yard, sweep your own!” In other words: look after your own interests and give up the fight. When I got a visa to go to France in 2014, the secretary general of Socapalm at the time had this reaction: “You have worked hard. Close that door and don’t look back.” More recently, I was told: “We can find you a job at Bolloré Africa Logistics in the port of Douala.” The idea is always the same: break up the movement. If I did that, my children would have a very high price to pay. A terrible curse would befall them.
You acted as a guide on the plantation to the France 2 team. What happened next?
- Socapalm is used to me showing NGOs round so no one paid any attention the first day. The second day, the journalists were there from 5 o’clock in the morning, at hiring time. They filmed the harvest, and I brought them to the head of the village who encouraged them, because this is a legitimate fight. The security personnel called the police: “They told us ... you brought white men here. You have to bring them to report to us for their safety.”
After the documentary was aired, in April 2016, the surveillance on me grew more intense; the people I brought home were identified and their registration recorded. And if I went to the cafeteria or one of Socapalm’s small businesses, I was under surveillance. My freedom of movement was under attack. After that, things calmed down until these last few days.
You’re going back to Cameroon. What is your state of mind?
- I am worried because I already testified – in writing – at the court case launched by the Bolloré group against the NGOs Sherpa, ReAct and media outlets Le Point, L’Obs and Médiapart. Bolloré lost that case. At the hearing against France 2, on 3 April, the chairman of the board of directors at Socapalm, cited by the opposing party, could not deny the realities that I denounced, but he accused me of being a pawn of Sherpa and ReAct to undermine me. I am starting to inconvenience them. They can’t keep the international NGOs and media quiet, so they will seek out local strategies and mobilise their network in Cameroon to hush me up or confine me so that I am no longer free to speak out. Of course I’m worried.
Interviewed by Véronique Groussard