Honouring Césaire, the poet and politician

French Caribbean writer Aimé Césaire, a leading voice of black cultural identity who died Thursday at the age of 94, will receive a French state funeral. Tributes are pouring in. (Report: T.Grucza)


The French Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, who died on Thursday at the age of 94, will receive a French state funeral on Sunday on his native island of Martinique, one of France’s overseas territories.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy will be among the many French politicians attending the ceremony, a final tribute to a man who was both a celebrated poet and long-serving politician.

Sarkozy said in a statement that the French nation mourns Césaire’s passing. "Through his universal appeal for the respect of human dignity, consciousness-raising, and responsibility, he will remain a symbol of hope for all oppressed people," he said.

In 2005, Césaire refused to meet Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, over concerns about a law to recognize the positive aspects of the legacy of French colonial rule. The right-wing UMP, Sarkozy’s party, had pushed for the law, though it was eventually repealed and the two men finally met in 2006.

For Africans, “a lighthouse that fades away”

As the main force behind the "negritude" movement that celebrated black consciousness, Césaire had a lasting influence on West African countries formerly under French rule, such as Senegal and Ivory Coast.

Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who knew Césaire from his student days in Paris, called his death a "catastrophe not just for Martinique, the Caribbean islands and France, but in particular for Africa and the black world…. It is through Césaire that we became aware of what colonialism was. We used to repeat it by heart.”

Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo said: "for Africa, the black world and humanity, a lighthouse just faded away."

Senegal’s Abou Diouf, secretary-general of the Francophonie, stressed the noble character of Césaire’s struggle, saying “it was devoid of this hatred that he abhorred.”

Césaire’s towering presence has been at times criticized by the younger generation of Caribbean writers. But tributes by his peers nevertheless have poured in.

“We lost the father, the friend, the brother and the poet,” said Haitian author Frankétienne. “May this master of words get a visa for eternity.”

Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane said he regretted that Césaire was not rewarded internationally by a Nobel Prize or a membership at the Académie Française.

“There’s no ‘Césaire school’,” the Guadeloupe native and publisher Daniel Maximin said. “He asks each and everyone to speak in his own words, to create what is to be created. And he did the same in politics.”

Césaire in the pantheon of France’s greatest minds

Césaire's anti-colonial rhetoric did not prevent him from having a long-lasting political career. After becoming mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945, he was elected to represent Martinique in the French parliament a year later, a post he held until the early 1990s.

The current Fort-de-France mayor suggested that April 17 became an annual day of mourning in Martinique. In France, members of the government and fellow deputies of the parliament spoke fondly of their Martiniquais colleague.

Yves Jégo, a junior minister for overseas territory, said France lost with Césaire “one of its most noble consciences,” while Interior minister Michèle Alliot Marie said: “The voice of a wise man dies away, and with him a part of the French Caribbean soul disappears.”

Socialist Party leader François Hollande said Césaire was a man of the Left, while the party’s former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal asked that Césaire be admitted to the Pantheon, the Paris monument which honours France’s greatest intellectuals.

The Guadeloupian-born soccer star Liliam Thuram, who met Césaire several times, compared the poet to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. But he said not enough French people have read his work. “Césaire is studied in the US and in Africa. But very few French students know him because Césaire said things that we don’t want to hear.”

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