Aimé Césaire in Marseille: Diversity at a Dead End


Kenjah (France-Antilles) writes a about the dangers of Marine Le Pen’s National Front and its representative in Marseille, Stéphane Ravier, for the future of non-white French citizens, especially the people of Marseille. It gives several examples, such as the party’s refusal to acknowledge and honor the legacy of Aimé Césaire and Ravier’s claim to respect all French nationals, while inadvertently characterizing Martinicans as “others.”

Faced with the need to change its social makeup—faced with the challenges of globalization, global warming, and migrations due to poverty—the French republic takes refuge in an ethnic nationalism that heralds a “return to the future” of the tensions that marked the history of the twentieth century. The rise of the Marine Le Pen’s National Front is the most obvious clue, with Marseille and the PACA region as the most relevant laboratory. For now, we are only in the symbolic beginnings, but the awakening will be difficult for those who still believe that the principle of secularism protects their right to “difference” in France.

For it must be repeated, the secular notion of the National Front (NF) is an ethnic design, exclusionary and exclusive: among the French of non-European origin, only those who agree to renounce their culture, to alienate themselves, and to assimilate to Gallo-Roman Frenchness [francité], will have a right to citizenship. The NF senator and mayor of the 14th arrondissement of Marseille for the past few months, just gave yet another illustration: Aimé Césaire, a symbol among symbols of a different perception of France, was the pretext.

In 2011, anticipating the centenary of the birth of the Martinique leader, the Mam’Ega Committee–located in northern Marseille and the famous 14th district—took the initiative of creating a Marseille Collective for the Centenary of Aimé Césaire. Its main objective was to include this initiative in the special events related to “Marseille 2013, European Capital of Culture.” Despite its best efforts and the value of its proposals, the Collective failed to have its project approved among the hundreds of events organized around this theme.

As a result, the Collective proposed to the municipal administration of Marseille to assign the name of Aimé Césaire to a city street. In December 2013, the municipal council (of the 13th/14th sector) voted in favor of this proposal. The decision was unanimous except for one voice, that of NF’s Stéphane Ravier, now mayor of the sector. Despite these electoral uncertainties, the naming ceremony was officially announced for December 5, 2014, in the presence of Mrs. George Pau-Langevin, Overseas Minister, and Sophie Elizeon, inter-ministerial delegate for equal opportunity in the French overseas territories. Until we realized that the street chosen to carry such symbolic weight was only one: a dead end. In touch with the Collective, the Minister decided to delay the process, deeming that “such an action was unworthy of the stature of Aimé Césaire.” The ceremony was “postponed” indefinitely, with everyone dropping the ball and the Minister stating that her busy schedule was the only obstacle preventing her presence in Marseilles.

This mess, which says a lot about the place of overseas citizens in French society, was widely reported by the local press. Interviewed by the newspaper La Marseillaise, Stéphane Ravier (whose mother was naturalized at the age of 15) made a statement that we need to review in two aspects: “One cannot wear two flags on the same shoulder, out of loyalty … A Martinican will always have priority over a Swede because I do not have a racialist conception, but rather a national one.” All is clear. Everything and nothing. In the same sentence, he affirms the national principle (refusing to consider any particularism) but identifies “a Martinican” as a separate identity (that is part of the French nation, like a … say, Césaire). But then, what allows him to distinguish a Martinican from a French national? Is it birthplace? What about those who were born in France and who identify as such (as I do)? How does he define the reality of the Martinican circumstance? Why distinguish a Martinican from a Swede, if not to contrast the appearances of a Black [person] and an Aryan blond [person]? Should we de-name the street and metro station named after Désirée Clary, a Marseille citizen who became Queen of Sweden?

But Ravier’s opinion on Aimé Césaire merits attention: “He was a prominent politician, highly engaged against France. Very focused against decolonization (sic). He rejected our work and preferred to defend Négritude.” Let’s remember that Césaire continues to be denounced by West Indian exponents for independence for having rejected the path of a nation state, sealing the fate of Martinique in the French context. But the NF does not care about this. What counts for the party is the way of being French: namely, to spit on one’s own history, to deny any difference, to trim away any specificity. A good French citizen is a European or a shamed black man (or even a Harki).

One could not possibly be French and denounce the crime against humanity that was slavery; a French citizen could not possibly be proud of his African and Creole roots; a French citizen cannot charge that colonialism (via the nationalist sentiment of cultural superiority) persists in the French state and society. In short, for the NF, Aimé Césaire—the foremost among Martinicans—was not really French; he was no better than a Swede. When will we have a Mayotte Capécia Street in Marseille? [Capécia published in 1948 an autobiographical novel, Je suis Martiniquaise, advocating assimilation. Frantz Fanon described her as an example of Caribbean alienation.]

The vagaries of this sorry mess reveal an intellectual mediocrity that should serve to warn us about future exclusions, when the NF rushes to conquer the PACA region (and perhaps the French presidency). They strengthen our foothold in the thought and struggle of Aimé Césaire for a renewed humanism in the light of colonial violence that has been imposed on us for four centuries, this ethnic violence, for which Ravier and the NF maintain a disgraceful nostalgia. It is a nostalgia of bringing back France (and the French amnesiacs) to the deadly impasses that created the woes of Europe and the world during the past century. To them, our poet replied: “« Le Nègre vous emmerde! »

For original article (in French), see

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