Sunday, 10 April 2011

In France this week, the negro poet from Martinique, Aimé Césaire, known as "Le nègre fondamental", was inducted into the Panthéon. The Panthéon is an ornate French necropolis where eminent people who have are deemed to have performed heroic service for France are buried. They include people from a variety of different fields: scientists, writers, soldiers, politicians and the like. Césaire's family wanted his remains to stay in Martinique, however, so a plaque in his memory was set up in the Panthéon instead.

French President Sarkozy proposed the honour himself, and the Socialist leader, Martine Aubry, too, was fervent in her praise of Césaire. She even spoke in Creole to express her joy. "Eia pour Césaire" (hurray for Césaire). Sarkozy praised him as a "indefatigable fighter for the cause of Martinique and negritude".

Speaking at the event, Sarkozy quoted Césaire's words from 1956. "We are there to say and demand: let the black peoples enter the great stage of history."

The case of Césaire, a militant anti-colonialist, is particularly interesting because of a concept he made much of in the 1970s: genocide by substitution. The idea was that genocide could be committed not only by killing people directly but by bringing in foreigners to take over land that had formerly belonged to the local inhabitants, gradually displacing them and eroding their culture through sheer weight of numbers.

Of course Césaire had in mind what had happened to Martinique. But Aubry and Sarkozy would do well to reflect on whether the concept is not now just as applicable to France - and to the rest of western Europe.


(If you understand French, you can see videos of Césaire talking about genocide by substitution at this link)


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