France bids farewell to black pride poet Aime Cesaire

Other News Materials 21 April 2008 02:34 (UTC +04:00)

(AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy led thousands of mourners at a state funeral Sunday in Martinique for Aime Cesaire, poet and pioneer of the black pride movement.

Revered on his native French Caribbean island and elsewhere in the French-speaking world, Cesaire died aged 94 in hospital in Fort-de-France on Thursday after being admitted for heart problems.

Flags flew at half-staff in Martinique as thousands of mourners -- many dressed in white despite heavy rain -- converged on a local stadium to pay "cultural homage".

A ceramic plaque bearing Cesaire's name and carrying the words " Liberty, identity, responsibility, fraternity" -- the third being an addition to the French revolutionary warcry -- was placed on Sarkozy 's seat ahead of his arrival.

Sarkozy described Cesaire as an "indefatiguable defender of human dignity and respect for human rights ."

The president said the "principal lesson" learned from the poet's life was that true advances towards liberty and dignity are only achieved through a "sense of responsibility".

Relations between the two men had not always been smooth. In 2005, Cesaire refused to host then interior minister Sarkozy amid a row over a new law encouraging schools to teach the "positive role" played by France during its colonial past.

Cesaire's body laid in state after it was carried in a casket across the city on Friday, greeted by tens of thousands who lined the streets to bade him farewell.

With fellow writers such as Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, "Papa Cesaire" invented the term "negritude," which he defined as an "affirmation that one is black and proud of it".

He first used the phrase in the literary review "L'Etudiant Noir" (The Black Student), a seedbed for black consciousness he co-created decades before the emergence of Steve Biko or Martin Luther King.

There had been calls by French politicians to have Cesaire laid to rest in the Pantheon of national heroes in the Latin Quarter of Paris, alongside such literary luminaries as Victor Hugo and Voltaire.

But Yves Jego, the minister for overseas affairs, hinted that Cesaire would have been at odds with those calls.

"My feeling is that the family want his Pantheon to be his island," Jego said.

Sarkozy left Marseille early Sunday, accompanied by a coterie of ministers, Socialist leaders Segolene Royal and Francois Hollande and three former prime ministers -- Laurent Fabius, Lionel Jospin and Pierre Mauroy.

Senegalese Culture Minister Mame Biram Diouf and the prime minister of neighbouring Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, were also due to attend.

Sarkozy's decision to honour Cesaire with a state funeral was only the fourth time that a literary figure has been accorded such a distinction after Victor Hugo in 1885, Paul Valery in 1945 and Colette in 1954.

Born on June 25, 1913 in the small Martinique town of Basse-Pointe, Cesaire was educated in Paris on a scholarship, before passing an entrance exam for the elite Ecole Normale Superieure university.

Describing himself as "negro, negro from the bottom of the sky immemorial," Cesaire fought against colonialism and racism through political activism and poetry, at a time when France was a major colonial power.

His ideas were first fully expressed in his long poem "Return to My Native Land," a powerful depiction of the ambiguities of Caribbean life and culture .

As a playwright he is best known for two plays, "The Tragedy of King Christophe" and an original adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest."

Cesaire served as mayor of Fort-de-France between 1945 and 2001 and was a deputy in the French National Assembly between 1945 and 1993.

The island of Martinique is a department, or region integrated into France.