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Death of a Poet


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How to honour a giant of French literature who has had a unique place in the hearts and conscience of the country for the best part of the last 50 years? That's the question that many are posing after the death on Thursday at the age of 94 of the poet and political activist, Aimé Césaire.

There have been calls for him to be interred at the Panthéon in Paris - the final resting place of many of this country's Greats. While many are in favour, it still needs to be clarified what Césaire himself would have wanted, and whether he should be buried on his native Martinique, where his funeral will take place on Sunday.

Césaire's was the voice of black consciousness for successive generations and he held a no holds barred approach to challenging the political establishment. He was recognised as a free and independent thinker, a poet, playwright and politician who embodied the fight against the injustices of colonialism and was revered throughout the French-speaking world as a crusader for West Indian rights.

His “Discourse on Colonialism" which questioned the role of imperialism and slavery was published in 1950 and became a classic in French political literature. It also helped the concept of “negritude" and the need for black people to be proud of their pride heritage.

Born on the French Caribbean island of Martinique in 1913, Césaire moved to mainland France to complete his high school education and study at one of the country's elite universities the Ecole Normale Superieure.

It was while in Paris in the 1930s that along with the late Leopold Senghor, who went on to become Senegal's first president, he co-founded a literary review called “The Black Student, " a journal that would later give birth to the concept of “negritude. "

From 1945 until his retirement in 2001, he served almost continuously as mayor of the capital of Martinique, Fort-de-France, and as a member of the National Assembly in Paris.

He earned the respect of politicians from all parties, even the current French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he originally refused to meet in 2005 when Sarkozy was interior minister. Césaire objected to Sarkozy's support for proposed legislation that emphasised the positive nature of French colonialism, but agreed to meet him a year later after it was repealed.

In a sense Césaire has for decades been the moral and political conscience of a nation and that goes a long way to explaining why there is now a move to have him interred at the Pantheon.

His political activism was matched by his literary importance, with the current minister of culture, Christine Albanel, describing his work as making the French language “beat to the rhythm of his spells, his cries, his appeals to overcome oppression, invoking the soul of subjugated peoples to urge the living to raise themselves up. "

His early poetry included Return To My Native Land and among his best-known works is an adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest.

For many he is as significant to French culture as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola - all of whom have been buried at the Pantheon.

May 10 has already been suggested as a possibility - a symbolic date, as it would commemorate the abolition of slavery in France in 1848 and the adoption of legislation recognising the slave trade as a “crime against humanity" in 2001.

But the final decision will probably have to be with his family and depend to a great extent on the wishes of the people of Martinique who are justifiably proud of their island's son.

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specialising in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France log on to


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