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Un petit morceau de bois

Text by Françoise Vergès

Examining a speech not made by André Malraux in Cayenne, Pierre Michelon focuses on a signature episode in the history of the departmentalization of French Guyana: the September 1958 referendum on the Constitution of the 5th Repubic. « A small piece of wood » considers this account in all its many versions: according to the Independents, the Communists, the Gaullists, the ministers, or all versions at once. This is the case with Jean Mariema, an important figure in Guyanese militancy, with whom Pierre Michelon constructs this model for a film. For the evening of performance-documentary on Monday, March 31st (Phantom Monday n°11), he collaborates with David Legrand and invites Françoise Vergès and Mathieu K. Abonnenc to share in the discussion. To accompany this work in progress, Pierre Michelon has assembled texts and documents that shed light, each in its own manner, on the different points of his research.

« Départements d’outre-mer » :de quoi sont-ils le nom ? (The French “Overseas Departments”: what do they name?)
Françoise Vergès01Colo-nom


Indeed, the question should be asked. Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique and La Réunion since 1946, Mayotte since 2011: what do these territories of the Republic “say” about French society and what do their economic, social and cultural situations “say”? What do they name? Are they places of postcolonial singularity in relation to the postcolonialism of France, which is today caught in the throes of a European and global “crisis” that provokes xenophobic identitarian withdrawals, economic restructurings and new routes toward solidarity? How does this crisis influence these spaces which have known crisis for decades: a weak industrial fabric, endemic unemployment, growing inequalities…? But these are also lands where consumer society, with its manners of living and being has been implanted, where the hegemonic discourse of the individual, of capital, of a “catch up” economy, of the western model—has penetrated society. These considerations must not make us forget the narrowness of these societies, not the narrowness of their physical spaces, but the narrowness of their public and social space. Aimé Césaire spoke of his joy of going to Paris, for he could escape from a world he described as having no flavor. Frantz Fanon, in “Black skin, white masks”, analyzed the integration of the model of the “whitened” individual, desirous of being accepted by the “white world” at the price of self-mutilation. Furthermore, for years novels and songs have spoken of a world where envy and jealousy corrode society, where all ambition must be reduced to the smallest denominator. These sentiments need merely to be evoked for dozens of anecdotes to merge: the feeling of being under surveillance, spied upon, conformism, male chauvinism, the lack of solidarity beyond the family and the clan, themselves shaken by tenacious hatreds. How can happiness be imagined when society is thus eroded from the inside by this enemy hidden in consciences? Yes, the French state and the local political classes must admit to their responsibilities, but what about our renunciations? And so, the overseas departments, what do they name?

Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique and La Réunion belonged to the first French colonial empire, Mayotte to the second. Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique and La Réunion were slave colonies and then, from 1848 to 1946, their inhabitants experienced a paradoxical situation, where they were both citizens and colonized. Since 1946, they are full citizens. But what sort of citizenship are we speaking of? What terms can describe today the condition of the overseas departments—Guadeloupe, Guyana, Martinique, Mayotte and La Réunion? What term best describes their diversity and what they share? “Colony”? “Postcolony”? The choice of a term goes well beyond description, it indicates a choice, that of politically characterizing the condition of these territories, not simply by the analysis of their administrative status, but by understanding their present.

My choice would be the term postcolony, to indicate that mutations have occurred, that the situation is no longer that of the colony. Nothing is set in stone in history. The intersections between levels (between human and social sciences and living and nature sciences—between sociology, history, economy, genre, politics, anthropology, biology, climatology…), between memories and histories of these territories (in Guyana, for example, memories of Amerindians, Marrones, Creoles, immigrants, descendants of exiles, prisoners and migrants and we must take into account all the differences within each of these groups), and in their relations with their environments and with France, are essential for a renewal of the studies on these societies. These lands are still too often considered in the relation “métropole/outre-mer” (or “home country/overseas”) as if each of these places had not experienced changes. The term “postcolony” (without the hyphen between post and colony) goes beyond periodization, always risky in history, and indicates the presence of the past in the present, a past that is reworked and a present that is becoming, evolving. A change of status never brings a clear and total rupture between a past and a present. Cultural and social traces, hierarchies and economic formations of the past coexist with what is new. Postcolony signals an intersection between past and present, taking into account the intersections and interactions between defense of former interests and new interests, between new social formations and including all this in larger contexts: the circulation of new images, ideas and new cultural and economic hegemonies as well as resistance to these hegemonies. To identify these lands as “colonies” is to continue to anchor them in a system that is no longer the same and to ignore the singular productions of these societies since the end of their colonial status. And so, we would not take into account the incredible transformation of capital on an international and national scale, of the new multi-polarity which has taken form since the 1990s, of the inevitable interdependence between local and global. The decolonization of knowledge comes hand in hand with an emancipation of binary analysis (home country/colony), which even in the past was not justified. The construction of “France” as sole signifier makes it an entity fixed in stone. It makes us forget that France is changing. The analysis of the request for the status of department in 1946 (2011 for Mayotte) and of what followed should therefore be studied in the social, cultural, political and economic context and the analysis of local, international and global interests. What alliances are created between social forces on the local and national levels? Can we neglect the impact of the ideological counter-offensive on these societies, a counter-offensive that at the global level contributed to marginalizing struggles or presenting them as dangerous, establishing feeling of powerlessness faced with the inevitable movement of the world toward merchandise and defiance toward the political, that is to say the action to make dreams possible. This counter-offensive granted itself means, it penetrated universities, the media, the family, the political and economic world. The victories of colonized peoples, minorities, women, first peoples, gays, constituted a veritable threat to interests, which regrouped, determined to reconsider rights acquired by struggle, determined to sow discord and to promote the idea that the only horizon is the individual, without society.

Is it not that we (“we” referring to those who are committed to the “outre-mer” or overseas residents) are trapped in an épistémè (in the sense given by Michel Foucault) which prevents us from analyzing these lands in the time of their past and the present of their mutations? The épistémè (the conditions of truth framing what is thinkable and acceptable) which frames what is thinkable and acceptable for the DOM (translator’s note: DOM is the acronym for “Départements d’outre-mer” or Overseas Departments) creates a closing. We evolve inside an historic “a priori” which determines our vision of the world and this “a priori” is the French colonial frame. But this latter has evolved. Our imagination is thwarted, everything has already been said, everything is already known. We are at risk of becoming obsolete, to our own eyes and to those of the world, unless we imagine ourselves, by an operation of compensation, as the center of the world, the only place of meeting. But over the course of centuries, populations have met, cosmopolitan spaces have existed, processes of creolization (the Swahili culture, for example), without “our” having had anything to do with it. We counted (a little) during the first colonial empire, in the rivalry with the English, due to the demand for our products (rum, sugar…), much less during the second colonial empire, more during decolonization processes and the Cold War, then finally less and less. Our lands counted because they contributed to making France the second most powerful maritime nation, they occupy strategic positions, they serve as a market for French consumer products and refuge for French expatriates. But their residents, do they count? Not the renowned athletes, musicians or novelists, but the others. Do they count in their own regard?

Capture vidéo, Motipeyi, Appunti #8, Internationalisme, 4 min, entretien entre Fabien Canavy et P.M.

Important mutations have occurred in the DOM since 1946; it is even possible to suggest that these changes have been the most important in the departments’ history. These territories were affected by changes in the economy of products which were their principal exports (sugar, bananas), changes that were the consequences of national and global decisions; their demographics changed (Martinique and Guadeloupe will soon be the two regions of France with the greatest number of elderly in their populations); their rural world has decreased in a significant manner, urbanization has accelerated; consumer society has taken strong root; the unemployment rate is the highest in decades, there is a high rate of illiteracy; the level of inter-family violence is worrisome, the lack of democracy in the press is a problem; these territories now have diasporas, world renowned artists; their middle class travels abroad and their children have international careers; the weight of evangelical churches is on the increase; we are witnessing a reinvention of religious traditions and practices; the Creole and Shimahoré languages are thriving and spoken by the majority of their populations; there is a strong assimilation of the forms of Western consumption and way of being as well as an indifference or resistance to these forms; social inequalities are extremely marked. What are the ideas that circulate in official and vernacular discourses? How is emancipation considered? What does it mean to be from Martinique, Guadeloupe, La Réunion, Guyana or Mayotte today? What are the social classes in these territories? In what form is racism expressed? Misogyny? The disregard of class? What are their relations with their regional environment, the Caribbean, South America, the Indian Ocean? How do they experience the hegemony of consumer society? How have they lived with decades of unemployment. Pollution? Health? Birth and death? Happiness?

Between 1946 and 2000, the four departments were also witnesses of the great events of the second half of the 20th century: the end of the European colonial empires and as a result independence processes, the Cold War, anti-imperialist struggles, Pan-Africanism, the civil rights movement, the emergence of a “Third World” cinema and literature, theaters, music and art from the “South”, the creation of contemporary art biennials outside of Europe and the United Stages, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of a multi-polarity in the world, the birth of ecological movements, the resistance of first peoples, the women’s movement, LGBT…

1946 put an end to the colonial status and opened a new horizon and promise, that of social equality. In his presentation of the project for a law made for the constituted Assembly in 1945, Aimé Césaire insisted on the necessity of protecting the working class against the abuse of a class of predators and argued that only the application of the home country social laws would guarantee that protection. The enemy was local capitalism and the Republic would be the shield against its abuses. But the overseas territories had always been thought of in terms of national interests and constraints: in 1945, the reconstruction of France was the priority, there would automatically be less money for guaranteeing social equality in the DOM. The question of “cost” (an old question, always applied to the colonies: what do they cost? how much do they bring in to France?) remains at the heart of debates concerning the DOM. For the anticolonial leaders of the French West Indies, departmentalization was also protection against the North American menace. In 1950, in a speech in the National Assembly, Césaire criticized the military pact that France was about to sign with the US and declared: “We ask for bread and we are offered arms.” He refused “in the name of his people” to support the US and would not criticize the USSR because the latter represented for the West Indians, who were victims of a “secular colonialism” of the “long Calvary that slavery was for us and which was followed, from 1848 and on, by a colonialism hardly less ferocious, barely more human” the possibility of a “fraternal development.” (Quoted by Ernest Moutoussamy, Aimé Césaire, député à l’Assemblée nationale, (1945-1993): 1993: pp. 43-44). His discourse on colonialism concluded by a warning against the barbarism of American imperialism. The Cold War had weight in the anti-colonial analyses of “ultramarines” (translator’s note: “ultramarin/e” is a term for residents of the French overseas departments), for whom communism represented a non-racial fraternity. They were close to the French communists and to anti-colonial movements worldwide, which for the most part were supported by the Soviet Union, the ANC, the Algerians, the Vietnamese… Aimé Césaire’s demission letter to Maurice Thorez, despite its importance, must not erase what the Soviet Union had represented for the colonized. They were welcomed with full honors in Moscow even as they were confronted with European and American racism; in Moscow they met colonized peoples in struggle but in complete freedom. And in the 1970s, several Antillais and Réunionnais pursued their studies at Lumumba University in Moscow. By choosing Moscow, the anti-colonials from the French overseas departments placed themselves in the international political context, even though they remained silent for a long time concerning the crimes of the Soviet Union. This inscription on the international level is not necessarily to be translated by an anchoring in the local context of anti-colonial struggles (the separation was less in La Réunion, probably because of the fact that in Madagascar, the Seychelles, the Comores and the Ile Maurice, French was spoken). To these identifications we must add, in the 1960s, the impact of the war in Algeria and the radicalization it engendered for a generation that began to think, with Frantz Fanon, that French society was impregnated, deeply marked, by its colonial past. In their regions, transformations accelerated: the Cuban revolution, independence processes and, further away geographically but just as important: Bandung in 1955, the trials of Algerians (where the DOM lawyers, Marcel Manville and Jacques Verges, distinguished themselves). The 1960s and 1970s were also marked by a celebration which was actively supported, if not initiated, by the anticolonial parties, languages (Creoles), cultures, knowledge and popular practices. Numerous cultural and artistic creations illustrated this movement of re-appropriation and affirmation. Education was democratized and universities were created, which fact does not prevent 60 years later high levels of illiteracy (14% in Martinique, 21% in La Réunion), nor jobless degree-holders.

Serge Frédéric, Pépèche, Turenne Radamonthe, Moscou. (non daté) © Collection Pierre Servin.

These years were also moments for economic restructuring, where forms of production were abandoned, where a new vision of a labor force to serve this restructuring emerged and consumer society became the norm. And so, it is legitimate to ask if BUMIDOM (translator’s note: the Bureau for the development of Migration in the DOM) was merely the expression of a need for a work force in France and a parallel need to empty out the “ultramarine” societies, or if it wasn’t also a local example of a reorganization of the economy on the national level, certainly, but also a global level, of a patriarchal political State policy toward the women from the DOM, and the “racialization” of certain jobs in the national economy? A new distribution of production and a restructuring which accompanied a new organization on the global scale of a mobile, flexible, racialized and sexualized labor force. Racialized, since the heritage of two other important moments of this global organization of a precarious, disposable, racialized and sexualized work force (whose victims were the ancestors of the “ultramarins”) are still significantly weighty: the slave trade and indentured labor. Sexualized because, as for slavery and indentured labor, the new forms of a mobile labor force aim for a ratio of 2/3 men and 1/3 women. BUMIDOM also relied on a patriarchal, racialized vision of natality. We must remember that Michel Debré, the initiator of this policy, used the terms “over-population” and “galloping demographics” for these societies at a time when he was defending a policy of increased birth rates in France and was strongly against the liberalization of contraception and abortion. French women needed to make babies, but women from the French overseas departments should not. The forced displacements of “ultramarins” in the 20th century should be considered in the light of the global organization of the work market, the national political patriarchy and racialized formations. The post-1946 years see the transformation of local industries: an important weakening of the cultivation of fruits and vegetable and of fishing; the disappearance of craftsmen and artisans; a concentration on the industries of sugar and bananas; the application of chemical discoveries in agriculture (which explains, 50 years later, the high levels of pesticides in the soils and waters of the DOM); unemployment sets in; public demand becomes the driving force of the economy. Social organization changes. The great strikes of the civil service in 1948, 1950 and 1951 give the same privileges of “metropolitan” civil servants to “ultramarin” civil servants (raises in salaries, bonuses…), for the notion of “local senior officer” is judged to be unjust, humiliating and discriminatory. The doctrine is still that of equality with the French. The privileges inherited from the colonial period are now applicable to all civil servants. They permitted an entire generation to raise itself socially and economically and to ensure the future of their children. If differences of category engender inequalities, the status of civil servant rapidly became the only guarantee for protection against growing unemployment. Workers’ strikes were brutally crushed and qualified as social revolts. There were deaths in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana and La Réunion, deaths which were forgotten in the national account. Militants were pursued and imprisoned. But the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s also saw the arrival of consumer society. As consumer goods and products were all imported, life became expensive, but it was a desirable life because it permitted people to have access to merchandise which was linked to a social status and self-image. The DOM did not escape from the hegemony of merchandise. In the 1980s, shopping centers like those in France made their appearance: the hegemony of the automobile transformed the landscape and social life: parking lots, traffic jams, accidents. The weakness and incompetence of public transportation created a social hierarchy between those who had a car and were free to move and those without a car, condemned to a certain immobility. Traveling from one town to another in territories which, with the exception of Guyana, are small, required hours in a car. Fuel, cars, automotive parts…everything had to be imported. “We do not consume what we produce and we do not produce what we consume”, wrote Christine Chivallon. The massive influx of metropolitan civil servants influenced manners of consuming and living. Media diversified, but usually supported only one voice, the only significant link was with France, the population was rarely heard and “cultural diversity” was celebrated by pacified staging. The tourism industry sold an attractive image to its targeted clients, for the most part, the metropolitan French. It cut up territories into sub-territories, each one stamped with an “identity”, that made it exist on the market. In La Réunion, for example, the south was considered “wild”, the east was “the beautiful country”. Tourist guides offered accounts of their history, where exoticism and the celebration of diversity were sales pitches.

The local political landscape diversified. On the one hand, the postcolonial parties from the 1950s to the 1970s were weakened, at the same time as local parties completely relied on national ones. Political life was assimilated. In “Le colonialisme oublié. De la zone grise plantationnaire aux élites mulâtres à la Martinique” (“Forgotten colonialism. From the grey zone of plantations to the mulatto elites in Martinique”) (2013), the sociologist Patrick Bruneteaux writes of political parties with mulatto ideologies which support an economy of annuities and does not question economic dependence on France, asking merely for a few concessions. “Social and cultural assimilation is the companion piece to a refusal of the political class to explain the relation between the colonial and the metropolitan.” “There is a facade of nationalism, which expresses itself in the insult to the home country,” adds Brunetaux, but the question of emancipation is not asked.

To move forward with this analysis, let’s put together some current facts:

-38% of Martiniquais have no diploma (for 16% in France); 11% of students exit the educational system with no diploma
-the lands of Guadeloupe and Martinique have been contaminated by chlordecone for centuries. Banned by the World Health Organization in 1979, it continues to be used on these two islands. Doctors have detected chlordecone in 92% of women admitted to the Pointe à Pitre maternity hospital
-DOM prisons are overpopulated. In “Neocolonial Dehumanization and Over-Exploitation” (2012), the economist Philippe Verdol notes a 2011 report in which experts declare that after having visited the Baie-Mahaut prison in Guadeloupe, the Antillais were “used to living in rather precarious conditions, there may be as many as four prisoners sharing an 11square meter cell.”
-the failure rate at the end of the first year of university oscillates between 62 and 98% at the Université Antilles-Guyane (Verdol, 139)
-in less than ten years, suicide has become the second highest cause for mortality in the male population of La Réunion. Of the hundred suicides per year—one every three days, on average—80% concern men
-in La Réunion, young degree holders remain jobless; an association, named “Bac +974” which defines itself as “apolitical” (for apolitical has become a valued stamp), estimates that degree-holders are faced with injustice. Reading the commentaries on a Réunnionais information site, the intense tensions that traverse a society touted as being harmonious can be measured. For example, in La Réunion, one must adapt oneself to the work market, not be ambitious, accept whatever job is offered, reject any politics of regional affirmative action because we are in a Republic and of course accept the deadly argument: “take your independence and then you’ll see!”
-in Guyana the rivers are contaminated with mercury. In 1996-97, a multi-disciplinary research program studying the presence of mercury in Guyana had already noted that “the levels of contamination in the Amerindian populations, determined by the dose of mercury in hair, indicates above normal levels.” ( This program came after the revelation of high levels of contamination in certain populations, in particular the Amerindian Wayanas communities, who live in the Haut-Maroni region. Mercury contaminates the fish which are the principal source of food for the Guyanese Amerindians. This has terrible consequences in terms of mercury poisoning: severe neurological problems in adults and birth defects in fetuses. In Indian villages, children are born without anuses, lacking limbs, others are paralyzed.
-In Mayotte every week, women, children and men drown in the waters of the island. Embarking on on overloaded kwassa-kwassas, having paid exorbitant prices to do so, they die. This other European frontier, with its marine cemetery and its retention centers is much less known than Italy’s Lampedusa, but it is also a symptom of the “Fortress Europe” policy.
-In the list of “ultramarine” regional languages presented by the national Ministry of Education, we find Tahitian, Melanesian, Wallesian and Futunian, but not Kubushi and Shimaoré, which are spoken in Mayotte.
-Anti-Muslim racism is not expressed only in France: on the night of December 31st, a pig’s head was left in front of the mosque in the town of Labattoir, in Petite Terre, Mayotte. The accused, a gendarme and his wife, had acted under the influence of alcohol, after a bet.
-Businesses manufacture their own forms of racism, a product of the strategy which consists of setting the poor against the poor, the disadvantaged against the disadvantaged:
> in La Réunion, racist attacks against Comorans are multiplying. Considered to be foreigners (in fact, 91% of the “Komors” are of French nationality), they are mistreated by administrations. (“Racism is everywhere. Pronouncing wounding words, or making people come back several times because they don’t have the right paperwork, are common practices”) and victims of exploiters. Anti-Comoran racism goes back to the period of the 1930s and the Second World War; on the docks of the port of La Pointe des Galets, was the “Kan Komor” (Comoran Camp), which designated the presence among port workers of Comorans brought to La Réunion. These people were the object of sarcasm on the part of their co-workers. And when, on the weekend, they wanted to have fun and organized parties, the mayor came down onto the docks at the head of a group of roughnecks to calm things down, using whips. (
> In Guadeloupe, anti-Haitian racism exists on an island where unemployment represents about 27% of the active population, where more than 23 000 Rmistes (“Rmiste”: person who receives the Minimum Insertion Revenue) provide for the needs of more than 67 000 people, for a total population of 444 000 people (figures from 2003).
-Importation and exportation with neighboring countries is almost nonexistent; commercial balance has been very unbalanced for decades, if importation of food products from France were to cease, “ultramarine” societies would survive for barely a week.
-Cliches concerning these societies endure: they are seen as lands of assisted people, who are ungrateful and lazy.

But what do these numbers really say? They are only indications. What veritable humanity do they hide? How is life experienced by the women and men of these islands? Several worlds coexist, although often they do not frequent each other. There is the world of appearance, the world that wants to be “part of things”, wants to be part of “globalization”, that has an idea of success as something indexed to money and social success, that fears no longer being part of the world that “wins”, “advances” and “moves”, formulas that indicate the capacity of the neo-liberal and individualized discourse to penetrate consciences; the world that lives on small salaries and just maintains its head above the water, but does not always have the means to send its children to university (in La Réunion, the percentage of scholarship students in 2011-2012 was 54% of the total number of students registered in initial cycles); the world of young people who choose not to live in France and form new diasporas, the world of people who live below the poverty threshold, those who live with the RMI or the RSA (Revenue for Active Solidarity), the world of people who haven’t the means to go out socially or take vacations, single parent families, gangs, athletes, churches, temples, the world that protects itself from the eye of the anthropologist, the sociologist, the investigator, the social worker… These worlds are not disconnected from social issues, but they live them and confront them in a different way.

The situation is complex, hindered but full of possibilities, temporarily stuck, but capable of movement. If it is impossible to predict the future, for that would mean stopping the movement of time and refusing the inevitable place of the unexpected that is part of history, it is possible to reflect on this singular postcoloniality, of which the DOM are the symbol. They each harbor languages, beliefs, religions and knowledge; they cannot be reduced to any other space and yet they share a history. They share a postcoloniality in a Republic which itself is in its own particular postcolonial situation—and all of this in a changing world. What should be done? Without a doubt, we should listen to the inhabitants, their anger, frustrations, dreams and hopes. We should not listen to the voices of the public figures whose voices predominate and speak in the place of… We sould listen to the voices of people rarely heard, whose voices sometimes irrupt into the public space, without having been invited. They do not have the manners of those who have assimilated the codes and language of hegemony. Without idealizing them, for all idealization will finally turn against the idealized person and because “victim” does not mean having no contradiction, we mush renew our analysis. It is certain that away from the regard of predators, utopias, dreams and ideas will emerge. Let us listen to them.

Françoise Vergès
Childhood and adolescence in La Réunion, during periods of great struggle for civil rights and against postcolonial repression; leaves for Algeria (baccalauréat) and then France; militant in the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes, journalist, editor, militant for human rights (collects testimonies of women in Chili under the dictator Pinochet, then in Salvador, Nicaragua, the Soviet Union); leaves France in 1983, lives in Mexico and then the United States, where she decides to pursue studies (1986)—undergraduate, master’s, PhD at the University of Berkeley (1995). Returns to Europe in 1995, positions in England. Vice-president of the Committee for the Memory of Slavery (2004-2008), then president. Project chief for the future museum, the La Réunion House of Civilizations and Unity (2003-2010), project canceled by a mandate of the UMP party in March 2010. Publishes works and articles in French and English on postcolonialism, Fanon, Césaire, the museum, colonial memoirs; author of films; collaborates with artists.