Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Martinique 1, Sarkozy 0

What 2 weeks of social unrest and burning cars have not managed to do, Martinique did: for once, French Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy had to back off
- and postpone his trip to the French West Indies (which are French overseas “departments”) as many local organizations and a number of elected officials and union leaders were ready to protest Sarkozy’s arrival. Why is that?
Well, officially they want to protest a law, discreetly voted last February, which requires teachers to “teach the positive side of colonialism”
(here's the text in French), a sensitive issue in the Dom-Tom whose black population descends from the French slaves.
Despite the strong opposition of many historians and prominent figures, the shameful law has not been cancelled. It blows my mind that Sarkozy dared talk about "misunderstandings" (malentendu) concerning the law. There is no limit to this guy's arrogance for he is
the one who fails to understand the anger that surrounds both this law and his persona. (well, actually he does know and enjoys every bit of it)

Even though Mr Sarkozy is not directly responsible for the law, it is his whole persona as well as the words he has recently used (words that sparked the social unrests in France last month) which can explain such resentment.

It is also the ambiguity of his role- he is at the same time a Minister in De Villepin’s Cabinet, a leader of the conservative party (UMP) and a candidate for president. Clearly he has been using his position as a minister of the Interior to promote his personal agenda and candidacy. That is also why Aimée Césaire, the famous and much respected Martinican author, has refused to meet with him for fear of having the image of their meeting used for Sarkozy’s own promotional campaign as well as to protest the pro-colonial law. Smart move for an old guy!

All this is once again a sign of the changes taking place in France and the tensions bred by the resistance to those changes. The riots in the impoverished suburbs, the issuing debates over racial integration, the role of religion - all have taken their tolls on the French self-assurance. The French old Republican model is about a 100 years old and it is aging and cracking on all sides. It needs some good fixing but the fixing may be a painful process and some people don't want it.

So right now, this resembles a real cultural war - not unlike that in the US - and the stakes are high as the winner is likely to reshape part of the French identity.
[sorry for this binary view, but there are times when things need to be pushed a little to the extreme for sake of clarification]
One illustration: last week, the French (ruling) conservative party (UMP) - whose leader is Sarkozy - rejected demands for repeal of the pro-colonial law. On what ground? Probably because the repeal was asked by the opposition, but also because the fringe of their electorate that benefited colonialism has not died yet. Strangely enough, the divide there is also generational, just like the devide between those who support Sarkozy and those who feel strongly against him.

In concrete terms, we can only hope that the French government and legislature soon give in to the demand to repeal that pro-colonial law and that the country as a whole swiftly responds to the recent wake-up calls about racial integration. But that's not going to happen overnight. In the end, I still think this is actually a great opportunity to face the real issues and be done with taboo subjects. I also believe that "resistance is futile" because our society can only move towards more integration and a reviewing of history which includes the contribution of "visible minorities". That can happen through pain and resentment or in a peaceful way. Unfortunately amibitious Sarko is not ready to make peace.

The most satisfying thing in the present "game" is that today Martinique and Césaire definitely scored points for the "progressive" team and it is always so entertaining to see the other team lose some .


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