Départementalisation: 70 years ago

Today marks the anniversary of the departmentalization of France’s “old colonies”: Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion.

Une France Antilles DepartementalisationFrance-Antilles—a newspaper created under the aegis of De Gaulle to promote assimilation in the face of growing discontent—is celebrating with a front page illustration that says much about its editorial line.

But I am not interested this particular polemic at the moment. Rather, I’d like to use this opportunity to share a bit more of my manuscript in progress. Here is the section where I discuss political integration as an example of what Glissant calls the détour.

Glissant defines the détour in opposition to the retour, terms that Dash translates as diversion and reversion (Glissant 1999). The détour results from the impossibility of a colonial community to actualize itself in practice, to accept its ruptures from the past, and to heal its internal divisions. Furthermore, the détour is symptomatic of a system of domination that is so pervasive that it becomes invisible, forcing the subaltern community to seek the principle of domination elsewhere (Glissant 1997a, 48-57). The détour is both tactical and ambiguous. As Britton explains, “it is essentially an indirect mode of resistance that ‘gets around’ obstacles rather than confronting them head on.” The détour is a trick but, as Britton remarks, “it is itself marked with the alienation it is trying to combat.” She adds: “It is both an evasion of the real situation and an obstinate effort to find a way around it” (1999, 25).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2002) locates the origins of the détour in the everyday acts of petit marronnage at the edges of the plantation. While, in theory, the plantation was an absolute system of domination, in its actual instantiations, the system contained many interstices, cracks that slaves could exploit to manipulate the system from within. Trouillot explains: “And as slaves repeated such manipulations—on the one hand acknowledging the system, on the other circumventing its actualization in carefully chosen instances—they solidified the détour, the social time and space they controlled on the edges of the plantations” (202). It is through the creative manipulation of these openings that slaves were able to develop Creole languages, music, and religions; cultural practices that would come to shape not only their own environment but also that of their overseers. Trouillot concludes: “This creation was possible because slaves found a fertile ground in the interstices of the system, in the attitude provided by the inherent contradictions between that system and specific plantations” (202). There is, of course, a strong parallel between Hesse’s macro-level analysis of a creolized political and Trouillot’s micro-level analysis of what I see as the roots of an always already creolized anti- or postcolonial politics.

Glissant points to Césaire’s négritude as an aesthetic expression of the détour. Yet he does not connect it to Césaire’s politics, probably because they were at odds with his own, or at least with his politics at the time he wrote Le Discours antillais, a book still steeped in separatist longings. Césaire has often been criticized for what many perceived as the contradictions between his artistic production and his politics, between his radical Discours sur le colonialisme (2004) and his support for political assimilation, and—as was the case for Guadeloupean separatists in the 1970s—the tensions between the racial solidarities of his pan-Africanism and the class solidarities of communism. However, Wilder’s revisionist intervention (2015) demonstrates that these various strains of Césaire’s activity all participate in a consistent exploration of the fundamental problems of decolonization. First, the experiences of the French and Haitian revolutions had clearly demonstrated that, as long as Caribbean economies remained tied to capitalist regimes, republicanism alone could not ensure actual freedom: capitalist exploitation would always mollify political emancipation. Second was the realization that, as much as the French Antilles were constitutive parts of the French Republic, French culture played a significant part in Antillean life. From this perspective, it is possible to see the 1946 law of departmentalization as a profoundly practical political move, both from metropolitan and Antillean perspectives. It was simultaneously a testimony of the strength of Jacobinical ideology (radical egalitarianism within an indivisible territory) in French politics and an illustration of the politics of the détour.

For metropolitan Gaullists, the full incorporation of the French Antilles into the Republic preserved the integrity of its territory and participated in a broader effort to reconfigure France’s empire after a war that had weakened its own sovereignty. It also asserted France’s presence in the Western hemisphere, an especially salient issue given growing American influence on the region during the Cold War and, more directly, the United States’ direct input in French economic and political matters following World War II. More importantly, it preserved the French Antilles as a source of cheap labor and as a protected consumer market. Indeed, Antillean immigrants, funneled through the BUMIDOM (Bureau pour le développement des Migrations dans les Départements d’Outre Mer), contributed significantly to the metropolitan economic growth during the trente glorieuses (see chapter 3).

Conversely, for socialist and communist Antillean politicians such as Césaire, the 1946 law of departmentalization not only represented a victory against the white plantocracy but, at a time when the Antillean economy was crumbling, political incorporation also promised to bring greater social protection and higher wages to the islands. Finally, socialist politicians hoped that the French government—which after the war was dominated by socialist and communist forces—would move to save the ailing sugar industry by nationalizing it (Adélaïde-Merlande 2002, 80-82; Hintjens 1995, 24-25). In defending the proposed legislation, Césaire made an appeal to French political traditions and to the legacy of the Revolution (Miles 2001; Wilder 2015, chapter five). In other words, he worked within the French political structure, exposed its inconsistencies, and managed to transform it: a classic example of the poetics and politics of the détour. Conceptualized as a détour, the law of departmentalization overcomes its apparent contradictions. Rather than a politics of assimilation, it is revealed as a practical demand for “unconditional legal equality” within the French state (Wilder 2015, 106). Tied to this demand was a radical, if utopian, effort to redefine France itself as a postnational state (Wilder 2015, 199). The détour also helps us understand what Jean-Claude William (1997, 315) sees as the two contradictory impulses within Antillean “desire for reconnaissance (recognition)”: a “mimetic impulse” on one hand and an “affirmation of difference” on the other. We will return to the concept of reconnaissance and the détour in chapter 7. For now, it is important to note that Césaire’s ontological project—to redefine France and Antilleans’ position within it—is unfinished. To a great extent, it is its aftermath that I attempt to capture through the concept of Creole postnationalism.


Adélaïde-Merlande, Jacques. 2002. Histoire contemporaine de la Caraïbe et des Guyanes, de 1945 à nos jours. Paris: Karthala.

Britton, Celia. 1999. Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia.

Glissant, Edouard. 1997a. Discours Antillais. Folio Essais. Paris: Gallimard.

Glissant, Edouard. 1999. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Trans. by Dash, J. Michael. 3rd Printing. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Hintjens, Helen. 1995. “Constitutional and Political Change in the French Caribbean.” In French and West Indian: Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guiana Today, edited by Richard D.E. Burton, and Fred Reno. 20–33. London: Macmillan.

Miles, William. 2001. “Fifty Years of Assimilation: Assessing France’s Experience of Caribbean Decolonisation Through Administrative Reform.” In Islands At the Crossroads: Politics in the Non-Independent Caribbean, edited by Aarón Gamaliele Ramos, and Angel Israel Rivera. 45–60. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 2002. “Culture on the Edges: Caribbean Creolization in Historical Context.” In From the Margins: Historical Anthropology and Its Futures, edited by Brian Keith Axel. 189–210. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wilder, Gary. 2015. Freedom Time: Négritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

William, Jean-Claude. 1997. “Aimé Césaire: les contrariétés de la conscience nationale.” In 1946-1996: Cinquante ans de départementalisation outre-mer, edited by Fred Constant, and Justin Daniel. 315–34. Paris: L’Harmattan.


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