West Indian departments

from 1946, the process of decolonization by assimilation made it possible to maintain the Antilles in national space. The departmental framework, considered the source of all rights inherent to citizenship, has profoundly influenced West Indian politics and society.

From a thesis defended in 2018 at Sorbonne University, the work published by Sylvain Mary is a detailed and solidly documented analysis of the unique historical trajectory of Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Notwithstanding the wind of independence which blows from the second half of XXe century on the former French possessions in the world, these two which are part of the four old women Colonies, like Guyana and Reunion Island, chose in 1946, on the initiative of their elected representatives, a heterodox path to decolonization: that of integration within the French Republic.

Aspirations for legality

The question mark which punctuates the title of the book recalls both this singularity and the complexity of the situation created through the sometimes chaotic transition from the status of colony to department. Simple alignment with the norms and institutions of France – decolonization by assimilation – is far from having entirely resolved the colonial question. It has also not resolved the recurring problem of the political status of these territories, marked by a strong identity while being subject to an external and distant center.

Departmentalization has certainly reshaped island societies, interfering at all levels of their social organization. But in return it has fueled many questions, even a certain disenchantment with the state and its action in island societies steeped in republican values, in particular that of equality. In a word, it fits in a contradictory history of the republican ideal in the West Indies, at the crossroads of the equality aspirations of a local elite and a state policy with contrasting results (p. 25).

This means that Sylvain Mary's choice of a history of the post-colonial state, emphasizing its interactions with island societies, proves relevant. The work distances itself from any univocal approach which would make it an omnipotent being. On the contrary, he emphasizes, despite the displayed voluntarism and a strategy which aims to keep the Antilles in the national heritagethe difficulties in grasping, on an analytical level, realities that are rather refractory to the usual categorizations and, from a political-administrative point of view, to the traditional classifications which structure the action of the State.

From this arise the uncertainties, worries and hesitations which sometimes seize the senior civil servants who serve the latter locally or in Paris, as well as the discrepancies and dissonances with island societies. The backdrop of the Cold War, the geographical proximity to the island of Cuba as well as the decolonization processes underway in the world, including the Algerian War, create a zoom effect allowing us to grasp the action of the Anti-colonialist movement in the West Indies through amplifying and disproportionate reactions on the part of the state or its representatives, as evidenced by the urban rebellion of 1959 in Fort-de-France.

Ldepartmental order

One of the essential contributions of the work is the place given to the international dimension, thanks to the crossing of French and American diplomatic archives, in the study of the process of departmentalization, whether it is a screen against international protests at the time of its launch (chapter 1) or to make it a geopolitical issue in the context of global cold war (chapter 6).

Few publications devoted to the recent history of the Antilles have, in fact, provided such a meticulous analysis of the debates and strategies which animated the actors of the moment, in particular the positioning of the United States and the Gaullian Republic. Equally limited are those which have assessed their effects on the future of the status of overseas department assigned to the Antilles: it appears, however, that this was temporarily frozen due to the international rivalries specific to the period and a convergence of interests between France and the United States aiming to crush any desire for change.

As for the actual action of the State in these island territories, it is part, in connection with these concerns on the geopolitical and international level, in a chronology whose division which structures the work seems entirely appropriate for analysis. the hasty commitment in 1946 to a process of decolonization by assimilation little concerned about the long-term induced effects and the means that should be mobilized in order to respond to the expectations which continue to arise locally, succeeded from 1959, in response to the tensions born on the spot, the Gaullist temptation to impose a departmental order.

Founded on an incontestable voluntarism of the state apparatus accompanied, where appropriate, by repressive measures, this order is mainly focused on the fight against separatism and the promotion of the paradigm of catching up erected into a true normative theory of public action. It will nevertheless be partially disrupted from the 1970s onwards thanks to political changes occurring at the national level, in particular the arrival of Valry Giscard d'Estaing to the presidency of the Republic in 1974.

The story continues

Partially disrupted, in fact: the action initiated by VGE remains largely anchored in continuity, the adjustments it makes not being able to call into question a logic at work, from a socio-economic point of view, since the 1960s.

It is the same, moreover, that carried out from 1981 with the arrival of the socialists to power: certainly, the policy of decentralization constitutes a form of rupture on the institutional level, but in all other areas the expected changes remain rather diffuse. They hardly succeed in dispelling the impression of a continuous history, even if the island political landscapes are gradually being recomposed, and the desire for a new approach focuses in particular on the fight against inequalities and the inevitable objective of catching up.

The history of the post-colonial state understood through the game, the discourses and the sociography of the actors, and not as a monolithic block acting as a single being, has the merit of placing the focus on the divergent options which can emerge at different times.

In this regard, the work is full of interesting and sometimes surprising indications. We thus discover how the project of adapted regionalization worn in 1971 by the Minister of State Pierre Mesmer, who planned to surround the prefect with a administrative council composed of a few elected officials from the general councils, and granting delegations of power to the general councils allowing them to adapt the metropolitan legislative and regulatory texts themselves, was thwarted by local West Indian elected officials.

From the West Indies Mayotte

This attitude can be explained by a tendency towards the sacralization of the departmental institutional framework, considered as the ultimate source of all the rights inherent to citizenship, a posture which the West Indians will take a long time to get rid of.

This shows the extent to which departmentalization, seen as both an outcome and an unfinished process, has had a profound impact on the collective imagination. in many ways, it tends to transcend said framework, due to the logics that underlie it. These logics have been played out over time by political-administrative categories – adapted departmentalization, economic departmentalization, adapted regionalization, etc. — to better engulf them, survive successive reforms and impose, beyond institutional issues, an incontestable continuity.

This is perceptible through the public action of the State as it was deployed in the Antilles from the 1960s, supplemented since by that of the EEC and the European Union. Interventions which struggle to resolve structural socio-economic imbalances, thereby revealing the at least partial failure of the measures and levers activated.

Overall, Sylvain Mary's work provides a precise and useful historical analysis of an unusual decolonization process. It constitutes a valuable tool and appreciable keys of interpretation to better understand realities, those of the West Indies yesterday and today, victims of low visibility within academic literature and, most often, understood mainly through media treatments of the tensions which shake them. periodically.

In addition, it doubly echoes current events, a moment when all overseas territories wish, independently of their respective status, to revisit their relationship with the state on the one hand, and where, on the other hand, the island of Mayotte is in turn experimenting with the difficult path of departementalization. .