French Antillean Education & the Creole Movement


A review of Creole Citizens of France: The Trans-Atlantic Politics of Antillean Education and the Creole Movement Since 1945, by Sarah Moon McDermott Thompson.

Through French Antillean engagement with national education programs, Sarah Moon McDermott Thompson’s dissertation explores the struggle to define a national French identity following the departmentalization of Martinique and Guadeloupe in 1946, when two of France’s oldest colonies theoretically became integral parts of the French nation. At a time when assimilation and the grand civilizing mission had failed across the French empire, republican officials renewed their attempts to transform Antilleans into an exemplary assimilated population. Officials’ logic was thus: teach them how to be French through the French language. Despite their maternal tongue being Antillean Creole—a distinct language that evolved from French and African antecedents—schoolchildren in Martinique and Guadeloupe were taught a curriculum in French that was centered on metropolitan life. As Antilleans moved to metropolitan France in search of financial opportunity, they were also put into governmental education programs that taught the virtues of domesticity and the French service industry. Given the persistent economic disparity between metropolitan France and these new departments, Antillean activists put forth an alternative vision of France, one that stood in contrast to the republican dream of homogeneity. Through the Creole language, they defined a multicultural, variegated France that included the lasting legacy of slavery and colonial exploitation, and the local specificities of Caribbean life. With national and local curricular standards as the battleground, Antilleans articulated their demands for social equality and successfully negotiated a “space for difference” within the French educational system, one that allowed Antilleans to be simultaneously French and Creole.

In contrast to scholars’ recent focus on the Maghreb, McDermott contends that French officials had to begin dealing with multiculturalism a decade prior to the start of official decolonization and the resulting waves of postcolonial immigrants from North Africa. In other words, differentiation in French culture did not begin with the end of the Algerian War and debates over the headscarf, but with the departmentalization of the French Antilles and Antillean migration to the Hexagon. By requesting that Creole be taught in school, Antillean activists challenged the cornerstone of the French assimilation myth—that only the French language could bring French civilization. By looking at the dual-edged process of political inclusion and cultural exclusion, McDermott moves beyond strictly political definitions of citizenship, instead defining citizenship as based upon equal access to economic opportunity, employment, and governmental assistance. As Antilleans placed demands on the state for social welfare and upward mobility, the newly created Ministry of the Overseas Departments had to figure out how to incorporate the former colonial citizenry of the French Antilles into the metropolitan nation of France.

Chapters 1 and 2 of McDermott’s dissertation cover the period of transatlantic migration following the departmentalization of the Antilles, exploring the ways in which the government attempted to assimilate, while receiving pressure to accommodate, Antilleans living in metropolitan France. Examining the technical education programs created by the Office for Migration from the Overseas Departments (BUMIDOM), as well as their public reception, the first two chapters explore how Antilleans used letter writing and political activism to pressure the French government to accept a multicultural definition of French identity, one that ensured Antilleans equal access to governmental assistance and gainful employment. By contrast, the French government’s programs replicated preconceptions about Antilleans, as trained “psycho-technicians” assessed applicants’ character and ability to assimilate. Backlash against the program ultimately culminated in BUMIDOM’s support of cultural associations in 1975. Through these cultural associations, Antilleans mobilized the longstanding French tradition of regional pride and corporatism to create a vision of multiculturalism wholly distinct from that proposed by later West and North African immigrants. Consequently, Antilleans’ political activism made significant strides—heretofore unacknowledged in the historiography—in carving out a space for cultural plurality under Mitterand’s policy of “right to difference” in the 1980s.

Chapters 3 and 4 treat activists’ advocacy of the Creole language and culture as a form of re-education of the masses by the Antillean elite and a means to carve out a space for Antillean particularity within the French nation. Chapter 3 explores the politicization of Creole, showing how linguists and nationalists collaboratively defined Creole as a means to empower local Antillean identity. Eventually nationalists’ wholesale separatism gave way, and assimilationists in the metropole and separatists from the Antilles converged in the 1980s around Mitterand’s “right to difference” and the expression of regional identity within the French nation. Chapter 4 specifically looks at the work of Gérard Lauriette—the father of the Creole movement—and his attempt to overturn the French government’s ban on the use of Creole in public schools. Drawing on a republican tradition dating to the Third Republic, French officials believed they could inculcate a French mentality in Antilleans, and thereby foster national solidarity, by instructing them solely in the French language. Instead, they alienated Antillean schoolchildren from their own cultural backgrounds. Through fighting for the inclusion of Creole in the French educational system throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, activists like Gérard Lauriette encouraged the French government to treat the Antilles as a proper region of France, and thereby yield to it more direct autonomy within the French nation.

Chapters 5 and 6 broaden the study’s scope to include the international context of the struggle for French national identity. Chapter 5 looks at immigrants to the metropole and the ways in which the French government debated the place of immigrant languages and cultures in French education. During the first period after departmentalization from 1946 to 1970, both migrants from the Antilles and immigrants from foreign countries were subjected to the same republican project of complete assimilation. Paradoxically, however, while immigrants and their cultures were included in metropolitan education after 1970, Antilleans continued to be the targets of wholesale assimilation. Creole culture and language remained banned from the national school system until 1983. McDermott shows that it was Antilleans’ status as “incomplete” citizens of France that precluded them from learning Creole in metropolitan schools. Antilleans were included as members of the French nation, but republicans saw their uniqueness as a threat to national unity. In the eyes of the Ministry, Creole would threaten the foregone conclusion that Antilleans would fully assimilate into metropolitan culture. As we see in Chapter 6, activists created an alternative to their French citizenship in response to that foregone conclusion: a pan-Creole identity applicable not just within the French nation, but across the entire Caribbean and Europe. Building this pan-Creole identity was problematic, because it had to bridge the gaps between the various cultures of Creole speakers, as well as between nationalists and academics and between separatists and assimilationists.

In light of the scholarly call by Alice Conklin to treat French and colonial history as one, or Gary Wilder’s reimagining of the French state as an “imperial nation state,” this work provides a welcome intervention in histories of French universalism and its relationship to the postcolonial world. As legally French citizens, Antilleans have been largely absent in postcolonial literature about the debates over multiculturalism in France, which typically focus on North African migrants and the “Muslim question.” Building on the work of scholars of race in twentieth-century France like Alec Hargreaves and others, who have looked at the role of postcolonial immigration in challenging the myth of a colorblind France, and the works of Laurent Dubois and David Beriss, who have written the Caribbean into the history of French republicanism, this study firmly places Antilleans in the history of French engagement with cultural and linguistic plurality, clearly showing that the Antilles played an integral, even prototypical, part in the postcolonial struggle to redefine the French nation. McDermott outlines how Antilleans invented an alternative definition of the French citizen, one marked not by the total divestment of regional, cultural, or group specificity, but grounded in the postwar ideals of social welfare and the combination of French universalism with the “right to difference.” The issue was never a straightforward binary between being French or Creole, but rather an inherent struggle over the meaning of French universal values against a tradition of regional particularism and a legacy of colonial inequity. As Antilleans advocated the inclusion of Creole in schools and championed the upward mobility of Antillean migrants, they changed what it meant to be French, putting forth a vision of French citizenship predicated on social equity and a vision of French identity that included diversity rather than seeking to obfuscate it.

Christopher M. Church
Department of History
University of California, Berkeley

Primary Sources

Center for Contemporary Archives (CAC), Fontainebleau, France
National French Library, François Mitterrand
Antillean Press
Metropolitan and Official Government Press
Academic Journals

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2012. 494 pp. Primary Advisors: Rita C-K Chin, Joshua H. Cole.


Image: Martinique Pavilion at the Paris Colonial Exposition, 1931, WikiCommons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like