nc_danseurs_traditionnelsf_bensignor-1 - © F. Bensignor

Regional languages and cultures in danger – in France’s overseas territories

Dis­pa­ri­ty is hard to ignore when it comes to geo­gra­phy, sta­tus, culture and lan­guage in France’s over­seas ter­ri­to­ries. But this diver­si­ty is at odds with the first para­graph of Article 2 of the French consti­tu­tion : “The lan­guage of the Repu­blic shall be French”. 

Seven­ty-five offi­cial lan­guages are spo­ken in France’s over­seas ter­ri­to­ries, of which just over fif­ty are consi­de­red “lan­guages of France” by the Gene­ral Dele­ga­tion for the French Lan­guage and the Lan­guages of France (DGLFLF), a unit of the Minis­try of Culture and Communication.



Each of the major over­seas dépar­te­ments, Gua­de­loupe (pop. ± 390,000), Mar­ti­nique (pop. ± 370,000) and Réunion (pop. ± 850,000) has its own Creole. In Mayotte (pop. ± 260,000), two lan­guages are spo­ken, Shi­maore and Kibu­shi. The same is true of Wal­lis and Futu­na (pop. ± 11,500), where Wal­li­sian and Futu­nan are spo­ken. Things get more com­pli­ca­ted in French Poly­ne­sia (pop. ± 280,000), with Mar­que­san, the lan­guage of the Tua­mo­tu, Man­ga­re­va and the lan­guages of the Aus­tral Islands. The mul­ti­lin­gua­lism inten­si­fies in Guya­na (pop. ± 270,000 h), with no fewer than twelve lan­guages of France : Guya­nese Creole, Sara­ma­ka, Alu­ku, Ndyu­ka, Para­ma­ka, Kali­na, Waya­na, Pali­kur, Ara­wak, Wayam­pi, Teko and Hmong. And we reach new heights in New Cale­do­nia (pop. ± 270,000), where the Kanak speak twen­ty-eight lan­guages : Nyâ­layu, Kumak, Caac, Yua­ga, Jawe, Nemi, Fwâi, Pije, Pwaa­mei, Pwapwâ, Voh-Koné lan­guages, Cèmu­hî, Pai­cî, Ajië, Arhâ, Arhö, ‘ôrôê, Neku, Sîchë, Tîrî, Xârâcùù, Xârâ­gu­rè, Dru­bea, Numèè, Nen­gone, Dre­hu, Iaai and Fagauvea.


Fought on many fronts and gene­ral­ly misun­ders­tood by the domi­nant socie­ties until the mid-20th cen­tu­ry, these lan­guages owe their sur­vi­val only to the mobi­li­sa­tion of popu­la­tions deter­mi­ned to safe­guard their res­pec­tive cultu­ral iden­ti­ties Among the methods employed in this struggle, song, music and dance have pro­ved to be par­ti­cu­lar­ly effec­tive tools. Encou­ra­ged by the mass deco­lo­ni­sa­tion of 1960, iden­ti­ty resis­tance move­ments stir­red the three large Creole-spea­king islands that became dépar­te­ments in 1946. Their claims were expres­sed through folk arts in par­ti­cu­lar, which had the gift of repul­sing the domi­nant local mino­ri­ties, sub­jec­ted to metro­po­li­tan acculturation.

  • Gwoka


In Gua­de­loupe, the gwo­ka was mocked, seen as “mizik a vié neg”, the equi­va­lent of “savage music”. In Mar­ti­nique, the bèlè was bani­shed almost enti­re­ly from the public space. In Réunion, the rhythm, dance and song of the maloya were prac­ti­sed in secret in the socie­ty of “Cafres” (Blacks). It was played during “ser­vis kaba­ré”, eve­ning fes­ti­vals, fune­ra­ry vigils adap­ted from sacred Mala­ga­sy rituals cele­bra­ting ances­tors. The trance phe­no­me­na that some­times resul­ted from these drum dances dis­gus­ted the elites. So, it was in hiding that the cultu­ral iden­ti­ties spe­ci­fic to Réunion, Gua­de­loupe and Mar­ti­nique were reborn. And when the revo­lu­tio­na­ry wave of May 1968 rea­ched France’s over­seas ter­ri­to­ries, the demands became more political.


  • Ser­vis kaba­ré – Fir­min Viry – Gran­moun Sel­lo – Danyèl Waro 


In the 1970s, the stra­te­gy of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty of Réunion (PCR) consis­ted of reha­bi­li­ta­ting the tra­di­tio­nal maloya, which then came out of fami­ly and ritual set­tings to become a sub­ver­sive cata­lyst, appea­ring on stage at muni­ci­pal fes­ti­vals. It was there that Danyèl Waro had his ini­tia­tion, along­side his tea­cher Fir­min Viry. In Gua­de­loupe, auto­no­mist move­ments did not think twice about using plas­tic explo­sives in 1980 to sup­port their demands. It was also this per­iod that saw the explo­sion of Kassav’s zouk, the flag bea­rer for the lin­guis­tic and cultu­ral dyna­mism of the French Antilles, rea­dy to conquer the world. The indi­vi­dual iden­ti­ties of the archi­pe­la­gos are expres­sed less in the 21st cen­tu­ry by vio­lence than by the mass invol­ve­ment of the Antilles’ inha­bi­tants. In 2014, the gwo­ka was added to UNESCO’s list of intan­gible cultu­ral heri­tage (ICH), where it joi­ned Réunion’s maloya, added in 2010.


  • Kas­sav – Zouk La Sé Sèl Médi­ka­man Nou Ni – Kas­sav Live


The his­to­ry of Paci­fic cultures dif­fers from that of the Antilles and the Indian Ocean, where non-native popu­la­tions were brought toge­ther, often as the result of sla­ve­ry. At the time of its later colo­ni­sa­tion, Ocea­nia had been inha­bi­ted for seve­ral mil­len­nia by indi­ge­nous people. This was orches­tra­ted by Angli­can pas­tors who evan­ge­li­sed hand over fist, hence the influence of hymns in the vocal forms that sur­vive to the present day. As with Native Ame­ri­cans, impor­ted diseases cause devas­ta­tion : 80% of the Kanak popu­la­tion had disap­pea­red from New Cale­do­nia by the end of the 19th century.


  • Te Ava Piti – E He’e Te Va’a


Kanak culture and lan­guages owe their rebirth to the upri­sing of sepa­ra­tists. From 1984 to 1988, they suc­cee­ded in making an inde­pendent Kana­ky, with its own govern­ment, a rea­li­ty. It was a dif­fi­cult struggle that ended in the mas­sacre on Ouvéa, but led to the recog­ni­tion of a people that had been oppres­sed for 135 years. It was the work of a man of culture, Jean-Marie Tji­baou, who paid for it with his life. In each Kanak clan that had its own music and dance, this unpa­ral­le­led lea­der had convin­ced the elders to allow the young to take hold of the clans’ heri­tage to create modern music : kane­ka. Since then, radio sta­tions and K7 would get people dan­cing to almost for­got­ten languages.


  • Cele­nod – Wah­nah­na­da Externas


Eve­ryw­here in the over­seas ter­ri­to­ries, the trend is now towards “balan­ced mul­ti­lin­gua­lism”. The state and com­mu­ni­ties alike imple­ment poli­cies aimed at sup­por­ting local lan­guages and cultures. Zouk, gwo­ka, bèlè, maloya and kane­ka have revea­led hither­to lit­tle-known cultu­ral iden­ti­ties to the ears of the world. Soon, advan­ced forms of Mayotte’s m’godro and Guyana’s alé­ké will emerge. A diver­si­ty of styles and lan­guages capable, let’s hope, of kee­ping the fran­tic glo­ba­li­sa­tion of a pseu­do-culture that has a ten­den­cy to stan­dar­dise art as well as thought at bay.


  • M’To­ro Cha­mou – M’Go­dro Rebel

François Bensignor

A music journalist since the late 1970s, he is the author of Sons d’Afrique (Marabout, 1988) and the biography Fela Kuti, le génie de l’Afrobeat (Éditions Demi-Lune, 2012). He oversaw the publication of the Guide Totem Les Musiques du Monde (Larousse, 2002) and Kaneka, Musique en Mouvement (Centre Tjibaou, Noumea 2013).

Co-founder of Zone Franche in 1990, then head of the Centre d’Information des Musiques Traditionnelles et du Monde (CIMT) at IRMA (2002–14), he co-ordinated the production of Sans Visa, the guide to music in the Francophone world (Zone Franche/Irma, 1991 and 1995), of the four most recent editions of Planètes Musiques and Euro World Book (Irma).

Behind the documentary films Papa Wemba Fula Ngenge (Nova/Paris Première, 2000) shot in Kinshasa, Au-Delà des Frontières, Stivell (France 3, 2011) and Belaï, le voyage de Lélé (La Belle Télé, 2018) Shot in New Caledonia, he created the series of programmes Les Sons de… (2017) for the Melody d’Afrique channel.

He was involved with the Mondomix adventure online and on paper, then contributed to its “Great Black Music” exhibition for the Cité de la Musique in Paris (2014).

His Music column has appeared in the Hommes & Migrations journal since 1993.

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