SUDS - Les Suds Aujourd'hui II

The French Overseas Departments Between Proximity and Distance : Construction and Politicization of Boundaries – PRODISDOM

The French Overseas Departments and Mainland France: Republican universalism facing the challenge of distinctive identities

The main purpose of this project is to identify why and how the construction, and today’s reinforcement in DOMs societies, of boundaries which split the “close” ones from the “remote” ones, particularly on ethno-racial’s basis, came to challenge the application of the so-called French republican model in Overseas departments.

The dialectic between distance and proximity: a defining element in social relations within the French Overseas Departments and in the relationship with Mainland France

The late 2000s were marked in the French Overseas Departments by large-scale social movements expressing real frustrations regarding citizenship. Historically formed in the framework of a colonial relationship and therefore on a profoundly unequal basis, these societies are still places where a multitude of tensions are apparent. Developed within them and constantly re-arranging itself within them is a dialectic of the common and the specific, or the close and the distant, which flows through the politico-symbolic exchanges and social relations in general, by endlessly defining shifting borders both between themselves and Mainland France and between the groups which form them. The PRODISDOM programme has analysed in detail the strategies which govern the development and redevelopment of these discursive categories of «proximity« and «distance« which strongly pervade all social experiences, the uses of these categories and the practices associated with them, both in the political field and in ethnic and social relations. In so doing, it reflects the incomplete nature of citizenship, emphasises the obstacles in the way of improving the economic and social situation of these territories and explains the lack of understanding connected with status and public policies implemented locally.

The present programme promotes two methodological priorities: interdisciplinarity and comparatism. The first is a necessity in view of the variety of public uses of the «proximity« and «distance« dialectic in the French Overseas Departments as well as the coordination between them which renders a multidisciplinary approach essential. The second encourages benefiting, in the proposed analysis, from the differences which stand out against the similarities between the four French Overseas Departments. Finally, preference was given to using «living sources« in the «four old colonies« and Mainland France (semi-structured interviews, and observation of moments in political and social life), without neglecting the large amount of traditional documentary material.

The project was conducted on four levels of investigation:
– The construction of ethnic or «racial« borders relating to White Creoles, people from Mainland France and foreign immigrants
– The discrepancies which occur, indeed the divisions which develop, through the migratory phenomena between these departments and France
– The demand for a «local preference« through which it is proposed the difficulties a number of Overseas Department residents have in finding a job or pursuing a rewarding career can be tackled
– The views and practices relating to institutional and statutory developments towards greater autonomy.

• The comparative approach helped us clarify the differences between overseas areas with the utmost precision; there where the common category “overseas” and the famous dichotomy “DOM/TOM” postulates misconceived homogeneities.
• This diversity is combined with subtle interplay that operates on multiple levels and in a wide range of areas. As such, they help to establish the notion of “overseas”. Consequently celebrated by public authorities, which had previously cold shouldered it for a long time, the idea of diversity prevails in discourse and in practice, both in relationships between overseas territories and constituent political-administrative entities and within these entities themselves;
• The co-construction of overseas territories is played out on local and metropolitan scenes through relationships forged between groups, regardless whether these groups are immigrant populations, including returning migrants or ethnic groups, such as the Békés in Martinique, who are engaged in struggles to proclaim meaning or to give meaning to the notion of “overseas”. A set of mechanisms can be identified through which boundaries are established, discernible concepts of “overseas” are developed and multidimensional strategic uses are introduced that impart an extraordinary plurivocity on the notion of “overseas”;
• The historic tension between the assimilation matrix and the particularistic matrix in the form of an assertion of difference remains unresolved: public authorities are forever swinging between the quest for and the affirmation of fully-fledged citizenship and the persistence of systems that closet target populations in their specificities; local populations, going against the grain of positions taken by politicians, a while ago in Martinique and today on the island of Réunion, as regards “local preference” as far as professional recruitment and promotion are concerned, stress their commitment to the principle of republican equality.

From a scientific point of view, PRODISDOM opens up new avenues to be explored:

- developing comparative analyses between overseas societies, by extending the focal scope to all “overseas” areas and by integrating neighbouring societies (Mayotte, the Caribbean, etc.);
- moving beyond the construction of discourses and, henceforth, setting them up against structural practices and data;
- questioning changes that are likely to impact the French State and the republican model as a result of overseas experiences: to what extent and based on which mechanisms will challenges and questioning that are surfacing in metropolitan France, for example, on the issue of the republican model, echo the questions that persist overseas?

Viewed from a research structuring angle, PRODISDOM has paved the way for establishing and renewing a network of researchers specialized in overseas, through bridges built between the Antilles-Guyana and Réunion Island and by initiating the DYSPO seminar. These networks are invited to consolidate themselves and to develop well beyond the end of the programme, in order to heighten awareness of overseas-dedicated research.

The PRODISDOM programme has given rise to the coordination of a collective work - Les outre-mer à l’épreuve du changement: réalités et perspectives des réformes territoriales (The Overseas Departments meeting the challenge of change: realities and perspectives of territorial reforms) Paris, L’Harmattan, 2011, the publication of 6 articles in specialist journals and 5 contributions in specialist books, including 2 with an international scope.
An overview of all the works is being prepared.

Summary :
Journals :
--> international : 3
--> France : 2
Books or Book sections :
--> International : 2
--> France : 3
Conference papers :
--> International : 8
--> France : 12
Articles for general public : 2
Dissemination Conférences : 2
Others : 2

The main purpose of this project is to identify why and how the construction, and today’s reinforcement in DOMs societies, of boundaries which split the “close” ones from the “remote” ones, particularly on ethno-racial’s basis, came to challenge the application of the so-called French republican model in Overseas departments; with respect to the relations between groups that represent those societies on the one hand and in regards to the relationship with the metropolitan France on the other hand. This identification aims to better estimate the obstacles that impede the resolution of numerous economic and social difficulties and which overwhelm the future of those territories in question within the French ambit. The review of the present challenge involves several tensions and furthermore, implies an examination as accurate as possible of the extent of blindness and "white lies" that commonly characterized the implementation of the above-named model, dealing with the weakening of its normative references, abstract and universal.

The widespread movement of social protest that occurred in these DOMs in late 2008 and early 2009, whose social actors have expressed - beyond immediate material claims - an overall discomfort regarding the frustrations related to their citizenship. The social actors of the widespread social movement that occurred in these DOMs in late 2008 and early 2009 expressed – beyond immediate material claims – an overall discomfort and frustration related to their citizenship. Thereby, “les Etats généraux de l’Outre-mer “ of last year and the last referendum held in French Guyana and Martinique in January 2010, on a constitutional and institutional amendments of these two departments, represent the background of the planned work. All these events, which have been perfect examples of the main ambiguity linked with the core of social and political dynamics in the construction process of boundaries, must be subject to examination. This ambiguity must challenge drastically the distance of a central State considered being far away and, therefore, to claim the focus of social and political life of these departments on the basis of the proximity that exists between their inhabitants - proximity perceived as automatic and adorned with all virtues, - while waiting for that only State most of the reparation of evils which are reported.

The assumption here formulated that the construction of boundaries drawn by the dialectic of the discursive categories of "proximity" and "distance" in various social fields in DOMs societies is not fully effective insofar as it is validated, recovered and eventually redirected or reformatted in a politization process- both by local officials and by the central government - which constitutes theses boundaries in public affairs, when not directly the consequences of forces or political institutions themselves. Therefore, it is the study of terms and conditions, issues and effects - principally in terms of strategies – of this politization that this project wishes to pay a particular attention.

Confronted, like many others society, to the major challenge of having to reconcile the requirement of equal treatment of all citizens with the consideration by the Republican State of the historical and cultural particularities (the notorious "specificities"), the DOMs can and should benefit from the general agreement that seems to finally admit that we can be both "equal and different." Nevertheless, the question remains whether such compatibility does not know limitations and if there are, what they are. This question constitutes the essential part of the cogitation to be conducted under a program of research on societies, which never stop asking and rearranging the issue of the common and the specific by articulating constantly the notions of proximity and distance.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 200,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: - 48 Months

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