Marcel Manville (1922

Its objective: “Destroy the chromos of a literature inspired by the sole concern to maintain the order of the master. This autopsy of a colonized would also allow us to understand the ebb and flow of our national liberation movement”. His hope: “And our people, long domesticated, set off in search, sometimes in a confused way, of their national identity”.

En November 2009, the UN declared 18 July “Nelson Mandela International Day”, so that everyone tries to follow in the footsteps of the former South African President. Significant coincidence: this July 18, 2022, was the centenary of the birth of this great anti-colonialist and humanist militant that was Marcel Manville, celebrated in Martinique, passed over in silence elsewhere. In these times when Algeria is back in the media following the French President’s official visit to Algiers and Oran last August, and when the history, near and far, of the two countries in interaction seems to have to take of in-depth research, certain actors cannot be forgotten. This is the case of Marcel Manville both as an individual (who had the privilege of knowing him cannot forget his warmth, the strength of the transmission of his convictions, his radiant humanity, his contagious exuberance) and as a representative of the militants non-Algerians, engaged in the liberation struggle of this colony. Going back to Marcel Manville’s commitment and career is also a way of helping to roll back part of the invisibility of this complex Algeria/France history in which the West Indies have their share.

Lectures and articles have been devoted to her since her death in 1998. At Fespaco 2013, Véronique Kanor presented her film Marcel Manville, from men to men “Committed to the right of peoples to self-determination, the Martinican lawyer Marcel Manville will leave everything – family, prosperity, Paris… – to return to his island and devote himself to its independence. His experience in the resistance during the Second World War, his action as a lawyer for the FLN in Algeria and his friendship with Frantz Fanon will allow him to polish his weapons to develop actions of all kinds – including armed – to achieve its goal. The film shows the formation and struggle of an activist confronted with one of the greatest questions of the XXe century: that of decolonization.

A memorable event in which he actively participated was the international symposium at Riadh el Feth (Algiers) that his adopted homeland officially dedicated to him, twenty-five years after independence, from December 11 to 13, 1987. But before, and on the initiative and deployment of energy by Marcel Manville, the International Memorial Frantz Fanon in Fort-de-France, from March 31 to April 2, 1982, returned Fanon to his land of origin. In 1992, Marcel Manville published part of his memoirs with L’Harmattan editions, The West Indies unvarnished. After recalling some significant stages and actions of his life, it is to this work that we wish to return. In principle, the back-to-school period is the time to present novelties. But sometimes older books have to come back into our hands as they stick to current events, the distance making them read with even more interest, for Algeria/France History and for Antilles/France History. It is, in a way, to make him join the library of books devoted to the West Indians in their relationship to Algeria. I will simply mention the fascinating work of Christian Phéline, A Guadeloupean in Algiers: Me Maurice L’Admiral (1864-1905) (Riveneuve, 2015) where we learn that “Maître Maurice L’Admiral is a brilliant lawyer whose impressive voice is heard in 1901 to defend the Beni Dergoun whose colonial project wants to take 200 hectares of cultivable land from them. In 1902, during Marguerite’s insurrection, he pleaded for 106 defendants…”. In 2017, Raphaël Confiant offered a fictionalized biography of Fanon, Soul Insurrection. Frantz Fanon, life and death of the flint warrior (Caribbean editions). He underlined the influence that Fanon had on many West Indians, following in his footsteps during the war – and we think particularly of Daniel Boukman –, and afterwards when he became a real myth. He himself lived for two years in Algeria after 1962. In 2019, he published a novel, From Morne-des-Esses to Djebelat the same editions, featuring three West Indians, Ludovic Cabont, Juvénal Martineau and Dany Béraud, to show other West Indian figures masked by the overwhelming presence of Fanon.

I previously mentioned the tributes to the exceptional career of Mr.e Marcel Manville: thus on the site in the section “Our history Our territory”, his career was recalled on July 18, 2022, under the title “the militant lawyer”. Let us take a few elements from this presentation, enriched with passages from West Indies unvarnished. He is the only boy of a sibling of nine children of which he recalls, in his work, the bonds, the supports and the bereavements. His chapter 1, “The family”, restores his experience and that of his family with an admiration for a father who taught his children “to look at the summits rather than the shallows of conciliation, never compromising between what we should do and what should be refused so as not to be accountable for the desertions of hope”. As will be the case, throughout these pages, the reference to Aimé Césaire comes up many times, even if their political disagreement is said but the verb of the poet punctuates awareness. When he stops on the name of Manville, he concludes thus: “Césaire said somewhere, that it is not easy to be West Indian.
We are still tossed between our African matrix and the European addition, and in our head the obsession with slavery lurks”.

At 21, he went on a dissent with his friend Frantz Fanon, 4 years his junior. Like the latter, his youthful enthusiasm for defending the motherland takes a turn for the worse when he discovers racism and discrimination in the ranks of the Free French Forces. Because, in Martinique until then: “We were unaware of racism. The humiliation of colonial oppression was experienced, but never perceived on the level of waking consciousness. We were athletes and sometimes champions, fulfilled by our successes and our titles.
We vaguely knew that there were the latifundia békés […] but as they lived in a vacuum, their opulence and, therefore, their arrogance, passed over our heads empty of any spirit of revolt”.

Chapter II analyzes the rupture, the dissidence, the discrimination and it is the departure in 1943: “We set off to attack the German troops with the pretentious ambition of going as far as Berchtesgaden to dislodge Hitler from his nest of eagle to wring its neck. We sang: “Hitler we ké roll or down there gloomy” (Hitler we will get you off your pedestal)”. On his return from the war, he returned to Martinique but to return very quickly to France to study law since Martinique did not have a university at the time. Chapter V recalls the difficulties and setbacks of a young Martinquais who was not “preceded” in the profession and he does so with the humor that characterized him. On October 22, 1947, he took the oath: “I was the only black to take the oath. I was there, “like a prune in a glass of milk”, as we would say then in Martinique”. The fact is not surprising since he had underlined that in 1946, they were “two Negroes out of the twenty thousand students of the Pantheon, Doudou Thian who came from Senegal, and myself returning from the West Indies after the epic of the war “. When he participated in a demonstration for “freedom in the French colonies”, he took it for his rank: “the police intervened and as I was a target identifiable by my external biology, I was savagely clubbed and showered with contempt: “Go back to your bush, you dirty nigger! »

In 1946, he joined the PCF [il ne quittera le parti qu’en 1976 à cause de divergences et en créant le PKLS (Pati Kominis pou lendépandans ek sosyalizm). Conjointement et tout au long de sa vie, M. Manville participe à la fondation de mouvements : comme le MRAP en 1949 (Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’Amitié entre les peuples) ; comme le FAGA en 1961 (Front antillo-guyanais pour l’Autonomie) avec Edouard Glissant et Albert Béville. Le FAGA est interdit par les autorités françaises et Marcel Manville est interdit de séjour aux Antilles de 1961 à 1966. En 1963, il est avocat de la défense des membres arrêtés de l’OJAM (Organisation de la Jeunesse anticolonialiste de Martinique). Il est à l’initiative d’autres actions : ainsi, il est un des organisateurs de la première conférence internationale sur la Palestine en 1966, en solidarité avec le peuple palestinien. Son engagement politique s’affirme avec force et il en donne les différents détonateurs. Dans le chapitre VI, il fait le récit de quatre procès significatifs et importants dont on lira le compte-rendu avec intérêt avec, à l’esprit, sa ligne de conduite, « l’homme est la seule bataille qui vaille ». Ces récits sont complétés par le chapitre VII sur « la diaspora en France » et le chapitre VIII, « L’action anti-raciste », introduction même au chapitre IX sur lequel nous nous arrêterons, « Souvenirs et témoignages sur la guerre d’Algérie ».

Il compare tout d’abord la guerre d’Algérie à un cyclone dévastateur. Il ne veut pas se positionner en acteur incontournable mais il rappelle les grandes dates de cette ère de la décolonisation et affirme : « Il est certain que la lutte du peuple algérien a provoqué la dislocation de l’empire français, excepté pour ces derniers « confettis » que sont la Guadeloupe, la Guyane, la Martinique, la Réunion, départements d’outre-mer de parodie et de pacotille, et pour la Nouvelle Calédonie et la Polynésie, territoires d’outre-mer ». Il revient sur les méthodes odieuses de la « pacification » et l’instauration d’un régime de non-droit. Mais, dans ce livre, il désire s’en tenir à son « témoignage d’avocat militant » se limitant à ce qui l’a marqué dans ce qu’il a vécu personnellement « de mars 1955 à octobre 1961, dans la région de l’Est algérien », son secteur d’intervention.

Il intègre d’abord le collectif d’avocats du Secours Populaire et, en mars 1955, il arrive à Constantine et à Bône, découvrant la réalité de la guerre et s’entretenant avec des Algériens qu’il doit défendre. Il plaide ses premiers dossiers. « Mon désenchantement augmentera sans cesse à cause du fossé entre les échos de la presse française et la réalité vécue au quotidien dans l’angoisse et la peur » : « L’atmosphère dans Constantine, cette ville grandiose gagnée par l’homme sur l’environnement montagnard, traversée par le Rhumel majestueux, était étrange : celle de toutes les villes en guerre. Les soldats engagés n’étaient pas encore ceux du contingent. Certains revenaient de la « sale guerre d’Indochine », travaillés par l’esprit de revanche et l’inquiétude qui les minait. Dans le restaurant où ils dînaient en même temps que moi, ils posaient leur pistolet-mitrailleur à côté de leur fourchette. Ma stupéfaction était totale, moi qui débarquais de Paris avec une vision faussée ».

Il prend conscience de la difficulté à introduire les démarches de justice habituelles et découvre la réalité de la torture : « quand j’y suis revenu en 1956, je savais que le seul fait, pour une famille algérienne, de recevoir un avocat venant de France entraînait de graves mesures de représailles : prison, camp de concentration, disparition ». Il donne le récit du procès de Bône en octobre 1955 où il défend 55 personnes qui, toutes, seront condamnées à dix ans de détention. Elles sont transférées ensuite à la prison de Bida, de triste mémoire à cause de son directeur particulièrement sadique. Ces hommes, entre 20 et 25 ans, sont devenues des épaves, ayant du mal à s’exprimer et tremblant de tout leur corps.

Il raconte aussi, avec force détail, l’arrestation et le procès qui ont  été particulièrement célèbres : le procès des maquisardes. Trois jeunes filles – Safia Bazi, Meriem Belmihoub et Fadhila Mesli – qui sont montées au maquis à la veille de présenter leur baccalauréat, sont prises dans une opération, en juillet 1956. Elles sortent de la grotte sous les yeux stupéfaits des Français qui ne s’attendaient pas à ce type de combattantes. Lors du procès, Me Manville ne pourra venir et sera remplacé par Me Vergès : « « C’était le premier voyage de Vergès en Algérie ; on connaît son immense talent, surtout lorsqu’il plaidait naguère les justes causes. Jacques fit une éblouissante et incomparable plaidoirie ».

Photo prise à l’Ouazana en wilaya IV, Mai 1956. En route pour le congrès
de la Soummam, de gauche à droite : Abane Ramdane, Safia Bazi, Fadhila Mesli, Meriem Belmihoub et Rachid Amara, tué en protégeant les trois maquisardes © Wikimedia Commons

C’est ensuite le massacre de Cazouna en octobre 1956 alors qu’il se trouve à Blida chez Frantz Fanon : ce dernier l’emmène sur les lieux du massacre de villages. En mars 1957, à Constantine « se déroule le procès le plus sanglant, le plus monstrueux, au cours duquel la  justice française va bafouer, comme elle le fait d’ailleurs dans toute l’Algérie, ses dogmes les plus établis et ses principes les plus affirmés ». 18 condamnations à mort prononcées le 8 avril et, comme la grâce a été refusée, 17 exécutions capitales le 31 décembre 1957. Manville parcourt les mois qui suivent pour s’arrêter au 14 mai 1958, « une jeune Algérienne, originaire de Blida, âgée de 17 ans, Amina Abed, en allant jeter une bombe, saute avec l’engin ». Blessée aux quatre membres, elle est volontairement mal soignée et amputée. L’avocat ira voir Madame Simone Weil qui est intervenue pour qu’elle ait des conditions de soins et de libération humaines.

Difficile de conclure sur l’Algérie en 1992 sans souligner le décalage entre l’Algérie de la guerre et celle de l’après 1962 : « La distance est en effet très grande entre ceux de l’Algérie combattante, qui au Congrès de la Soummam, rêvaient d’une nouvelle Algérie débarrassée de toutes les tares du colonialisme, et ceux qui, en 1962, se sont disputé le pouvoir. […] This people who paid the price of blood for their liberation, struggles in agonizing difficulties and in the uncertainty of the future. Reading this chapter, we can see how much the militant lawyer kept strictly to the facts and the actors, minimizing his role as much as possible and the courage it took him, like other lawyers, to to be in agreement with his convictions by defending the Algerians. Chapter XIII, devoted more specifically to Fanon, completes this relationship between Manville and Algeria: what is important to him is to show that Fanon’s commitment was not a betrayal; he gave the measure of his contribution to the great decolonization movement. It is interesting to read, in addition, the interview of Mr. Manville in the magazine Antilles (Martinique), in the special issue devoted to Fanon, in November-December 1991.

Frantz Fanon/Marcel Manville are complementary in their commitment to Algeria. This is particularly true around the question of resistance fighters. Marcel was “the girls’ lawyer”. Fanon, in the chapter “Algeria reveals itself” in Year V of the Algerian Revolution, analyzed with insight and conviction the place of women in this period. Mr. Manville lived through the post-independence period and resisted the sclerotic discourse of a veteran, blinding himself to the present out of nostalgia for the highly positive acts of the past. How could it be otherwise since he always kept lively and friendly contact with most of the militants he had defended and he knew of the withdrawal observed by most of them?

He was therefore the lawyer of the imprisoned activists for whom he devoted himself without counting, beyond what his memoirs report. We regret that he talks about it so little when we have the memory of those evenings when he recalled his memories, making us laugh to tears at a thousand and one tasty anecdotes which would have been, put down on paper, full of lessons on this transformation of the Algerian family through struggle. But the great sobriety of the story finds an echo in this passage Year V : “The committed Algerian learns instinctively both her role as “woman alone in the street” and her revolutionary mission. The Algerian woman is not a secret agent. It is without learning, without stories, without history, that she goes out in the street, three grenades in her purse or the activity report of an area in the bodice (…) It is not the bet update of a character known and frequented a thousand times in the imagination and stories. It is an authentic birth, in its pure state, without propaedeutics. There is no character to imitate. On the contrary, there is an intense dramatization, an absence of daylight between the woman and the revolutionary. The Algerian woman immediately rises to the level of tragedy.

In 1992, in opposition to the celebration of the 500e anniversary of the “discovery” of the Americas, he leads the Trial against Christopher Columbus at the Municipal Theater of Fort-de-France. In 1998, he gave a remarked speech in Lisbon, at the conference on slavery and colonialism. For the MRAP, he introduced the first complaint about the massacres of Algerians on October 17, 1961 in Paris. Pleading this cause at the Palais de justice in Paris, he was struck down by a heart attack on December 2, 1998, realizing what he had proclaimed: “to defend at the bar until my last breath, such is the objective of my life “. His funeral in his hometown of Trinidad brought together almost all of the bar of Martinique and representatives of the bar of Guadeloupe, Haiti, Algeria, Palestine.

Marcel Manville, The West Indies unvarnishedL’Harmattan, 1992, 271 p., 22 € 35

Marcel Manville (1922-2022): Anti-colonialism at the helm