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Once upon a time… May 1972, Madagascar’s “second independence”

May 1972 was a time of revolution in Madagascar. Twelve years after the independence acquired on June 26, 1960 by this French colony in the Indian Ocean, young rebels soon joined by parents and workers are demanding a “second independence”. They protest against the perpetuation of the French presence, codified since 1960 by cooperation agreements signed with the colonial power and which define the relations of the two States after independence. They want a more equal society. And they will overthrow the First Malagasy Republic, whose strongman is President Philibert Tsiranana, thus paradoxically opening the way to military powers.

This revolution finds its genesis in a protest movement which begins in January 1972 at the school of Befelatanana, in Antananarivo, the capital. Under colonization, it trained “second-class” doctors, destined to be the auxiliaries of the French. The demands are of a corporatist nature, but are part of a very sensitive general breeding ground, that of post-independence disappointments. The students are asking for an improvement in their daily life – food, showers… –, an end to delays in the payment of scholarships, etc. It is government mismanagement that will lead to the radicalization of demands and lead to a movement of magnitude. The government initially let the situation deteriorate, then decided, in April 1972, to close the school, thus putting the interns on the street, and to dissolve the Association of Medical and Pharmacy Students.

On April 26, 1972, in Tananarive, a crowd took over the Avenue de l’Indépendance and headed for the
stadium to denounce, in particular, the Franco-Malagasy cooperation agreements. The demonstrations will continue until May 18, when President Tsiranana hands over full powers to the army. © Anonymous fund / Museum of Photography of Madagascar

The high school students of Tananarive then rise up in turn, all the more so since the project to create a competition for entering second, guarantee of democratization in access to public education, more efficient than private, has just been abandoned. The University of Antananarivo also goes on strike. Founded in 1961, it is still very dependent on France: teaching in French, mostly French teachers, non-Malagasy content, and French reforms are applied there. At the end of April, there were 95 establishments in the capital on strike and 70,000 strikers.

Pupils and students meet daily on the university campus, located 2 kilometers from the city center. The Federation of Student Associations of Madagascar promotes many initiatives. The students organize themselves into various councils and commissions, and reshape the world in a spirit of questioning inequalities and revolting against the persistence of colonial inertia, symbolized by cooperation agreements that cover all areas. The agreement on higher education proclaims in particular: “The French language and French-inspired education are for the Malagasy people the historical instrument of its modern promotion and of its cultural, political, economic and social development. Some, united within the Ny Andry group, work to malgachize Marxist concepts. In general, language is at the heart of the revolt. We reclaim Malagasy as the language of knowledge and power. The leaflets are first written in French and Malagasy, then only in Malagasy.

And the revolt spread throughout the island, spreading from the center and the highlands to the coasts. It also has festive dimensions, music groups, like Mahaleo, build a lasting notoriety there. And high school students and students have found allies on the side of the Zwam (“Zatovo western amiable malagasy”, Youth Western Association), young school leavers who are often descendants of slaves, who rename themselves for the occasion Zoam (“Zatovo orin’asa malagasy », Youth without work). The revolt also enjoys the support – or at least the benevolence – of the population and that of the trade unions and professional associations. This movement is a perfect extension of the “global sixties” which saw students and/or workers around the world rise up against injustice and the powers that be. Certain songs covered in Madagascar are also part of the global protest repertoire: “You are recognizable, you cops from all over the world / The same raincoats, the same mentality / But we are from Tana, Dakar and Abidjan and from Paris to Montpellier, shouting at you / Down with the police state! »

But the revolt could have run out of steam if the power had not reacted once again at the wrong time and with great awkwardness. A meeting convened on April 26 by the Minister of Culture gives the strikers the opportunity to parade for a long time, carrying placards and banners such as: “Unstable teaching and not adapted to Malagasy people (Malagasy – Editor’s note)”; “The rights of the student”; “Down with cultural colonization”; “Revise cooperation agreements”; “No to repression, yes to understanding”; “You tell us: do not waste the 1er May with the strike, we say to you: do not ruin our future with your unstable decisions”; “Let us face today the problems of tomorrow, because whoever sleeps without foresight wakes up without resources”; “It is better to die standing! »

Among the buildings burnt down during the uprising of May 13, 1972, the town hall. A banner there proclaims: “Students and workers fight together so that the cooperation agreements are reduced to ashes like the town hall. » © Anonymous fund / Museum of Photography of Madagascar

The meeting was a failure for the minister, especially since it was the next day that the first slogans appeared aimed directly at the president: “Tsiranana dictator”; “Capitalist Tsiranana: 40 villas, 4 castles”… Sick, he was treated in France and left to rest in a spa. Although absent, it is he who makes the decision that will transform the revolt into a revolution. On May 12, the security forces (FRS, modeled on the French CRS) surrounded the campus and arrested the 395 students there. They were deported to the island of Nosy Lava, a symbol full of meaning: it was there that the internees had been sent for the repression of the 1947 uprising, then the deportees of that of the revolt in the South, in 1971. The first left very painful memories; the second, also carried out with the support of French troops, did not have time to be forgotten.

May 13, 1972 was to be a day of rallies. It was a day of insurrection. 100,000 people occupy the streets of Antananarivo – for some 250,000 inhabitants -, chanting slogans hostile to power and demanding the return of the “children”, the deported students. Buildings are set on fire, including the town hall, and a banner proclaims on its ruins: “Students and workers fight together so that the cooperation agreements are reduced to ashes like the town hall”. Returning to Antananarivo, Tsiranana makes a delirious speech: “There are leaders who train small children (…). Be careful, they are bandits, therefore communists (…). I give you advice, parents, workers, students, if you value your life, do not take part in the strike (…). If it’s necessary, even if it takes 2,000 deaths, we’ll do it all at once! 2000, even 3000! Once ! Tsssak, Tsssak! Far from appeasing the demonstrators, he is rather adding fuel to the fire. And we are calling for his resignation. The FRS, overwhelmed, fire on the crowd. There will be 45 dead.

In the following days, the workers organized themselves both in the capital and in the provinces. They come together like the students and the Zoam in committees: the KTM (Komitin’ny tolon’ny mpiasa) headed by the KIM (Komity iraisan’ny mpitolona), the committee of committees. Negotiations took place and, on May 18, the crowd witnessed the return of the “children”.

It is then, it seems, that the slogan “Power in the army” will make its appearance. The army indeed remained neutral, did not intervene and seems to be the only recourse in a country where there is no credible opposition. The churches grouped together in a Federation of Churches of Madagascar, the military, but also, unofficially, the French – French advisers to the president or the French ambassador Alain Plantey – act as mediators. The French, who have military bases on the island, under the command of General Bigeard, will not intervene to save Tsiranana. And this one will give in. On May 18, he dissolved the government and gave full powers to General Gabriel Ramanantsoa. The revolt has become a revolution and the First Malagasy Republic is no more.

1er January 1973, French troops leave the island for good. In 1975, Didier Ratsiraka, “the Red Admiral”, was elected democratic president of Madagascar. His regime, socialist and authoritarian, remained in place until 1991. Re-elected in 1996, he gave way to Marc Ravalomanana in 2002. © Joël Robine / AFP

But the aftermath of a revolution is not always a singing tomorrow. The dream of social democracy, of a “State of the small” (Fanjakan’ny madinika), which was that of the rebels, will fizzle out. General Ramanantsoa establishes his power by referendum. A popular National Congress does take place in September, but its results are well below the expectations of the students. The peasants, by far the majority, were and remain absent from the movement. There are nevertheless some victories: from 1973, the malgachisation of primary and secondary education, the departure of French troops from Madagascar and the renegotiation of cooperation agreements.

Ramanantsoa will not stay in place for long. On February 5, 1975, he handed over power to Colonel Richard Ratsimandrava, who had gained popularity in his government. But he was murdered six days later – a murder that remained unsolved. A military directory was then set up which soon became the Superior Council of the Revolution, of which Lieutenant Commander Didier Ratsiraka took the lead.

Didier Ratsiraka establishes a socialism mAlgache inspired by Tanzanian or North Korean models. Despite some achievements, economic difficulties are accumulating and the authoritarianism of power is undeniable. In 1991, after the development of a Panorama convention resulting from a large-scale social movement, presidential elections were held. Ratsiraka was beaten and gave way to Albert Zafy, but came back winning in 1996.

It is not for us to go into the details of the chaotic political life of Madagascar up to the present day. One can only say that the country, with its last two presidents, the industrialist Marc Ravalomanana and now the former disc jockey Andry Rajoelina, is prey to predatory elites who don’t care about growing inequalities or human poverty. a large part of the population.

And yet, May 1972 had been the bearer of immense hopes, of culturally and socially egalitarian projects, of the desire for an independent and happy nation, rid of the consequences of colonialism, of the desire for a better world for all. Perhaps one day the 1972 revolution will find some echo, in forms that we cannot yet imagine. At least we can hope so.

Learn more
♦ Madagascar 1972: the other independence. A revolution against cooperation agreements,
by Françoise Blum, in “Le Mouvement social”, 2011/3, n° 236. Online at:
♦ The origins of Malagasy May. Desire for school and social competition. 1951-1972,
by Anne-Marie Goguel, Karthala, 2006.
♦ Peasants, intellectuals and populism in Madagascar. From Monja Jaona to Ratsimandrava (1960-1975),
by Françoise Raison-Jourde and Gérard Roy, Karthala, 2010.
♦ History of Madagascar. nation building,
by Sylvain Urfer, Maisonneuve & Larose-Hémisphères, 2021.