Profile: Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001)

Born on October 9, 1906 in Joal, Senegal, Mr. Senghor was a poet, a writer, a Senegalese politician, and the first President of the Republic of Senegal (1960–1980). He was also the first African man elected to the Académie Française. Mr. Senghor died on December 20, 2001 in Verson, France.

He was a Minister in France before his country’s independence was proclaimed.

Mr. Senghor’s proponents refer to him as the symbol of the cooperation between France and its former colonies, while his detractors describe him as representing French neo-colonialism in Africa.

His primarily symbolist poetry, created from the chanting of the incantational voice, which would earn him the nickname “the Poet President,” was founded on the hope that a universal civilization could be founded, uniting all traditions beyond their differences. He took the concept of “négritude” introduced by Aimé Césaire, to new depths, defining it as follows: “Négritude is the simple acknowledgment and acceptance of the fact of being black, of our destiny as Black people, of our History, and of our Culture.”

Mr. Senghor started his studies in Senegal, then continued in France, where he arrived in 1928 at age 22. This marked the beginning of “sixteen years of wandering” as he referred to those times. He initially studied at the Sorbonne and then at the Louis-le-Grand High School, where he prepared for the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure. There, his classmates included Paul Guth, Henri Queffélec, Robert Verdier, and Georges Pompidou. He also met Aimé Césaire. On September 12, 1946, Mr. Senghor married Ginette Éboué (1923–1992), Parliamentary Attachée for the Office of the Ministry of Overseas Departments and Territories of France, and daughter of Félix Éboué, former General Governor of French Equatorial Africa. He and Ginette Éboué had two sons.

After the war, Mr. Senghor became Communist. He took over the Chair of Linguistics at the French National School for Overseas Departments and Territories, a position he held until Senegal’s independence in 1960. During one of his research trips on Serere poetry in Senegal, the local Socialist leader, Lamine Gueye, suggested he consider becoming a candidate for a Parliament seat. Mr. Senghor agreed and was elected Representative of the Senegal-Mauritania region at the French National Assembly, where the colonies had just earned the right to be represented.

Encouraged by this success, Mr. Senghor left the African section of the Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO) the following year and founded, with Mamadou Dia, the Senegalese Democratic Bloc (1948), which won the legislative elections of 1951. Re-elected as Member of the National Assembly in 1951 as an Independent from the Overseas Departments and Territories of France, he served as Secretary of State at the Presidency of the Council under the Edgar Faure administration from March 1, 1955 to February 1, 1956, became mayor of Thiès, in Senegal in November 1956, then served as Minister Counselor for the Michel Debré government from July 23, 1959 to May 19, 1961. He was also a member of the Commission in charge of drafting the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, a member of Senegal’s General Council, a member of the Great Council of French Western Africa, and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Mr. Senghor was an ardent advocate of federalism for newly independent African states, a kind of “French Commonwealth.”

Elected on September 5, 1960, Mr. Senghor presided over the just-born Republic of Senegal. He is the author of the Senegalese anthem, the Red Lion. He resigned from office before the end of his fifth presidential term, in December 1980. Abdou Diouf, Prime Minister at that time, replaced him as the nation’s leader, in accordance with Article 35 of the Constitution. Under the Presidency of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal established the multi-party system as well and a strong educational system.

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