Revisiting the reasons behind the Labour-PMSD coalition

A Preview of Sydney Selvon’s upcoming ‘New Comprehensive History of Mauritius’

By Sydney Selvon

The PMSD quickly reconciled itself with the reality of political independence. There was no other option and its financiers, mainly the private corporations that controlled the large sugar estates and their related companies in other sectors of business, together with the leading Western capitals (namely London, Washington and Paris, as will be seen below) wanted political stability. Private sector leaders and Western politicians and diplomats engineered a coalition project that would bring the PMSD into the government.

The PMSD had organised a boycott of the Independence Day ceremony at the Champ de Mars. Otherwise, the crowd would have been much larger. However, Le Mauricien newspaper, which had campaigned against independence, decided to not to participate in the boycott and reported on the events. Two members of the PMSD took part in the festivities, Yvon St. Guillaume and Tangavel Narainen, in defiance of Duval’s decision. St. Guillaume even seconded Ramgoolam’s motion subsequently, asking the Queen to approve the independence of Mauritius – a mere formality that acquired considerable importance as it was a PMSD Member of Parliament who had taken a stand that was totally contrary to the party’s years of campaigning against independence. Four decades later, St. Guillaume confided in a press interview that he believed that Duval was, “deep within himself, for independence” and had privately told him that “he wanted to turn the page but that he was being subjected to too much pressure.” (Yvon St. Guillaume, l’homme qui défia son parti au nom de son pays, Week-End, 16 March 2008)

One may speculate, then, if St Guillaume, officiating as a religious official in 2008, was telling the strict truth, on whether there had been some forces, even financiers, backers of some kind, secret service operatives of some foreign powers, who were in a position to dictate to the PMSD its policies and decisions. It appeared to the author of this book during a visit to London in 1972 to meet British officials, that Duval had strong ties inside the British state apparatus and that he could rely on them for support – as he has confirmed in his book of reminiscences Une certain idée de l’île Maurice regarding a secret meeting in New York “at the Wardolf Astoria” where the “Western powers” managed to convince him to join Ramgoolam in a coalition to fight the communist threat. That has been the only time that Duval openly revealed such discreet contacts that could invite him to New York to tell him to join the government. The fact that subsequently Ramgoolam readily dropped the IFB to take the PMSD into his government was also quite unexpected in 1969, but could reinforce the theory of neocolonialism at work – which was  actually the analysis of the MMM, a new leftist political party founded in 1969 with, at its beginning, Marxism as its main inspiration.

To the great surprise of the country, after independence, it was not long before it was known that Duval and Dr Ramgoolam had started to discuss the possibility of forming once more a coalition government. Top sugar industry leaders, principally Claude Noel, as well as foreign dignitaries, mainly aFrench Minister and representative of Réunion Island at the French National Assembly, as well as American and British diplomats, were the intermediaries. In his reminiscences on his political career that he wrote in 1976, Sir Gaëtan Duval explained that the Western powers played a major role by advising him to join the Ramgoolam government in the interests of the Western nations whose main concerns were to stop the advance of communism in the region (Duval, Gaëtan, Une certaine idée de l’île Maurice, Le Trèle 1976).

They were encouraged, in that, by the local private sector, which was longing for political stability, by a few Western political friends of both leaders in Washington, London and Paris, who wanted the PMSD in the post-independence government – and also, by a young student, Paul Bérenger, who wrote articles in L’Express of 5 and 10 August 1967, in favour of a coalition government. His view was that Duval represented the interests of the Western countries and that would help Mauritius on the economic front, while a Labour-PMSD coalition would also help soothe the wounds left by ethnic politics during the long struggle between the two parties. Nevertheless, Bérenger would, in the following years, make a spectacular entry in the Mauritian political arena by fighting the Ramgoolam-Duval tandem and the ‘neocolonial’ parrainage of their government, proposing a formula of “direct democracy” inspired from Marxism and the Student Revolt of 1968 in Paris.

Western geostrategy and the Labour-PMSD coalition

What could be described as ‘obscure’ forces behind the coalition were, in the end, not so obscure, after all. While Duval revealed, seven years later, the Western ‘connection’ in his book of reminiscences, Michel Debré, the French Foreign Affairs Minister until 1969, and from 1969, Defence Minister, had not hesitated, in 1969, to publicly betray the link between Western diplomacy and the proposed coalition. He did it in front of a large crowd, by joining the hands of Sir Sewoosagur Ramgoolam and Duval in his own, a clear and unambiguous signal of an impending coalition. France was, for sure, not alone in this enterprise.

As earlier stated, the Americans were contemplating, already in the 1950s, as decolonisation swept across the planet and, at the same time, communism was advancing rapidly, the dispatch of important military and naval forces to stay permanently in the Indian Ocean. This is clear in the following excerpt from a 1957 research paper, authored by George Fielding Elliot, in an American Marine Corps publication:

“(…) with the translation of India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma and Malaya into independent states, the specifically British military responsibilities in the Indian Ocean have greatly diminished. Today they may be defined as the protection of commerce, notably that of the oil-trade of the Persian Gulf; the extinguishing of the last embers of Communist revolt in Malaya; and the security of sea-communications with Australia and the Far East. In all of these, the United States also has an interest of varying degree. All of them are connected with the continued security of the Indian Ocean and of the nations around its shores. The basic requirement of that security may be stated in a single phrase — exclusion from the Indian Ocean area of Communist power and influence.
“This is also a vital consideration to the global strategy of the struggle against the Communist coalition — a strategy in which Britain bears an important part, but of which the power of the United States is the mainstay. Thus today, for the first time in history, the United States has a definite long-term strategic interest in the Indian Ocean; and because of the diminished power and authority of Britain in that area (as elsewhere) the United States is required to support that interest with its own power, or at least to be visibly prepared to do so.”

This was the setting of the Cold War that raged from the 1950s, throughout the 1960s and beyond and it has been replaced by the so-called Western ‘war on terrorism” that has seen full scale warfare launched by America against the pro-Taliban regime in Afthanistan and that of Saddam Hussain in Iraq (Peter H Sand). Those conflicts were the kind of situations, anticipated in the 1957 paper cited above, that would invite a response from the US.

In the 1960s, after France left the Northen Alliance Treaty Organization (NATO), which to this day ensures the military defence of the Western nations under American leadership (France has now rejoined). NATO has been fighting communism everywhere on the planet in both cold and hot conflicts. Several secret arrangements were made by the French and American political and military top brass to maintain joint military and intelligence operations, including covert operations. To this day, those agreements, one of which is known as the Ailleret-Lemnitzer agreements (also called, inversely, the Lemnitzer-Ailleret agreements) have remained secret. What is known to scholars has been summed up in various papers and books. The following excerpt from researcher Anand Menon’s book France, NATO, and the limits of Independence, 1981-97: The politics of ambivalence (MacMillan, Great Britain 2000) gives some idea of the importance of those secret arrangements:

“Between 22 November 1966 and February 1967, a series of meetings occurred between French Chief of Staff General Charles Ailleret, as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR), General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, culminating in the signing of agreements on military co-operation between France and NATO. The exact details of their discussions have remained confidential. It seems clear, however, that the Ailleret-Lemnitzer agreements, signed on 22 August, were both detailed and far-reaching. (…)
“On 2 December 1970, the Fourquet-Goodpaster agreements were signed. These improved coordination between NATO and French air defence systems and included provision for French membership in the NATO Ace High network, eight of whose stations were placed on French soil. In July 1974, the Valentine-Feber accords were signed between the commander of the French First Army and the commander of the Allied Forces Central Europe. (…)
“It is striking how low a profile was accorded the instances of cooperation between France and its Allies. As the Ailleret-Lemnitzer agreements went almost unnoticed, so too were subsequent agreements between France and its allies shrouded in secrecy. Cooperative initiatives towards NATO were undertaken almost surreptitiously.”

In actively advocating a coalition government in Mauritius, Michel Debré, Foreign Affairs Minister of France until 1969 when he was appointed Minister of Defence, was obviously abiding by the above mentioned agreements. He enjoyed the additional advantage of being a close friend of Duval and, after the coalition, of Ramgoolam also, who chose the capitalist course of economic development that was deeply and naturally embedded in Duval’s mindset. Debré was an elected member for nearby Réunion Island in the French National Assembly. Debré was, the word is not too strong, ferociously fighting the very popular Communist Party of Reunion, the PCR, then in its early historical phase when it was close to Moscow and wanted Réunion to be independent. An independent Mauritius represented a risk France would not take in the midst of the Cold War. This was the true context of the joining of hands of Ramgoolam and Duval, which Debré performed in person in front of a large crowd in Curepipe in 1969, inviting them to work together.

From that moment, the Labour/IFB coalition could be considered already as dead as the dodo. Ramgoolam embarked on a policy that he personally took control of, even to the detriment of Duval: a policy of very close rapprochement with France and its conservative government. Under the secret agreements, France was the ‘gendarme’ of the South West Indian Ocean islands and region, with the blessing of NATO and Washington. The word ‘gendarme’ has in fact been widely used in the media and academia since that time, and the French role has been well explained by French researcher Guillaume Burdeau in his thesis ‘Les relations entre la France et les Seychelles d’après la presse française (1977-2004)’ (Université Paris Ouest – Nanterre – La Défense – Master 2 Histoire 2010):

« La France est la garante de la sécurité des voies maritimes de l’océan Indien. En dominant le trafic maritime, la France entretient des relations commerciales avec l’ensemble des pays riverains. En tant que principale puissance militaire étrangère présente dans l’océan Indien, la France est mise en cause par les pays qui cherchent à créer une « zone de paix » dans la région. Pourtant, on a accepté de maintenir la présence militaire française « au nom de la paix ». En effet, elle joue un rôle de stabilisatrice et son retrait aurait été profitable à l’hégémonie d’autres puissances, surtout celle de l’URSS. De plus, la France est une puissance navale moyenne et non hégémonique, elle rassure les pays alliés face à ses agresseurs et évite aux pays riverains d’être confrontés sans cesse à l’URSS : elle attire plus facilement la sympathie des États. Cela permet à la France de jouer son rôle de gendarme de l’océan Indien et d’affirmer son statut de puissance riveraine. Position que l’URSS a vainement tenté de supplanter.”

As for Britain, on 12 January 1968, the government of Harold Wilson had announced that the British were retreating from East of Suez. That expected move resulted in placing more strategic responsibilities in the care of the Americans and of the French. The British departure was a spectacular development in view of Britain’s huge role in that part of the world for centuries. The move has been amply documented and analysed by Saki Dockrill in his book ‘British Retreat from East of Suez: The Choice between Europe and the World?’ (London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

The post-independence coalition was effectively the chef d’oeuvre of Western neocolonialism in the sense given to this word by academia in Routledge’s voluminous work on decolonisation. Ramgoolam and Duval could invoke realpolitik considerations in the interest of Mauritius, with regard to the enormous economic benefits their government reaped from entering literally into association with the European Union and being able to secure markets not just for Mauritian sugar, but the future exports of the industrial free zones they successfully created in the 1970s that finally, in the 1980s, enabled the country to emerge from widespread poverty – albeit the criticism levelled at the coalition to this day about its repressive measures during the 1970s.

Many people believed, like Bérenger, that a coalition comprising the PMSD, dubbed the representative of the minorities and of Western interests, and the Labour-led government, believed to enjoy strong Hindu support and also well considered in Westminster, would promote a sense of national unity among the population, thus helping nation-building. Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam would argue with insistence, at the local level, that he wanted Gaetan Duval in his government in the name of national unity. Duval would do the same, but would find it much more difficult to persuade his electorate and even his party.

Bérenger’s arguments, published just three days after the elections, in (L’Express, 10 August 1967) were: firstly, a multi-ethnic country must necessarily be governed by coalitions and Mauritius was then living in a very tense atmosphere, and, secondly, the economic interests of the country would be better served by a coalition in which Duval would have the duty, he wrote, of keeping “close contacts with Great Britain and the European Common Market, in particular with France.” Mauritius should associate itself with the Common Market, he argued. Bérenger was not in a position, though, to have any real influence in the political arena – not yet.

Why Mauritius chose the West: to produce for its affluent consumer markets

It must be borne in mind also that, in those days, Mauritius was still a poor, underdeveloped country. The 1960s had started with two violent cyclones, Alix and Carol, which, within three months, had brought the country down on its knees. Three exhaustive reports ordered by the government revealed the extent to which life was miserable for the majority of Mauritians at the end of the 1950s: the Luce Report, the Meade Report and the Titmuss Report.

Studying Mauritian unemployment in March 1958, Professor R.W. Luce observed that out of the people who could be economically active, 15.1% were unemployed. Luce commented that “the figures indicate unemployment on a very severe scale judged by any standard.” 

What worried Professor James Meade, for his part, was the ‘terrifying’ population explosion that was in the making: the natural rate of increase of the population had evolved from about half per cent per year in the years following World War II, to reach 3% a year in 1958. The population had multiplied by about six times. At such a rate, the population of such a poor country like Mauritius would increase from 600,000 in 1958 to 3 million at the end of the 20th century. That was the reason why Meade, who won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1977, predicted a Malthusian future for Mauritius. How could a nation with a growth rate that was around 1% annually, at even at times negative, meaning no growth at all, feed 3 million persons?

The gross national product (GNP), at constant prices, between 1953 and 1958, was less than Rs 590 million a year and the per capita GNP it had gone down from Rs1, 058 to Rs 956 rupees a year. Looking at the extent of the poverty that affected the majority of the population, and, like Meade, based on the demographic explosion that was in the making, Titmuss spoke of ‘the emerging crisis.’ Meade had found the labour force was growing by 1% only in 1958. Due to the lack of natural resources, Meade recommended industrialisation. He proposed a major diversification of the economy, which from then onwards, became the leitmotiv of all Mauritian governments from the 1960s to date. From the early 1960s, the government adopted a policy of encouraging manufacturing activities for import-substitution industries (ISIs) by granting export development certificates and protected them from external competition by means of tariff barriers.

This created less than 2,000 jobs, while the demographic bomb continued to tick and unemployment continued to rise. Gradually, it became known in business and government in Mauritius, through foreign and also local newspapers, that small territories like Taiwan and Hong Kong were being quite successful in adopting, in addition to the ISI policy, what became known as an export oriented industries (EOIs) strategy consisting in providing low costs of production through fiscal and other incentives for production oriented towards the large affluent markets, meaning those of the Western countries, Europe and the United States.

“By the time of independence unemployment was unofficially estimated at over 20 per cent and the GDP was only Rs 840 million or a mere Rs 1,086 per capita, even less than in 1963 when it was Rs 1,283 per capita. The country had a mono-crop economy, relying mostly on the annual sugar cane harvests and sugar production. The population had reached nearly 800,000 and there were dire predictions as to the future when the one-million mark would be reached.”

— Louis Yeung Lam Ko, The Economic Development of Mauritius Since Independence, School of Economics University of New South Wales, Sydney NSW 2052, Australia 1998

There was a convergence between the needs of Mauritius to escape from under-development and the diplomatic and strategic manoeuvres of the Western nations to work with governments of the region while finding the means to ward off the threat of a rapidly advancing communist bloc. It was remarkable that Duval’s preferred model of development conquered not just the Labour Party’s rank and file, but also the majority of the country’s radical left that rallied under the banners of the MMM and the MSM.

The story has a happy ending: all our main political parties share the same ideological and economic choices – they just have no choice.

* Published in print edition on 4 May 2012

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