FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique - Aime Cesaire, an anti-colonialist poet and politician who was honored throughout the French-speaking world and was an early proponent of black pride, has died at 94.
Cesaire died Thursday at a Fort-de-France hospital where he was being treated for heart problems and other ailments, said government spokeswoman Marie Michele Darsieres.
He was one of the Caribbean's most celebrated cultural figures and was revered in his native Martinique, where his passing brought tears and spontaneous memorial observances.
The French island sent him to the country's parliament for nearly half a century and repeatedly elected him mayor of the capital.
Cesaire helped found the "Black Student" journal in Paris in the 1930s that launched the idea of "negritude," urging blacks to cultivate pride in their heritage. His 1950 "Discourse on Colonialism" became a classic of French political literature.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed "very great sadness" at Cesaire's passing, and said "the entire French nation" is in mourning.
"Through his universal appeal for respect of human dignity, awareness and responsibility, he will remain a symbol of hope for all oppressed peoples," the president said a statement. Sarkozy's office said he would attend Cesaire's funeral Sunday in Fort-de-France.
Martinicans mourned Cesaire's passing.
"I prayed for him," said 45-year-old teacher Jean Luc Martin, his eyes red from crying. "I studied his works, which forged my life and allowed me to see our differences in a new light."
Students at Lycee Scoelcher, a Martinique high school where Cesaire once taught, honored him in a spontaneous ceremony Thursday. "For us, only two men count: Aime Cesaire and Nelson Mandela," student Karl Dintimile said.
Cesaire's best known works included the essay "Negro I am, Negro I Will Remain" and the poem "Notes From a Return to the Native Land."
His works also resonated in Africa. Former Senegalese President Abdou Diouf said Cesaire led a noble fight against hate.
"I salute the memory of a man who dedicated his life to multiple wars waged on all battlefields for the political and cultural destiny of his racial brothers," Diouf said.
Born June 26, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, Cesaire moved to France for high school and university. He returned to Martinique during World War II and served as mayor from 1945 to 2001, except in 1983-84.
Cesaire helped Martinique shed its colonial status in 1946 to become an overseas department. As the years passed, he remained firm in his views.
In 2005, the politician-poet refused to meet with then-Interior Minister Sarkozy because of his endorsement of a bill citing the "positive role" of colonialism.
"I remain faithful to my beliefs and remain inflexibly anti-colonialist," Cesaire said at the time. The offending language was struck from the bill.
Despite the snub, Sarkozy successfully led a campaign last year to change the name of Martinique's airport in honor of Cesaire. Cesaire eventually met with Sarkozy in March 2006 but endorsed his Socialist rival, Segolene Royal, in the 2007 French elections.
Royal called Cesaire "an eminent symbol of a mixed-race France" and urged that he be buried in the Pantheon, where French heroes from Victor Hugo to Marie and Pierre Curie are interred.
Cesaire was affiliated with the French Communist Party early in his career but became disillusioned in the 1950s and founded the Martinique Progressive Party in 1958. He later allied with the Socialist Party in France's National Assembly, where he served from 1946-1956 and 1958-1993.
Associated Press writer Angela Doland in Paris contributed to this report.