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African sage who won the hearts of the French

Local Hero: Leopold Senghor
Imagine that Hastings Banda, instead of turning Malawi into one of the world's nastiest dictatorships in his declining years, had bowed out of politics in his mid-70s and retired to Scotland.

Perhaps he chose to live in, say, North Berwick, a seaside town east of Edinburgh and birthplace, for the purpose of this fantasy, of a woman he met and married while at Edinburgh University. Would the merchants of North Berwick have decorated their shop windows with his country's flags, on the occasion of his 90th birthday? Would pictures of the former president, and posters wishing him well, have lined the streets? Would North Berwick's "Banda Centre" have honoured him with readings from his literary oeuvre, while children of the town gathered around him and his wife to sing "Happy Birthday"?

It is not easy to imagine. But something like this happened in the Normandy town of Verson last week, on the 90th birthday of the former Senegalese president Leopold Senghor.

The assembled schoolchildren were told that they would soon be in the presence of one of the wisest men in the world, then the beating of the tom-tom began and the diminutive sage appeared.

As he sat next to his wife, Paulette, a daughter of Verson whom he married in 1957, the mayor of the town, Jean-Claude Rouault, said the party was a "family occasion" and a chance for the community to recognise its most celebrated son. There were poems - Mr Senghor's - and the children sang the Senegalese national anthem, written by Mr Senghor.

Once Britain started to pull out of Africa, around 1960, it was as if it could not cut loose from the awkward empire quickly enough. France was keen to retain its influence over its old colonies, however, and Mr Senghor is a living example of the different way that relationship developed.

He read French at the Sorbonne between the wars, making friends with Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and the Caribbean nationalist writer Aime Cesaire. He was introduced to socialist ideas by his friend Georges Pompidou, the future president. Together with Cesaire and another black intellectual, Leon Damas, from Guyana, he developed the idea of "negritude".

This attempt to describe the contribution of black African culture to world culture - without black Africans, civilisation would "lack the rhythm- section of its orchestra, the bass voice of its choir", he said - was a direct precursor of the discipline of Black Studies and such 1960s slogans as "black is beautiful". In 1983 he became the first black man to be elected to the Academie Francaise.

Perhaps there is something about Mr Senghor that appeals to that corner of the French soul that likes the idea of a philosopher-king. But he was also a philosopher-action man: he served in the French infantry during the Second World War and was captured by the Germans.

When he was released he joined the Resistance and it was probably these experiences that diverted him from his intellectual calling to a political one. Having helped to lay the intellectual foundations of African independence, and having played a key role in persuading De Gaulle that the African colonies could become independent within a French community of nations without things falling apart, he became in 1960 the first President of Senegal. A Christian, he led the mainly Muslim country for the next 20 years, being re-elected twice and stepping down voluntarily on 31 December 1980.

Celebrations in his home village of Joal, 130km from Dakar, last Wednesday were led by his successor, President Abdou Diouf. "Senghor is of the race of empire-builders, a pathfinder, a guide," Mr Diouf said, announcing that the country's main airport and biggest football stadium would be named after him. "This child of Joal and of Africa, whom they call Senghor in faraway places, is a citizen of the world."

Another elaborate party is planned for Friday at the Paris headquarters of Unesco, where presidents Diouf and Chirac will pay tribute. Mr Senghor will not make the journey, being, in the words of Dorothee Lemonnier, director of Verson's Senghor Centre, "very tired, and very old".