HUNTER J. Francois, the last and oldest survivor of the political brigade that emerged in St Lucia immediately following universal adult suffrage died over the weekend. He would have been 91 next February.
Francois was a rarity as far as local politicians go on a number of counts. A lawyer by profession who hardly practiced after the 1960s, he was also at home in the arts, penned poetry and loved music. He became St. Lucia’s first Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) and was the inspiration and initiator for what is known today as the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College and the St Lucia School of Music. The Community College Library bears his name.
A founding member of the United Workers Party (UWP), Francois became disillusioned with the two or multi party system, seemingly at the height of his political career and following an acrimonious break with the party and its leader, then Premier John Compton. He advocated a no party state, ironically something Compton himself may have indirectly alluded to previously but never pursued.
Francois was 30 years old whaen he entered the political arena in 1954 contesting the Choiseul seat as an Independent and finishing a distant third to two of the village’s favourite sons, Ives John of the Peoples Progressive Party (PPP) and Gilbert Mason of the St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP).
Francois later joined the conservative PPP and along with the likes of Henry Giraudy, helped breathe new life into the PPP which had been mauled by the SLP in the historic adult suffrage debut election of 1951. Although Labour again prevailed in 1954 and 1957, it was the PPP that was being energized, with an array of eloquent platform speakers and Francois one of its stars. After another unsuccessful attempt to enter parliament by running in East Castries in 1961, Francois turned the tables in the elections of 1964 when a coalition of the PPP and the then SLP splinter group, the National Labour Movement came together to form the UWP under John Compton, and upstaged Labour led by George Charles.
Before that Francois’ star had begun its rise with a victory at the Castries City Council elections in 1961 when the PPP swept the polls winning all three seats at stake, a result that was widely interpreted as the turning point in the PPP’s electoral fortunes. In those days, municipal elections had the same profile as general elections with vigorous campaigning, including nightly public meetings by the contesting parties.
It was in this atmosphere that Francois’ talent began to flourish and it became apparent to all that he was a cut above the rest of his political colleagues and opponents. Whereas they ranted and raved on the platform, raised their voices hysterically and gesticulated wildly to get their points across, Francois was always calm, soft spoken, eloquent, deliberate and gentlemanly, but effective, incisive and scathing when he felt the occasion demanded it. Even then his demeanour never fell.
I can recall the campaign of 1964, for example, when Francois tagged his opponent as a “reaper” in support of his claim that while the gentleman had been drawing a salary from the treasury as a representative of the people and a cabinet member to boot, he had failed to realize any achievements for either constituency or country and was merely there “reaping”. It was a theme he would use throughout the campaign with good effect.
Francois was different from the rest in other ways as well. He was, indeed, a somewhat reluctant politician who insisted that he would never beg anyone for votes, far less use money, in any form or fashion, to entice them. He asked to be judged on his work, and his character. Although he spoke from the political platform, his constituents never expected to see him personally at their doorsteps begging for their support at the polls. Although he contested five general elections, it could not be said that Francois craved power or position.
Francois was masterful with the English language as were some of his contemporaries at the time, the likes of Henry Giraudy and Wilfred St Clair-Daniel, all products of the legendary Castries Intermediate School. Long before George Odlum mesmerized us with his gift of oratory, there were these three and others too.
Francois was Minister of Education, Health and Social Affairs and deputy to John Compton in the UWP government that emerged in 1964. It was the era when the modernisation of St. Lucia began and the education sector, under Francois’ leadership, began to get attention with a junior secondary school programme and an emphasis on teacher training which both received generous assistance from Canada.
In 1969, Francois retained the East Castries seat after a bruising battle with Labour’s Kenneth Foster but by 1972 the UWP was plunged into a period of crisis with a series of resignations of key members including frontliners like Julian Hunte and Hilary Modeste (then party secretary) among others over a number of issues then confronting the party. Several members felt that that the UWP was losing popularity and many laid the blame at Compton’s feet. Then Francois dropped a bombshell and in a letter resigning his Cabinet post, accused Premier Compton of “pathological irresponsibility” because of the autocratic way he was running the government. This was only one of several unflattering remarks that Francois would make about Compton, a sign that Francois was never afraid of speaking his mind to anyone.
By that time, however, Francois was already known to be losing his zeal for the two party system. In the same year, 1972, Francois even while still a Minister called for the scrapping of the two party system while addressing a regional meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) here as a St Lucia delegate. When he left the government he announced that he would be initiating public debate on the Tanzania (one party) experiment but that would be some five years in coming.
Ironically, the crisis within the UWP also forced Compton into taking a critical look at the system, which he blamed for the party’s troubles. He announced that he would appoint a commission to give the island “a constitution best suited to its own experience”.
Declared Compton then: “We must look closely at ourselves and at our human resources. We cannot afford to waste the limited talents that we have. It is essential that the best qualified people be placed at the service of the country and in the areas where there can be the fullest utilization of their talents.”
For reasons that were never explained, Compton did not appoint the promised commission and although he and Francois remained estranged following their falling out, Francois was singing almost the same song when in 1977 he published a controversial 32-page cyclostyled booklet titled “MORNING” which proposed the dawning of a new day in the island’s political life.
Before that, however, Francois had switched parties and joined the St. Lucia Labour Party contesting the Central Castries seat on the party’s ticket in 1974. In the race too was Hunte, then an Independent after his attempt, with others, to form a new political entity had crashed shortly after takeoff. It was a contest which more than anything underlined the power of William George Mallet in Central Castries with him polling more votes that Hunte and Francois together and relegating the latter to third place.
Although in MORNING Francois quoted extensively from speeches by then Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere advocating the one party state, he let it known that in fact, he favoured a “no party” state or national movement, an idea that had also been advanced by the St Lucia Bar Association.
Francois claimed that the existing system was “soul destroying, substitutes deceit for integrity and silences the large number of trained and intelligent persons in the civil service”.
He wrote: “If the effort is to be made to salvage what good is left in us, the time is now. If we are to rally our scattered moral resources….find inspiration, direction and purpose, we must seek these in national movement, and the time is now.”
Sadly, MORNING never came. The brief debate of 1977 that promised much, with the submission by the Bar Association as well, fizzed into other things, including the campaign for independence, but Francois’ thinking attracted some supporters– myself included– who got a peek at what was possible, and seeing the thoroughly destructive and divisive nature of the politics of St. Lucia in particular, did not have the same fervour for the multi-party system afterwards.
Francois’ love for the arts is almost as profound as his political life. He wrote poetry and in 1949 published a collection “First and Last Poems.” He loved and studied music– especially classical music– a path which was followed by some of his children, and he is widely considered to be the father of the St Lucia School of Music.
There are no political players left from the Francois era, except Kenneth Monplaisir who however never contested elections although he was a member of the NLM with Compton and others. It is most fitting that Francois should be the last to depart. To paraphrase Shakespeare he may just have been “the noblest (St. Lucian) of them all”.
By Guy Ellis