Gisèle Rabesahala

As a celebrated Malagasy woman politician of the twentieth century, Gisèle Rabesahala (1929-2011) devoted her life to her country’s independence, human rights and the freedom of peoples. The first Malagasy woman to be appointed minister (1977), she is regarded as a pioneer in Malagasy politics.

Pedagogical Unit

Independence and the fight for freedom


Gisèle Rabesahala’s involvement in the MDRM’s struggles awakened her nationalist and patriotic sentiments. She joined a number of progressive organizations.

In May 1950, together with her fellow-activists, she founded the Fifanampiana Malagasy, the Madagascar Solidarity Committee. The Committee worked for amnesty for all political prisoners who had participated in the 1947 uprising and their release from jail. It supported the victims’ families, especially the wives and daughters of political detainees. It also denounced the acts of violence committed by the colonial administration during the people’s protest movements.

Cover of the book “Fanilo miampita” (Passing the torch), 145-page booklet produced by the Solidarity Committee of Madagascar, prefaced and presented by Gisèle Rabesahala, 1947.

Involvement in the progressive movements

A few years later, Gisèle Rabesahala worked as a secretary for a commercial company and joined the local trade-union movement. In August 1956, the political situation inspired her and other activists to establish the General Confederation of Workers’ Unions of Madagascar (FISEMA), another channel for denouncing social injustice. FISEMA advocated the unity of trade-union action in Madagascar and the solidarity of workers throughout the world.

In October 1956, she was the first woman to be elected as a municipal councillor in Antananarivo. In 1958, Gisèle helped to found the Congress Party for the Independence of Madagacar (AKFM). Successor to the MDRM, it brought together different nationalist tendencies and campaigned for the country’s independence. Gisèle Rabesahala became its General Secretary the same year and occupied the post until 1998.

Gisèle Rabesahala in the late 1950s. Rabesahala family archives.

1960: Independence for Madagascar

The advent of communism, two world wars and the creation of the United Nations (1945) completely reshaped international geopolitics. The fight for independence, justice and the freedom of dominated countries drew new strength from this new context.

France thus found itself obliged to grant political autonomy to its African colonies. On 26 June 1960, Madagascar’s independence was proclaimed. Philibert Tsiranana’s Social Democratic Party (PSD), supported by France, came to power and the First Republic came into being.

Philippe Tsirananana, President of Madagascar from 1960 to 1972. Photograph by Wegmann Ludwig, 1962.

After independence, the fight continues

The AKFM and its satellite organizations assumed the role of opposition movement to the regime and campaigned against this new form of French domination.

Gisèle Rabesahala saw those first years of independence (1961-1965) as one of the most difficult periods for her party: AKFM activists were the target of persecution and arrests; all the opposition parties were subjected to repression; in 1965, a wave of anti-AKFM violence swept through the town of Andapa, in the north-east of the island, and 116 houses were burned and the properties of the local population pillaged.

Campaign strategies: social actions and international support

In spite of the difficult political situation, the AFKM stepped up its training of supporters and its efforts to raise the awareness of the population. The party kept a critical eye on the governance of the country and denounced any action that was likely to undermine national sovereignty or social justice.

At the social level, the trade-union movement FISEMA defended workers’ interests. At the same time, the Madagascar Solidarity Committee set up a social programme to promote education and health: schools were created, health centres were opened, there were nutritional aid programmes, aid for the victims of cyclones, etc. In her humanitarian activities, Gisèle Rabesahala received support from the French charity Secours populaire français, from the island of Réunion and from the solidarity committees of communist bloc countries.

At the international level, the allies of Gisèle Rabesahala’s party were left-wing – mainly communist – parties, regardless of whether they were in power. The AKFM adhered to the principles of scientific socialism and Marxism. Gisèle Rabesahala attended political conventions, meetings and international conferences all over the world.

Gisèle Rabesahala and Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, heroine of the French resistance, during a congress of the French Communist Party in 1980. Rabesahala family archive.