He was a "man of freedom who never ceased to defend the value and equal respect due to every civilization," Sarkozy said in a brief address ahead of a memorial service for Cesaire on his native Caribbean island of Martinique.
"He will remain for all of us the person who developed our consciousness. He will remain the one who, through his combat, sent out his message far beyond the borders of our nation," Sarkozy said.
Cesaire helped found the Black Student journal in Paris in the 1930s, which 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. His works also resonated in Africa.
The memorial service, held in a sports stadium in Fort-de-France, was a cultural event, featuring dramatic readings of Cesaire's work and an address by Cesaire's contemporary, 101-year-old poet and politician Pierre Aliker.
"Martinique has lost its best son," said Aliker, who for 50 years served as vice-mayor of Fort-de-France under Cesaire.
Sarkozy did not speak at the service. He stood in silence at the head of the coffin before taking a seat near members of Cesaire's family.
Sarkozy and Cesaire clashed several years ago after then-Interior Minister Sarkozy endorsed a bill citing the "positive role" of colonialism. Cesaire refused to meet with Sarkozy in 2005, but despite the snub, Sarkozy led a successful campaign last year to change the name of Martinique's airport in honor of Cesaire.
Thousands of people from all walks of life - most of them dressed in black and white - attended Sunday's service.