French Empire

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In 1914 the French Empire was the second largest colonial empire in population and extent/territory. A century earlier, France had already lost most of a substantial previous empire in India and North America, retaining only a few slave islands in the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, tiny colonial fragments in India, and some coastal footholds and trading stations in Africa and Asia. By a curious irony, therefore, modern French imperialism coincided and was indelibly associated with the rise of French republicanism and the modern state. This irony became more acute with time, haunting the troubled French experience of decolonization.

In 1848, the short-lived Second Republic began to forge a republican conception of empire by setting two formidable precedents. First, it abolished slavery (which had been abortively abolished once before, in 1791) and created citizens of former slaves, who thus could vote in French parliamentary elections. Second, the Republic incorporated the newly conquered territories of Algeria—which had been invaded in 1830 and brutally "pacified" thereafter—within the administrative structure of metropolitan France: Algeria was divided into départements under the control of a prefect. When François Mitterrand, interior minister at the outbreak of the Algerian War in 1954, infamously claimed that "Algeria is France," he was thus doing no more than stating the official truth. Algeria constituted the keystone of the French Empire until it gained its independence in 1962. The colonies emancipated in 1848 (now the overseas départements of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Réunion), were still outposts of the French Republic––and of the European Union––in 2004, along with a few other quasicolonial "overseas territories."

France's empire expanded most rapidly, alongside that of other colonial powers, in the 1880s and 1890s, with the internationally sanctioned occupation and, where necessary, armed conquest, of vast territories in West and Central Africa, Madagascar, and Southeast Asia, along with divers islands and archipelagos in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Prized protectorates over Tunisia and Morocco were also secured in this period, and Algeria acquired its Saharan extension through the cartographic skills of the French army. This "scramble for Africa" (and Asia) coincided with the dynamic consolidation of the values and institutions of the modern French state by the Third Republic after 1870. The territorial contiguity of French-ruled territory in Africa inspired the enduring rhetorical trope of a "Françafrique" stretching "from Flanders to the Congo" (one of Mitterrand's more fanciful slogans from the 1950s); plans for a Trans-Saharan Railway, which might have lent substance to the rhetoric, were much discussed but never realized. Even so, by 1914 the French imperial map revealed impressive stretches of French rule, commanded by powerful proconsuls in Algiers, Rabat, and Tunis, Dakar (French West Africa), Brazzaville (French Equatorial Africa), Tananarive (Madagascar), and Hanoi (Indochina, a French creation comprising the modern-day states of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos). The map was completed only after 1919, when France was granted mandates by the newly formed League of Nations to administer former German colonies in Africa (Cameroon, Togo) and former Ottoman territories in the Middle East, where French soldiers and proconsuls created the states of Syria and Lebanon with their modern boundaries. The dominant doctrine underpinning French colonial rule was assimilation, allied to the looser conception of a "mission civilisatrice" (civilizing mission). As late as 1944, at the time of the Brazzaville Conference organized by the Free French movement, a prominent Gaullist declared that France's aim was to "transform French Africans into African Frenchmen." This French mission took various practical forms, the most important being the inculcation, through education, of French norms, culture, and language. Chiefly remembered for the apocryphal stories of African schoolchildren reciting how "our ancestors the Gauls had blond hair and blue eyes," in reality the French colonial school system never reached more than the few––very few beyond primary level––though it was bolstered by the efforts of Catholic missionaries (since the core republican doctrine of laïcité, the separation of church and state, was largely ignored overseas). In addition, "civilization" was to be imposed through the supposedly virtuous instruments of taxation and labor; indeed, as in pre-1789 France, the two were often combined in the form of labor impressments for public works. French administrators and their intermediaries also acted as recruiting agents for labor on major projects, such as the notorious Congo-Ocean Railway, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans, or for seasonal work on European-owned plantations. Although banned by the International Labor Organization in 1930, forced labor continued in various guises until it was finally abolished after World War II.

Assimilation also implied the application of French legal norms, but this principle too was readily manipulated to French ends. Most notably, French law in Algeria, France's principal settler colony, was used to justify the expropriation of the best agricultural lands by European farmers, thus forcing upon indigenous Algerians the choice between laboring in the European farms and vineyards, migrating to poorer, mountainous regions, electing a precarious existence in the coastal cities, or, from the 1920s on, immigrating to metropolitan France to serve as cheap, transient, industrial labor. More generally, French administration relied on an often cruel and arbitrary indigénat, or "native" code of justice, which was abolished only after 1945. In theory, the colonized could attain equal status through citizenship. In fact, for most of the colonial period, citizenship had to be earned by meeting stringent criteria, though these were sometimes arbitrarily applied: literacy, property ownership, office holding, military service, or, for Muslims, the humiliating renunciation of rights and duties possessed under Islamic law and custom. Even when universal suffrage was eventually broached in the 1940s, it was clear that it could never be practiced on the basis of "one person, one vote" because demography dictated that France would then become "the colony of her former colonies." Voters were thus corralled into demeaning electoral colleges, which discounted their suffrage, so that African or Algerian députés (members of parliament) represented constituencies that were up to ten times more populous than those of French metropolitan députés. Even this double standard was not enough for the Algerian settlers, or pieds noirs (approximately one-eighth of the Algerian population), and in the 1948 elections to the new Algerian Assembly, massive electoral fraud excluded all but the most pro-French voices. By contrast, politics in post-1945 French sub-Saharan Africa showed how the rhetoric of assimilation could be turned to the advantage of the colonized, as a new generation of politicians and trade unionists campaigned with some success for equal rights for African workers, with the creation of an African Labor Code in 1952. In this case at least, French colonial rule was starting to become too costly to maintain.

Although assimilation remained the dominant ideal––or rather, fiction––of French republican imperialism, colonial officials came to learn the advantages of a less intrusive policy of association, which accompanied or supplanted assimilationist grand designs. Association had its philosophical basis in an ambiguous relativism, which purported to respect cultural difference in conquered societies, but for the most part simply considered some "ancient" civilizations as yet unfit for the benefits of Western rule. More pragmatically, association recognized the costs of prolonged resistance to French rule or to its harsher policies, such as military recruitment during World War I. It also took into account the necessary paucity of French administrative resources, since by law French colonies had to remain fiscally autonomous. French colonial officials thus restored, or sometimes invented, institutions of local rule, which compensated for an overstretched colonial administration. Assimilationist and associationist doctrines came together in the increasingly professionalized training of colonial administrators at the École Nationale de la France d'Outre-Mer (ENFOM, National academy for overseas France), then counted among France's more prestigious grandes écoles, which in 2004 still trained French administrative, political, intellectual, and business elites. Cadets at ENFOM studied law and administration, but also ethnography, languages, and basic applied sciences, so that they could operate effectively as technocratic modernizers, lonely but resourceful "kings of the bush." Unlike their typical British counterparts, they were often men of the Left, drawn from France's provincial periphery, from lower-middle-class or peasant backgrounds.

What was the importance of empire for French public opinion? Parisian high culture between the wars drew heavily on contact with the colonized cultures of Africa and Southeast Asia. The Parisian intelligentsia reveled in exotic ethnographic discoveries; enthused over African and Asian artifacts pillaged for French museum collections; admired the poetry and manifestos of the negritude movement, whose leading lights included future politicians, Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal and the Martiniquan AiméCésaire; and danced to the music of African American jazz musicians. This fascination with the exotic Other was periodically tempered by unease at the colonial abuses revealed by the left-wing intellectuals André Gide, Andrée Viollis, and Michel Leiris, but by few others before the 1950s. French popular culture was saturated with imperial clichés in film, popular song, commercial advertising, and official propaganda. Yet the staging in 1931 of a Grand Colonial Exposition in a park outside Paris, under the prestigious direction of Marshal Louis Lyautey, "pacifier" of Morocco, indicates that the government felt some anxiety that the French public was not sufficiently "empire-minded." Millions of visitors took up the invitation to voyage "round the world in one day," marveling at replicas of temples, mosques, palaces, and mud huts, and ogling the spectacle of costumed "natives" acting out the tamer fantasies of their colonial masters. It is doubtful that this experience stiffened popular imperialist resolve.

Colonial affairs were never high on the political agenda, even at moments of crisis, and the French colonial enterprise was supported, albeit unenthusiastically, by a broad consensus of French political opinion. In the days of conquest, the empire had depended on the vigorous lobbying of a small but influential parti colonial, a loose coalition of imperial interests including businessmen, geographers, soldiers, and missionaries. Within the political parties, colonial questions were the province of a few "experts" rather than a matter for mainstream party debate. On the Left, the Socialist Party (Section Française de l'Internationale Ouvrière, or SFIO) campaigned against the scandals associated with colonialism, rather than against colonialism itself. Even the French Communist Party's anti-colonialism, a Leninist article of faith, turned out to be conditional: after the Party rejoined the republican mainstream with the formation of the Popular Front in 1934, its stance came to reflect that of the secretary-general Maurice Thorez, in December 1937, recalling Vladimir Lenin's maxim that "the right to divorce does not mean the obligation to divorce." After World War II, the party line equated separatist nationalism with fascism (for example, in Algeria in 1945) and decolonization with U.S. imperialism. The Cold War made it easier for the party to oppose French actions in Indochina and Madagascar, but its solidarity with Communist brethren such as Ho Chi Minh was signally more wholehearted than its subsequent support for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). Conversely, the same Cold War logic constrained the other parties, even the SFIO, to back Algérie Française. Before the cautious or compromised party leaderships, it was individual party militants and independent intellectuals––mostly on the Left, but also among liberal Catholics––who supported the Algerian cause: denouncing torture, encouraging desertion by French servicemen, or acting as porteurs de valises (couriers, or literally, suitcase-carriers) for the FLN.

The empire mattered to businesses and investors and was a crucial source of foodstuffs and raw materials, from West African cocoa and peanut oil to Indochinese rubber and coal. But French imperialism increasingly acted as a brake on economic modernization, as it was old-fashioned, unprofitable industries, such as food oils and textiles that benefited from the colonies. Colonial development was first mooted in the 1920s, under the utilitarian guise of the proposed mise en valeur (valorization) of the colonies, but virtually nothing happened until 1946, when an Investment Fund for Economic and Social Development (FIDES) was created to channel metropolitan funds into major development projects. Ironically, the scheme's very success made a powerful case for decolonization, when it was argued, most prominently by the editor of the popular magazine Paris-Match, that the money would be better spent at home. By a further irony, the Algerian economy––hitherto largely perceived as competition for French farmers and winegrowers––promised to benefit France only when it was almost too late, with the discovery of the Saharan oil fields in the late 1950s. By this time, governments and multinational enterprises were coming to realize that the resources of the developing world could be exploited more profitably without the hindrance of colonial rule: so it proved in Algeria, where independence barely interrupted the pace of French investment in Algerian oil and gas, or of Algerian labor migration to France.

The French Empire remained a prop for French claims to the status of a great power, even after 1945. Although imperial rivalries with Britain were resolved almost amicably when the Entente Cordiale was concluded in 1904, the more practical purpose of "Greater France" (la plus grande France) was as a demographic counterweight to a Germany whose sixty million citizens otherwise outnumbered France's forty million. France alone deployed non-European colonial troops on the western front during World War II, including a Force Noire (black force) of some 170,000 African tirailleurs (infantry troops) . In 1940 colonial troops fought in the Battle of France, which left many Africans among the 1.25 million French prisoners of war in Germany. General Charles de Gaulle's Free French army was largely a colonial army, which fought in the Western Desert and in Italy, before spearheading the secondary Allied landings in southern France in August 1944. France continued to rely on colonial levies and the much-romanticized mercenaries of the Foreign Legion in its various wars of decolonization, in Indochina, Madagascar, and North Africa. In Algeria, locally recruited troops and auxiliaries (harkis) were in the thick of the fighting; at independence, they were faced with a tragic nonchoice between exile and massacre. Although the Algerian War (1954–1962) was the first and only colonial campaign in which French conscripts were deployed, allowing the army to field a force of up to 450,000 men, it also represented the last stand for the imperial ethos of the professional French officer corps. For de Gaulle (who, for reasons of background and temperament, did not share that ethos), ending the war in Algeria was an opportunity for France to "marry her century"; this included modernizing the French army and revolutionizing French strategy by switching to a policy of nuclear deterrence based on a nascent French force de frappe (strike force). Even de Gaulle regretted losing the Algerian Sahara, which offered facilities for nuclear testing far preferable to the Pacific atolls used after 1962.

Any account of the end of the French Empire must begin by examining its inescapable contradictions. It must also consider the continuity of resistance to French rule, which found expression between the wars in the emergence of nationalist movements, and in various revolts, insurrections, and conspiracies––all brutally and effectively repressed. The French Empire might still have limped along, sustained by a circular argument that legitimized colonialism within an international system dominated by colonial powers––claims that seemed almost acceptable alongside the ambitions of the Axis. World War II, however, changed everything, perhaps for France especially: when it was defeated in 1940, its colonial territories were divided between Free France and the old order represented by Vichy. France's authority was undermined by the presence, from 1942 on, of Allied troops on French colonial soil, and its very status as a power was threatened by the two new, and anticolonialist, superpowers. Most immediately, Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia effectively spelled the end of European colonialism in that region, although the British, French, and Dutch all resorted to arms to avoid the writing on the wall––which was finally translated into French only at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, after eight years of futile combat against the forces of Ho Chi Minh's Communist Revolution. France's vestigial Indian city-colonies were peacefully incorporated into the surrounding states of independent India in 1950 and 1954.

Crucially, however, the end of the war initially led to an attempt by the European powers to reinvigorate colonial rule as an integral part of postwar reconstruction, though as it turned out, what was at stake was not the maintenance of colonial rule but the manner, timing, and outcomes of eventual decolonization. France made a last attempt to reconcile the Republic with its empire through a raft of political and economic reforms contained within the constitutional framework of a new French Union (a name chosen in homage to the USSR). This unwieldy monster was too readily compromised by concessions to the Right in the constitutional debates of 1946, or, in Algeria, was subverted by the obdurate pieds noirs and a complaisant administration. A more stable, less divided, better-led regime, less troubled by the legacy of defeat in 1940 than the postwar Fourth Republic (1946–1958), might still have fought in Indochina or shown the same ruthlessness in crushing the Malagasy insurrection of 1947–1948, or the same reluctance to concede Tunisian and Moroccan independence; but it might not have managed any better in setting up the institutional framework that paved the way for rapid decolonization in sub-Saharan Africa. Even with new, dynamic leadership and a radically reshaped French constitution, more of the Algerian War took place after de Gaulle's return to power in May 1958 than before. Conversely, a different postwar regime might just have forced through timely reforms in Algeria, however limited, thus providing openings for moderate nationalists, who might then have eschewed the all-out violence of the FLN, the French army, and settler vigilantes, or the last-ditch scorched-earth campaign of the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a terrorist movement of settler extremists and dissident army officers. In sum, decolonization would have been difficult and traumatic in any event, but surely anything would have been preferable to the infernal Franco-Algerian escalation of massacres, terrorism, and torture—especially the increasingly systematic use of torture that has stained the French conscience ever since. The population transfers and "ethnic cleansing," the political and personal traumas, were still unhealed in the early years of the twenty-first century, more than fifty years after the FLN's declaration of war.

The sense of relief that accompanied decolonization may help explain the readiness with which French people "turned the page" in 1962, given that it took almost forty years before there was any widespread public debate about the appalling memories and troublesome legacy of the Algerian War (officially so designated only with a National Assembly vote in June 1999). Surely most French people concurred (if for divergent reasons) with de Gaulle's assertion in 1961 that "decolonization is in the French interest, and is therefore French policy." Indeed, notwithstanding the French Fifth Republic's dubious history of neocolonial adventures in Africa and nuclear posturing, there was little sense that France had "lost an empire but not yet found a role," as U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson caustically characterized Britain's situation. France's role was at the heart of another nascent union of sovereign and democratic European nations.

See alsoAlgeria; Algerian War; British Empire; British Empire, End of; Fanon, Frantz; Indochina; Morocco; Negritude; Senghor, Léopold Sédar; Suez Crisis; Vietnam War.


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Martin Shipway