HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 12

 - French Imperialism (Guest Lecture by Charles Keith)


France’s colonial properties were thought of in the latter half of the nineteenth century as consolation for the bitter loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. As civilian administrators came to replace military personnel in the colonies, and as more and more French settlers arrived, empire and colonialism came to play an important function in France’s cultural self-presentation. World War I heralded the eventual decline of the French empire, a decline realized at the hands of the colonized subjects themselves.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 12 - French Imperialism (Guest Lecture by Charles Keith)

Chapter 1. The Explosion of French Imperialism: Reasserting National Greatness After Alsace-Lorraine [00:00:00]

[Professor John Merriman: Today we have my friend, Charles Keith, who’s finishing his doctoral dissertation on Catholic Vietnam in the 1920s and ’30s, and he is going to be talking about French Imperialism from the origins of the Third Republic up until the war in 1914.]

Charles Keith: Thanks. As Professor Merriman said, I’m going to talk today about the French Empire from 1871, the year that the course begins, to 1914, which is the beginning of World War I, of course; which is something that you’ll talk about, if I’m not mistaken, in the lecture right after this one. So, I’m going to start the lecture with a passage from a French novel called Le Maître de la Mer, The Master of the Sea. It was written by Vicomte Melchior de Vogüé published in 1900; so, right in the middle of the period we’re talking about. The novel is about an Army officer who is so upset by the defeat at the hands of Prussia and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine that he leaves France to go serve in a regiment in the Sudan, in the heart of West Africa.

At one point during the novel the young officer returns to France and he meets an older general from his father’s generation. So, during their conversation the older general expresses some anger that the young officer seemed to be more concerned with adventuring, in his words, than with recovering the lands where his father’s generation had fallen. The young officer replied to him, this is a quote, “are we to blame if the world around us has changed and grown all out of recognition? Diplomacy used to be concerned with the Mediterranean and the Bosphorus; now it has to do with China and the Congo. The great states of Europe are dividing up the other continents of Africa and Asia in the way they used to divide up countries like Italy and Poland. What used to be a European balance of power is now a world balance of power, and any country which does not wish to become less important must obtain as much new territory as our rivals are doing. It is through colonies,” concluded the young officer, “that we shall one day achieve your life’s ambition” — the ambition of the older general. “I give you my word of honor,” he said, “that you are mistaken in thinking that this ambition has died in our hearts.”

During the period I’m talking about today the French Empire quite literally exploded. An empire that in 1871 had been little more than parts of Algeria and a military presence in parts of North Africa, Southeast Asia, and a few small spits of land in the Pacific and the Caribbean exploded to include large swaths of North Africa and West Africa, most of mainland Southeast Asia, parts of the Middle East, and territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean as well. By the end of World War I the French Empire spanned eleven million kilometers and one hundred million inhabitants. So, just to put it in the context of France, that’s twice as many people as lived in metropolitan France at that time, roughly. So, I chose the passage from the novel to begin this lecture because it captures what I think are the two central themes in this period in French colonial history.

Both the young officer and the older general in the novel are serving in the French army because they are obsessed with recovering the national strength and prestige that France had lost in the devastating defeat to Prussia. Now, the older general thinks about this in terms of recovering Alsace-Lorraine, in terms of continental rivalries, but the young officer sees France’s road to greatness in very different terms; he sees it overseas, outside of Europe. So, my first point is that in these decades after 1871 French nationalism became increasingly inseparable from the idea of a large and strong colonial empire. France had had colonies for a long time, but the fusion of a more modern and mass form of nationalism with colonialism was new in French history, to this period, and it was something that drove the explosion of the French Empire, that I just described, to its heights in the years just after World War I.

The second point that I want to make about the novel is simply that it was a novel. It was one of many novels written about empire during this period. And novels were just one of the many forms of popular culture that began to reflect France’s growing presence overseas. Indeed, during the late nineteenth century empire became something that more and more French people experienced directly, whether through popular culture or sometimes in much more active ways, serving in the army, or in the navy, or in colonial administrations, or even settling lands that had not been part of France when those people were born. So, what I would like you to take away from this lecture is that during the Third Republic empire became a central part of French national identity.

Empire was something that all political platforms in France discussed and took positions on. It was part of the idea of French national greatness that citizens were beginning to learn in the schools of the Republic. It was in the national newspapers that more and more people were reading, and it even for some became a career and a way of life. So, in its many forms empire during this period became a common experience for French people, whether they were from Brittany, or from Burgundy, or from Provence or the Ardèche. In short, empire was a central part of making people French.

Although it was in the decades after 1871 that France’s colonial empire truly became a part of national identity, empire had a long past in French history. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries France had territories in the Caribbean and, of course, in North America. Although many of these were lost during the era of the French Revolution, one of the Revolution’s most powerful legacies was the idea of a moral imperative to continue the revolution beyond France’s borders; in other words, France had not only a right but a duty to bring French civilization to the rest of the world. Even as the revolution raged in France at the close of the eighteenth century, the Republic’s armies had poured outward into Europe to bring the rights of men to the monarchies of the continent. This continued, of course, with Napoleon who extended the reach of the nation completely across Europe before its hands froze in the cold Russian plains.

Napoleon also believed, and this is important, that France was destined to quote/unquote, “civilize those who were not only not French, but not European.” Napoleon attempted to colonize Egypt just at the turn of the nineteenth century, and his attempt combined a messianic belief in science and progress, an absence of any real knowledge about non-Western world, and a predisposition for the idea that non-white races were inferior to whites, to Europeans. And this was a potent combination of nationalism with ideas about race and civilization that would drive French colonialism until its bitter end. This combination came to be known in French as the mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission, the idea that a Greco-Roman heritage, Christianity, the legacy of the Enlightenment, modern science, capitalism, that all these things made France inherently superior and gave it a moral responsibility to export these legacies of its civilization to the less fortunate.

Chapter 2. The Drive for Empire: External Relief for Internal Instability [00:07:18]

So, although France had a long history of empire, at the birth of the Third Republic in 1871 the upheavals of many revolutions and the Paris Commune meant that the overseas empire had been fairly small for a long time, and that it was at that point pretty marginal in national politics and culture. In the years before the French defeat by Prussia the French government’s control over territorial expansion was actually pretty limited. The main urge to expand came not from French politicians but often from soldiers and sailors in far off places who were often prompted by missionaries who urged intervention to save souls, or by businessmen who urged intervention to make a quick franc. Even the bulk of French expansion in Algeria after 1830 (Algeria was really France’s major colony in the years — for most of the nineteenth century) even this was largely the work of generals who waved the flag and shot their rifles, often in direct opposition to the wishes of national governments in Paris.

So, at times it really seemed like the French Empire was little more than a giant system of relief for the armed services. As one former colonial governor wrote, “what drove us to expand in far away places was above all the need to find something to occupy the army and the navy.” But this began to change in important ways after 1871. In French politics after the end of the disastrous war with Prussia the overriding question for many was how France could regain its place as a national power, as a great power among Europe. The war with Prussia had shown that Germany was a nation on the move, and England’s dominance in world affairs, especially its empire, was unquestioned.

As you all know by now, politics in France during the 1870s and the 1880s were tumultuous, to say the least. As France hobbled from one affaire to the next critics attacked the Republic as a cesspool of intrigue and scandal. Periodic industrial downturns brought political challenges from left and right, as Boulangism and socialism both threatened to overthrow the Republic. France also suffered from the lowest birthrate among Western European nations. So, emasculated militarily, slumping economically, shrinking demographically, France appeared to many people to be in a state of inevitable decline.

Staring at this specter of national stagnation and fading international relevance, many luminaries of the young Third Republic believed that the key to recovering France’s greatness lay in the expansion of its colonial empire. Perhaps the most famous of these advocates of colonial expansion among the political elite was Jules Ferry, who was of course the famous advocate of the école républicaine and the battles over that in the 1870s and 1880s. Ferry’s arguments for imperial expansion in many ways encapsulate French colonial ideology in the late nineteenth century. Ferry believed, in his words, quote, “that colonial policy was the daughter of industrial policy; enriched states where capital abounds and accumulates, where the manufacturing system is undergoing continual growth, export is an essential factor in public prosperity.” In other words, colonies were essential to a strong national economy.

And the rise of Germany and even the rise of the United States and Russia meant that France needed exclusive access to new markets and sources for raw materials that in the eyes of many people only colonies could provide. Closely tied to these economic imperatives of empire were strategic ones. Rivalries between nations in Europe, as they often had in the past, spilled out into the rest of the world, and a nation that wished to survive had to compete. Quote, this is Ferry again, “in today’s Europe, in this competition of the many rivals whose power we see growing around us, a policy of abstention is very simply the road to decadence. In the times in which we live nations are only great in accordance with the activities which they develop. Exerting ourselves without action, regarding all expansion in Africa and the Orient as a trap or an adventure, to live in this way, believe me, is to abdicate our position and to tumble from the first to the third or the fourth rank of nations.”

Ferry also believed in what he called the humanitarian and civilizing side of the question. In his words, quote, “superior races have a right vis-à-vis inferior races,” he wrote. “But they also have a duty,” and this is echoing the language of the French revolution, almost directly, “they also have a duty to bring civilization, Western government, education, medicine and morals to other peoples.” So, for men like Jules Ferry it was the greatness of the nation, of the French nation, that made the expansion of the French Empire not only necessary but legitimate. It was the colonial empire that would save France from losing ground to its rivals, and that would help elevate the cultures and the civilizations of the peoples that France colonized.

Chapter 3. Rise of the Colonial Lobby [00:12:23]

So, in the 1880s politicians like Ferry brought France’s colonial ambitions into national politics in ways never seen before.

Indeed, just a few years after national political power swung decisively to the Republicans, in 1879, Ferry’s government launched a campaign to try to jump-start France’s stagnating presence in southeast Asia by taking over the northern half of what is now Vietnam; it was then called Tonkin, and the French had tried to take this on several occasions but had failed. On the pretext of defending persecuted Vietnamese Catholics and attacking pirates, the French sent several companies of soldiers north to attack the capital of Hanoi. The campaign was just a little too ambitious, and a French captain, a man named Rivière, ended up with his head on a pikestaff in the middle of the city. Yes, this happens places other than France, heads getting cut off.

Ferry’s aggressive colonial expansion was really very unpopular at first. Georges Clemenceau accused him of high treason and crowds outside shouted for Ferry’s head on a pikestaff next to Rivière’s. Nevertheless, Ferry’s insertion of colonial affairs onto the national stage was a sign of the prominence that empire would come to play in national politics in the years to come. Just after Ferry’s demise in national politics, French colonial activity began to expand at a rapid rate as the Third Republic raced to compete with the British, and the Germans, and the Dutch. By the 1890s debates over colonial policy had become a standard part of discussions in the Chamber of Deputies, and every government after Jules Ferry’s presided over a steadily expanding colonial empire. This new prominence of colonial issues in French national politics was in many ways due to the activities of a growing and very influential colonial lobby in French society.

So, in many ways it was this colonial lobby that was most responsible for imagining and spreading the idea that national greatness was closely tied to colonial expansion. What was this colonial lobby? I want to emphasize that it was not a single organization or formal movement, it really was more a large and very diverse group of individuals and associations who put forward the case for colonial expansion in many different ways. The colonial lobby was not organized by an executive committee; it had no organized sections and no clearly defined program or electoral platform. It was far beyond the vocal colonial advocates in the Chamber of Deputies. It included men like the informal group of explorers and geographers who met every week in Paris at the Petite Vache brasserie to share their fascination with exotic places, and to talk about how the government might be able to better promote and support these voyages of exploration.

The colonial lobby included shipbuilders, and railway magnates, and factory owners, people who believed that the colonies were the way to — were the path to untold material wealth. It included missionaries who saw in the, quote/unquote, “heathen races” of Africa and Asia a potential source for converts to replace the French who were starting to skip church, and starting to use birth control in even greater numbers. It included writers and journalists for whom the colonies were little more than good copy. So, those who made up the colonial lobby weren’t united at all by the same interests, but it was precisely this diversity of their interests that shows how compelling empire was becoming for so many different parts of French society.

So, indeed during the 1880s and 1890s the assumption increasingly became that the French colonies served the nation, they served the nation as a whole, in ways that went further and further beyond economic and geo-strategic necessities. Many parts of French society increasingly came to see empire as a solution to national problems. In the words of the historian Gwendolyn Wright, the colonies were quote/unquote, “a laboratory of modernity;” they were places to further and protect the destiny of the nation, literally, quite literally through experiments in nation building. Before the Third Republic colonies had been seen — really, the social value of colonies was little more than seen as getting rid of people that the State considered to be undesirable. The French penal colony in New Caledonia was a good example of this, where over 4,000 of the communards had been sent in 1871. But toward the end of the century this began to change. Social reformers began to see the colonies as a potential home for landless peasants, for the unemployed, or even for orphans who had no home in France.

In other words, colonies were places that could serve to solve the nation’s problems and not merely lock them up and throw away the key. French engineers and social planners came to see the Empire as really a vast worksite where new forms of architecture and urban planning could be carried out, places where experiments could be carried out to help benefit France. Hubert Lyautey was a famous French military officer and future administrator in the colony of Morocco. He insisted that North Africa was for France, quote, “what the far west is for America, an excellent testing ground for creating new energy, rejuvenation, and fecundity.” The French military likewise saw colonies as a training ground where the army and the navy could protect and expand France’s overseas interests, and in doing so could learn to better defend the nation at home.

Chapter 4. The Empire in Popular Culture [00:18:02]

So, as empire became a more important part of French national debates it also started to become an increasingly central part of popular culture and life in France. School children began reading about colonies in textbooks. One directive from the Ministry of Education read that, quote, “it must not be forgotten that France is a world power which possesses colonies in all parts of the earth. Let us not have any scruples about retaining for two years, just two years, the attention of French youth on France. Let us give them as rich an image as possible for their country, of the mother country and her distant daughters.” French citizens, already out of school, began to learn about the empire in different ways. For example, the urban middle classes who visited the Museum of Man or the Museum of Natural History in Paris began to see collections of art, of clothing, and household objects, and other things collected in the French Empire by scientific societies that were brought back to Paris to be put on display.

The colonies were put on display in even more spectacular fashion at international expositions which were held in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900. The exposition of 1900, which quite literally took over the city of Paris, in that exposition colonies were for the first time given their own separate exposition grounds in the gardens behind the Trocadero Palace, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, and were, quote, “set apart enough by the river to permit the creation of an atmosphere different from the rest of the fair.” Entire colonial buildings were transported to Paris and rebuilt. Colonial workmen were brought to France to execute the detail and decorative work on the buildings, and they remained there throughout the exhibition, posing as residents and merchants in the reconstructed villages and bazaars, from far away. Mosques, temples, archeological discoveries, dancers, music and food, all were brought to create a self-contained world that attempted to represent France’s growing empire to the average French person.

The empire was more than a periodic occasion for spectacle. Colonies slowly but surely crept into the most mundane forms of everyday life. Readers of French newspapers, for example, like the Petit Journal, read more and more about the French empire every day as it grew. For the most part, articles focused on military encounters and on the French who fought in them. African or Asian opponents merely filled the need in these stories for an evil or a savage enemy. They were a backdrop for main characters in a drama that unfolded every day, a story that more and more Frenchmen loved to follow. Other readers read novels that evoked the exotically different — the strange customs of natives, the bright colors and the pungent odors of overseas, and the lure of the desert or of the jungle. Pierre Loti, who was one of the most famous of these writers, wrote panoramas of colonial life that were packed with adventure, with danger, with sex and with local color, quote/unquote, “in which hardy Frenchmen lived the rough life, the sensual pleasures, and the fighting spirit of the Empire.”

Artists like Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse began painting Levantine harems and souks, African villages and jungles, temples in Indochina and native life throughout the Empire. Colonies were a rich source of subjects for the growing medium of photography. Photographers liked photographing the rice paddies in the Mekong River, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, mysterious Muslim women behind veils, and cannibals with spears. These images were reproduced in books, newspapers, postcards and other places. The French encountered empire in many other ways in their daily lives. Colonial influences began to be heard in music, for example. Café and dancehall goers heard songs like Ma belle tonkinoise, about a Frenchman’s Vietnamese concubine. I can’t resist, I’m going to read it: “N’entends tu pas a ta fenêtre celui qui t’aime, ton quartier-maître? Je reviens de Tonkin où j’ai fini, hereux de te revoir, ma jolie. J’ai quitté ma belle tonkinoise. C’est pour toi, ma charmante FrançoiseTu étais la plus belle de l’îsle, loin de toi je n’étais pas tranquil.” “Don’t you hear at your window, he who loves you, your quartermaster? I’m back from Tonkin where I’ve finished, happy to see you, my darling. I’ve left my beautiful Tonkinoise for you my charming Francois. For you are the most beautiful of the isle. Far from you I was not at peace.”

More bourgeois music lovers heard orchestral works by composers like Ravel and Debussy, who were fascinated by the sounds of the Orient. The colonies also came to suggest new fashions. Oriental silks and Levantine frocks, popular in women’s clothing in the early twentieth century, owed much to this fascination with the exotic. Even the goods that people bought increasingly evoked the colonies, often through advertising. One of the most famous French advertisements ever, for example, is the publicity for Banania, a sweet powdered beverage made from bananas that when mixed with milk makes a breakfast food. The yellow Banania box featured a derogatory caricature of a smiling African uttering the pigeon phrase in French, “y’a bon Banania,” “good stuff Banania.” Things like this brought the empire all the way to the breakfast tables of many French families.

French people even began to encounter the empire in church. The last third of the nineteenth century was a time of intense Catholic missionary activity outside of France, usually in the French colonies, and churchgoers in France listened to the appeals of their priests to donate money to help a French missionary from their département away in far- off Indochina or Senegal replace a little bamboo or straw chapel with a proper brick church. Of course, there was no better way to experience, or more intense way, I would say, to experience empire than to actually go there, and in the late nineteenth century more and more French people did exactly that. Until the 1880s and the 1890s there were relatively few French people in territories that the French controlled as colonies, with the exception again of Algeria, which had about 300,000 French settlers in 1871. This really was an exception.

Even by the 1880s or 1890s places like Indochina only had probably between 20,000 and 30,000, at the most, maybe even less. So, at first many of these French colonies had little more than administrators, garrisons of troops, and some explorers and missionaries beating the bush for riches or for souls. Gradually, however, more and more French citizens came to overseas territories, not for adventure but just to make a living. The part of French society most immediately affected, of course, was the military, which went to the colonies in increasingly greater numbers as the empire, and resistance to it, spread. Soldiers in the empire risked long sea journeys, and tropical diseases, and miserable pay for the risk and the adventure that they thought that they might find over there. Missionaries too, as I mentioned, went overseas more and more toward the end of the century to try to find converts that they weren’t finding in France.

Apart from soldiers, and traders, and missionaries were settlers who increasingly went to the colonies not for a tour of duty, but they went there to stay. Settlers were often committed to the colonies for life. They gave up the resources they possessed at home, they took to the colonies whatever capital and whatever possessions they could get and could carry with them. The colonies were not hospitable places, needless to say. Remoteness from France and relatives, tropical diseases, and a very understandable hostility of indigenous populations were a major deterrent for many people. However, a number of French men and women did dare a new life in the Maghreb, in Indochina or in West Africa. Many were drawn by the inducements of people who owned large tracts of land and who needed people to work and cultivate this land to help them turn a profit. When there weren’t enough Frenchmen, landowners didn’t hesitate to populate their lands with non-French Europeans like Italian and Spanish, some of whom were also in the colonies as members of the famous international military force, the Légion Étrangère, the Foreign Legion.

Chapter 5. From Military to Administrative Occupation: Regularization in the Empire [00:26:43]

As the French Empire grew, life in the empire became, slowly, more regularized. The French government began to replace soldiers and sailors with administrators who exercised the will of the State. These administrators held responsibility for collecting taxes, for overseeing spending, and for keeping law and order, which often mean authorizing violence against those who resisted the spread of the French Empire. Increasingly these administrators came not from the ranks of the military but from new schools founded in France to train people for service in the Empire. One of the most famous of these was the École Coloniale, founded in 1887, which taught future administrators a little bit about the language and the culture of the place that they were being sent, as well as the basics of the position that they were going to fill when they were over there. The French government also did its best to draw professionals to newly acquired territories; lawyers, doctors, engineers, surveyors, all of these were much needed in the empire, and Paris offered subsidiaries to get qualified candidates to take a post overseas.

As the empire continued to grow, more and more women came to live in these places that had for a long time been perceived as much too dangerous for them. In many ways the domesticity that the arrival of women brought to French life in the colonies was the clearest sign of the idea of domesticating and even taming French colonies and integrating them into the sphere of greater France. Places that had once been considered too dangerous for women became places where women eager to marry went to find a husband.

A book called La Femme aux colonies, The Women in the Colonies, published in 1900, assured interested women that the empire could provide a hospitable home, quote, “a woman who arrives in Tonkin, for example, is sure of success. There are no women in Tonkin who fail to marry.” There were, of course, women who did not go to the colonies simply for marriage, and even those who did found themselves pushed out of normal social expectations by the necessities of colonial life. Many women in the colonies, for example, were drawn into humanitarian work at hospitals or in distance areas or orphanages; which is ironic in light of the positions that many of their husbands held in the colonial administration, doing work that couldn’t exactly be described as humanitarian, of course.

So, just to put the expansion of the French population in the colonies in the context of one place, let me just mention the Algerian town of Annaba during this period. Before the French conquest, Annaba had a population of about 4,000 Arabs and Berbers, some Turks and a fairly large Jewish population. The French captured Annaba fairly early, in 1832; but, for many years the European population of the city was really little more than the soldiers who kept control of the city. By the mid-1840s, however, there were 5,000 Europeans. As time went by mines and forests in that area became an attractive source of employment for people. A railway line was built, and the city and infrastructure slowly grew. In fact, the city was also at that time renamed Bône. A transient population of Europeans, mostly French, evolved into a rooted and stable one. By the 1890s, Europeans born in Bône outnumbered migrants from overseas and French citizens formed the majority of the residents of the city.

Algeria is by far, of course, the French colony with the largest French population, but the others grew and grew during this time, and by World War I there would be almost a half a million French citizens scattered throughout the French Empire. So, what was life like for these people? Few men and women in the Empire had lives that were as exciting or as romantic as the newspapers and popular songs made the colonial experience out to be. Despite being drawn to the empire by the promise of adventure and prosperity, few people who went over there found either. Disease took a large toll on French people in the colonies, many of whom fell victim to malaria or yellow fever, dengue fever or leprosy, before they had spent much time in the colony at all. Attack was often — always a concern, in fact, as were accidents in deserts or jungles. Medical care in the colonies was often pretty inadequate. Working conditions were harsh. Most settlers, for example, had to build and maintain their own houses, clear forests or brush, and set up their own shops.

Colonial goods were often susceptible to rapidly changing market conditions and many colonists ended up in debt. Many benefits offered by the French State to its citizens didn’t extend to the empire, and subsidies that people had received to move to Algeria or to Morocco were quickly exhausted. Social life in the colonies was pretty limited. Bigger cities had theaters, and some had art galleries and concert halls, but in most places French citizens might spend months without the sight of another European. Most of the French who lived in colonies never abandoned the stereotypical attitudes that they had about their own superiority, and these attitudes, of course, were often reinforced by French laws and institutions that gave whites more privileges than indigenous populations.

For the most part, life was really quite separate between whites and others. European neighborhoods again had a town hall, theaters, shops lining shaded streets and cafés. Very often indigenous peoples were separated from the French by social barriers and by physical barriers, sometimes. Markets and shops, mosques and pagodas, were often apart from French colonial life. So, taking us now to World War I. When the guns of August began to roar in August 1914, the colonial empire was very near its height. Paris controlled the second largest empire in the world, second only to Britain’s. During the forty years before the First World War, the empire spanned these vast swaths of north and west Africa, and southeast Asia; enormous islands like Madagascar, famous cities like Timbuktu; and it even contained parts of India, the crown jewel of the empire of their fiercest national rival. Colonial promoters lauded the benefits of an empire that they said provided international prestige, a secure place for investments, a market for French products, a source for raw materials, and a reserve army of soldiers.

Empire had become a popular part of popular culture, of daily life, and even a career for many French men and women. In short, empire had become a fundamental part of the national identity and in some ways the national hubris then sweeping through France, not only France but the rest of Europe as well. Just as many in France cheered at the declaration of war on Germany in 1914, with no idea of what was to come, few French people in 1914 could see any reason to think that anything might threaten this eternal marriage between France and its outposts overseas, between the brave, beneficent purveyors of French civilization and the “graceful natives” under French rule. For many people France had recovered completely from its devastating defeat in 1871, and from the loss of Alsace-Lorraine, to once again become a powerful nation. Empire, again, empire had been a central part of this national revival.

As one member of the colonial lobby said in 1912, quote, “it may be said that it was colonial expansion which, coming as it did just after the events of 1871, brought the renewal of France. It was on the day that France became a colonial power again that she became once more conscious of her vitality and her strength, and was able to resume her role in the concert of Europe and on the world stage. Today [in 1912] when that role is becoming so important again in the concert of Europe, when France finds herself in all parts of the world on a footing with the greatest European powers, we may indeed be proud; we may indeed be proud of the colonial work which France has performed.”

What was there to be proud of? Again, this idea of national expansion and national greatness, intimately tied to the perceived positive benefits of bringing French civilization abroad. A member of the Chamber of Deputies in fact answered this question, what was there to be proud of? Quote: “What nobler or more inspiring work could one find? Colonizing means coming in touch with new races and civilizations, and it means achieving the noblest type of fellowship, for any form of colonization which did not successfully seek to increase the dignity, the moral standards, and the wellbeing of the colonized people would be uncivilized and unworthy of a great nation,” end quote. Of course, not all was well in the empire.

Chapter 6. Lives of the Conquered: The Indigenous Perspective and the Rise of Anti-Colonialism [00:36:06]

I’ve focused in this lecture so far on the place of the empire in domestic politics and culture. So, I haven’t spoken all that much about the effect that French colonization had on the lives of those in the colonies. Needless to say, the realities of empire did not often coincide with Jules Ferry’s promises to spread the best of French civilization, nor did it coincide with the caricature of the smiling, graceful African in the popular press or on the front of the Banania box on the breakfast table. Empire, of course, was much more complicated than that. Few people accepted the rise of French power without a struggle, but few could match the technological advantages then enjoyed by the French military and the navy. As the French Empire spread, soldiers and sailors put down one resistance movement after another, usually with uncompromising brutality and often with very high death tolls.

As French colonial administrations, legal systems, police forces, replaced the army and the navy, military repression, what had been military repression, took more the character of an occupation, dressed up as integration, the integration of the colonies into the French nation. French structures of authority enforced inequality between French and other races, and justified the exploitation of resources and the political repression that really were the realities of everyday life, for most of the French colonial subjects. Cracks — by 1914, however, cracks began to appear in this edifice. Not everybody had been swept up by France’s colonial dreams, and as the realities of empire became more and more apparent a small anti-colonial lobby in France began to grow. Like their counterparts in the colonial lobby, anti-colonialists opposed French expansion for a number of reasons.

For some people, French colonial adventures seemed a dangerous over-extension of French power. Some people wondered how useful these dense jungles and barren deserts could possibly be to France, especially when it became clear that a lot of the financial returns on colonial expansion that had been expected did not come to match these initial projections. Some people began to criticize colonial expansion for moral reasons, protesting the growing incidences of colonial barbarity. To give one example, at one public protest in 1906 the famous intellectual and novelist Anatole France thundered, quote, “whites do not communicate with blacks or yellow people except to enserf or massacre them. The people whom we call barbarians know us only through our own crimes. It is our responsibility as Frenchmen to denounce the crimes being committed in our name,” end quote.

Jean Jaurès, the leader of the Socialist party, went even further. Refuting the myth of the civilizing mission of the mission civilisatrice, in this case in Morocco, Jaurès said, quote, “there existed before the French takeover a Moroccan civilization capable of the necessary transformation, capable of evolution and progress, a civilization both ancient and modern. And there was a seed for the future, there was a hope. And let me say that I cannot pardon those who have crushed this hope for pacific and human progress, African civilization, by all sorts of ruses and by the brutality of conquest,” end quote.

During the 1920s and 1930s, anti-colonialism would become a more powerful force in French politics, grouping together some socialists and communists, some voices within the French Catholic Church, journalists and writers, and a number of intellectuals and avant-garde artists, the latter of whom would famously organize an anti-colonial counter- exposition during the famous 1931 Colonial Exposition in Vincennes. In 1900 in Paris there had been no similar anti-colonial exposition. However, and I want to underscore this, it was not the French themselves who would eventually succeed in crumbling the imperial edifice built over so many generations. When the French colonial empire eventually expired in 1962, when the French left Algeria, it did so first and foremost because of the many forms of resistance organized and carried out by those who lived under its yoke.

Chapter 7. The First World War and the Decline of French Empire [00:40:35]

That’s another topic for another lecture, but what I want to say here sort of in conclusion is that the First World War was in many ways the beginning of the end for the French colonial empire. It was a tipping point, after which these myths underpinning French rule were no longer sustainable. They’d been very powerful myths. Before World War I, many in the colonized world had actually asked themselves whether French civilization might in fact be superior to their own. The French had arrived with technological advantages that many in the colonized world did not have, and they had achieved military and political control with few numbers. For some people it did seem for a time that what the French were saying about the mission civilisatrice, the civilizing mission, might actually in fact be true. But for many of these people World War I was a revelation.

During the war, nearly half a million colonial subjects were conscripted or even volunteered, and many of them did, to don a blue uniform of the poilu and to fight for France. Many others came to the metropole to work in shipyards or in factories. Those who came saw poverty, they saw deep rifts in French society over the place of religion, over politics, and most importantly they saw their omnipotent colonial masters in a war that was literally ripping French civilization apart. Although those who came to France to fight or to work were a very small minority of Colonial subjects, the echoes of the guns of August reverberated worldwide; and for countless people throughout the Empire the Great War showed that France, for all its power, did not and could not correspond to its own colonial myths. “In the minds of other races,” would write the Governor General of Indochina in 1931, “in the minds of other races the war dealt a terrible blow to the moral standing of a civilization which Europeans claimed with pride to be superior, yet in whose name Europeans spent more than four years savagely killing each other. Europe’s prestige had been greatly compromised. It has long been commonplace to contrast European greatness with Asian or African decadence. The contrast now seems to be reversed.”

Indeed empire would have a very different relationship to national identity in the years after World War I. For growing numbers of people in France, empire slowly came to seem too difficult to maintain, too expensive, especially during the lean years of the Depression in the 1930s, and perhaps, for many, even immoral. What had been a point of unification in France slowly turned into a source for political and cultural tension. But the opposite was true of the places that France had colonized. Indeed, during the 1920s and 1930s national identities would be formed outside France, throughout the French empire, in opposition to the French colonial project, as anti-colonial activists laid the roots for liberation movements that would ultimately tear down the French colonial empire in the years after the Second World War; and that’s a subject for another lecture. Thanks very much.

[end of transcript]

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