France and Empire

“Commandant Marchand marching through Africa”. Colonialist publication, 1898.

For most of its contemporary history, France was an empire. To some, this statement may sound surprising. According to mainstream history, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, France was first a restored monarchy, then a republic, then an empire indeed and then again, a republic. However, it is rarely emphasized how during these regime changes it constantly held colonial possessions, and was, as a matter of fact, an empire. After the loss of its American and Indian territories, France started a new period of colonial expansion with the conquest of Algeria in 1830. At its peak at the turn of the 20th century, the so-called Second French Colonial Empire included most of western Africa, current Vietnam and Cambodia and parts of Oceania, which made it one of the largest empires in history.

Yet, contrary to its main competitor the British Empire, colonialism never played a significant part in French national identity. The relationship between the Metropole and its oversea possessions was always loose — with the notable exception of Algeria, very few French settlers were ever sent to them. Colonies did sometimes attract the attention of the public opinion, for example during the Fachoda incident, but they were easily dwarfed by more national events, like the Dreyfus affair, anarchist “propaganda of the deed”, the Paris Commune, or the humiliating defeat of the 1871 Franco-Prussian war. Collective memory remembers that France had colonies and then lost them, but hardly anything else. Colonialism is always a separate chapter, never considered as intertwined or especially related to national history.

French colonial memory is accordingly incomplete and flawed. In popular culture, films, novel and series that deal with this part of history are strikingly scarce, despite the notable exception of the Negritude literary movement. In schools, the study of colonialism suffers from several well-known biases. The racist subtext of the colonial ideological discourse is barely acknowledged, the violence of the process is blurred and the critiques and the resistances are occulted — and when they are not, they usually mention only French opponents. Textbooks insist on the positive aspect of white domination, like the building of roads, railways, and hospitals. The consequences of the implantation of western infrastructures on local societies are of course not studied — much less critically — and, during the short time of application of the article 4 of the 2005 “Loi mémorielle” (memorial law), French teachers were even obligated to portray them as “positive aspects of the French presence abroad, and especially in Africa”. Finally, the Algerian war of independence largely remains a taboo, although progressively broken by an increasingly free historiography on the topic.

Colonies and politics Right and Left

Perhaps this amnesia explains the lack of a proper anti-imperialist tradition in French politics. Never was Empire, or the illegitimate domination of one country on another — through colonialism, annexation, or irredentism — actively criticized on any side of the political debate. Despite — or thanks to — its forgetfulness toward colonialism, France, to a significant extent, still perceives the world like an empire. It sees it in terms of manifest destinies and national exceptionalism, understands it with concepts like natural spheres of influence and historical interests, and systematically takes the existence of imperial politics for granted, as a somewhat unfortunate fact inherent to international affairs.

The May 2017 presidential elections reveal this pattern, of which the very limited debate about France’s colonial past is the first symptom. The way the nominee of the main right-wing party Les Républicains (“The Republicans”) Francois Fillon defined colonialism as “an attempt to share one’s culture” and compared it to the ancient Greek expansion in the Mediterranean Sea is representative of the kind of historical revisionism prevailing on the topic. Only the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has openly criticized colonization as a crime against humanity — before withdrawing promptly in front of the widespread scandal he provoked. The most absurd reply came from Member of Parliament Dominique Bussereau (Les Républicains as well) — who confessed he did not see the difference between the colonization of the non-European world and France’s annexations of Savoy and Nice in 1860. This reluctance to acknowledge how racism and economic domination were the real driving force of colonialism is pervasive of the French right-wing discourse, which silences any debate on the topic as anti-patriotic “colonial repentance”.

Les Républicains’ denial should come with no surprise. The republican Right — as opposed to monarchists and traditional conservatives — is the self-proclaimed standard-bearer of French exceptionalism since its origins. Jules Ferry, one of the leading figure of French republicans in the late 19th century and mostly known for the creation of the free, secular, and mandatory public school, was also one of the main advocates of French colonial expansion. The French Right lives up to this heritage, as it was highlighted when Francois Fillon was accused of influence peddling after he received exorbitant personal gifts from Robert Bourgi, a lawyer considered as one of the main actors of the so-called “Françafrique” — the privileged system of economic relations France has with its former possessions and that is often criticized as a neo-colonial structure.

“France will bring to Morocco civilization, wealth, and peace”. Cover of “Le Petit Journal”, November 19, 1911.

However, it is perhaps more surprising that the Left — especially its radical elements — has similar difficulties within its political history. Contrary to a popular myth, it is not true that the French Left has always opposed colonialism. Some of its prominent figures such as Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès or Leon Blum believed in the superiority of western civilization and values, and were advocates, at least at some point in their life, of the “white man burden” to civilize inferior Africa.

This problematic relation between the Left and colonial history stays well alive today. The Parti Socialiste (France’s socialist party) has, it is true, attempted to make some timid steps forward on the issue. The promise made by Francois Mitterand in 1981, and reiterated by Francois Hollande in 2012, to grant a right to vote in local elections to non-European residents was understood as a symbolic reparation of the lack of political status of the colonized people in the empire. But the project was never carried out and on both occasions was forgotten immediately after socialists won the elections.

Thus, the political debate in France seems sometimes to assume colonialism never existed. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the main candidate of the radical Left in the May 2017 presidential elections, gave perhaps the most telling example. His program in foreign affairs advocates a shift of French interests from Europe to the Mediterranean Sea, emphasizing France’s southern anchorage and rich common history with Africa. This project completely overlooks the imperial nature of this history, of which the latest development was the French benevolence toward past Arabic authoritarian regimes, that culminated with the outrageously complacent welcome Muammar Al Qaddafi and Bashar Al Assad received in Paris during occasional State visits.

France and Empires past and present

How France and its former colonies are supposed to build any long lasting cooperation on grounds made of resentment and denialism is a question French politics have left unanswered so far. But this relation France has with its colonial history might explain its indulgence toward Empire in all its contemporary forms, and the incapacity of a significant part of the French political class to acknowledge the imperialist dynamics that are still structuring today’s international relations. Colonialism is the negation of a people’s agency and right to self determination, and imperialism, by reducing the world to the chess game of great powers, relies on this exact same idea.

Given their flawed colonial memory, it is then not surprising that Les Républicains have no qualms in supporting new imperialism. Francois Fillon for instance is favorable to a closer cooperation with Russia, and if elected, plans to push for a withdrawal of the economic sanctions that were put in place following the annexation of Crimea. For the French Right, and especially Thierry Marianni, one of the leading pro-Russian voices in Les Républicains, Russia has a natural and historical sphere of influence, that France must respect and perhaps even help to preserve.

Unfortunately, things are not so different on the Left. Jean-Luc Mélenchon turned a blind eye on imperial politics during most of his career, a concerning feature for a radical Left-wing politician. He used to openly support the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Like his arch-enemy Marine Le Pen or Francois Fillon, he sees Russia as France’s historical partner, and believes that a close relation between the two countries brings equilibrium in Europe, as the Third Republic and later Charles De Gaulle understood by accepting to deal with the Tsar and with Stalin respectively. It never occurs to him that in both cases France had consented to the sacrifice of Baltic independence and Polish sovereignty.

As for the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Mélenchon systematically reiterates the bygone narrative of the primary American manipulation, against which Russia supposedly could not but retaliate. The European integration of eastern Europe would be somehow a threat to Russia’s interests and France’s primary role as a peace builder should be to re-establish the dialogue between the belligerents; even if it means tacitly validating Russia’s irredentism and accepting its territorial claims. This Munich-style diplomacy blatantly ignores that centuries of Russian domination in this part of Europe largely inspires its western sympathies, a fact that could be revealed by a more thorough reflection on the history of Empire in the region. Instead, Mélenchon’s naive commitment to cold war paradigms makes him indiscriminately side with anyone suspected of opposing American hegemony — here Russia. The result is that his stances in foreign affairs can be deemed as nothing else but pro-imperialistic, something the left should deem incompatible with the building of a more peaceful world.

The Ukrainian and Central European People, their aspirations, their interests, and their rights to self determination are the ones completely absent from these analysis. Only counts the sacred right of great powers to divide the world between their exclusive spheres of influence, a division where France, hopefully, would get its share. This discourse is endemic in the Right-wing, Les Republicains have an electorate nostalgic of France’s past grandeur to satisfy. But it is unsettling, and almost incomprehensible, that the French Left allows this kind of worldview to parasitise its own.

All these examples, although very different in context and nature, show the tolerance of French politics both Right and Left for imperialism. It could be easy to explain this tendency, perhaps not that surprising for a great power, with an ignorance of local facts and actors, or with a simplistic commitment to realpolitik. But this indulgence goes well beyond the defense of its immediate interests, it pervades French political discourse and normalizes a worldview based on domination.

France needs to take a hard and honest look at its colonial heritage, and to cease its support to contemporary imperial powers. In other words, France must stop thinking like an Empire.