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Breaking free from colonial past

50 years ago France gave its African colonies independence. Colonial historian Nicolas Bancel examines how they fared

AFRICAN troops will for the first time lead July’s Bastille Day parade in the Champs Elysées as a special honour to mark the 50th anniversary of independence for African colonies.

The soldiers, from France’s former colonies, will join the national celebration, just over a month after a France-Africa summit sought to strengthen ties with the continent.

Both events show how strongly France’s colonial past did not stay behind in Africa following independence - infact, the opposite - its subsequent legacy of immigration has changed France’s demographic landscape.

War in Algeria, the repatriation of 800,000 pieds noirs and the treatment of harkis soldiers is still in living memory, while the debate on banning the burqa is one of its more recent visible results.

When the government passed a law in 2005 calling for “positive reporting of colonialism” the notion of colonisation itself came into the spotlight – with heated debate on whether it had been good or bad.

President Jacques Chirac repealed it the following year, saying: “It is not for the law to write history. Writing history is the business of historians.”

France began colonising parts of Africa in the early 17th Century but the great bulk of colonisation took place in the second half of the 19th Century under Napoleon III.

The great European powers fought for hundreds of years for pieces of Africa and up until the Second World War the status of the colonies remained largely unquestioned.

The war devastated Europe leaving it bankrupt and ruined. Calls for independence grew and anti-colonial thinking was strengthened by the stands of the world’s new superpowers: the US and the USSR.

Britain was quicker to react than France with India among the first countries to be granted independence; with the British leaving the country in February 1947. Pakistan separated in August the same year.

It took the French a few more years to realise the growing demands for independence were not going to disappear.

However, the process of granting independence proved difficult and drawn-out – and murderously especially in the case of Algeria which was seen very much as part of French territory.

Nicolas Bancel, vice-president of ACHAC, a research body specialising in colonial and African history, said decolonisation took place in a variety of ways: “There were two or three major processes of decolonisation.

“We have the almost peaceful decolonisations as in Morocco and Tunisia where it was the fruit of a nationalist movement which led to social riots but no military insurrection. Secondly we have the granted decolonisations, mostly countries in the federations of Afrique Equatorial Française (AEF) which grouped four central African colonies and the eight countries to the west which made up Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF). Finally we had colonial wars: which were specifically French.”

The first – the Indochina War – ended with the Geneva Accords of 1954.

The peace deal came after eight years of violence in Vietnam, and a year after Laos and Cambodia became independent.

Events in south-east Asia sparked increasingly loud African demands and France lost more of its already-diminished prestige.

The creation of the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) and its army branch ALN (National Liberation Army) in 1954 to push for independence marked the start of the Algerian uprising.

Mr Bancel said: “The decolonisation in Algeria was particularly violent with 800,000 people repatriated to France.

“It was an atrocious war with several hundreds of thousands of deaths: a war with France but also a civil war.

“A great difference with the British Empire was that Algeria was a colony of settlement. There were 800,000 Europeans, the great majority French, installed and living in Algeria in 1954 who got repatriated.”

Algeria was special as it was considered a part of the French national territory and divided into administrative départements.

Indeed, the number of local colonists who were opposed to Algerian independence was also greater than in any other country.

The first violent events took place in 1956 when the ALN launched an offensive in North Constantine and followed up with attacks in Algiers.

They came as the French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia gained independence – but Algeria was different.

“Unlike the protectorates of Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon and Syria, Algeria had departmental status, maintained by the French Interior Ministry,” Mr Bancel said. “The three Algerian departments were an integral part of the French territory.”

He added: “However, the status of people inside the Algerian departments was completely different from those in France. The legal statuses were clearly discriminatory.”

The electoral regime was different as Algeria had two electoral colleges: one for Europeans and another for Algerians.

“This ensured the system of political domination could be preserved.

“If every Algerian person had voted, it would have probably ended the colonial regime as it was. Algeria was the last colony to get universal suffrage, in 1958.”

The United Nations did not support Algeria’s claim but President Charles de Gaulle spoke for compromise in his famous 1958 Algiers Speech with the often-quoted line Je vous ai compris (I understand you).

In 1960 he planned a referendum on self-determination. Two years later, a wave of attacks by the French far-right Secret Army Organisation (OAS) tried to overturn the results of the independence poll.

Algeria was finally granted independence in 1962 after the Evian Accords but the European-Algerians were targeted by the FLN and most returned to France, where they became known as the Pieds Noirs.

The Harkis, Muslim-Algerians who fought on the French side, also fled to France but the government did not welcome them.

Mr Bancel said decolonisation left behind a fragmented country with major social and administrative problems and corruption.

“The split was particularly brutal and violent and the relationship with France was and still is very affected by this.

“Algeria is still symbolic today in the French mentality because of the conscripted soldiers sent there and close to one million repatriated French Algerians who returned to France in the 1960s.”

Other former colonies also found the road difficult. While some made a surprising recovery from colonisation others, like French Guinea, found administrative chaos.

It voted ‘No’ in 1958 when France asked if the colonial territories wanted to stay in the French community [like the UK Commonwealth].

Mr Bancel said: “Guinea was the only country which said no. Immediately, General de Gaulle, who was very offended, withdrew the entire political, administrative and economic framework.

“Within a few days, the country had lost its central control system and since very few Guineans were trained to carry out these roles, it took years to rebuild.”

Guinea remains one of the world’s poorest countries. “The sudden split probably contributed to the establishment of the ‘bloody dictatorship’ which Guineans suffered after 1958,” added Mr Bancel.
“Togo and Cameroon had particular stories too since they were German colonies until 1918 and were split between the French and the British at the end of the First World War.”

But, in the main, the French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa in Afrique Equatorial Française and Afrique Occidentale Française were granted independence in 1960 without major conflict.

However, the Ivory Coast highlighted one of the problems of decolonisation as it had been imposed despite being unwanted.

President Félix Houphouët-Boigny was, however, determined to maintain strategic links with France for protection both in terms of trade and political stability.

Today, even in the Ivory Coast, France’s involvement in the former colonies’
affairs has almost totally disappeared.

Mr Bancel said: “We continue to see efforts to preserve these relationships. President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to maintain a clannish type relationship with what was left of African leaders close to France, especially at the recent Franco-African summit.

“But the competition is extremely tough, especially in terms of business with Chinese and North American involvement there.”

Now, the colonies’ problems are arriving in France with numerous waves of immigration bringing the issue of integration to the forefront.

“There is a specifically French problem in that we find it difficult to take responsibility for the colonial heritage. If we look at the history of immigration in France, excluding inter-European immigration, there is a clear structural link with the ex-colonies.

“But colonial and immigration histories have not been integrated into the picture of French history. It is confined to the margins despite its many consequences today.”

For example, he said, immigrants’ origins often determined people’s attitude to them. Look at post-colonial immigration and inter-European immigration: “This is what differentiates xenophobia from racism.”

“Whether we want it or not, colonisation built a hierarchy between races. There was a superior race, the white race, and there were inferior races which were supposed to be enlightened by European civilisation.”

He continued: “Races were classified according to a cultural construction and to some extent, a biologic one and this mental construction did not just disappear miraculously after 1960 with independence.”

“Today, some French children whose families came to France from ex-colonies are still not looked upon as completely French.”

The post-colonial population has been pushed into ghettos – of habitation and of the mind, with the origins of people always seen as the cause of social phenomena.

“There is a mental construction of an internal enemy which is a post-colonial one and has in a certain way replaced the great fear of communism in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Today, people fear international Islamism and the potential for radical Islam in deprived areas, which is abundantly exploited by the media and politicians.

“It is the issue of discrimination which France has to deal today in order to avoid falling into a vicious circle of mutual exclusion and isolation,” Mr Bancel said.

The debate is still raging.

With the creation of an Immigration, Integration and National Identity Ministry, President Sarkozy put the issue of national identity at the centre of public discussions.

Whether it is the suburban “unrest” of 2005 or the recent debate on the burqa France is still looking for answers and it is not certain that it is any closer to finding them 50 years down the road.

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