French civil servant broke barriers in life and death

The Connexion tells the story of the remarkable career of Félix Eboué, the first black person to be given a resting place in the Panthéon, following a lifetime of dedicated service to the French state in Africa.

25 December 2019
Félix Eboué pictured greeting Charles de Gaulle, whom he had secretly contacted in 1940 after the Nazi Occupation of France
By Samantha David

Félix Eboué (1884-1944) was the first black person honoured with a resting place in the Panthéon in recognition of his illustrious career in the civil service and his work for the French Resistance in the Second World War.

He is also known for writing several books on African dialects and languages, a subject which interested him all his life.

Born in Cayenne, French Guiana, into a family of five, his father was a gold prospector and his mother ran a shop.

He was descended from slaves who had been freed when slavery was abolished in all French territories in 1848.

Felix Eboué was born in this house

He excelled at school, winning a coveted scholarship to the Lycée Montaigne, in Bordeaux, in 1901.

At the time, French colonies were subject to the idea of ‘la mission civilisatrice’ (the civilising mission) – an idea that Europe had a duty to ‘civilise’ and ‘Europeanise’ non-Europeans.

Most officials in the administration were white and until 1946, in most colonies there was a strict segregation between ‘sujets français’ (Black, Asian and minority ethnic native citizens) and ‘citoyens français’ (European, white).

French citizenship for ‘natives’ was considered a privilege rather than a right.

In French West Africa, for example, out of a population of 15 million, only 2,500 ‘natives’ were granted the status of ‘citoyens indigènes’ between 1830 and 1946.

In this context Félix Eboué’s achievements were extraordinary.

In Bordeaux, he excelled academically as well as on the sports field, becoming captain of the football team in which capacity he visited Strasbourg, England and Belgium.

In 1906, having passed his exams with flying colours, he got a place at the Ecole Coloniale de Paris to study law and colonial administration.

Two years later, aged 24, he was appointed student administrator of the colonies.

He had developed a passionate interest in French Equatorial Africa, where he requested a posting, and was appointed deputy administrator to what was then called Ubangi-Shari and is now, post independence from France, the Central African Republic (CAR).

A lifelong socialist with a strong belief in social justice, racial equality and humanitarian values, he worked in various parts of CAR for the next 20 years, always sticking to his principles, running the administration with humanity and fairness.

In 1922, he married Eugénie Tell. They had two children, in addition to Eboué’s two sons from previous relationships.

In 1928, he joined the ‘League of Human and Citizens’ Rights’. Eboué worked tirelessly to build roads and schools, but also to develop African culture and traditions.

He wrote several books on the languages and peoples of Ubangi.

In 1930, he was promoted to Chief Administrator and in 1931 returned to Paris to attend the International Congress of Ethnography.

He was gaining recognition for his knowledge and love of Africa.

In 1932, he was appointed Secretary General to the Government of Martinique, where he twice acted in the Governor’s absence, and in 1934, he was posted to the same position in French Sudan, where he also served as interim governor.

In 1936, he became Secretary General of Guadeloupe, where he was immediately appointed Interim Governor. 

‘He was far from being a revolutionary. He wasn’t against colonialism, he just felt black people should get a better deal’ said Vladimir Trouplin, curator of the Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation

It was the first time a black person had been appointed to such a high level in the French civil service, but it was a poisoned chalice. Guadeloupe was – at that time – riven by civil unrest, and its finances were shaky in the extreme.

“He wasn’t especially intellectual, he was a practical man, interested in people and progress,” said Vladimir Trouplin, curator of the Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation, in Paris.

“Eboué was a Mason and a lifelong socialist, close to the people.

He had experienced deprivation, inequality and racism first hand, and he had massive personal charisma. He could talk to a crowd as easily and effectively as to other high-ranking people.

“Of course he had his detractors, but generally people admired him.

He was respected by local populations, who weren’t used to seeing black people in charge.”

Known for his humanitarian, modern, liberal ethos, he implemented a raft of social reforms in Guadeloupe; eased social tensions and cleaned up the finances.

Two years later, in 1938, he was appointed as Governor of Chad.

Arriving in early 1939, he launched immediately into works to construct the military infrastructure that everyone could see would be needed for the inevitable war.

A devoted Francophile, Eboué was not bitter about colonialism or slavery.

“He was far from being a revolutionary,” said Mr Trouplin. “He wasn’t against colonialism, he just felt black people should get a better deal.

“He wanted to give people more education and rights, and create local intellectual elites who could join the administration, but he felt completely French. He supported the system.”

After the occupation of France in 1940, Eboué found himself opposed to the Vichy government and to Marshal Pétain.

He made secret contact with General de Gaulle in London. Chad, he announced, was still firmly in the war.

He rallied the territory to De Gaulle, and when Free France was officially recognised by the British on August 7 he was ready, willing and able to act.

Chad’s example was followed by almost all the territories of French Equatorial Africa (Congo - Ubangi-Shari) and Cameroon.

In October, General de Gaulle travelled to Fort-Lamy (the capital of Chad, now called N’Djamena) where he met Eboué and appointed him a member of the Council of Defence of the Empire.

Later that year, he was made Governor General of French Equatorial Africa.

In January 1941, he was awarded the Liberation Cross and appointed a member of the Council of the Order of Liberation.

Chad became an important military base for the Free French, and a base for missions led by General Leclerc and others.

Eboué put together an army of 40,000 soldiers, and also managed to put into action his long-cherished policy of appointing local people to administrative posts.

His four children also all fought with the Free French.

Henry and Robert were in the 1st Division from 1942 onwards, Charles was in the Free French Air Force, and Ginette in the women’s volunteers.

Although Henry was taken prisoner, he managed to escape.

All four survived the war.

An illustration of the endemic racism of the era was Félix Eboué’s list of “notable évolués”: 200 educated Africans who were assessed as having “evolved”, that is to say become Europeanised, speaking French and following European customs.

Those on the list were exempted from paying tax and many were appointed to white-collar jobs in the administration.

At the time, allowing Africans to join the administration, regardless of how it was achieved, was a major step forward.

In 1944, after a conference in Brazzaville (Congo Republic) during which he had presented his ideas about maintaining existing social structures, preserving indigenous cultures, traditions and languages, and encouraging their integration by the administration, Félix Eboué travelled to Cairo for some much needed rest and recuperation.

The monument in his honour in his birthplace, Cayenne, in French Guiana
Félix Eboué’s place in the Panthéon

He died of a stroke there in May 1944. He was cremated and his ashes interred in the Panthéon in Paris.

His death mask

He had already been made an Officier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1941, and a Compagnon de la Libération.

The recently renovated Musée de ‘l’Ordre de la Libération in Paris has a complete display about his activities during the Second World War.

“The Compagnons de la Libération are those people who received the Croix de la Libération,” said Mr Trouplin. “Eboué was one of the first five to receive the award.

“It honours men and women, both French and other nationalities, for their exceptional contribution.

It was the most rarely awarded honour; only given to 1,038 people. So it’s very prestigious.”

The Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation documents the achievements of all 1,038 holders of the Croix de la Libération.

In 1961, the Central Bank of Equatorial African States and Cameroon issued a 100 franc banknote featuring a portrait of Eboué, and the French colonies in Africa also brought out a joint stamp issue in 1945 honouring his memory.

A square in the 12th arrondissement of Paris is named after him, as is the nearby métro station, Daumesnil Félix-Eboué.

The main airport of Cayenne in French Guyana was named after him in 2012.

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