Simon Kitson's 





Introduction- The Empire- 

war and subsequent decolonisation

During the Second World War the Empire once again showed its importance. Colonial troops made a significant contribution in the fighting of 1939-40 and again in the French army of 1944-45. The struggle between Vichy and de Gaulle’s Free French to take over the colonies underlined the symbolic importance of these territories. Once the Americans had wrestled control of North Africa from Vichy, de Gaulle rapidly left his British exile for the ‘French’ soil of Algiers. For most Gaullists, and for many other French people, hopes of re-establishing great power status after the war rested on drawing on the resources and diplomatic value of the colonies.

However, the situation within the colonies had been profoundly modified by the war. From the rapidity of France’s defeat in 1940 nationalists drew the conclusion that the coloniser was vulnerable. Even after the armistices of 1940 anti-French sentiment was stirred up in the colonies by propaganda disseminated by the Italians, Spanish and Germans who either coveted these colonies or were simply keen to keep the French weak and divided. After the Allied landing in North Africa the Americans sent round tracts in Arabic stressing the advantages of self-determination. The fallacy of white supremacy had been underlined by Japanese gains in the East.

The inability of French leaders to accurately assess the sentiments in the colonies was shown at the Brazzaville conference of January 1944. The assembled governors of France’s West African Colonies discussed the possibility of a degree of administrative decentralisation. This was a far cry from what nationalists were demanding and any assertion of their rights to independence were fiercely repressed. A nationalist revolt in the Sétif area of Algeria in May 1945 was crushed by the colonial authorities resulting in thousands of deaths. Worse was to follow in Madagascar in 1947. Here the French made use of a tactic of colonial divide and rule. When Madagascans protested for greater independence French-led Senegalese troops were sent in to put down the uprising. Almost 90 000 Madagascans were slaughtered. To this day relations between the two former colonies are strained. In 1997, the Madagascan pop group Tarika issued an album entitled ‘Son égal’- a deliberate play on the French word for Senegal (‘Sonégal’) to show that this was the first tentative step at reconciliation.

But it was Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) which first managed to break off the shackles of French imperialism. Indochina had been occupied by Japanese troops in July 1941. It was local nationalists who managed to liberate the area in 1945. Their leader, Ho Chi Min, then declared independence from France. French attempts to reassert control by gunboat diplomacy were not appreciated and a bitter battle ensued. It only ended when the French were defeated militarily at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The loss of Indochina was a military humiliation but in mainland France it was not felt as keenly as subsequent events in Algeria. Initially the campaign to keep Algeria French even if this meant using force, was popular in France. This North African colony held a special place in French affections. It was the oldest and most assimilated of French colonies. It was also geographically very close. Indeed Marseille is as close to Algiers as it is to Paris. There were about 1 million European settlers in Algeria and this encouraged a sense of attachment. It also encouraged intransigence. Once the war of Liberation began in November 1954 the French settlers and Army leaders in Algeria would resist all attempts at imposing moderate reform from Paris. Such intransigence merely hardened the resolve of the nationalists who became even more radical.

The fighting between 1954 and 1962 resulted in the deaths of up to a million Algerians. The ‘events in Algeria’ (the French government refused to acknowledge a state of war) became increasingly violent. It should not be imagined that all the brutality was on the French side. The main group of Algerian nationalists, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), used brutal methods both against the colonisers and compatriots willing to appease the French. But the practices of torture and summary executions engaged in by the settlers and units of the French army were the most subject to criticism. Their intransigence appeared as a failure to acknowledge the wider process of decolonisation since the war. Their use of torture came less than twenty years after the French had been complaining of similar methods being used on them by the Nazi occupier. Their behaviour also highlighted a paradox of French colonial policy. France, the country of universal human rights, the professor of the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, had utterly failed to apply these noble principles to its own colonies. Such hypocrisy is rarely appreciated. It was not only international opinion that turned against the colonial army. As the war became bloodier support in France began to dwindle. French intellectuals as diverse as Sartre and Mauriac felt it their historic role to speak openly of their disgust. Behind French disenchantment with the war was also the unpopularity of the conscription of 3 million soldiers to the front line. The failure to find and impose a resolution to the Algerian crisis led to the collapse of the unstable Fourth Republic. France held true to its tradition of calling in strong personalities at moments of crisis and it was at this juncture that de Gaulle was lured out of his self-imposed political exile.

De Gaulle’s return to power was not necessarily programmed to put an end to colonial presence in Algeria. But it was hoped it would provide more resolute direction and a clear set of answers to the dilemma. In fact the General himself seemed initially unsure of the direction to be taken. However, he came to the realisation that France must withdraw from the colony if a favourable post-colonial settlement was to be reached which would allow the former coloniser a continued influence in the area. The first public step towards this new strategy was his speech of 16 September 1959 in which he declared himself favourable to self-determination in Algeria. Negotiations with the FLN dragged on until a ceasefire was agreed on 19 March 1962. By the terms of the Evian agreements France was to be allowed continued use of some Algerian ports and military installations and preferential access to the country’s oil and gas. In return Algeria gained independence. De Gaulle’s progressive withdrawal from the colony angered the settlers and some parts of the army. The President had to repel an army putsch in Algeria in April 1961and to survive a series of subsequent assassination attempts. His personal prestige and the strengthened position accorded to the President by the new constitution allowed him to weather the storm and to successfully impose a settlement. Similar withdrawals were also agreed for other parts of the French Empire in the early 1960’s such as Senegal and Madagascar.  



Eric Jennings on Vichy’s obsession with Empire

 Mais la situation des colonies sous Vichy ne se caractérise pas seulement par une absence allemande. Je cherche à démontrer ici que l’autoritarisme du régime du Maréchal, en plus de susciter une opposition indigène, dissémina les germes d’une résurgence nationaliste. Que l’administration vichyste ait exporté de telles bombes à retardement est déjà surprenant en soi. Mais qu’elle l’ait fait face à des menaces alliées quasi-permanentes relève de l’incompréhensible. Car, d’année en année, dans les soubresauts d’une guerre civile menée à l’échelle de l’empire, celui-ci se rétrécissait. Il fallut peu de chose pour convaincre l’entourage de Pétain que les attaques successives anglaises, gaullistes ou anglo-gaullistes, d’abord sur la marine française à Mers el-Kébir le 3 juillet 1940, puis sur Dakar en septembre 1940, en Syrie en juin-juillet 1941, sur Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon en décembre 1941, et à Madagascar en mai 1942, que ces attaques émanaient d’un projet de pillage et de revanche de la part d’un vieux rival colonial, aux dépens d’une France tronçonnée et vulnérable. D’ailleurs Pétain devint obsédé par le loyalisme de l’empire. Pour preuve l’on citera, outre les montagnes de serments de loyalisme sollicites auprès des populations indigènes, le témoignage de Henry du Moulin de Labarthèthe, qui relate que le Maréchal gardait à ses côtés une carte du continent africain, carte sur laquelle il notait systématiquement les avancées de la ‘dissidence’ gaulliste. Qui plus est, pas un jour ne passait sans que Pétain n’évoque le sort de l’empire.

 Eric Jennings, Vichy sous les tropiques, Paris, Grasset, 2001, pp 11-12.


Christine Levisse-Touzé 

on the consequences of Mers el-Kébir

En Afrique  du Nord, c’est, bien sûr, la consternation et la rancoeur. Noguès laisse libre cours à sa colère : ‘je ne vous parle pas des Anglais ; ils me dégoûtent d’autant plus que j’ai marché à fond pour eux. Les boches eux-mêmes n’auraient pas agi d’une façon plus perfide’. La fureur des marins, des militaires et des civils oranais est à la mesure du nombre des victimes. L’anglophobie est de rigueur. Les séquelles seront profondes et durables. Le personnel des consulats britanniques est expulsé le 8 juillet 1940 et gagne Tanger. Malgré tout, Parr, l’ancien consul à Marrakech, reste optimiste : ‘L’action navale de Mers el-Kébir du 3 juillet a provoqué, comme c’était à prévoir, des sentiments très amers. Toutefois, ces sentiments se sont exprimés d’une façon contenue et digne […] Bien que l’incident ne puisse être complètement oublié, l’angoisse diminuera à mesure que les Français deviendront convaincus de notre détermination  de n’envisager aucune conclusion que la défaite totale de l’ennemi’.

 L’autre conséquence immédiate est de détourner l’Afrique du Nord du gaullisme; la confusion régnant dans les esprits, l’action des Anglais n’est pas dissociée de celle du général de Gaulle dont on ignore qu’il a clamé sa douleur et l’amertume des Français, mais a justifié stratégiquement l’opération. L’Afrique du Nord devient, pour un temps, réfractaire au gaullisme. Les informations alarmantes sur l’état d’esprit en Afrique du Nord conduisent de Gaulle à envoyer deux missions, l’une au Maroc, l’autre en Algérie, pour mieux s’informer. Mais ses émissaires sont arrêtés presque aussitôt après leur arrivée.

Extract from Christine Levisse-Touzé, L’Afrique du Nord dans la Guerre, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998, p 128.



Gerwin Strobl on 

The use of Mers el-Kébir in German Propaganda

Throughout the Phoney War, the Reich’s media had repeated the thought that ‘Britain would fight to the last Frenchman’. This was indeed to sow discord, if possible, in the Allied camp. But domestically it was to reassure a still anxious German public. These, it was suggested, were no longer the Tommies of the Great War but the effete British youth of recent Nazi propaganda. Britain’s conduct after Dunkirk therefore required a required a review of propaganda tactics. The answer came in the guise of Britain’s attack after the armistice, on France’s fleet at Oran and later at Dakar. This would immediately prove the turning point not merely in Nazi propaganda but in the regime’s own perceptions of Britain: the moment when the notion of a peculiar British ‘ruthlessness’ began to re-emerge after being in abeyance for several years.


The British attack on the French fleet had a profound effect on the regime and the German public alike. It seemed a textbook example of the perfidy of Albion. France, which had been noticeably unenthusiastic about going to war, but had done so trusting in Britain’s support had been betrayed at every stage. RAF cover had proved elusive: the German media analysed in detail the Anglo-French disagreement over the role of the Royal Air Force. While France was still fighting, moreover, the British were already heading for their ships. But Dunkirk was not to be the final insult. The very planes which had been withheld from France in her hour of need now returned to attack her unsuspecting ships. It was, in a sense, the perfect illustration of the amoral ‘ruthlessness’ which Hitler had always regarded as the essence of the British character.

Extract from Gerwin Strobl, The Germanic Isle: Nazi perceptions of Britain, Cambridge, CUP, 2000, pp 211-212.



Christine Levisse-Touzé on Dakar

Le principe de l’attaque, arrêté le 6 août entre de Gaulle et Churchill, consiste à rallier l’A-OF : l’opération est montée avec la quasi-totalité des Forces françaises libres (2400 hommes) et l’appui de l’escadre britannique commandé par l’amiral Cunningham (4000 soldats anglais). De son côté et au même moment, l’Amirauté française, avec l’accord de la commission allemande, envoie la Force Y (4e division de croiseurs, 10e division de contre-torpilleurs de Toulon) dans l’Atlantique pour reprendre les territoires ralliés à la France libre fin août 1940, c’est-à-dire l’A-EF et le Cameroun. Poursuivie par les Britanniques, elle doit se replier à Dakar et Casablanca, et la tentative de Vichy tourne court. L’opération gaulliste et anglaise sur Dakar des 23 et 24 septembre échoue. L’attaque directe fait 167 victimes dans la population civile et chez les défenseurs. Sur ordre de Darlan, les forces aériennes stationnées à Casablanca bombardent en représailles le port de Gibraltar les 24 et 25 septembre, sans grand résultat. Le gouvernement de Vichy limite cependant l’attaque de Dakar à un problème franco-anglais, en interdisant à la mission allemande du Consul Schellert en voyage d’étude au Maroc de s’y rendre. L’affaire révèle que ‘le gaullisme n’est pas assez puissant pour attirer les grandes colonies dans la lutte et que le gouvernement de Vichy est capable de conserver ses gages’. Vichy espère, des commissions allemande et italienne d’armistice, des renforts pour l’armée d’Afrique. Peine perdue, le 24 septembre, Hitler décrète que les dispositions limitatives de l’armistice ne s’appliquent plus à l’aviation française en Afrique du Nord.

 Le seul bénéfice de l’expédition ratée à Dakar fut, pour la France libre, la prise du Gabon le 12 novembre par Leclerc sur l’armée de Vichy ; les combats contre les forces vichystes sont menés très rapidement et presque sans pertes. Le territoire conquis reconstitue heureusement l’ex-A-EF avec son principal débouché maritime. Il fait de l’Afrique française libre (AFL) un ensemble très utile aux Anglais par sa frontière commune avec la Libye et le Soudan anglo-égyptien et par une voie aérienne directe Atlantique- Le Caire. Les colonies ralliées à la France Libre forment un bloc cohérent qui constitue une menace, du point de vue de Laval sur l’A-OF et l’AFN fidèles à Vichy.


Extract from Christine Levisse-Touzé, L’Afrique du Nord dans la Guerre, Paris, Albin Michel, 1998, p 129


Martin Thomas on the Levant

 The Anglo-French withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon marked the first post-war clash between the imperative of decolonisation and western strategic requirements. In the face of uncompromising nationalist opposition and local British pre-eminence, French military evacuation was inevitable. That this occurred only after bloodshed and amidst bitter acrimony between France and the Levant governments was attributable, firstly, to the divisive wartime history of Anglo-Gaullist relations in the Middle East and, secondly, to the reconstructed imperialism of the early Fourth Republic which rendered any acts of imperial withdrawal taboo. For all sides involved, the material aspects of the Levant dispute- control over local security forces, provision for base rights and the recognition of French educational and cultural privileges- acquired particular symbolic value. To the Syrian and Lebanese governments the right to raise sovereign security forces was both a yardstick of true independence and a useful means to drive a wedge between the French and British occupiers. For the French negotiators, continued vestiges of France’s cultural and military presence in Lebanon especially held a political importance which outweighed the practical benefits of isolated schools and bases. Meanwhile, for the British government, and Bevin’s Foreign Office above all, the Levant settlement was subsumed within the central preoccupation of Middle East policy- the preservation of imperial primacy after the end of the Palestine Mandate.


Martin Thomas, ‘Divisive decolonization: Anglo-French withdrawal from Syria and Lebanon, 1944-1946’ in The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, volume XXVIII, September 2000, number 3, p 89



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