A short glossary:


AEF The federation of French Equatorial Africa, comprising Congo, Oubangui-Chari, Chad and Gabon, the Government-General of which was based in Brazzaville. Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the former German colony of Cameroun was entrusted to France and Britain under a League of Nations mandate. The French-administered part came under the authority of Brazzaville.



AOF The federation of French West Africa, comprising the territories of Mauritania, Senegal, Soudan, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Haute-Volta (created in 1919, abolished in 1932 and re-created in 1947: called Upper Volta in English), Guinea and Dahomey, the Government-General of which was based in Dakar. Following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the former German colony of Togo was entrusted to France and Britain under a League of Nations mandate. The French-administered part came under

the authority of Dakar.



chef de canton A French-appointed chief who worked for the colonial administration


colon A European settler.


colonie Dependent territory of an imperial state (for example France). In theory French colonies were usually ruled directly, unlike protectorates (q.v.) and often

settled by metropolitan settlers.


commandant de cercle: Local French colonial officer, roughly equivalent to the British District Officer.


député Elected member of the French National Assembly.


direct rule The system of colonial rule under which colonies were governed directly by the colonial administration, excluding traditional local rulers or institutions.


évolué In the vocabulary of the period (‘educated native’ is the equivalent term in British colonies), an African who had received an education of a European

type and who was therefore, in part at least, acculturated. Evolués often worked as clerks, skilled workers or minor officials.


FIDES Fonds d’Investissement pour le Développement Economique et Social: Investment Fund for Economic and Social Development, established in 1946.


forced labour Forced labour took a number of forms. Every man liable was supposed to provide eight days’ work a year, in theory under the  commandant de cercle (q.v.). However, Africans were forcibly recruited  by the Administration, notably in Côte d’Ivoire, to work on European-owned plantations. Forced labour was also used as a punishment. Injustice and abuse were widespread, thus feeding discontent.



Grand Conseil The Grand Conseil was the indirectly elected federal body that met in Dakar. The first elections to it were held in 1947 and each territorial assembly elected

five representatives to sit on it.


indigénat A legislative code that allowed colonial officials to punish any native with a prison sentence or a fine as a matter of discipline and without trial. indirect rule The system of colonial rule under which colonies were administered indirectly by the colonial administration, using traditional local rulers (or their replacements) as intermediaries who retained some measure of competence and authority, for example

tax-raising powers.


interlocuteurs Means literally ‘valid representatives’. The term valables was used by France to describe African political leaders who were friendly towards France and with whom it was prepared to negotiate.


Loi-Cadre Framework Law or Enabling Law, defining the framework and principles to a subsequent set of more detailed legislation. The Loi-cadre of 1956 (also

known as the loi Defferre, after the minister responsible for guiding it through the National Assembly, Gaston Defferre) set the framework for legislation implementing a measure of self-government in the French colonies of sub-Saharan Africa. It was

superseded by the provisions for the French ‘Community’ in the constitution of 1958.


négritude A cultural movement for the promotion of black culture and values, started in Paris in the 1930s by Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor.




Strategies of maintaining colonial power help smooth the transition to Independence.


Colonial power did not simply operate through force, coercion and repression, but also used manipulation, influence, co-option and persuasion.


Indeed, colonial authority operated most effectively when the colonized, or their representatives, could be encouraged or induced to do what the colonial power wanted them to do without the use of coercion or force.


For this to happen, the colonizer and those speaking on behalf of the colonized need to operate within a shared system of references and values.


In French West Africa, republican ideas transmitted through colonial education played a key role in creating such a shared framework and laid the basis for the relatively smooth political transition in French West Africa.



Chafer sums it up nicely when he says:

decolonization represents not so much the end of an era but a period of transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism, in which the links between the former métropoles and the newly independent states were maintained ‘in the

form of economic dependency, development assistance, foreign investment,

and the political, social and economic compatibility of objectives among the involved élites




The strange politics of De-colonisation

In June 1995 a major international conference in Dakar  commemorated  the centenary of the creation of the federation of French West Africa  (Afrique Occidentale Française: AOF).


The conference’s opening session was chaired by the President of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, and attended by the Prime Minister, Habib Thiam, together with other members of the government. Also present was the French Minister of Cooperation, Jacques Godfrain. A month later, and just six weeks after his election, Jacques Chirac’s first official visit abroad as President of the Republic was to Francophone Africa. His visit took in Morocco, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon and Senegal. The visit was clearly intended to mark the continuing importance of French links with, and the French presence in, its traditional sphere of influence in Africa.


These two events are symbolic of the continuing close links between France and its former African colonies.


Taken for granted as normal in both France and Francophone Africa, such events would have been unimaginable in the former colonies of Anglophone Africa, such as Ghana and Nigeria.


It is unlikely that a conference or a Prime Ministerial visit  being organized in former British territories thirty-five years after independence to mark the beginning of British colonial rule!


(and unlikely in Algeria or former Indochina, where French decolonization was so much more traumatic than in Black Africa.)



The idea of an ongoing Franco-African accord whereby there is an assumed smooth colonial into independence history as a function of the effectiveness of French assimilationist policy is replete with significant myths that do not stand up to scrutiny.



Myth 1:  nature of the French presence in Black Africa, which is implicitly seen as enduring and therefore somehow natural, hence the reference to the ‘stability’ of French sovereignty.


BUT:  French control over its colonial territories in Black Africa was not fully established until after the turn of the century and that French sovereignty over these territories had formally ended in 1960, meaning that French

rule lasted for barely sixty years, was conveniently forgotten.




Myth 2: the benefits that French colonial rule brought to Black Africa, which have traditionally been linked to France’s self-appointed ‘civilizing mission’ in Africa. All thanks to France’s ‘colonial peace’ and its training of the qualified personnel Africa needed in order to prepare for a successful decolonization.


The smooth transition to independence being attributable to French training of the qualified personnel that Africa needed in order to make a success of independence is a dodgy claim...


Most historians have suggested, rather, that one of the reasons for the reluctance of French West African leaders to call for immediate independence in the 1950s was the economic, political and administrative dependence of their territories on France, a product – in part at least – of the dearth of qualified Africans!


These myths, which were –and still are – widely shared by members of the generation of France’s governing élites have helped to create another myth: that of independence intentionally granted as a ‘gift’ to Black Africa in order to ensure a continuing close relationship with France.



Why these myths have been so enduring.


Part of the answer to this lies in the way in which they tapped into deeply rooted elements of French national culture, both underpinning and justifying the notion of France’s vocation coloniale.


to ideas of French universalism and the superiority of French culture, a notion widely held on both the right and left.


Left/Right Ideological identities of a positive Assimilationist narrative


At the same time, they served, on the right, to sustain myths of French grandeur,

particularly in the military and diplomatic fields, while on the left, they served to legitimize the notion that French colonialism was modernizing and progressive through the export of the republican values of liberty and equality and the promotion of economic development.


Detached from the vocation coloniale, they have continued to underpin French

attitudes and policy towards Black Africa in the post-colonial period. Taken together, these myths have served to legitimize, implicitly if not explicitly, the maintenance of France’s presence in Black Africa in the post-colonial period.


They have acquired an explanatory function by suggesting that the largely peaceful transition was the product of a deliberate government strategy.


The narrative of a France in control of the decolonization agenda in Black Africa is an appealing one, but it does not reflect how things looked to those in charge at the time.


France’s governing élites were far from taking any such peaceful outcome for granted in the 1950s. On the contrary, they were worried by the rising tide of African nationalism and, haunted by the spectre of Algeria, they feared a descent into violence and the consequent loss of political control.


So why on the whole by 1960 were France's former colonies turning to independence without violence?

Why did French West Africa, and more generally French Black Africa, go the way it did, whereas in Indochina and Algeria the end of colonial rule was marked by war and, ultimately, the eviction of the French?



In a study of French and British decolonization, Smith (1982) suggests that there are three situations in which nationalist élites can be expected to enter into violent conflict with an imperial regime:


1) ‘where a native élite dependent on foreign power has never been created;


2) where such an élite, once created, is destroyed; and


3) where such an élite has been displaced by the rise of a rival political formation’.



None of these cases applied to French West Africa, where the native élite was, as we shall see, very much dependent on France.

T. Smith, ‘Patterns in the transfer of power: a comparative study of French and British decolonization’, in P. Gifford and W. R. Louis, eds, The Transfer of Power in Africa. Decolonization 1940–60 (Yale UP, 1982),



The native élite was in a weak position because it was obliged to fight on two fronts, against the imperial power on the one hand, and against more radical local groups striving to replace it on the other.


Smith again: ....dominant élites in this situation are prudent to avoid open confrontation with the colonial power: ‘This is not only because it is sensible to recognize that, given the great disproportion of military resources, it is mostly their fellow citizens who will be killed.


The élites understand as well that they suffer first military setbacks




and in the predictable chaos the dominant élite may well find it loses out to rival leaders.



This describes well the situation in which African political leaders such as Senghor (Senegal), Apithy (Dahomey) and Houphouët- Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire) found themselves after the Second World War.


They were constantly forced to look over their shoulders, fearing initially Communist influence and, later in the 1950s, the spread of radical nationalist ideas, because both of these represented a threat to their strategy of cooperation and negotiation with the colonial power, which depended for its success on the maintenance of both a stable situation within the colony and stable relations with France. This was the main reason for Houphouët-Boigny’s decision to break with the Communist Party in 1950.





The ambivalence of the assimilated African elite


Much of the French-educated élite in Black Africa bought into aspects of the myths about the French presence in Black Africa, albeit in different and complex ways.


Even radical nationalists who demanded immediate independence as well as more moderate nationalists wanted to maintain close links with France.


All were impressed by French superiority in the military, technical, scientific, economic and cultural fields, and sought to share in the benefits of this superiority through the acquisition of French education and though closer contact with France.


France’s military defeat in 1940, French republican ideals of democracy and equal rights continued to exercise a powerful force of attraction.


French-educated African élite saw French colonialism as modernizing and progressive and to believe that African emancipation would take place through integration within a Greater France, rather than through secession from it.


This belief endured in significant sections of this élite right up to, and beyond, political independence.


Even those more radical members of the French-educated élite who advocated secession from France found themselves inextricably caught up in the logic of the French colonial presence.


Like the nationalist leaders whose moderate stance they rejected, they were French educated; and it was by reference to French models and norms that they demanded the expansion of education for Africans, equal rights, equal status and equal pay for equal work.


Such contradictions and ambiguities were to be actively exploited by African political leaders who sought to challenge the legitimacy of the radical nationalists’ position.




Decolonization - measures of success?

France was remarkably successful in achieving its key policy objectives in Black Africa.


The decolonization process was largely peaceful and it was this smooth transition that enabled France to maintain a high profile French presence in the region after independence.


At a political level this is exemplified by French presidential visits and the

annual Franco-African summits. This has been accompanied by a significant economic effort: since 1960, between half and two-thirds of French economic development aid has consistently gone to its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.


The political and economic effort has in turn been underpinned


a) by the Franc zone,


b) by the maintenance of permanent French military bases and


c) the promotion of French language and culture through cultural cooperation and the organization of La Francophonie.


None of this would have been possible if the decolonization process had been marked by violence and bloodshed, as happened elsewhere in the French Empire.



As Houphouët-Boigny put it in 1957: "if Côte d’Ivoire had been colonized by the Anglo-Saxons, ‘there is no doubt that we would have chosen independence even at the cost of economic disadvantages. But in France we think we catch a note of human fraternity".