Femo-Imperialism and La Mission Civilisatrice: On Françoise Vergès’s “A Feminist Theory of Violence”

October 9, 2022   •   By Sohum Pal

A Feminist Theory of Violence: A Decolonial Perspective

Françoise Vergès

WHEN I WAS studying French in school, my instructor winced as I tried to speak of “race”: I had assumed that it was enough to affect a French accent while leaving the word unchanged. Race, the professor explained, was a pejorative, to be used only when speaking of nonhuman animals. Instead, I should try the language plus politiquement correct, the language of “peoples.” Or better yet, I could speak of “origins.”

That the language of race does not translate easily to metropolitan French does not mean that racism does not exist in France (though the nation resolutely refuses to collect census data on race, only “origins”). Rather, the terms of the debate on racism are different. Françoise Vergès’s A Feminist Theory of Violence: A Decolonial Perspective, published in France in 2020 and now available from Pluto Press in an English translation by Melissa Thackway, helps readers sift through the distinctions, though its contribution to the anglophone literature on race and racism is largely a synthetic and bibliographic one. That is as much as one might readily expect of a book as slim as this — four sections across only 105 pages.

In her introduction, Vergès explains that her aim is “to imagine a post-violent society — not a society without conflicts or contradictions, but a society that does not naturalize violence, that does not celebrate it, that does not make it the central theme of its narrative of power.” Violence, in Vergès’s usage, is not only the hatred and precaritization directed towards “women, poor, and racialized people,” but also “the exhaustion of bodies, of the oceans, and the earth in the quest for profit, the drastic reduction of life expectancy for the most vulnerable.” Though she does not name it as such, Vergès distinguishes violence as an action from structural violence, but she links the two as mutually reinforcing. In place of a society constituted by violence, Vergès seeks to imagine “a politics of protection based on decolonial and anti-racist feminist analyses,” which “implies recognizing the need to protect human beings (babies, children, the elderly, people in situations of vulnerability) without turning them into victims, and without considering weakness as a failing.” This language is more precise about Vergès’s aims, perhaps because it more closely mirrors the language of the book’s French subtitle, “Pour une politique antiraciste de la protection,” which translates literally to “for an antiracist politics of protection.”

Verges’s opening salvo is a breathless two-page recounting of the last 50 years of feminist struggle, in which she seeks to disentangle two distinctive feminisms — a “radical” feminism born of feminist-of-color organizing that “theorize[s] the entanglement of oppressions,” and a “reformist” feminism that campaigns for women “to enter the army, the world of finance, and so on,” and whose interests have converged with the state, labor unions, and political parties. Within the ambit of this latter feminism, “the links between racism and sexism remained marginalized.” “In the 1980s,” Vergès writes, “a civilizational and universalist feminism managed to impose itself internationally, minoritizing feminisms of combat that nonetheless did not disappear.”

Onto this scene arrived neoliberalism, privatizing public goods and services and subordinating social welfare to the accumulation of wealth. Instrumentalizing that “civilizational and universalist feminism,” French (indeed, Western) feminists imposed economic arrangements such as structural adjustment and austerity policies on the governments of the Global South, leaving Third World women to bear the costs. Vergès demonstrates how, under the neoliberal regime, ostensibly feminist concerns can lay the foundations for the expansion of violent institutional apparatuses. As she argues,

When protection is subjected to racial, class, gender, and sexual criteria, it contributes in its logic and its application to domination. One politics serves another; in other words, the racist and patriarchal State’s politics of protection requires these distinctions between who has the right to protection [by the state] and who does not.

Here, Vergès treads familiar ground for theoretically engaged feminist readers, as her argument follows the contours of Judith Butler’s 2009 book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? in which the author distinguishes between lives whose loss can be acknowledged by the state and those that are too threatening to the ethical and political status quo to be acknowledged as lost.

Vergès’s synoptic history may feel vertiginous, in part because it recites shifts in feminist discourse and governance structure without linking them or establishing necessary causal relationships; indeed, the reflexive verbiage about feminism that “managed to impose itself internationally” leaves unmentioned the nearly 500-year history of colonial economic structuring that made it possible for feminism of the Global North to establish itself. This problem is compounded by an awkward gap resulting from an overly literal translation: the notion of a “civilizational” feminism lacks much purchase in the anglophone context but evokes a much longer tradition within the French discursive sphere, where la mission civilisatrice remains the stock justification for French colonial incursions around the world — throughout North and West Africa, French Indochina, and the French Caribbean. In English translation, the language requires much more robust explanation and citation than the text offers.

Having accounted for the alignments between some forms of Western feminism and the carceral apparatuses of the state, Vergès moves to evaluate the pyrrhic ways that women of the Global South have come under the umbrella of the French state’s patriarchal politics of protection, which hinges on the idea that “racialized men are a threat to (white) women’s freedom.” By combating female genital cutting and assimilating women into the debtor economy, the French state aims to be “feminist” — or what Elsa Dorlin (quoted in Vergès) calls “femo-imperialism,” materially and politically investing in women and

feminist formulae (freedom of movement, to dispose of one’s body) to promote a politics of integrating African women into a banking and economic system dominated by the West, while at the same time continuing to position African women as responsible for the state of the continent.

Vergès further links the historical project of plantation owners to control and force the reproduction of enslaved women to the contemporary development schemes that seek to spread the gospel of “family planning” and hormonal birth-control injections to African women.

From there, Vergès moves to a more granular and incisive critique of the French academic sphere, explaining how French universalism stymies attempts to examine the racialized inequities in the distribution of state protection, particularly by reducing “the realities of slavery” to

simple memorial ritual, [with] colonization envisaged exclusively through the frame of representations, when slavery and colonization are in fact the very matrices of modernity. […] While the question of racial representations is now more or less accepted in the public debate, and even the object of major museum exhibitions, racism in political thought remains marginal. I yet again (as always), insist on the centrality of colonial slavery in the fabrication of vulnerability to a premature death.

This line of argument stands out for its lucidity and attention to the specificities of the discourse on race, slavery, and colonialism in France and its (former) colonies. Vergès here begins to align with the American discourse on Afropessimism, which (in one formulation) starts from the premise that anti-Blackness and transatlantic Black enslavement are exceptional, even in the history of race and colonialism, but her argument proceeds from a perspective that is carefully attuned to the stresses of French history. Vergès demonstrates the same precision in glossing the contentious and meandering history of France’s abolition of slavery (during the First Republic), the reaffirmation of slavery and white supremacy (during the First Empire), and the joint projects of abolishing slavery and colonizing Africa (during the Second Republic), which required the supplanting of the tyrannical French plantation owner with the kinder mission civilisatrice, often depicted as a crowned woman bringing “peace” and “progress” to a land’s natives. That these projects were simultaneous under nominal French Republicanism demonstrates

the difficulty in France, even under the Republic, in accepting equality between Black and white people. Contrary to a narrative that smooths over and neutralizes history, they also show the importance of race in the constitution of the nation. The restoration of slavery laid the foundations of an impossible equality.

Vergès then outlines a project that is as much contemporary as historical: that of resisting a carceral feminism that, according to Elizabeth Bernstein, “seeks social remedies through criminal justice interventions rather than through a redistributive welfare state, and … advocates for the beneficence of the privileged rather than the empowerment of the oppressed.” As ever, Vergès turns to history, narrating women’s resistance to colonialist penal systems in France, Spain, and Italy, and focusing particularly on cases where the state prescribed imprisonment for patriarchal violence, even though (as anti-carceral feminists point out) the harshest of laws cannot prevent rape. Vergès charts how mainstream French feminists shifted from anti-carceral resistance to sex work as “the quintessential site of new forms of the enslavement and oppression of women, who only a Western State and its police could save.” Once more, this feminist movement cooperated with the French state, leading the then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy to prepare a 2003 law that enabled the deportation of foreign sex workers, figured as

victims of Black and Arab traffickers, without questioning the reasons that drive these women to leave their countries in the hope of a wage, for that would have then required analyzing the entanglement of violence, imperialism, and capitalism, which necessarily invoke predatory sources of enrichment.

The state thus reinscribes feminist aims into its broader mission, which is to expand its reach and control to make a safer world for the nationalism and neoliberalism it serves. Vergès then provides a rather shallow, imprecise gloss on prison abolitionism in the United States, ostensibly as a horizon for French feminist politics.

This argumentative unevenness — the trenchant critiques of French society paired with muddled and sweeping assessments of other feminist and antiracist movements — speaks to the split purposes of the original French edition and the English translation. For French readers, imprecise glosses of other nations’ feminist movements are more likely to pass unnoticed than for informed American readers. But A Feminist Theory of Violence still has value for those readers in its accessible treatment of French “femo-imperialist” histories.

The book concludes in a dominant mood of despair. “The unrelenting violence has become unbearable,” writes Vergès. “What Achille Mbembe calls ‘brutalism’ has become the iron law governing the human condition.” Indeed, Vergès at times comes close to suggesting that this relentless progress of a violent state apparatus animated by neoliberal motivations may be unstoppable. Certainly, such a view is convenient for the state — why would anyone bother resisting in the face of such a juggernaut? But as Vergès points out, such learned helplessness marginalizes counternarratives and allows for the frictionless exercise of power. In contrast, she suggests that to be at the margins is not to be weak but rather to have the unique and advantaged perspective to see beyond such helplessness and furnish an alternative project, a more robust and attentive antiracist and feminist project. “[W]e are living in an era in which it is impossible to escape the unleashing of uncontrollable violence produced by greed, cupidity, and power,” she argues, “unless we organize alongside” the most marginal — “those who have nothing to lose.”


Sohum Pal is a JD-PhD student at Columbia University and a freelance critic. His work has previously appeared in Full Stop, BRINK: A Review of Books, and several scholarly publications. He tweets @antibhadrata.