The Trouble with the French Republic: On Two Recent Books About French Colonization

Charles Emmerson reviews two recent books on France’s colonial legacy, Nabila Ramdani’s “Fixing France” and Pierre Singaravélou’s “Colonisations.”

The Trouble with the French Republic: On Two Recent Books About French Colonization

Colonisations: Notre histoire by Pierre Singaravélou. Seuil. 720 pages.Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic by Nabila Ramdani. PublicAffairs. 352 pages.

SET BACK FROM the intersection of the Boulevard des Ambassades and Avenue de la Jeunesse in the West African city of Niamey stands a compound of low-rise buildings surrounded on two sides by concrete blocks—protection against truck bombs—and a rose-colored wall topped with razor wire.


Look at satellite images and you just about make out the azure blue of a swimming pool in the compound’s large garden. In better days, two groundskeepers and a pool technician were employed to maintain the site. Two chefs and three other servants looked after its inhabitants.


In January 2024, the French embassy to Niger shut down its local operations, blaming the government for making its work impossible via anti-French protests. Those seeking consular assistance are advised to contact French legations in neighboring countries. The embassy phone lines are down.


Niger now joins Mali and Burkina Faso in a rejection line of former French colonies in West Africa. Once an indispensable partner, France is now disposable.


French president Emmanuel Macron tried to make the departure of France’s troops from the Sahel region sound like a masterstroke. Its forces would henceforth be “moins posées, moins exposées”—less fixed in position, also less exposed. Paris would still defend its interests, he insisted: “France is not disengaging; she is reorganizing.”


But to observers, the withdrawal of French soldiers from countries once ruled from Paris felt like something else: a second wave of decolonization.


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It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire. The same might be said of the French Republic’s territories. When the sun rises over the shoreline of Picardy, it is only just setting in French Polynesia. When it is afternoon in Paris, it is morning in French Guiana and early evening on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion. Two recent books deal with the history and eternal present of French colonization in very different ways.


In Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic (2023), Franco-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani dissects the many failings of contemporary France, finding the still-warm imprint of the old colonial empire wherever she goes, from the racial inequalities that bedevil its social fabric to the modes of thought that dominate its politics. Ramdani writes with urgency and verve. Though ostensibly a plea for French renewal, her book sometimes reads—with ample justification—like a charge sheet against it.


She treats Macron’s moves towards postcolonial reconciliation—his 2017 declaration on Algerian TV that colonialism was a “crime against humanity,” for example—as political gestures rather than efforts at statesmanship, even failed or truncated ones. Ramdani is laceratingly critical of what she calls a “one-sided” 2021 report, ordered by Macron, on France’s colonial history in Algeria, blaming the “settler profile” of its author, Benjamin Stora—despite the fact that Stora was born in Algeria in 1950 into a Jewish family with antecedents in North Africa going back at least 2,000 years.


Fixing France is a sharp polemic—necessary, revelatory, mostly fair, always driving to the point. It is a book to be read straight through, leaving readers shocked, energized, and better informed at its end.


By contrast, an ambitious new collective history of France’s worldwide empire, Colonisations: Notre histoire (2023), is a book to be savored, to be dipped into. Made up of over 200 essays in French by historians from around the world (one of them Stora), it is an exercise in herding historical cats, directed by Pierre Singaravélou. The result is a sparkling tour de force, somehow belying the book’s physical, academic, and moral weight.


As the pluralization in its title implies, Colonisations eschews any singular narrative of French empire. “And so should you,” it seems to say. After all, how can you make sense of a phenomenon as slippery as colonization? It gets everywhere. The French Empire certainly did.


Colonization never was one thing. Sometimes, it arrived from the barrel of a gun held by men in military uniform; other times, it arrived with men and women wearing religious garb or in the humble form of a geographer or a trader professing eternal respect for existing structures and traditions.


Inverting time’s telescope, Colonisations starts from today and works back towards the “precolonial era”—a problematic term, but a useful one. Here we find ourselves cast back to Ottoman Algiers or learning about the “modern” bureaucratic practices of Vietnam before the French or considering the painted visages of European kings through the superior gaze of the 17th-century Mughal emperor Jahāngīr. This is French colonial history written from perspectives other than French, hinting at the possible alternative futures that colonization cut short.


Telling the story of French empire through interconnections and intersections, Colonisations allows us to begin to grasp the diversity and complexity of the ways it existed through time and space. Its story becomes one of unexpected juxtapositions as well as formal structures, moments as well as processes, commercial products as well as state edicts. Some of its legacies are obvious; others are hiding in plain sight.


Take the case of the popular fizzy drink Orangina, sponsor of the world’s most famous annual cycling race, the Tour de France. Franco-British historian Arthur Asseraf, one of the book’s standout contributors, traces the drink’s origins to Algeria and the emergence of an overwhelmingly European-owned citrus fruit agro-industrial complex under the vastly unequal colonial conditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. There is nothing about any of this on the website of Suntory—the Japanese beverage company that now owns the brand—referring only vaguely to Orangina as the “unique flavor of the Mediterranean” since 1936.


A Spanish pharmacist sold the idea for a carbonated orange drink to a Jewish Algerian businessman at a trade fair in Marseille between the two world wars. Orangina’s first factory opened in Boufarik, outside Algiers, a city with a large population of “pieds-noirs”—literally, “black feet”—as the hundreds of thousands of Europeans born and raised in Algeria were known. Orangina’s subsequent commercial success was turbocharged in the 1950s by its popularity with the legions of French soldiers sent to keep Algeria French during that country’s war for independence.


When it became clear that Paris would lose, Orangina moved its headquarters across the Mediterranean, settling in the sunny French seaside town of Vitrolles alongside thousands of others fleeing the Algeria they once called home.


Another anecdote of imperial intersections involves the last queen of Madagascar, the heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking Ranavola III, shoved off into exile by the French army in 1897, first to the island of Réunion and later to Algiers, where she died in 1917. As Madagascan historian Solofo Randrianja acidly points out, the fact that the French had sent Ranavola away from her homeland didn’t stop them from taking credit for repatriating her ashes in 1938 as “further proof of France’s maternal solicitude,” as the colonial governor put it at the time.


Nine years later, an economic crisis partially caused by French policy around rice cultivation, coupled with the disgruntlement of former Madagascan troops who had served France in World War II, helped spark an insurrection in which tens of thousands were killed. Paris made use of soldiers from its remaining colonial territories in West and North Africa to restore its rule off Africa’s southeastern coast.


The anti-colonial icon Frantz Fanon’s name appears in this volume not just as a theoretician of empire and race or for his role in the Algerian War of Independence but also as an inspiration to Indigenous students in French-run New Caledonia in the 1960s and a touchstone for rap artists such as La Rumeur in Paris’s banlieues in the 2000s. One of their lines goes:


Frustrations, complexes, ça bout dans mon cortex
Peau noire, masque blanc en laisse plus d’un perplexe


[Frustrations and complexes boiling in my brain
Black skin, white mask, it makes people go insane]


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In France’s national museum of immigration in Paris, a large-screen animation shows the ebb and flow of the transatlantic slave trade over the centuries. Each recorded voyage of a slave ship (a total of 36,000) is represented by a colored dot bobbing across the ocean: red for Britain, green for Portugal, blue for France. Four thousand of the dots are blue.


The greatest number of blue dots in a single year is for 1790—that is, the year after the storming of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a foundational text for both the current French constitution and international human rights law.


The names of the ships that crossed the Atlantic that year are remarkable for their cheerful banality: Family Man, Good Citizen, Three Brothers, True Friend, Only Daughter. In this, they echo the names of the concrete housing blocks Ramdani was familiar with as a youth in the ethnically mixed banlieues of Paris in the 1980s: The Mimosas, The Roses, Debussy, Monet.


Among the slave ships of 1790, one name stands out more than most: the Assemblée Nationale, in jarring reference to France’s first revolutionary parliament. It set off from the Atlantic port of Lorient, picked up slaves in Mozambique, and deposited them in what was then the French coffee and sugar colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). The number of slaves listed on that single voyage is 530.


By the time of the French Revolution, the Kingdom of France had already been an overseas empire for well over a century. It is for this reason that there is a fleur-de-lys—the heraldic symbol of the French monarchy—on the flag of Quebec. It is for this reason that today, in Louisiana, in a place called Vermilionville, you can find a folkloric “living history village museum” with a French-built house at its center. It is why—even now—France’s longest land border is shared with Brazil. French Guiana, on the edges of the Amazon rainforest, has been controlled by France since the 17th century.


France’s presence in Niger came much later, around 1900, under an entirely different political dispensation—one that nominally had revolutionary origins, a universal mission of civilization, and republican form. By this time, French rule was no longer wrapped in the fleur-de-lys, but rather in the familiar blue-white-red of the French tricolor. Dominion was established not just by conquest or “discovery,” but also through international—that is, intra-European—agreement. As ever, empire was reformulated for the times.


In Niger, formally speaking, it only lasted until independence came in 1960. But France never truly left. As Stanford historian Gabrielle Hecht explains in one of the most fascinating entries in Colonisations, continuing French influence over Niger was in fact essential to its supposedly postimperial ambitions.


As Paris faced calamity in Vietnam in 1954, Suez in 1956, and then in Algeria, prowess in nuclear matters was seen by French leaders (and to some extent by British ones) as a substitute for the loss of empire. What Frenchman of a certain age and background does not fill with pride at the thought of the French force de frappe, the old name for France’s nuclear deterrent?


But there was a catch. France’s nuclear renaissance needed uranium from Africa to fuel the power stations and build the bombs. And it needed large, distant (but never entirely empty) places to explode them to see if they worked. France only left Algeria in 1962 with the proviso that it could keep using the Sahara for euphemistic nuclear “tests” for a further five years.* In Niger, uranium itself was at stake. With the weight of the French state behind them, French geologists covered vast distances prospecting for the stuff. Locals later blamed the mines at Arlit and Akokan for high rates of radioactivity-related illness.


For decades after the formal end of empire, many French continued to view such places as their strategic backyard. In 2023, Macron tried to soften the blow of French withdrawal by calling it a “rearticulation” of the country’s position in Africa. France’s leading right-wing newspaper used a different term: “déclassement brutal.”


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“Déclassement” (literally, “declassing”) is a word you hear a lot in France these days, denoting the idea of falling behind, being pushed out of one’s accustomed position, losing prestige.


It is on this psychologically loaded territory that France’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN)—previously the Front National (FN)—has been encamped for decades. Originally founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a paratrooper who served in all of France’s mid-20th century colonial wars, it is now led by his daughter. Marine Le Pen uses “déclassement” in her speeches all the time.


Of course, the word is not only about how much of the world is ruled from Paris. Jean-Marie Le Pen used to bang on about the loss of Algeria. His daughter, from a different generation, draws on a wider repertoire of dissatisfaction. Nor is the sense of being economically, socially, or culturally surpassed a phenomenon unique to France. Ostensibly anti-elite populist movements, tinged with racism, have become a feature of politics on both sides of the Atlantic.


But in France, the ghosts of empire are never far away, reinforcing the nexus of grievances and conspiracy theories that animates the Far Right. Another populist figure, Éric Zemmour, couples “grand déclassement” with “great replacement,” the idea that nonwhites (many of whom, in France, are Muslims) are working with ultraliberals to eclipse the white majority. It’s a fear that hearkens back to colonial Algeria. To be French is to be on the side of the colonizers, Zemmour says, in one case explicitly aligning himself rhetorically with Marshal Thomas Robert Bugeaud, the man who led France’s brutal conquest of Algeria in the 1830s.


This tendency should not surprise us. In a chapter in Fixing France titled “The Far-Right: Back to Africa,” Ramdani reminds us of the origins of the RN/FN back in 1972. Some of its early members had been ideologically committed to French fascism, or even German Nazism, in World War II. A couple fought for the Waffen-SS. Many more were sympathetic to the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), a 1960s French terrorist group led by extremist pieds-noirs, who hoped to halt withdrawal from Algeria through a campaign of murders and bombings on both sides of the Mediterranean. More than once, the OAS tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, the World War II resistance leader who became president in 1958, deeming him a traitor to their cause.


Ramdani notes that until the Islamic State attacks in Paris, which killed 130 on the streets and in concert venues in November 2015, the worst terrorist atrocity on French soil was the OAS’s derailment of an express train from Strasbourg to Paris on a midsummer weekend in 1961. Twenty-eight died. The bombing was initially presented as an accident, shielding France from the truth of an internal terrorist attack.


Algeria specifically remains a neuralgic issue. In June 2022, while formally opening a new session of the French parliament, RN deputy José Gonzalez teared up talking about his childhood in Algeria and the part of “ma France” that disappeared when the pieds-noirs were forced out. “I am a man whose soul has been forever scarred,” he declared, “by a feeling of abandonment.” Afterwards, he told journalists that he believed—unbelievably—that the French army committed no crimes in Algeria. As for the OAS, he averred, he was not in a position to judge. Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man who in the 1960s said of course he had tortured people in Algeria—before later claiming he misspoke—telephoned Gonzalez his congratulations and invited him to receive the RN movement’s highest honor.


The RN/FN is no longer a political fringe. It got its first members of parliament in the 1980s, thanks to a proportional voting system introduced by a socialist president. In 1997, it won its first mayoralty, with over half the vote, in Vitrolles, the former home of Orangina. In 2002, the elder Le Pen got to the second round of French presidential elections, only to be locked out, 80 to 20, by an alliance of the Left and Center Right. In 2022, his daughter came within 10 points of beating Macron. Just a few months ago, in February, a respected pollster became the first to put Marine Le Pen ahead, 51 to 49, in a possible 2027 presidential matchup against the current prime minister.


Were she to win, she would inherit yet another legacy of France’s colonial wars: the extraordinary concentration of power constitutionally vested in the hands of the French president, the price set by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 for agreeing to take the helm in the wake of a coup attempt by army officers in Algiers.


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Even as the human perpetrators and victims of its 20th-century traumas pass, the disputed legacies of colonization continue to haunt France in ways great and small.


The process of litigating and relitigating empire can occasionally produce results bordering on the absurd. In 2022, the city of Marseille decided to rebrand a school named after Bugeaud, the conqueror of Algeria, renaming it the École Ahmed Litim instead, after an Algerian who fought with the French resistance against the Nazis and died in 1944. The school’s address remains 12 rue Bugeaud.


The more important legacies of French colonization go much wider than France itself. How could it be otherwise for an empire that, in the words of one contributor to Colonisations, wanted to “be the world,” both practically and rhetorically? Beyond even the physical places shaped by French colonial rule, they lie in the universalisms that French empire both projected and betrayed, the unmet promises of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”


In the 20th century, French decolonization took on a commensurately global significance. Algiers became what pan-Africanist leader Amílcar Cabral called the “Mecca of the Revolutionaries.” Viet Cong officials rubbed shoulders with members of the Black Panther Party. The African National Congress set up its international bureau there. Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat proclaimed Palestinian independence in Algiers in 1988. Today, the intellectual products of that decolonization—the books, films, and theories that accompanied it, from Fanon to Foucault—form one of the most widespread and enduring parts of its testament.


The empire itself has now largely gone. The closure of a French military base in Africa is one more step away from what it was, unlikely to be the last. Yet somehow, far beyond France, in echoes ever fainter, its inheritances remain.


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*The fruits of a research project incorporating film, photographs, and leaked documents are currently on exhibit at the Mosaic Rooms in London.


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Addendum from Nabila Ramdani


Charles Emmerson’s very welcome review of my book, Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic, quite rightly mentions the ancestry of Benjamin Stora, the historian selected by President Emmanuel Macron to report on France’s colonial history in Algeria.


A key point in my book is that Stora comes from a European settler background to North Africa, and that someone of Indigenous Algerian origin—that is to say, an Arab or Berber Muslim—would have been far better suited to this very sensitive task.


In turn, Emmerson points to how I highlight Stora’s settler profile “despite the fact that Stora was born in Algeria in 1950 into a Jewish family with antecedents in North Africa going back at least 2,000 years.”


Such a background does not in fact preclude Stora from being a so-called pied-noir (black foot) settler. On the contrary, Stora himself has regularly spoken and written about being part of this settler class that fled Algeria in 1962, following Algeria winning independence from France after an eight-year war.


That Stora was born in French Algeria—a colony that was literally a part of France (his birthplace Constantine was an actual département of the French Republic)—makes him a de facto pied-noir.


Stora has discussed his French-Spanish roots in numerous publications. For Stora, Algeria is “the country of [his] grandparents, Jews, who came with [his] grandfather from Córdoba, from Andalusia.” His own mother, Marthe Stora (1918–93), wrote: “My father fought in the war of [1914]–18. We were French.”


Any confusion was completely removed by the Crémieux Decree of 1870, which formalized the Storas as “colons,” or settlers. Thus, Stora was indisputably part of the pieds-noirs settler class.


Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and historian of Algerian descent and author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic.


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Featured image: Louis Marcoussis. Still Life with Knife, 1920. Gift of Collection Société Anonyme. Yale University Art Gallery (1941.557). CC0, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed June 4, 2024. 

LARB Contributor

Charles Emmerson is an Australian-born writer and historian living in London. His most recent book is Crucible: The Long End of the Great War & the Birth of a New World (2019), about Europe and the United States from 1917 to 1924.

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