French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa

French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa

French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa

French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa


Before the Vichy regime, there was ostensibly only one France and one form of colonialism for French West Africa (FWA). World War II and the division of France into two ideological camps, each asking for legitimacy from the colonized, opened for Africans numerous unprecedented options.

French Colonialism Unmasked analyzes three dramatic years in the history of FWA, from 1940 to 1943, in which the Vichy regime tried to impose the ideology of the National Revolution in the region. Ruth Ginio shows how this was a watershed period in the history of the region by providing an in-depth examination of the Vichy colonial visions and practices in fwa. She describes the intriguing encounters between the colonial regime and African society along with the responses of different sectors in the African population to the Vichy policy. Although French Colonialism Unmasked focuses on one region within the French Empire, it has relevance to French colonial history in general by providing one of the missing pieces in research on Vichy colonialism.


When the news of Germany’s conquest of France in June 1940 reached Dakar, the capital of the federation of French West Africa (fwa), many Africans, especially from the Western-educated elite, shed tears. Decades later Bara Diouf, then a young boy of eleven, tried to explain this reaction, which in retrospect seemed to him rather ridiculous: “You know, the sentiment we felt for France was beautiful, noble. What was it based on? I do not know, perhaps on a myth. Because we were all, more or less, prisoners of a myth of an admired republican France toward which we all felt great esteem.”

The explanation Diouf gave for the African elite’s response to the news from France well summarizes the essence of the Vichy period in fwa. Soon after the debacle this federation fell into Vichy hands when, after he declared his support for Vichy, the new regime appointed Pierre Boisson as its governor-general there; until then Boisson had served as governorgeneral of the smaller and much less significant federation of French Equatorial Africa (FEA).

World War II in general and Vichy rule specifically shattered many myths for Africans, as well as for colonial subjects in other parts of the empire. This period paved the way for the challenging of colonial rule and the subsequent dissolution of the European empires in Africa and Asia.

It is widely accepted that World War II was a watershed in the decolonization process in Africa and elsewhere. But was this related only to the colonial powers’ loss of prestige or to the dramatic changes in the international arena after the war—notably the rise of two new powers, which were, at least in their rhetoric, anticolonial? To establish the claim that World War II was a decisive point in the history of colonialism, this period in the colonies themselves must be examined. In the French case the division of the empire between the Vichy regime and the Free French had a special significance. Although the British, like the French, experienced humiliating defeats during the war, some from non-Western peoples (e.g., the Japanese in Burma), their wartime situation did not even come close to that of the rival colonial power, France. Britain did not surrender to Germany, and its territory, although threatened, remained free. The colonial subjects of France witnessed their ruling nation being humiliatingly defeated and then occupied by another European power. And that was not all. Out of this defeat two Frances emerged—each claiming to be the . . .

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