Academic journal article The Historian

Colonial Dreams of the French Right Wing, 1881-1914

Academic journal article The Historian

Colonial Dreams of the French Right Wing, 1881-1914

Article excerpt

The imperial expansion engaged in by the European powers in Africa and Asia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been one of the least understood aspects of recent political history. A variety of interpretations of this phenomenon have been proposed that focus on the economic, diplomatic, and strategic interests of the Great Powers. Yet imperial policy might have been as much a product of wishful thinking and self-indulgent day-dreaming on the part of governing elites as it was an expression of their material interests. In the case of successive French governments, maintaining a firm grip on the colonies (if need be, at considerable cost) was considered vital to the preservation of the nation's self-image as a world power. Even the choice of administrative techniques employed in the colonies was often a reflection, not just of pragmatic considerations, but of the colonial power's political culture and ideological preoccupations.

France was not a neophyte in the imperial arena when the era of the new imperialism began. Territories such as Senegal, Algeria, and various Caribbean and Pacific Ocean islands had been in French possession for decades. In most of these colonies, French policy was molded by what came to be known as the doctrine of assimilation. The French sought to teach native elites French language and culture, and to assimilate the colonies administratively by governing them through centralized bureaucracies, directly answerable to the authority of ministries in Paris.

The French Third Republic began its overseas expansion at the initiative of the moderate republican politician, Jules Ferry, who served twice as prime minister during the early 1880s. Within two decades, France acquired vast new possessions in Africa and Southeast Asia. The arguments Ferry used to justify overseas expansion focused on material interest. He hoped to win the support of his mainstream, bourgeois political constituency for his policies in Indochina and Tunisia by appealing to their pocket books. Colonies, he argued, would provide France with investment markets and sources of raw materials that would facilitate its renaissance as a great power in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war.

Some historians have argued that Ferry's neo-mercantilistic arguments were little more than a misleading rationale for a policy that was motivated by an obsession with national grandeur. Others have rejected this, arguing that Ferry's economic and political conceptions complemented each other since in the industrial age, economic power was seen as both a foundation and manifestation of political power. Moreover, the fact that most imperial ventures were unprofitable does not mean that perceived economic interests could not have motivated them initially. One scholar recently pointed out that - regardless of the essentially imponderable, overall balance sheet - the empire did give a much-needed boost to certain vital sectors of the French economy from the 1880s to the 1930s. For example, the traditional, family-run manufacturing firm won an extended lease on life due to the control of a protected export market in the colonies.(1)

Ferry's economic arguments were echoed by a number of interest groups that coalesced by the 1890s. The parti colonial was a somewhat grandiose name for a loose coalition of colonialist societies that drew members from a heterogeneous array of businessmen, journalists, diplomats, military officers, and politicians from various (mostly centrist) parties. The parti colonial lobbied effectively on behalf of imperial interests, and took advantage of the chaotic nature of French party politics to win the support of crucial government agencies for continued overseas expansion.(2)

Ferry's overseas adventurism did not immediately win widespread popular support. Instead, it became the target of considerable criticism from a broad spectrum of political perspectives. Nationalists on both the Right and Left insisted that France's energies must be focused on the paramount goal of revenge for the humiliation of 1870-71. …

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