A Very Colonial Republic (Homage to Michel Winock)


I was in Paris again last week to present at the memorable colloquium on Enfants sauvages (wild children) at the École Normale Supérieure. People in the US warned me about how dangerous it was over there before I left and worried about me while I was gone. I am happy to announce that I was and am fine. Unlike my countrymen in San Bernardino, CA.

During the long flight home yesterday, I did a lot of thinking about France, its political issues, and the present impasse. Today it came bubbling hot to the surface with the news of the Far Right’s big winnings in the regional elections. Since we’re winding down the semester here at Notre Dame, it is a good time to think back over the course and reflect on what we learned.  The most illuminating article I’ve read for class this fall is by historian Michel Winock. Entitled “Une République très coloniale,” it is a short piece published in L’Histoire 312 bis (septembre 2006): 14-17. What Winock points out took me by surprise: he shows that the heroes of the French Republic—people like Jules Ferry—saw no contradiction between promoting republican virtues of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, at the same time as they pushed aggressively for an extension of the French civilizing mission abroad. Winock explains that Ferry’s promotion of colonization touched all the familiar chords–economic, political, military—with a surprising emphasis on the humanitarian virtues of colonizing foreign peoples. As Ferry wrote:

« Partout doivent reculer les antiques puissances de l’ignorance, de la superstition, de la peur, de l’oppression de l’homme par l’homme. Ainsi l’action colonisatrice est-elle fondamentalement définie comme une œuvre d’émancipation : par elle, et à travers elle, se poursuit la lutte, entreprise depuis plus d’un siècle au nom de l’esprit de Lumière, contre l’injustice, l’esclavage, la soumission aux Ténèbres » (cited in Winock 16-17).

Winock notes that Ferry explicitly insisted on the tradition of Rights of Man in order to justify what he called the “new civilizing crusade.”  There was no irony in this claim, because Ferry was convinced that the French Republic had a better handle on doling out liberty, equality and fraternity than the leaders of areas that France was taking in hand: regions such as Tunisia (1881), a large part of Indochina (1883-86) and Western Africa (1895), Madagascar (1897) and Morocco (1911). Ferry had detractors, notably prime minister-to-be Georges Clemenceau. But he basically won: a not-too-surprising fact when one remembers that all major Western European powers had huge holdings in Africa by 1914, and that all of the continent was under colonial control by 1914, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia.

Today, we live in a post-colonial world.

If you consider this in the long term, over the 1,500+ years that France has existed, this is quite a new development. Despite the fact that they’ve been joining the French population in Europe for at least 100 years, people from former colonial holdings still seem like a surprise to the French. They do not yet seem used to them or ready to embrace them as brothers. They do not seem quite ready to extend Republican hospitality to these newcomers, just as they did not react in an entirely congenial way to the masses of people who, in earlier years, came searching for employment from Italy (parts of which were a colonial holding, albeit temporarily, under Napoleon). We Americans have no better stories from our past; the last guy to arrive is always the most despised. (With the notable exception of Amerindians and African-Americans who have been here longer than many of the rest of us.)

Perhaps it will take more time for the French to embrace the “new” countrymen who don’t resemble traditional neighbors from the olden days. Perhaps it will take more time to overlook differences in race, creed, and color and see people for what they are. Perhaps it will take more time to figure out how to reconcile the colonial past and the post-colonial present.

They are, after all, rather irreconcilable values…

But what time is the right time?

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