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France’s Third Republic had fallen less than a year after the beginning of the Second World War. Much of France itself was occupied by German forces and a quasi-fascist French government was set up at Vichy under World War I hero Marshal Phillipe Petain. Although it was not apparent at the time, an even more dramatic change had been set into motion by these events. The existing system of colonial economic dependence was torn to pieces as French administrations around the world attempted to decide how to deal with the Vichy administration. This was particularly true of the vast French possessions in Africa, as imperial subjects of all races began to question their assigned political and economic identities. The initial reaction of some administrators was to recognise the Vichy regime, but many others, including Charles de Gaulle, a junior general in French Equatorial Africa, refused to do so. “German newsreels of June 1940 mockingly showed black African troops as prisoners of war. Frances colonial manpower, mustered in 1939 as it had been in 1914, availed little in preventing a stunning defeat which hastily removed France from the ranks of the great powers.”
The fall of France, saw her overseas empire becoming ever more significant. Some members of the French empire believed that they could relocate to North Africa and carry on the war from there. However when Georges Mandel, issued a proclamation of government with himself as premier. He was quickly detained and arrested. This showed what a poor position France was now in. ” The episode a minor one in the war but one symbolic of the new dependence that a shattered France had assumed toward it´s colonial empire.”
The Vichy government was formed after the signing of the armistice with the Germans on June 22nd. The Vichy government embarked on a collaboration policy with the Germans. The empire of France gave them some leverage over the Germans. The Germans still occupied two, thirds of France, thus allowing Germany to launch air strikes against Britain. The Free French took refuge in England, they were determined to liberate France from her Nazi occupiers and Collaborators. The Free French consisted of 7000 men, fronted by General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle believed the French empire held the key for Frances liberation and survival. De Gaulle believed that the empire could make France great again.
The summer of 1940 was significant to the Free French and the Vichy collaborators. It saw the competing powers fighting over the influence of the French Empire. “Vichy struggled to hold on and as de Gaulle struggled to wrest away. The divide French fought over the French empire.”
The first military encounter was a significant one. It occurred at Dakar on September 23rd to 24th 1940. De Gaulle lead a small invasion force assisted by the British and Dutch navy. De Gaulle had already won over most of French equatorial Africa. He sought to persuade most of the French West African federation to join him. De Gaulle looked to take the capital port with ease. However he encountered resistance, which had been backed up by French Naval units loyal to Vichy. This Anglo-French expedition had to make a hasty retreat to avoid defeat. However this allowed the Vichy government to show the Germans of there allegiance. Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were disappointed with de Gaulle, later on in the war Churchill and Roosevelt would not tell de Gaulle of their future military plans.
This defeat at Dakar only enhanced the deep divisions throughout the French Empire. “All of North Africa and West Africa, as well as Indochina, remained loyal to Vichy, while more outlying and less consequential regions like New Caledonia and Equatorial Africa stood beside the General.”
When Petain and his supporters surrendered to Germany, the colonial relationship was severely disrupted. Colonial administrators were caught between feelings of loyalty to the empire and the appeal to join with Great Britain in a resistance against the Axis powers. Most administrators decided to recognise the Vichy regime, concerned about their proximity to the Axis armies and believing that Petain, as a war hero, would be able to act in the empire’s best interests. One region in Africa was different. The governors of French Equatorial Africa decided to join with the Belgians in the Congo (who had likewise decided to break with their mother country) and with the British. These administrators declared that they would support Charles de Gaulle and the concept of a Free French government. It appears that both the European elite and the native leaders were in favour of this decision. For example, “Governor Felix Eboue of Chad, the first black man to govern a colony, solidly placed himself behind de Gaulle.”
De Gaulle he knew how important it was to gain immediate support from Frances equatorial African colonies. After a meeting with Jan Smuts Prime Minster of the Union of South Africa. It was revealed, that if he had not supported de Gaulle. Smuts would have lost control of South Africa to pro-axis movements who would of then sought to collaborate with the axis powers, leading to an increased threat on the African continent from Nazi Germany.
De Gaulle believed this showed, even, even in the beginning of the war the Free French were shaping the way it was heading. After the defeat at Dakar, it had appeared that the Vichy government was winning the battle for colonial control. It appears that if the Free French had been victorious, it would have weakened colonial rule. “He feared that disobedience to establish authority would weaken colonial rule. ‘movements that do not respect hierarchy carry within themselves the ferment of dissolution´, he solemnly stated to his subordinates.”
After Frances defeat de Gaulle believed the empire could and would be used to liberate France. The Vichy government believed that he empire was one of it´s remaining sources of strength. The Vichy government also had control over the French navy. The Germans saw this as very important especially where the Mediterranean was concerned. The Vichy government headed by Pierre Laval saw the Navy and the empire as his two greatest assets for establishing and maintaining a fair deal for France in Hitler´s new Europe.
As Jean Suret-Canale states in his book French Colonialism in Tropical Africa 1900-1945, Eboue was “resolutely opposed to assimilation,” a fate which would have ultimately been far more likely had the racist Nazis emerged from the war as victors. Assuming that this was common view among native African administrators, it seems likely that the policies of the Nazi regime played an important role in creating a willingness to join with the Allies. There are some bizarre records of pro-German (and anti-French) feelings throughout the French territories in Africa. One example of a manifestation of this sentiment was the 1947-48 revolt in Madagascar, in which the rebels used the Nazi symbol and sometimes took the names of famous German generals. However, most native administrators appear to have considered the French to be the lesser of the two imperial evils. The relatively great distance between French Equatorial Africa and the Axis armies was also an encouraging factor for colonial officials of all races who considered the idea of establishing a Free French organisation.
At any rate, the Vichy regime had inadvertently created a political rift in its former colonies as now many more African territories aligned themselves with the allies.
The changes which had occurred can not, however, be characterised as a political disturbance alone. Of equal importance was the disruption of the long-standing colonial economic system. Germany was demanding a regular supply of coal, wheat, beets, meat, butter and a variety of other products, particularly raw materials she needed to maintain the war. As for products from French Africa, Nazi agents supervised the unloading of imports in the south of France and redirected them to Germany and Italy. However, it was not practical for the Nazis to assert control over all the French territories in Africa. Consequently, the flow of products from French Equatorial Africa was no longer directed at France after the French surrender in 1940.
Old rivalries were renewed between the British and the French mostly amongst the French naval personnel. When Churchill ordered the sinking of a French fleet based at Mers-Et-Kebir in Algeria. Churchill believed that there was a possibility that the French fleet would return to France and fall under the control of the Germans. The high loss of French life of course angered the French Vichy government. This incident was significant in that it stunted the supported that de Gaulle built up around the colonies. It also damaged the flow of French exiles to Britain joining the liberation movement. Britain´s actions had also strengthened support for Vichy in France. Laval saw this as an opportunity to form a united Franco-German collaboration against the British.
The French colonies started to suffer directly from these complex politics between the warring nations. The French empires economy was stuttering to a standstill. This state of economy obviously caused discontent as economy was being furthered weakened. Colonists were suffering from lack of income and food stuffs. Vichy government with a damaged French fleet could not replace administrative positions with loyal Vichy collaborators in her colonies. This lead to governors such as governor-general , Admiral Jean Decoux began to employ the indigenous people in high ranking positions. This had never happened before, and allowed the colonies some more independence.
The French colonies were now finding themselves in the theatres of war around the globe. The loyal Vichy colonies were most at risk. “deprived of sufficient military and Naval support to act with a considerable degree of independence and responsible to a government which was itself subservient to another nation, the overseas territories loyal to Vichy were exposed and susceptible to invasion and conquest.”
Germany considered invading North Africa , but without support of Spain and Italians claims in North Africa, Germany decided to let the Vichy government take control of there colonies in North Africa as long as they remained neutral.
The French empire was in total disarray. This was causing concern from the Americans and the British. British and Americans saw that the French colonies could propose serious threat to allies if they fell into the hands of the axis powers. However the threat could be reversed if the territory came into the hands of the allies. “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech made on 15 may 1941, indicated his concern. ‘The delivery of the French Colonial Empire to Germany,´ he declared ‘would be a menace to the peace and safety of the Western Hemisphere.”
German occupation of these French territories would pose a threats to British and American superiority. Germany would be able to threaten shipping routes in the
Although the distaste for the Vichy regime among the peoples of French Africa had served as a catalyst for political and economic change in Africa (along with the American anti-colonialism activities), the French were more determined than ever before to maintain control over their empire after the war. It was a common view throughout the war that the French Empire in Africa would be a significant part of the instrument of France’s liberation. When this speculation became truth, it was taken to mean that the loyal Africans had “contributed mightily to the liberation of France” and therefore had a patriotic attachment to it.
However, at the Brazzaville conference of 1944, General de Gaulle stated that there would be “no real progress in Africa if the native populations could not profit by it morally and materially.” He shared his belief that the French African colonies would one day grow to a state of autonomy in terms of both political and economic development. However, the reforms which he endorsed at the conference did little in terms of working towards independence for African nations. Instead, they were aimed at improving the lives of African subjects while keeping them in the French political structure and thereby maintaining The Great French Power. However France believed that the African colonies had considered themselves as having grown up while having passed through the test of war and now ready to become an integral part of the new Fourth Republic. This was not acceptable to the Africans. The French Empire in Africa existed for almost two decades after the Brazzaville Conference. However, it was already
clear that the long but inexorable process of decolonization had already begun when the disruption between France and her colonies had occurred. The war had set the people free from the chains of the French colonial system and nothing less than complete independence would prove adequate to quench their hunger for the freedom which they had tasted. The British colonies which had been interspersed with the French colonies in West Africa were also granted independence, but by a colonial master which had always recognised that such a day would come.
So in conclusion the Second World War has been described as a turning point for this century. The pre-war social, political and economic order was swept away in favour of new systems. This is certainly true for the people of the former French possessions in Africa. The colonial response to the Vichy regime created sudden economic and political changes which disrupted the foundations of the old colonial system which had remained largely unchanged since the time of Napoleon III.
The empire was important to Vichy as it gave them some control over Germany, as their territories possessed bargaining tool. The Vichy government could offer vast resources from her colonies and strategic advantages. With hindsight we see that the Nazis regime was not all that concerned about the French empire as long as it remained neutral and the allies could not use it to there advantage.
The Free French needed the empire to stage the liberation of France. However de Gaulle could only muster meagre resources from the territories loyal to him. He was totally dependant on the British and Americans help. The territories were important to the Free French because for every territory that turned to the allies it weakened the Vichy French power.
The process of decolonization was initiated by these changes and it could not be prevented by any measures which the European colonial powers might have introduced. Regardless, the former French colonies in Africa can look to the armistice signed on June 22nd, 1940, as the catalyst for their eventual independence from the French colonial empire.
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