Widening cracks in the French Empire


Disintegration of the French Empire continued inexorably over three wartime stages. From the Phoney War, through Vichy dominance in 1940–2, to the Free French ascendency cemented by de Gaulle’s triumphal return to Paris on 25 August 1944, life remained very hard for colonial subjects. The three stages thus shared one point in common despite the fact that French political leadership differed in each one. Throughout the war years, economic hardship, typified by foodstuff shortages and chronic price inflation, matched social exclusion and political repression in bearing more heavily on colonial lives than the progress of allied campaigns or changes at the top of the colonial tree.

French North Africa is a case in point. Typically discussed in relation to the aftermath of French defeat in 1940 as well as in terms of the outcome of Operation Torch, the French-ruled Maghreb was convulsed by other pressures entirely. From the economic impact of conscription in autumn 1939 through the foodstuff crises and urban public health scares that sapped French capacity to overcome the material consequences of metropolitan defeat, French North Africa’s war looked very different to the local administrators and wider populations that lived through it. Viewed in this way, the war years were most notable for the irreversible damage they wrought to economic stability and the hierarchies of colonial rule in North Africa. By the time General Maxime Weygand took over as Algeria’s Governor-General on 17 July 1941 French North Africa’s economic fortunes had declined precipitately. Fuel and foodstuffs were in short supply, the agricultural economy was profoundly disrupted, and average wages languished at subsistence level.

For all that, economic crises and limited sovereignty proved no barrier to the embrace of Vichy’s ‘National Revolution’ by colonial regimes enthused by the Pétainist cults of xenophobic ultra-nationalism, stricter social hierarchies, and a rural nostalgia flavoured with Catholic pro-natalism. Peasant values, large families, and veneration of conservative, often anti-republican institutions—the Catholic Church and the military foremost among them—came naturally to settlers and authoritarian administrators. Thus we find Jean Decoux, another Admiral catapulted to political prominence as Vichy’s Governor of Indochina, promoting Pétainist youth movements in French Vietnam, celebrating the cult of Joan of Arc (Vichy’s preferred symbol of patriotic self-sacrifice), and lauding the ‘magnificent’ fecundity of a settler couple from Tonkin whose twelve children holidayed near the Governor’s Palace in the Vietnamese hill station of Dalat. The air of detachment from reality was hardly surprising when the realities in question were so alarming: the dual menace of a Japanese takeover and an incipient Vietnamese revolution impelled by French inability to satisfy the most basic needs of Indochina’s peoples—for security and food.

Across the French political divide, it is easier to see why the senior Gaullists in London were determined to exploit the colonies when one remembers how few cards they had to play with their British patrons. And the British mission to the Free French National Committee was more than an intermediary. Not only did it relay Gaullist economic requests for funds, supplies, shipping, and other transport to the War Cabinet, it also filtered out such demands when they conflicted with the overarching priorities of the Anglo-American supply boards that controlled the circulation of goods between allied and imperial territories.67

Furthermore, British officialdom’s enduring scepticism about de Gaulle and Free France as rulers of a revitalized French Empire was writ much larger across the Atlantic.68 In February 1942 Maurice Dejean, foreign affairs commissioner in the French National Committee, articulated a widely-held view among Gaullist staff about the underlying reason behind the Roosevelt administration’s enduring coolness towards Free France. The answer, Dejean insisted, lay in a secret US-Vichy deal whereby Marshal Pétain’s regime agreed to minimize strategic concessions to Germany provided that the United States left Vichy’s empire alone. US recognition of de Gaulle was allegedly withheld as part of the bargain. The simpler reason for Washington’s derision of Free France was that Roosevelt loathed de Gaulle, a man he considered pompous, autocratic, and selfish. But Dejean’s conspiracy theory was less outlandish than it seemed. Roosevelt’s special envoy, Robert Murphy, agreed with Admiral Darlan in March 1941 to trade US foodstuff convoys to Vichy for the promise (quickly broken) to limit collaboration with Germany, particularly in North Africa. Murphy’s talks marked the beginning of a longer-term association that climaxed in the so-called ‘Darlan deal’. It left Vichy’s former premier at the head of government in Algiers in return for the regime’s acquiescence in Operation Torch, the US takeover in Morocco and Algeria after only seventy-two hours of fighting in November 1942.

De Gaulle’s supporters were incandescent, although far from surprised. Adrien Tixier and Pierre Mendès France, later ministers in the post-war Fourth Republic, spent their war years in Washington trying to win support for the General. By mid 1942 both men were at the end of their tether. The Americans did not understand what Free France stood for, they were hopelessly naive about the Vichy regime, and Roosevelt simply followed his instincts most of the time.73 In late August, after the US State Department once again refused to recognize the Free French movement as the legitimate voice of France, Dejean let rip again:

American policy continues to be the result of several diverse factors: wild romanticism, brutal materialism, economic imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-British and anti-Russian tendencies, Machiavellianism and puerility, the whole lot combining into something Messianic and unconsciously sure of itself.

Excluded from Torch planning, de Gaulle was even more incensed by American support of his new rival for leadership of the Free French, General Henri Giraud, in the limited handover of power that followed Darlan’s assassination in Algiers on 24 December 1942. The mutual incomprehension that characterized the Roosevelt–de Gaulle relationship only deepened when they met for the first time at the inter-allied conference in Casablanca in January 1943. Side-lined during the summit, de Gaulle’s attitude went from frosty to glacial as he watched the Americans fete the rather wooden and politically obtuse Giraud. When de Gaulle eventually came face to face with Roosevelt, members of the President’s secret service detail hid behind the meeting-room curtains, their tommy guns poised.77 Hardly the beginning of a thaw.

Operation Torch also cast a spotlight on the changing economic balance of power in the Maghreb as the US invasion force moved rapidly eastwards. Its supply needs took precedence over all else and the Americans’ dollar purchasing power placed the French North African franc under strain. After Torch, the Algiers authorities quickly negotiated a provisional franc–dollar exchange rate with the US Treasury Department. This was, in turn, supplanted at the Casablanca conference by a stabilization accord that pegged the value of the franc throughout French Africa at fifty to the dollar. Although the greater price stability that resulted was welcome to North Africans, the Casablanca economic agreements did not curb the overweening power of a local black market in which dollars reigned supreme to the detriment of rural consumers least able to obtain them.

It was no coincidence that, during the 1943–4 hiatus of transfers of executive power between Vichy and Free French administrations, the founding statutes of leading nationalist groups, including Algeria’s Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté and Morocco’s Istiqlal (Independence) movement cited poverty and economic exploitation as justifications for their anti-colonial platforms. Likewise, Messali Hadj’s Parti du Peuple Algérien, still the major force in Algerian domestic politics despite being banned outright since 1939, insisted that any ideological differences between Vichy and Gaullist leaders were eclipsed by their shared colonialism, a phenomenon epitomized by ruthless wartime economic extraction. Whether Algeria’s foodstuffs, minerals, and other primary products were shipped to Marseilles and thence to Germany or to Allied ports, the essential fact was that Algerians, denied any democratic choice over participation in the war, went hungry. Messali received a fifteen-year sentence of forced labour from a Vichy military tribunal on 28 March 1941. So he might have been expected to welcome the advent of a Gaullist provisional government in Algiers, the French Committee of National Liberation (FCNL). The nomenclature was telling. As Messali asked FCNL members on 11 October 1943, why should Algerians support French liberation when their own national freedom was denied?

Meanwhile, to the east, US forces moved into Tunisia over the winter of 1942–3. Local sections of the country’s dominant nationalist group, Néo-Destour (the ‘new constitution’ party) had been denuded by police harassment and long prison terms. Hoping that the party leader Habib Bourguiba and his followers would repudiate their erstwhile French persecutors the German authorities freed the Néo-Destour executive in January 1943. They were disappointed. Bourguiba denounced the Nazi occupation of Tunisia, thinking that his bravery might be rewarded by de Gaulle’s followers. This, too, proved a vain hope. Repression of nationalist activity resumed once Rommel’s forces were evicted. During 1944 the Free French re-imposed the ban on Bourguiba’s party and ignored Tunisia’s status as a protectorate with its own monarchical administration by enacting legislation that centralized political power under French authority. This signalled the beginning of Bourguiba’s turn away from France towards the cultivation of Arab and US opinion, a strategy pursued until Tunisia achieved its independence in March 1956.

North Africa’s political violence in 1944 was gravest in Morocco. The ill-advised FCNL decision to arrest the four leaders of the Hizb el-Istiqlal, Morocco’s foremost nationalist voice, on 29 January provoked rioting in Rabat, Salé, and Fez, the death of at least forty protesters, and the arrest of over 1,800 more. As urban disorder became endemic in Morocco even the Algiers authorities admitted that supply problems, iniquitous rationing, and consequent shortages had become inseparable from nationalist dissent. Perhaps inevitably, the nature and scale of Maghribi recruitment to the First French Army, which was meanwhile fighting northwards through Italy, Corsica, and southern France, deepened the animosity between the Gaullist imperial establishment and their nationalist opponents. To the former, these units confirmed the unity of purpose between France and its North African subjects, although the army’s cadres were progressively ‘whitened’ the closer they got to the French capital. To the latter, the large numbers of North African army volunteers merely indicated how desperate they were for a steady income. And it was a different story for Algerian conscripts among whom desertion rates climbed towards twenty per cent by July 1943 with some 11,119 out of 56,455 avoiding the call-up over the preceding six months.

The Free French were hard-pressed to conceal the signs of unrest in their newly-consolidated African empire. But the breakdown of colonial authority went furthest in the Indochina federation. Admiral Decoux’s faltering pro-Vichy government was isolated and broke. It was also threatened from three sides. For General Tsuchihashi’s Japanese military administration the bureaucratic convenience of leaving a bankrupt colonial regime in place became questionable. For the regime’s internal opponents, many of them loosely connected in a Communist-dominated coalition called the Vietminh, the implosion of French colonial authority enhanced the prospects for a rapid seizure of power. Finally, for the Americans it made sense to work with Vietminh guerrillas, the sole group capable of mounting any serious local challenge to the Japanese.

None of these three alternatives appealed to de Gaulle’s supporters, of course. Without the resources to intervene independently in Indochina and unable to ‘turn’ Decoux’s government their way, de Gaulle’s provisional government newly installed in liberated Paris could do little. Observing the situation in Vietnam, the Gaullist military attaché in Nationalist China conceded that the Indochina Federation had become ‘a no man’s land’ for the major allied powers. None dared intervene decisively lest they antagonize one another or, far worse, trigger the Japanese takeover they all feared. It was the Vietnamese who seized the initiative. By December 1944 Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietminh’s leading strategic thinkers, had established the National Liberation Army of Vietnam, which operated from ‘free zones’ in the far north. Choosing to overlook the Vietminh’s ideological leanings, the US and British special services—the OSS and SOE—offered training and equipment for sabotage attacks on the Japanese.

Three months later the Japanese struck back. The American re-conquest of the Philippines in early 1945 had alerted Japan’s Supreme War Council to the possibility of similar US amphibious landings in Indochina. These might be supported, not just by the Vietminh but by Decoux’s government as well. Tokyo therefore presented the Governor with an ultimatum: place his administration and the French colonial garrison under Japanese command or face the consequences. Decoux’s ‘non’ spelt the end of French rule—albeit temporarily. Japanese units swept through Hanoi on the night of 9 March, killing scores of French bureaucrats and troops, and interning those unable to make a fighting retreat northwards to China. A puppet regime under Emperor Bao Dai was set up in Hue, Vietnam’s imperial capital. Parallel monarchical regimes were re-established in Laos and Cambodia, which reverted to its pre-colonial title of Kampuchea. All three promptly declared ‘independence’ from France under the approving gaze of General Tsuchihashi’s occupation forces. From taxation systems to school curricula, symbols of French colonial power were hastily removed. Kampuchea’s Prince Norodom Sihanouk even restored the Buddhist calendar and urged his subjects to abandon the use of Romanized script.

The limits to this independence soon became tragically apparent in northern Vietnam where the new authorities under Premier Tran Trong Kim could not prevent heightened Japanese requisitioning, which destabilized the local rice market. Chronic price inflation made food of any kind unaffordable for the poorest labourers and their families. Famine took hold. It was especially devastating in the Red River Delta and two densely-populated provinces of northern Annam. Village populations collapsed. Some locked their doors, resolved to die together as a family. Others became famine refugees begging on the streets of local towns and cities. One Hanoi resident described the scene: ‘Sounds of crying as at a funeral. Elderly twisted women, naked kids huddled against the wall or lying inside a mat, fathers and children prostrate along the road, corpses hunched up like foetuses, an arm thrust out as if to threaten’.

Starvation dominated North Vietnamese politics by early 1945. The faction fighting among the French colonial rulers was at best an irrelevance, at worst an act of shocking insensitivity. Not surprisingly, the combination of Japan’s military coup and the tragic shortcomings of its new surrogate authorities in Indochina enhanced the Vietminh’s legitimacy as a popular resistance movement. For the Western Allies, impatient to secure victory over Japan, as for Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians facing Japanese exactions and resultant food shortages, the Vietminh counted for more than the French as spring turned to summer 1945.

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