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date: 18 November 2017

Decolonization in French West Africa

Abstract and Keywords

Studies of French decolonization in West Africa have traditionally treated it as a planned and reasonably smooth process. It has therefore been portrayed as a successful decolonization that stands in stark contrast to the much more conflictual decolonization processes in Indochina (1947–1954) and Algeria (1954–1962), which were marked by prolonged wars. This approach has tended to give pride of place to the role of individuals—members of France’s governing elites and African political leaders—who are portrayed as having successfully managed the transition to independence. While the importance of such individuals cannot be denied, it is important to recognize that French decolonization in West Africa was a contingent process. Shaped by the particular nature of French colonial rule in the region, the new international context after 1945, events on the ground, and—on the French side—the perceived need to maintain empire at all costs in order to restore French grandeur after the humiliation of defeat and occupation in the Second World War, it was a process that involved a multiplicity of French and African actors who were not in control of the policy agenda but who were, on the contrary, operating in a highly constrained context and constantly being forced to react to rapidly unfolding events. De Gaulle finally decided to grant independence in 1959, and within a year all the territories of former French West Africa had gained their political independence. However, political independence did not mean French withdrawal and the end of French dominance. There were many continuities between the colonial and postcolonial periods, which have been analyzed in a burgeoning literature on French neocolonialism in sub-Saharan Africa. Decolonization should therefore be seen as a process that started well before French rule formally ended in 1960 and that is—arguably—still ongoing.

Keywords: decolonization, French West Africa, France, French policy, colonialism, postcolonial, neocolonialism, Françafrique

The period of formal colonial rule in French West Africa (FWA) was remarkably short. The Government-General, which established the framework for civilian rule in the colony, was set up over a period of nine years from 1895 to 1904. By 1960, all the colonial territories of FWA had gained their independence. Yet this short period had a long-lasting and profound impact on every aspect of life. Economic activities and political and social life were transformed, and the consequences of this transformation have endured well beyond the formal end of colonial rule.

This raises the question: what do we mean by decolonization? Does it refer to the moment at which the colonial power withdrew and the colonial territories achieved political independence? Or is it, rather, a process that begins before the formal transfer of powers to local political leaders and continues long afterward, as the newly independent country seeks to remove or dilute the various forms of dependency—economic, monetary, political, cultural, military—on the metropole and the different types of discrimination that were integral to colonial empires? For the purposes of this article, the latter definition will be adopted. Decolonization will be treated as a process, the seeds of which were sown in the 1930s but which remains incomplete at the time of writing, some sixty years after the formal end of colonial rule. For reasons of space, the economic, social, and cultural dimensions of decolonization will not be treated here; the focus will be on the political history of decolonization. Moreover, FWA comprised eight territories—Côte d’Ivoire, Dahomey, French Soudan, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Upper Volta—covering a vast geographic area.1 There were thus significant regional differences among the territories in terms of their experience of decolonization.

Decolonization in French West AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. Map by the author

Prelude to Decolonization

The 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris, with its eight million visitors, arguably marked the high point of the French colonial empire. Yet changes were already under way that would have a long-term impact on French colonial rule. The Wall Street crash of 1929 provoked a global economic crisis that did not spare FWA: the prices paid to African farmers for their produce collapsed and terms of trade worsened, leading to a deterioration in Africans’ standard of living and the acceleration of the rural exodus.

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Figure 2. Front cover, Vu magazine, special issue for the International Colonial Exhibition, Paris, 1931. Courtesy of

Decolonization in French West AfricaClick to view larger

Figure 3. Colonial Propaganda Map, 1931 Colonial Exhibition in Paris: “With 76,900 Men France Provides Peace and the Benefits of Civilization to its 60 Million Natives.” Reproduced with kind permission of the Musées Nationaux de France.

The economic downturn was also a crisis for colonial governments, which saw their revenues decrease, meaning more recourse to forced labor in an effort to increase production and less money for jobs in the colonial administration and investment in health and education. Although this led to increased resentment of the colonial regime in FWA, it did not result in any organized mobilization against French colonial rule; apart from in the Four Communes of Senegal, Africans were subjects, not citizens, and thus had no political rights such as freedom of association.2 Against this background, the first Socialist-led government of the Third Republic came to power in Paris in 1936.

The Popular Front was an alliance of left-wing parties comprising the Socialists, the Communists and the center-left Radical party. It was elected on a radical program of domestic economic and social reform and also promised a program of largely unspecified colonial reform. The election of the Popular Front was welcomed in FWA, especially by French-educated Africans,3 and its colonial minister, Marius Moutet, became the first holder of the office to visit the colony. It is important to underline at this point that the Popular Front was not anticolonial, in the sense of favoring any move toward self-government. Its arrival to power nonetheless marked a recognition that old-style imperialism, based on economic exploitation and without any effort to provide for the welfare of the colonized, was unsustainable in the long term and that there was a need to establish a new type of relationship with the colonies. This notion of imperial renewal was encapsulated in the Popular Front’s discourse of “la colonisation altruiste,” which proclaimed the need for a new form of “disinterested” colonialism based on the best values of republican France, whereby France and Africa would work together for the development of the continent, for the mutual benefit of both partners.

The project to build a “modern” Africa within the colonial system was expressed in the discourse of modernization and progress. However, as a project it confronted several major difficulties. The first of these was economic. Given the development gap between France and Africa, the plan was likely to be hugely expensive. It was not at all clear from where such resources might come, given the lack of a political will to invest public funds in overseas development projects and the traditional reluctance of French private capital to invest in Africa. Moreover, it was unclear what would be the basis for such a development plan, given the resistance at government level and in French business and trade union circles to industrial development in the empire, which would result in the emergence of colonial industries competing directly with French industry and a consequent loss of metropolitan jobs. The idea of a peasant-based development model, centered on the modernization of the rural sector, was therefore put forward, notably by Marius Moutet. However, the concept was not fully thought through, especially its implications for forced labor, which the Popular Front opposed in principle but without which its economic development program could not be delivered.

The second major obstacle confronting the Popular Front’s reform program was political. Within France, those who advocated imperial reform were accused by their opponents of threatening France’s national interest and image in the world and of putting the imperial link in jeopardy. Within FWA, there was also resistance to reform from colons (settlers), notably in Côte d’Ivoire, and colonial officials. Opposition was especially vocal from the large community of French settlers in Algeria, but many colonial administrators in FWA were also concerned about the impact of change on their authority.

In the end, the Popular Front, preoccupied by the implementation of its ambitious domestic reform program, had neither the political will nor the time to see through its colonial reform project. In the empire, expectations were raised, only to be dashed by the fall of the Popular Front government in 1938 and then the outbreak of war a year later. The imperial reform project was, for the time being, shelved. Only after the Second World War, from which France emerged seriously weakened, did a reform program finally begin to be implemented.

Despite its failure to carry out its reform plans, the Popular Front was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it revealed the depth of the implication of the mainstream left in France’s colonial project. The Popular Front’s reform plan was a program to build a “modern” Africa within the colonial system and thus intended to perpetuate French colonial rule in Africa. As such, it showed that, among France’s governing elites of both right and left, there was broad support for French colonial rule in Africa. This was significant as, after the war, these elites would do everything in their power to resist any move toward decolonization, in the sense of political independence, for the colonies. Secondly, the Popular Front’s reform project revealed clearly the contradictions inherent within the colonial project itself. As France’s first socialist-led government, the Popular Front committed itself to reforming the imperial link. However, in making this commitment, it was confronted, more starkly than previous administrations, with key questions about the nature of colonialism itself. Could colonial rule, predicated as it necessarily was on authoritarianism and repression, ever be reconciled with the French republican values of liberty, equality, and fraternity? Could it, in practice, ever be “altruistic,” progressive, and modernizing? The Popular Front did not remain in power long enough to confront these questions, but an understanding of how they were subsequently addressed is crucial to an appreciation of the specificity of the decolonization process in FWA after the Second World War.

The Second World War

The fall of the Popular Front government, followed by the 1938 recall of Marcel de Coppet, who had been appointed governor-general under the Popular Front, marked an end to what many in the French community in FWA perceived as the “period of troubles.” Following a wave of strikes in 1937–1938, in which six strikers were shot and killed,4 no new strikes were reported in 1939, and, with the outbreak of war, elections were suspended in the Four Communes of Senegal, the only part of FWA where competitive elections were authorized. However, unlike in other parts of the French Empire such as the Levant, Indochina, and French North Africa, the defeat of France did not provoke any manifestation of anticolonial nationalism in FWA. On the contrary, at the outbreak of war pledges of loyalty to France flooded in from throughout the colony, and some 100,000 Africans were called up between September 1939 and June 1940. The promise of citizenship for those who completed their military service, the prospect of a career in the army, and France’s sustained anti-German propaganda all helped to convince Africans to sign up.5

Following the defeat of France and its occupation by Germany, the Vichy regime replaced the republic. Under Vichy, the empire assumed renewed importance as a source of national self-respect. Unoccupied, it kept alive the hope of national salvation and of France’s renaissance as a great power. It was also important for the Vichy regime’s legitimacy, because it was thanks to the empire that it could claim to exercise sovereignty over French territory without being in hock to a foreign power. The Vichy government appointed Pierre Boisson, governor-general of French West Africa, as high commissioner for the whole of French sub-Saharan Africa on June 25, 1940, with the mission to defend the empire against external aggression and maintain its unity. A First World War veteran, Boisson was anti-German, right wing, profoundly committed to the French empire, and hostile to De Gaulle, whom he suspected of being in thrall to the British. Nonetheless, he did not immediately rally French sub-Saharan Africa to Vichy, preferring to wait and see whether the military command in French North Africa would decide to continue the struggle against the Axis powers or recognize the Vichy government led by Marshal Pétain. By the end of June, French North Africa had declared for Pétain, and on July 6, Boisson announced his decision to follow suit. While most, though not all, Europeans accepted his decision, as it kept the colony out of direct involvement in hostilities, it was less readily accepted by many French-educated Africans, who did not understand that France had given up the struggle without a fight and felt that they had much to lose from the defeat of the republican regime. They knew, for example, that the kinds of openings for Africans, albeit limited, which had begun to emerge under the Popular Front, would not be available under the new regime. For them, the fact that much of the French community and most of the colonial administration in FWA rallied to Vichy also pointed to a return to a more authoritarian and repressive colonial regime.

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Figure 4. “Français vous avez un Empire.” Front cover of a Vichy brochure, published to coincide with the “Week of Overseas France,” July 1941. Edition du Secrétariat général de l’Information.

The failed Anglo-Gaullist assault on Dakar in September 1940 probably assisted Boisson in his effort to unite the population behind his administration, as he used the attack to portray the British and Free French forces as aggressors and Gaullists as traitors to France. Following the failure of the operation, a range of new offenses, such as suspected pro-Gaullist activity, listening to the BBC, and wearing the Croix de Lorraine, was introduced, with penalties ranging from expulsion from FWA to imprisonment or a fine. Together with the colonial administration’s propaganda effort, these measures served to quell any open expression of opposition to the government.

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Figure 5. Generals Spears and De Gaulle en route for Dakar in September 1940. Courtesy Imperial War Museum, London.

However, Boisson’s strategy for maintaining the unity of the empire was running into trouble from another quarter. In late August, most of French Equatorial Africa (FEA)6 had rallied to the Free French, and Félix Eboué, the Guyanese-born governor of Chad who had led the movement, was appointed governor-general by De Gaulle.

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Figure 6. Governor-General Eboué welcomes Charles De Gaulle to Chad, c. October 1940. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USW33-055039-ZC

Anxious to prevent any further defections to the Gaullist camp and determined to cement the unity of FWA, the Vichy government launched an intensive propaganda campaign. Pamphlets, brochures, radio broadcasts, and cinema news bulletins sought to promote the Vichy ideology among the African population and praised them for remaining loyal to France. To counter this, an Allied propaganda campaign was directed at the population of FWA from the neighboring British territories. Resistance networks were formed in British West Africa and joined by some French military personnel and civil servants.

Africans suffered more from Vichy’s policy of repression than Europeans. Whereas Europeans convicted of acts of resistance might be acquitted, moved to different jobs, or in some cases were dismissed, Africans convicted of similar offenses faced hard labor or prison sentences and even execution. On the political front, Boisson advocated a return to “custom and tradition,” emphasized the importance of “traditional” rural society—paralleling the “return to the land” ideology of the Vichy regime in the metropole—and looked forward to the abolition of politics. For example, he abolished all representative institutions and sought to replace trade unions and employers’ associations by “organization committees.” Furthermore, the Vichy regime shared none of the Popular Front’s qualms about forced labor, the use of which increased. Both this and the British economic blockade increased the hardships suffered by Africans under Vichy.7 This provoked periodic acts of resistance and growing resentment against colonial rule, which Africans would express more openly once a republican regime was restored in 1943.

The strengthening of authoritarianism under Vichy represented, in effect, a racialization of colonial rule in FWA. Some groups within African society suffered particularly severely from the increased use of forced labor. African planters in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, were prevented from benefiting from forced labor, while at the same time being forced to work on European plantations, to the detriment of their own farms. As for the French-educated elite, the limited advances they had made were threatened by the renewed emphasis on “traditional” rural society and the effort to bolster the position of village elders and chiefs. Overall, the authoritarian, discriminatory nature of the colonial regime intensified, as authority, power, and privilege were concentrated in the hands of whites. This had always been the case in practice, but that reality had been partially obscured under the Third Republic by the social stratification that the French colonial administration had introduced into African society.8 Under Vichy, such obfuscation was removed, and the fundamentally racist nature of the colonial regime was clearly exposed, as all blacks were now effectively reduced to the same inferior status vis-à-vis whites.

The other important legacy of Vichy in political terms was the way in which it revealed the weakness of the French position in Africa. The Vichy regime in FWA lasted a little over two years. It came to an end when, following the success of the Allied landings in Algeria and Morocco, Boisson announced on December 7, 1942, that he would no longer take orders from Pétain but would rally to the north African bloc. This was not a decision to rally to De Gaulle. Rather, Boisson presented it as in keeping with his original decision of July 1940: the need to maintain the unity of the empire and keep foreign troops out of FWA. However, although colonial officials insisted that Boisson’s decision had no implications for internal policy, in practice nothing could hide the fact that, cut off from the metropole and hemmed in by hostile territories to the north, east, and south, FWA was now militarily and economically dependent upon the Allies. British West Africa and FEA were already in the Allied camp, and the fall of North Africa to the Allies completed the isolation of FWA. This further indication of the weakness of the French position, after the capitulation of 1940, together with the increase in authoritarianism under Vichy, would have profound political implications in FWA once the republican regime was restored in 1943.

The Return to a Republican Regime

The restoration of a republican regime in FWA raised expectations among Africans of a return to a less repressive system. However, the wartime situation imposed severe constraints on the new governor-general, Pierre Cournarie, restricting his ability to make any changes that might further destabilize French authority or undermine FWA’s contribution to the war effort. He was very conscious of France’s weakened position and of FWA’s dependence on the Allies. Moreover, colonial officials working under him were mostly the same personnel who had served under Vichy, and their entrenched attitudes had not altered. Indeed, in late 1943, the newly appointed British consul-general reported severe measures of oppression against Africans and that “the average French administrator, planter or merchant is still inclined to regard the native as little more than a slave.”9 For many Africans, living conditions actually became more difficult under the Free French than they had been under Vichy. The huge demands made upon them for the war effort and the continued use of forced labor to meet ambitious production targets provoked renewed resentment.

It was against this background of sharpened tensions between Africans and the French that political activity in the colony resumed in late 1943: African groups invoked “republican liberties” to press their demand for “assimilation” and an end to discrimination, discontent was reported among railway workers because of the differences in salary between Europeans and Africans, and African soldiers demanded equal pensions with white soldiers. Another key demand was for African associations to represent African interests. One group that felt especially aggrieved at the end of the war was Ivoirian coffee and cocoa planters. They produced some 80 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s coffee harvest and nearly 90 percent of its cocoa beans, but they were not allowed access to forced labor and were often themselves requisitioned for work on European plantations. By July 1944, they were no longer prepared to accept such blatant economic discrimination and left the European-dominated planters’ organization (to which they had only recently been admitted) to set up their own representative body, the African Farmers’ Union (Syndicat Agricole Africain). Led by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a graduate of the William Ponty School where much of FWA’s French-educated elite was trained,10 the SAA’s first priorities were to put an end to forced labor and to the economic discrimination to which African farmers were subject. The union grew quickly to over 20,000 members and within a year would provide the launch pad for Côte d’Ivoire’s first political party, the Parti Démocratique de la Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI).11

Members of the French-educated elite also began to organize themselves into various political groupings. African branches of patriotic associations, ostensibly established to support the Free French, rapidly became politicized; Groupes d’Etudes Communistes (GEC) were set up in the main urban centers, providing political education and training for trade union and political activists, while Franco-African Study Committees (Comité d’Etudes Franco-Africaines: CEFA)—which campaigned for assimilation and equality with white Frenchmen—spread rapidly to towns throughout FWA. Underlying all these initiatives was a growing rejection by Africans of the French colonial regime under Vichy and then the Free French.


At the end of 1944, African soldiers, who had served in France and in many cases spent much of the war as prisoners, began returning home. The first contingent of 1,280 men arrived in Dakar in November with good reason to feel they had been badly treated. Having spent up to four years in German camps and then having been confined to camps in France to await embarkation, they contrasted their treatment with that of their French colleagues, who were given a warm welcome on their return home and were paid their salary arrears. They also resented the process of “whitening” the French army, which was ordered by De Gaulle at the end of the war to give young Frenchmen a taste of victory and a prominent role in the liberation of France, thereby denying them the chance to take part in the victory parades and celebrations. The question of overdue pay was a particular source of discontent among the first contingent of ex-PoWs to be repatriated, as they had been promised that their arrears and demobilization allowances would be paid upon arrival in Dakar. Instead, they were taken to a military camp, at Thiaroye just outside Dakar, to wait for their money before being sent back to their home villages. When the payments were still not forthcoming, and afraid that they would not be paid at all, the soldiers organized a protest and took hostage the French officer in command of the camp. In the ensuing chaos, French troops opened fire, killing more than thirty-five Africans and injuring many more.12 The colonial authorities in Dakar succeeded in presenting this as a mutiny by undisciplined African troops who had been influenced by German propaganda, thereby defusing any immediate political reaction to the massacre. The incident was not, however, forgotten. The memory of Thiaroye and the fight for justice for those killed have continued into the postcolonial period, becoming a metaphor for French ingratitude toward Africans for their wartime sacrifices and, more generally, for the record of French mistreatment of Africans.

Immediate Impact of the War

The defeat of 1940, the fragmentation of the empire under the pressure of external interventions over the next two and a half years (which Martin Thomas has characterized as “piecemeal re-fashioning”),13 together with the dependency of France’s African colonies on the Allies for supplies after 1942, underlined the fragility of French colonial power and undermined the idea of French superiority. Against this background, the war was a catalyst for members of the French-educated elite in West Africa to define for themselves an identity and a political role within African society. Partly separated from their own society by their French education, yet at the same time not admitted to full membership of European society, they were often considered, and indeed they considered themselves, as “outsiders,” unable to define for themselves a group identity beyond that of intermediaries between the colonial administration and African society. The experience of war provoked a fundamental change in the self-perception of this French-educated elite. They began to forge a new sense of identity and to redefine their role, no longer as mediators between French and Africans, but as representatives of their people.

If French settlers and most colonial officials did not appreciate the depth and political significance of the changes taking place in FWA, De Gaulle and the Comité Français de Libération Nationale (CFLN), now installed in Algiers, understood clearly that the diminution in French imperial prestige and the sacrifices made by Africans during the conflict made the continuation of the prewar colonial regime impossible.

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Figure 7. General De Gaulle gives the inaugural speech at the Conference of Brazzaville, Congo, 1944. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-136701

Thus, even before the war ended, the CFLN took the decision to signal its reformist intentions by organizing the Brazzaville African Conference.

Held in Brazzaville, the capital of FEA, in January–February 1944, the conference brought together sixty participants, who included colonial governors-general, governors and colonial officials, and nine members of the Provisional Consultative Assembly in Algiers. No African representatives were invited, although two of the governors present, Raphaël Saller and Félix Eboué, were black of French Caribbean extraction. The conference recommended a number of reforms: forced labor was to be phased out over five years; the indigénat, the native civil code that established Africans’ status as subjects, made them subject to summary punishments and denied them citizenship rights, was to be phased out once hostilities ended; elected assemblies, with African and European representation, were to be created in each territory; health and education services were to be expanded, although still with no provision for Africans to gain access to secondary or higher education; an economic and social development fund was to be established, to promote economic development and the modernization of agriculture; and more civil service jobs were to be opened to Africans, although decision-making and managerial posts would continue to be the preserve of French citizens. The question of future African representation in parliament in Paris was referred to a commission of experts, to be appointed by the government. Crucially, however, the possibility of self-government, now or at any time in the future, was explicitly ruled out. Opinions on the significance of the Brazzaville recommendations are divided. For the French historian Charles-Robert Ageron, they marked a turning point in French colonial policy;14 for Henri Laurentie, one of the conference’s main architects, on the other hand, they were less significant: “Overall, it cannot be said that the Brazzaville Conference recommendations contained any really startling innovations.”15

Whichever of these evaluations is the more accurate, it is true that the conference initiated a period of colonial reform. However, something of a myth has developed that it marked the beginning of the decolonization process in FWA.16 If this is the case, then this certainly was not the intended outcome, at least not in the sense that it would lead to political independence. Moreover, it was arguably external events beyond the French government’s control, such as the Atlantic Charter of 1941—which affirmed the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live—and the growing challenge to French authority in Syria and the Lebanon, that forced the provisional government to advance its program of colonial reform. It would therefore be more accurate to suggest that it was the upheavals of the war and the profoundly altered international situation at the end of the conflict, notably the emergence of the two new superpowers, the United States and the U.S.S.R., that would lead ultimately to decolonization and political independence.

A New Political Framework

Fearful of African reactions if it did not make changes, the provisional government moved quickly to introduce a number of reform measures. In August 1944 trade unions, which had been authorized under the Popular Front and then banned in 1939, were once again permitted. In February 1945, the colonial minister, Paul Giacobbi, established a commission under the chairmanship of the Guyanese-born member of parliament Gaston Monnerville to study the question of colonial representation in the future Constituent Assembly. The outcome of this was that ten seats were allocated to FWA, five of which would be elected by French citizens and five by African subjects: a step forward, to be sure, but far fewer than African leaders had hoped for. Other reforms followed. In December the indigénat was repealed, and forced labor was abolished by the Houphouët-Boigny law (named after him as he introduced the bill into the French parliament) in April 1946. That same month the Economic and Social Development Fund (Fonds d’Investissement pour le Développement Economique et Social: FIDES) was created, establishing for the first time the principle of using metropolitan funds for overseas development projects. Following the new constitution’s rejection by the French electorate on May 5, 1946, which provoked widespread disappointment among French-educated Africans, the Senegalese MP Lamine Guèye put a short bill before parliament extending citizenship to all residents of the French Union, as the colonial empire was now to be called, albeit the rights that would attach to this new form of citizenship were not specified.

Together, these reforms produced a fundamental change in the conditions in which colonial officials exercised their power in FWA. New political actors became part of the policy-making process, with African members of parliament playing an important role in maintaining the momentum for colonial reform in the National Assembly in Paris and some even serving as government ministers under the Fourth Republic. They also used their role as members of parliament to appeal directly to ministers for support over the heads of colonial governors. At the same time, the new territorial assemblies in FWA afforded Africans new platforms from which to put pressure on the colonial administration to implement reforms. Thus, even if the level of overseas representation in the National Assembly was limited and the territorial assemblies had restricted powers, African elected representatives now had a platform from which to campaign, and gain popular support for, their demand for equal rights. One revealing example of this new context was the successful struggle to ensure that the extension of the suffrage would apply to African women as well as men. French women had gained the vote in 1944, and Senegalese women were determined that they should enjoy the same rights. The colonial government initially refused but then conceded this in 1945, meaning that women in FWA enjoyed voting rights denied to their Algerian sisters.17

Trade unions were quick to exploit the opportunities for mobilization that the new political context provided. At the end of the war, African wage workers, particularly those in Dakar, began to organize themselves into trade unions. The economic situation was difficult: wages were low, inflation was high, and imports, when available, were expensive. At the same time, the government was determined, as in the metropole, to keep wages down, believing that this was essential to economic recovery. Coming after the deprivations suffered by African workers during the war, the hardships of the postwar period provided fertile ground for trade union organization.

There were several strikes by African workers in 1945. The first major postwar strike movement was, however, the general strike of January 14–26, 1946, in Dakar and Saint-Louis, which mobilized between 15,000 and 20,000 workers in the public and private sectors, from French-educated Africans working for the government to manual laborers working in the docks. It was significant that this first major strike took place in the parts of FWA that had the longest history of contact with France. Moreover, the unions’ central demand—“equal pay for equal work”—reflected the traditional demand in Four Communes politics for racial equality between Africans and Europeans. The strike effectively shut down the colonial administration and European business in these two towns, but in the new political context, the colonial authorities were unsure how to react. Their first response was to attempt to restore authority by conscripting the striking workers into the military, but the workers simply ignored the order. Moreover, French colonial practices were now in the international spotlight, and France was under pressure to present its colonial rule in a humanitarian and progressive light, which meant that the recourse to violence to end the strike was not an option. The colonial authorities thus had no choice but to negotiate, and obliged employers to do the same, with the result that both public and private sector workers made significant gains: general increases in wage levels, and a minimum wage and family allowances for civil servants were all conceded.

The strike contained important lessons both for African social and political movements and for the colonial authorities in FWA. It taught the former that significant improvements in wages and conditions and a share in power could be obtained in the new, postwar colonial situation through coordinated action. They also learned that they could turn the French language of assimilation to their own advantage, by using it to press their demand for equality between Africans and Europeans.18 As for the colonial authorities, the most important lesson for them was their relative powerlessness, compared to the situation before and during the war. The old-style, authoritarian solutions to colonial social and political problems were no longer available. The only way forward, therefore, was to identify African leaders who were prepared to talk to the French authorities—what the French were subsequently to call, in the 1950s, “valid representatives’ (“interlocuteurs valables”)—and then negotiate the settlement of economic, social, and indeed political issues with them as they arose.

We have already seen that various political groups, such as the GECs and the CEFAs, began to organize during 1944–1945. The French Communist Party’s (PCF) official line was that, given FWA’s economic underdevelopment and the lack of a significant working class, it was not appropriate to create Communist Party sections there. Rather, the proper role for African activists was to join with French Communists in the common struggle against the forces of capitalism. GECs, supported or run by Communist activists from the metropole, were active in the colony’s main urban centers, and many of their members were involved in the creation of the first colony-wide political party in FWA, the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), in 1946. The radical, anti-imperialist language of its leaders was strongly influenced by the PCF, which also supported it organizationally and trained its cadres.

The RDA’s links with the PCF had an enduring influence on political developments in FWA after the war. However, the RDA was not a secessionist party. Rather, it favored the foundation of a genuine French Union, which the rejected constitutional draft of May 1946 had seemed to promise and was what most French-educated Africans in FWA sought. The party’s central demands were for equal political and social rights, individual and cultural liberties, democratically elected local assemblies, and freely chosen ties between the populations of Africa and the people of France. In short, it demanded the political, economic, and social emancipation of Africans within the framework of the French Union, based on equality of rights and duties. The word “independence” was deliberately avoided because leading figures such as Houphouët-Boigny believed that decolonization in the sense of full autonomy or self-rule was premature, given the level of economic and social development of the colony. Instead, the party’s leaders appealed to Africans to unite in the struggle to create a genuine French Union based on the principles of liberty, political democracy, and equality. It saw the expansion of French education as key to achieving this equality, since African emancipation meant increasing the number of Africans in executive positions so that they could take a greater role in the administration of their affairs and eventually replace Europeans in such posts. Without this, the colonial power would always have an argument for denying equal rights to Africans. For the RDA, as for most of the French-educated elite, the development of French education thus became an article of faith and a gauge of political progress toward emancipation.

While African political leaders focused their efforts on demanding reforms in Paris, where a weak coalition government lacked the authority to resist their demands, organized social movements were increasingly making their voices heard in FWA. Expanding education, rapid urbanization, better communications, increasing trade union activity, and the new opportunities for political participation afforded by the creation of the French Union meant that the conditions for the emergence of a modern nationalist movement were now present in FWA. From the early 1950s, the trade union and the student and youth movements were at the forefront of this drive for change. Yet the creation of a united nationalist movement from these diverse strands was far from self-evident. Divisions manifested themselves between the older generation of Ponty-educated African political leaders, who had lived through the Popular Front and the war and benefited from the changes introduced at the end of the war, and a younger generation of more radical anticolonial nationalists, who demanded a much more rapid and far-reaching program of change, among whom a minority favored self-government and even independence. Divisions were also opening up within the trade union movement between, on the one hand, those in the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), which was the largest union in both France and FWA and close to the Communist Party, who wanted to maintain close links with the metropolitan union partly for ideological reasons and partly because of the organizational benefits and support that such links brought, and, on the other hand, those who wanted to create an autonomous African trade union movement that would neither be in hock to metropolitan unions nor dominated by any “foreign” ideology that did not put African needs first.19

The new political context at the end of the war thus played a crucial role in shaping the decolonization process in FWA. Firstly, it reflected the priority attached by the government to holding on to France’s African empire. By giving Africans a stake in the colonial system, the intention was that they would see emancipation as coming about through closer integration with France within the context of the French Union, rather than through secession from it. Secondly, the main beneficiaries of this new situation were French-educated Africans, who were the group best placed to take advantage of the new freedoms granted to Africans after 1943. As French speakers they were the obvious candidates to represent their communities in the various elected bodies that were established in the metropole and the colony at the end of the war. Moreover, in view of the benefits in terms of salary, and now status, that they derived from the French colonial presence, it is logical that their key demand was for equality and an end to discrimination, rather than political independence. The priority attached to French education in the political platform of the RDA was also in no small part attributable to the fact that all those in important positions within the party had received a French education and that so many teachers and former teachers were among the party’s founders and early leaders. That the RDA was affiliated in the National Assembly in Paris to the French Communist Party from 1946 to 1950, and then to François Mitterrand’s centre-left Union Démocratique et Sociale de la Résistance after the decision by the party’s leadership to disaffiliate from the PCF, also served to cement the political links to France. Similarly, the support that African trade unionists received from metropolitan French trade unions created close ties between them, and it was only in the mid-1950s that the former began to articulate demands for an autonomous African trade union movement. Thirdly, weak and keen to distinguish itself from the overtly racist and authoritarian Vichy regime, the government no longer felt able to resort to violence to put down African political and social movements in the immediate postwar period. Finally, from 1950 onward the anticolonial movement in FWA was increasingly split between an older generation of African political leaders who saw decolonization—they preferred the term “emancipation”—as coming about through a process of colonial reform that would maintain the links with France, and a more radical, mostly younger, generation of activists who demanded more rapid economic and social progress and who, when this was not forthcoming, turned to political independence.20

The Loi-cadre (Framework Law) of 1956

Once the colonial empire was renamed the French Union and became constitutionally part of the “one and indivisible” Fourth Republic, far-reaching political change became much more difficult to implement as it required amendments to the constitution, a course of action that would have been politically unpopular because of the difficulties experienced in 1946 in getting the new constitution approved. To be sure, some significant advances were made: the FIDES channeled significant metropolitan funding to FWA for investment in infrastructure, education, and health, although it remained far from sufficient to satisfy growing African demands; the Second Lamine Guèye Law of 1950 established the principle of “equal pay for equal work”—although the cost of applying it ruled out immediate implementation; and a new Overseas Labor Code21 finally gained the approval of the National Assembly in 1952, six years after the abolition of forced labor. However, by the mid-1950s, against the background of colonial wars in other parts of the empire, the cost of the project to modernize Africa through closer integration with France was beginning to sound alarm bells. Indochina had been lost in 1954, France was by 1956 implicated in an increasingly bloody war of decolonization in Algeria, and the cost of colonial rule in sub-Saharan Africa was rising thanks to the (relative) improvements in economic and social conditions that were now taking place. Recognizing the growing opposition to the colonial regime and seeking to avoid an escalation of African demands that it would not be in a position to meet, in 1956 the minister for overseas France, Gaston Defferre, introduced the Loi-cadre in an effort to regain control of the political agenda in French West and Equatorial Africa.22

There were two strands to the Loi-cadre. On the one hand, it devolved power down to African-elected assemblies in the territories, giving them control over expensive areas of policy, such as the funding of the civil service. This included the politically “difficult” area of civil servants’ pay, education, and health and economic development. On the other hand, it repatriated some powers to Paris from the governments-general of FWA and FEA, including responsibility for key, strategic areas of policy such as foreign affairs, defense, currency, higher education, international communications, and the media. In this way, the Loi-cadre enabled France to retain certain highly strategic powers, while at the same time giving an element of reality to the language of partnership between France and Africa, on which the French Union was theoretically based. Moreover, by devolving powers to the territorial assemblies, which were dominated by African political leaders who were mostly loyal to France, this elite gained control of resources that they could distribute to win over, or retain, their supporters.

It is worth underlining that, even at this late stage, there was no question of preparing the colony for self-government; political independence was not on the agenda. Rather, it was a question of modifying imperial links to make them more sustainable for France and more acceptable to Africans. Even if it did not work out quite as intended—not least because African political leaders rapidly established their ascendancy over policy at territorial level, whereas the government in Paris had hoped that French governors would retain control of policymaking—the Loi-cadre was important for its role in setting the framework for decolonization in FWA.23 It helped to ensure that decolonization need not mean, as it had in Indochina and Algeria, cutting ties, and it laid the ground, albeit unintentionally, for a the largely smooth transition to independence four years later. In addition, by making the territories the political entities to which powers were devolved, the law reduced the Government-General and the other federal organs of the colonial state to an essentially supervisory role. This led to the accusation from Léopold Senghor and other critics that France had deliberately “balkanized” FWA. In reality, political leaders of the other territories, such as Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire and Apithy of Dahomey, were much less enthusiastic about maintaining the federation of FWA. For example, Houphouët-Boigny, who was a government minister and adviser to Gaston Defferre at the time of the Loi-cadre, was a strong advocate of “balkanization” because he did not want his territory, the richest in FWA, to become the milch-cow of the federation. He was therefore happy to see the role of the Government-General in Dakar reduced, so that his territory could establish direct links with Paris without having to “go through” Dakar.

From the Fall of the Fourth Republic to the Community (la Communauté)

The political arrangements put in place by the Loi-cadre were to prove short-lived. Just over twelve months after the last decrees were issued implementing the Loi-cadre reforms, the Fourth Republic fell in May 1958. Fears of a military coup in Algiers brought De Gaulle back to power.

To many Africans, De Gaulle was the “man of Brazzaville” and, as the leader of Free France, the liberator of Africa.24 He had maintained contact with African political leaders during his twelve-year absence from politics, with the result that they largely welcomed his return to power. They also supported his idea for a new constitutional law to reform the institutional links between France and its overseas territories, after the foot dragging of the Fourth Republic, although producing agreement on the nature of the new arrangements would prove problematic.

In August, De Gaulle visited Abidjan, Conakry, and Dakar, in advance of the referendum due the following month. His aim was to canvas support for the proposal to transform the French Union into the Community, but also to make clear to voters that voting “no” to the Community would lead to immediate independence “with all its consequences.” Things did not go as planned in Conakry, where the leader of Guinea, Sekou Touré, made a defiant speech, the spirit of which is summed up by his declaration, “There is no dignity without liberty; we prefer liberty in poverty to wealth in slavery.”25 To which de Gaulle replied, “Independence is an option for Guinea, [but] France will draw its conclusions from such a vote.” In the event, all the territories except Guinea voted “yes” to the Community. Following Ghana’s independence in 1957, Guinea’s vote for immediate independence gave hope to anticolonial nationalists across the continent. However, De Gaulle immediately made an example of Guinea for its temerity in voting “no” by withdrawing all support for the newly independent state.

The remaining territories all became states within the Community, adopting constitutions with a strong executive modeled closely on the Fifth Republic. The first to do so, in January 1959, was the Mali Federation, which at this point grouped together Senegal, Soudan, Dahomey, and Upper Volta, to be followed shortly after by the other territories. However, consistent with the stance he had adopted over the Loi-cadre, Houphouët-Boigny made it clear that Côte d’Ivoire would not under any circumstances join a “primary federation” that had either a supranational assembly or a supranational government that got in the way of direct relations between the individual territories and France. He had supported the “balkanization” of 1956 for political and economic reasons, and he reiterated this position in 1959. Shortly afterward, following pressure from Houphouët-Boigny and amid concerns among the leaders of Dahomey26 and Upper Volta about the economic impact on their territories if they joined the Mali Federation and Côte d’Ivoire did not, they decided to withdraw from the federation, leaving just Senegal and Soudan as members. By the end of the year, the Mali Federation had decided to request political independence, a request to which De Gaulle acceded, having by this time decided that France’s best chance of maintaining good relations with its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa was to grant them “international sovereignty,” a term he preferred to “political independence.”

The Loi-cadre and the fall of the Fourth Republic thus fundamentally changed the context in which African political leaders operated. No longer represented in the French National Assembly, their opportunities to exert political pressure in Paris to shape the future relationship between FWA and the metropole had narrowed. The culture of “African claim-making” against the French government, which had characterized politics in FWA since the establishment of the French Union in 1946, was now much more problematic for African political leaders. Firstly, after 1956 the latter actually governed in their respective territories, so that they, not the French government, were in the frontline when it came to responding to claims for improved wages or working conditions. Secondly, the institutions within which African leaders had worked to push for reforms since 1945–1946 were situated mainly in Paris. By 1959 this was no longer the case, and, as they sought to establish such institutions within FWA, tensions emerged between the political reality that the territory was the main political unit within which they governed and the ideal of a united Africa to which many of them aspired.27 The latter became far more problematic to realize, and divisions also widened between those, such as Senghor, who favored maintaining as far as possible the unity of the federation and at least some federal structures, and those such as Houphouët-Boigny, who were viscerally opposed.

Between 1956 and 1959, therefore, the emerging nationalist movement in FWA was faced with a rapidly evolving political situation, each stage of which overlaid the existing divisions in the movement with new sources of division. The RDA and the other main political party, the recently created Parti du Regroupement Africain (PRA), were split on the issue of independence. RDA leader Houphouët-Boigny was against independence, while the PRA eventually came out in support, despite its own leader, Senghor, advocating continued association with France in return for recognition of their right to independence. The RDA itself subsequently also split, as youth sections and some territorial sections broke with Houphouët-Boigny to support full independence.

“To Leave So as Better To Remain”28

The Community, which De Gaulle had envisaged would provide a lasting new framework for Franco-African relations, lasted less than two years. Having accepted the inevitability of independence, the priority for De Gaulle was to ensure that decolonization did not mark the end, but rather a restructuring of the relationship with West Africa.

Thus, at the beginning of 1960, negotiations were hastily improvised to prepare for the “transfer of competences,” as it was called, so that, by the end of the year, all the remaining territories of former FWA had become independent as separate states. This included the Mali Federation’s two remaining member states, Senegal and Soudan, which split in August, just two months after becoming independent.29 There were fundamental differences between them concerning the way in which the Federation should be organized, with Soudan favoring moves towards a unitary state, whereas Senegal favored a looser federal structure. These differences very quickly came to the fore after independence, and, following what the Senegalese government perceived as an attempted coup by Modibo Keita of Soudan, Senegal withdrew from the Federation.30

The priority now for the French government was to retain French influence in the region. This was achieved by several means. The Franc zone was maintained, tying the currency of its former colonies in Africa—the CFA franc—to the French franc at a fixed rate and obliging the countries using the CFA franc to deposit two-thirds of their foreign currency reserves with the Bank of France in Paris. The Ministry of Cooperation, successor to the colonial Ministry for Overseas France, became effectively a ministry for sub-Saharan Francophone Africa and as such represented a symbol of France’s continuing commitment to Africa. Two-thirds of French development aid went to France’s former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. France also signed cultural, technical, and military cooperation accords with most of its ex-colonies and sent large numbers of coopérants as teachers, university lecturers, and government advisers to the former FWA to maintain, and indeed reinforce, the French presence in the newly independent states. Defense agreements set the framework within which French military interventions were undertaken—some thirty-five in former French sub-Saharan Africa between 1960 and 1994. France also maintained a dense network of embassies across the region. Finally, under the Fifth Republic, African policy became the domaine réservé of the presidency, which meant that French relations with its former colonies in West Africa were managed by the president, working closely with his “Africa cell” of special advisers at the Elysée Palace. They were not therefore subject to the normal processes of parliamentary scrutiny. This personalization of policy making was an important vehicle for the cultivation of regional friends among West Africa’s political leaders, a practice facilitated by the fact that many of the leaders of the new independent states had been members of the French parliament in Paris under the Fourth Republic.

These links were accompanied by a range of semi-official and unofficial family-like ties that were epitomized by the annual Franco-African summits. Set up on the instigation of President Hamani Diori of Niger in 1973, they brought the French president together with African and French political leaders in an annual celebration of their close relationship. The meetings were traditionally more like a family gathering than an official summit, as there was no published agenda, and no final communiqué was issued. Presidential visits and networks of personal relationships helped to maintain close relations. The most notorious of these networks were the shadowy réseaux Foccart, named after De Gaulle’s “Mr. Africa,” who subsequently also acted as adviser to President Chirac and remained a key figure in French African policy until his death in 1993. Thus, in the postcolonial context, French governments under the Fifth Republic adopted a multilayered approach to maintaining the special relationship with Africa, combining an array of “official” policy instruments with a complex range of unofficial, family-like, and often covert ties. The close interlinking of these dimensions, and support for them at the summit of the French state no matter which of the main political parties (left or right) was in power, has been the key to their success. Somewhat less tangibly but no less importantly, French governing elites and the leaders of those territories with the closest links to France, such as Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, cultivated a sense of association and common heritage between France and Africa, not least through a shared language and the institutions of la Francophonie, which served to further cement the links between them.31 Both during and after the colonial period, the projection of the “universal” French republican values of liberty, equality, and fraternity offered generations of West Africans the hope of progress and the prospect of a partnership with France to bring it about. This has had a powerful influence in shaping the mindsets and behaviors of governing elites in both France and West Africa. To the extent that these links still exist, the process of decolonization in former French West Africa remains incomplete.

France thus maintained its pré carré (privileged sphere of influence) in sub-Saharan Africa after independence. This was facilitated by the United States, which viewed the French presence in this part of the world as useful for the containment of Communism. However, following the end of the cold war, France had to adapt to a new international policy environment that is more competitive and less conducive to the maintenance of the kind of family-like ties described here. In 1993, the Balladur government took the decision to make future financial support conditional upon reaching prior agreement with the IMF and World Bank on a structural adjustment program. Although in practice the policy was unevenly applied, it nevertheless marked a significant change in France’s treatment of its ex-colonies in West Africa. A year later, the Rwanda genocide, and French support for the Habyarimana regime in the years leading up to it, finally destroyed any illusion that France’s traditional approach to its pré carré could be sustained.

Thus, from the late 1990s, Paris embarked on a renewal of African policy. The Ministry of Cooperation was abolished in 1997. France sought to expand its relations with Anglophone Africa and increasingly sought to cooperate with other actors, notably the United Kingdom, the EU, the United States, and African regional organizations, in an effort both to re-legitimize its military presence and activism in Africa and share the political risks and costs that these entailed. As a result, the dense web of relationships that underpinned the old “special relationship” has declined, although the continuing cultural links, notably though the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the maintenance of the franc zone, the presence of French pre-positioned troops on the continent, and its 2013 military interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, point to a relationship that is not yet entirely free of its colonial roots.

Discussion of the Literature

In the forty years immediately following political independence, few works in English studying the decolonization process in French sub-Saharan Africa were published. The exceptions were Ruth Schachter Morgenthau’s Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa,32 Edward Mortimer’s France and the Africans,33 Gifford and Louis’s edited collection The Transfer of Power in Africa, 34 and John Chipman’s French Power in Africa.35 Until the late 1990s, studies of French decolonization focused largely on France’s wars of decolonization in Indochina and Algeria, with relatively little attention being paid to what were seen as the less problematic decolonization processes in sub-Saharan Africa. This situation changed with the publication of Frederick Cooper’s Decolonization and African Society (1996)36 and Tony Chafer’s The End of Empire in French West Africa (2002),37 since which time a vast array of works on the subject has been published.

One strand of such work has focused on the Second World War and its impact. Martin Thomas’s The French Empire at War, 1940–4538 and Ruth Ginio’s French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa39 explore in detail how the French empire in Africa was weakened and reshaped both from without—by the transformed international situation—and from within, by the divisions between Vichy and the Free French during the war.

Another strand of this new literature has focused on the roots of the decolonization process in the interwar period. This includes Martin Thomas’s The French Empire between the Wars,40 his Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and the Roads from Empire,41 and his edited work Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe’s imperial states, 1918–1975.42 A theme running through all these works is that France’s colonial empire was changing fast during the interwar period, colonial disorder was increasing, but that neither political nor military decision makers appreciated the pace of change, nor did they predict its course. It is argued that the seeds of the decolonization process that unfolded after the Second World War had its roots in the interwar period. In a similar vein, but focusing specifically on the Popular Front period (1936–1938), Tony Chafer and Amanda Sackur’s edited volume French Colonial Empire and the Popular Front43 shows how the Popular Front’s promises of colonial reform, but failure to deliver on them, lay bare the contradictions inherent in the French colonial project, with its repressive policies standing in stark contrast to its modernizing, humanist ideology. The hopes raised and then dashed taught many Africans that they could not rely on the colonial government to deliver on its promises of reform and that they would need to organize and campaign for change themselves if their aspirations were to be met.

One theme that runs through much of this new literature is the need to challenge the trope of a smooth transition successfully organized by French and African political leaders. This view is challenged by, among others, Chafer in his End of Empire and by Cooper in his Citizenship between Empire and Nation.44 Both explore the struggles that characterized the period 1944–1960, warning against the temptation to adopt a teleological approach to decolonization, which suggests that the inevitable endpoint of anticolonial nationalist resistance was the creation of African independent nation-states. This is a theme also taken up in Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese’s edited work Francophone Africa at Fifty.45

The 2000s have seen the emergence of a range of works seeking to throw new light on the decolonization process. The two-volume collection, edited by Martin Thomas, on the French colonial mind46 throws light inter alia on the visions of empire of France’s governing elites and how these impacted on their approach to decolonization in Africa. Comparative studies of decolonization, which compare the French experience with that of other colonial powers, include notably Alexander Keese’s Living with Ambiguity47 and Martin Shipway’s Decolonization and its Impact.48 Several studies have sought to question the notion of political independence as a watershed in Franco-African relations and explore the continuities in Franco-African relations between the colonial and postcolonial periods. Cooper’s Africa since 1940,49 Gregory Mann’s Native Sons and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel,50 Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese’s Francophone Africa at Fifty, and Gordon Cumming’s comparative study of French and British aid policy,51 as well as Pascal Airault and Jean-Pierre Bat’s work in French on Françafrique52 are examples of this growing literature. In addition, several works have appeared in recent years that, while not directly treating the decolonization process, throw light on different aspects of the legacy of French colonial rule in Africa within France. These include the studies by Robert Aldrich, Vestiges of the Colonial Empire in France,53 and two works by Dominic Thomas, Black France and Africa and France,54 which deal with representations of France’s African empire in metropolitan France and questions of colonial memory.

Several aspects of the decolonization process in FWA remain underresearched. There has been relatively little literature to date examining the various networks that have underpinned the continuities that characterize the years after independence. Analysis of the transition to independence has frequently remained an interpretation of late colonial structures, often at the top level of political decision making, with a focus on imperial history (largely using Eurocentric frameworks) that ends with the transfer of power. More research remains to be done to understand the creation and development of French-African networks after independence, focusing on the experience of middle-level officials and giving attention to aspects of social history. There has also been little research interest into how decolonization led to the “destruction” of Europe’s borders (influence infrastructure) in Africa and how Europe’s borders in Africa have evolved (symbolically and strategically) since the 1960s. Finally, there is a notable dearth of studies on decolonization in FWA by African scholars in English, and much more work needs to be done to capture African perspectives—including African feminist perspectives—on, and responses to, decolonization.

Primary Sources

The first port of call for sources on decolonization in FWA is the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence. It comprises ministerial archives, private archives, an image library, maps and plans, and a large library collection that includes many official documents. In contrast to the situation in FEA, where the French authorities repatriated the archives of the former Government-General to France (they are held at Aix), in FWA the archives of the former Government-General were left in situ and are now housed in Dakar at the Archives Nationales du Sénégal. They comprise four separate collections: the archives of the former Government-General of French West Africa, the colonial Senegal archives, the archives of the Mali Federation, and independent Senegal archives. There is also much to interest the historian of French decolonization in West Africa at the Centre des Archives Diplomatiques (CADN) in Nantes. The CADN is the central repository of papers produced by French diplomatic and consular missions overseas. One would not therefore normally expect to find material here dating from the colonial period. However, in the 1960s the French embassies in the newly independent states of former FWA found themselves in possession of documents from the late colonial era, which were subsequently repatriated to Nantes, along with documents from the early post-colonial period that are also of interest to colonial historians. The British and American governments followed closely the developments in FWA during the late colonial period, with the result that both the British National Archives in Kew and the US National Archives in Washington provide valuable insights into the decolonization process in FWA. Finally, the independent states that emerged from former FWA house archival collections of varying quality on the late colonial period.

Further Reading

Aldrich, Robert. Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.Find this resource:

Chafer, Tony. The End of Empire in French West Africa: France’s Successful Decolonization? Oxford: Berg, 2002.Find this resource:

Chafer, Tony. “Chirac and ‘la Françafrique’: No Longer a Family Affair.” Modern and Contemporary France 13.1 (2005): 7–23.Find this resource:

Chafer, Tony, and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

Cooper, Frederick. Decolonization and African Society: the labor question in French and British Africa. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Cooper, Frederick. Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Cooper, Frederick. Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Cumming, Gordon. “Transposing the ‘Republican’ Model? A Critical Appraisal of France’s Historic Mission in Africa.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 23.2 (2005): 233–252.Find this resource:

Ginio, Ruth. French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Jennings, Eric T. Free French Africa in World War II: The African Resistance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Keese, Alexander. Living with Ambiguity: Integrating an African Elite in French and Portuguese Africa, 1930–61. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.Find this resource:

Mann, Gregory. Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Mann, Gregory. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Person, Yves. “French West Africa and Decolonization.” In The Transfer of Power in Africa: Decolonization 1940–1960. Edited by Prosser Gifford and William Roger Louis, 141–172. London: Yale University Press, 1982.Find this resource:

Renou, Xavier. “A New French Policy for Africa.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 20.1 (2002): 5–27.Find this resource:

Schachter Morgenthau, Ruth. Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa. Oxford: Clarendon, 1964.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Elizabeth. Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005.Find this resource:

Schmidt, Elizabeth. Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946–1958. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Shipway, Martin. Decolonization and Its Impact: A Comparative Approach to the End of the Colonial Empires. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.Find this resource:

Smith, Stephen W. “Nodding and Winking: The French Retreat from Africa.” London Review of Books 32.3 (2010): 10–12.Find this resource:

Thomas, Martin. The French Empire at War. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Thomas, Martin. The French Empire between the Wars: Imperialism, Politics and Society. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Thomas, Martin. Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and the Roads from Empire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Thomas, Martin, Lawrence Butler, and Bob Moore, eds. Crises of Empire: decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States, 1918–1975. 2d ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) Togo, a former German colony that became a League of Nations mandate territory following the Treaty of Versailles, was also administered as part of FWA after 1919. The federation’s capital was Dakar, where the seat of the Government-General was situated.

(2.) Colonial society in FWA was stratified into broad social groups: residents of the Four Communes and approximately 2,400 African assimilés (acculturated Africans) from across the rest of FWA were citizens; everyone else was classified as subjects, a category that included French-educated Africans—évolués to use the colonial term, village chiefs (chosen by their own communities), canton chiefs (largely appointed by the colonial administration), and the mass of the population, most of whom were peasant farmers in rural areas.

(3.) Charles Cutter, “The Genesis of a Nationalist Elite: The Role of the Popular Front in the French Soudan (1936–9),” in Double Impact: France and Africa in the Age of Imperialism, ed. G. Wesley Johnson (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), 107–139.

(4.) Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 104–107.

(5.) Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: the Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (London: Currey, 1991), 89.

(6.) FEA comprised Chad, French Congo, Gabon, and Oubangui-Chari (Central African Republic).

(7.) Ruth Ginio, French Colonialism Unmasked: the Vichy years in French West Africa (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 59–91.

(8.) See note 2.

(9.) Quoted in Tony Chafer, The End of Empire in French West Africa: France’s Successful Decolonization? (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 43.

(10.) The William Ponty School was the elite training school in FWA, training teachers, medical assistants, and clerks for colonial service. It has been called, misleadingly, the “Eton” of West Africa; in fact, it was not a secondary school, but a vocational, upper primary school, and the qualifications it awarded were colonial qualifications not recognized in the metropole.

(11.) Chafer, The End of Empire, 44–45.

(12.) Myron Echenberg, “Tragedy at Tiaroye: The Senegalese Soldiers’ Uprising of 1944,” in African Labor History, vol. 2, eds. Robin Cohen, Jean Copans, and Peter Gutkind (London: Sage, 1978); Armelle Mabon, Prisonniers de guerre “indigènes”: visages oubliés de la France occupée (Paris: La Découverte, 2010).

(13.) Martin Thomas, The French Empire at War (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1998).

(14.) Institut Charles de Gaulle/Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, Brazzaville. Janvier-Février 1944. Aux sources de la décolonisation (Paris: Plon, 1988), 351.

(15.) Henri Laurentie, delegate to the conference, quoted in Chafer, The End of Empire, 56.

(16.) Institut Charles de Gaulle/Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, Brazzaville, 364–368.

(17.) Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 45–50.

(18.) Cooper, Decolonization and African Society.

(19.) Chafer, The End of Empire, 121–125.

(20.) This political “generation gap” was exacerbated by the RDA leadership’s decision to disaffiliate from the PCF in 1950, a decision that was strongly criticized by the more radical, younger elements within the party, some of whom shortly afterward became the first to demand political independence for FWA.

(21.) In France, the Labor Code provides an agreed framework for labor relations. With the abolition of forced labor and the integration of the overseas territories into the “one and indivisible” republic, there was a need for an overseas labor code. This was resisted by the colonial patronat, with the result that it took until 1952 to agree to a new Labor Code for the overseas territories. See Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society, 277–322.

(22.) Importantly from the government’s point of view, the Loi-cadre avoided the need for constitutional change by putting before members of parliament a set of principles for political reform, on which they were asked to vote. Once adopted, these principles were implemented by means of government decrees.

(23.) Alexander Keese, “‘Quelques satisfactions d’amour-propre’: African Elite Integration, the Loi-cadre and Involuntary Decolonisation of French tropical Africa,” Itinerario 27.1 (2003): 33–57.

(24.) Cf. Senghor’s poem, written to De Gaulle from a prison camp in 1940. Entitled Guelowar, it contained the lines “Your voice speaks of honor, of hope and of the combat, and its wings flutter in our breasts. / Your voice tells of the republic, that we will build in the City in the blue day./In the equality of fraternal peoples and we tell ourselves / We are present, O Guelowar!” Quoted by D. S. White, Black Africa and De Gaulle (University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1979), 190.

(25.) Chafer, The End of Empire, 174–175.

(26.) It was also reported that Apithy received an assurance from the French government that, if Dahomey did not join the federation, it would finally give the go-ahead for the construction of the port of Cotonou, something that Apithy had long advocated as being vital for the economic development of the territory; Joseph-Roger de Benoist, L’Afrique Occidentale Française de 1944 à 1960 (Dakar: Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1982), 449.

(27.) Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 165, 280.

(28.) The expression “partir pour mieux rester” has been used to describe the French approach to decolonization by, for example, Stephen Smith, “France-Afrique: Des rapports pétrifiés,” in L’Etat de la France 96–97 (Paris: La Découverte, 1996), 582. Some commentators have attributed the expression to former minister for overseas France—and subsequently president—François Mitterrand, but I have not found any direct evidence for the attribution.

(29.) Alexander Keese, “French Officials and the Insecurities of Change in Sub-Saharan Africa: Dakar, 19 August 1960 Revisited,” in Francophone Africa at Fifty, 44–57. Former French Soudan retained the name Mali after the split.

(30.) Chafer, The End of Empire, 185.

(31.) Tony Chafer, “Senegal,” in Exit Strategies and State-Building, ed. Richard Caplan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 45–48.

(32.) Ruth Schachter Morgenthau, Political Parties in French-speaking West Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964).

(33.) Edward Mortimer, France and the Africans 1944–1960: A Political History (London: Faber, 1969).

(34.) Prosser Gifford and William Roger Louis, eds., The Transfer of Power in Africa: decolonization 1940–1960 (London: Yale University Press, 1982).

(35.) John Chipman, French Power in Africa (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989). The work is not strictly about the decolonization process per se, but it does cover French policy toward Africa during this period.

(36.) Cooper, Decolonization and African Society.

(37.) Chafer, The End of Empire.

(38.) Thomas, The French Empire at War.

(39.) Ginio, French Colonialism Unmasked.

(40.) Martin Thomas, The French Empire between the Wars: Imperialism, Politics and Society (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2005).

(41.) Martin Thomas, Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and the Roads from Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

(42.) Martin Thomas, Lawrence Butler, and Bob Moore, eds., Crises of Empire: Decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States, 1918–1975, 2d ed. (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).

(43.) Tony Chafer and Amanda Sackur, eds., French Colonial Empire and the Popular Front: Hope and Disillusion (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999).

(44.) Chafer, The End of Empire; Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation.

(45.) Chafer and Keese, Francophone Africa at Fifty.

(46.) Martin Thomas, ed., The French Colonial Mind, vol. 1: Mental Maps of Empire and Colonial Encounters and vol. 2: Violence, Military Encounters and Colonialism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2011).

(47.) Alexander Keese, Living with Ambiguity: Integrating an African Elite in French and Portuguese Africa, 1930–61 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007).

(48.) Martin Shipway, Decolonization and Its Impact: A Comparative Approach to the End of the Colonial Empires (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

(49.) Frederick Cooper, Africa since 1940: The Past of the Present (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

(50.) Gregory Mann, Native Sons: West African veterans and France in the twentieth century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006) and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

(51.) Gordon Cumming, Aid to Africa (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).

(52.) Pascal Airault and Jean-Pierre Bat, Françafrique: opérations secrètes et affaires d’État (Paris: Tallandier, 2016).

(53.) Robert Aldrich, Vestiges of the Colonial Empire in France: Monuments, Museums and Colonial Memories (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

(54.) Dominic Thomas, Black France: Colonialism, Immigration, and Transnationalism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007) and Africa and France: Postcolonial Cultures, Migration, and Racism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).