The military question lies at the heart of the Franco-African relation

Interview with Bernard Mouralis, by Boniface Mongo-Mboussa

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And what if the virtual absence of debate on post-colonialism in France were related to its close history with Africa, more a continuity than a rupture?

It seems to me that in your book, République et colonies, you give a re-reading of certain canonical writers who have addressed the Franco-African relation.
Yes, I wanted to come back a little to the history of the relation between France and Africa, notably to the colonial epic.
And just when the debate on post-colonialism is raging in the Anglo-Saxon countries, you have written a book on the relation between France and its former colonies.
Indeed, the notion of post-colony, post-colonial, and post-coloniality are notions which are more present in Anglo-Saxon, and especially American, literary studies in particular. In France, they are less present, if not practically absent. Perhaps France, due to its close historical links with Africa, sees a continuity rather than a rupture. The problem is knowing whether the relation between France and the now- independent African countries at present represents a total break with the past.
If I ask you that question, it is because I get the impression that you suspect the followers of post-colonialism of jumping in a bit too fast.
I think so, notably for two reasons. Firstly, the colonial system evolved in France. By the time we get to the post-war period, in 1946, the political project was, in certain respects, to end colonization through assimilation. It is what I refer to as the desire to see Schoelcher’s heritage come to fruition. Indeed, after all, one may consider assimilation – even if the word is often negatively connoted – as being one form of ending colonialism. Another form the end of colonization can take is Independence. If you look at things from a diplomatic point of view, you could say, therefore, that the problem no longer poses itself, as the African States have become independent. Which is not to say that the African States don’t continue to question the validity of the Schoelcherian type humanism based on the equality of men and women, the extension of the electoral body in each of the States, etc.
Secondly, the whole history of colonization – in France, in any case – is marked by an opposition between two major political conceptions which I refer to on several occasions in my book. On the one hand, assimilation, which tended to assimilate the colonial territories and their populations, and, on the other, the political principle of association based on the understanding that cultural differences existed between the French and African civilizations, which were to be respected. But I believe that that too is a problem which has not disappeared at all, because the leaders of the African States have to ask themselves when they think about the development of their countries whether they should situate themselves in terms of the universal, or whether they should situate themselves in terms of cultural specificity. In this respect, one could say that the problem has not disappeared. And I think that any political leader, in one way or another, is led to see politics in his/her own country either in terms of assimilation, or in terms of association – even the French leaders in relation to Corsica or Brittany…
Isn’t that also a question which the researchers face?
Yes. The researcher can, indeed, ask him/herself whether his/her categories are always pertinent for apprehending reality.
The introduction to your book seems polemical. Are you indirectly taking part in a transversal debate between researchers such as Wieviorka, on the one hand, who advocate multiculturalism within the Republic, and, on the other hand, people such as Jean-Loup Amselle, who defend the unity of the Republic.
This question is indeed present. I say so, moreover, in the introduction. Let’s say that in terms of my own political options, I think that, ultimately, Schoelcherism still has a future.
I would like to believe you. But the reality often contradicts Schoelcher’s ideals.
Come what may, ideals (as formulated by people one cannot suspect of evil or manipulative intentions, such as Schoelcher, or the great men who incarnated republican ideas: Jaurès and, more recently, Mendès-France) have to be distinguished from what happened in the colonial territories. The dysfunction is very clear, as people very often spoke about the republican ideal, about assimilation, but only in their discourses, without translating it into reality, not even by enlarging the electoral body. But we must nonetheless concede that thanks to the determinant role played by French members of parliament, there was a very strong desire on the part of the French political powers in 1946 to try at last to apply Schoelcherism in the colonial territories – not, as I point out several times, without provoking some highly virulent reactions.
Delavignette is an interesting character in your book. He is know as a colonial administrator, but his work has been pretty much overlooked.
Delavignette was initially a land administrator in quite modest conditions, notably in Niger. He also held a very high position in Overseas politics, as he was the Director of French Overseas’ Political Affairs from 1947 to 1951. During that period, he really wanted to play the French Union card – that is to say, the choice of a policy which would define the future of the Overseas territories. What I would call Schoelcherism: equality, the expansion of the Republic, to the point that he used to refer to a Franco-African Republic, etc. But he clearly under-estimated the national resistance movements, especially in Indochina. That is more or less the criticism Pierre Mesmer makes of him, even though he was his pupil in the French Overseas department, and although he continued to admire him a great deal. He was also someone who wrote novels and essays. It is true that his novels, such as Paysans noirs or La Paix nazaréenne, are very different from the stereotypes of colonial literature. Moreover, he was published by Gallimard, which signifies that he achieved the status of a literary author.
Precisely, speaking of Paysans noirs, one of his most frequently cited books, young anthropologists such as Anne Piriou and Emmanuelle Sidbeud consider that the idea of promoting African farmers was, for Delavignette, symptomatic of a desire to oppose the modern African nationalists.
This preoccupation might have been present in his mind, but I believe that, generally, Delavignette was struck by the social disparities which existed in the different colonial countries. And he realized very early on that there were two kinds of colony. To him, within both the English and French colonial systems, there were, on the one hand, the territories in which we had confiscated land, for example in Kenya, South Africa, Algeria – where there was no farming class – and, on the other, the countries in which a farming class existed, such as Ghana, and French West Africa (AOF). This was less the case in Central Africa (AEF), as there was a concessionary system which lasted up until the Thirties. But one of the characteristics of the AOF was that the land was left alone. He thus thought that the countries which had a farming class had an advantage because they had a relation to the land and to the territory. Which had an effect on their survival. These countries were not dependant on imports from elsewhere. Next, on a symbolic level, there was the whole relation between a people and its territory. Which was not the case for the Algerians. So, for him, farmers constituted a sector which needed to be developed economically and politically by also trying to create a municipal democracy in the villages. And from there, to develop industrialization…
You also give a re-reading of Camus.
A whole critical tradition indeed exists which would like to see Camus as someone who is supposed to have had a colonial vision and to have adopted ambiguous positions. It is interesting to reconsider this question. This is the reason why I devoted a whole chapter to him. In fact, when one considers the vision Camus had of colonization, there is no question that it was extremely negative. For him, Algeria was a failure. Furthermore, he was extremely sensitive to all the exactions carried out in the colonies. After all, he compiled reports on Kabylie, and denounced the repression which followed the Sétif massacres in the east of Algeria in 1945. He also denounced torture in Madagascar in 1944. Finally, throughout the Algerian war, he frequently intervened on a journalistic, and also on a political level by launching his « Appeal for a civilian truce » with Europeans and Algerians in 1956. In his last novel, Le Premier homme, (The First Man) published posthumously, he clearly demonstrates, in my opinion, that the Algerian tragedy arose because this country was never allowed to be a republican land, a land by right.
The eminent post-colonial critic Edward Saïd considers that the Arab is relegated to the background in Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger)…
Yes, it has often been said that the Arab is absent in L’Etranger. But I nonetheless suggest something a bit different. Of course, the Arab is in the background, but one musn’t forget, however, that the narrator-hero is condemned to death because he has killed an Arab. On that basis, one may also ask whether L’Etranger prefigures the last novel by Camus: Le Premier homme. It is a novel about guilt, notably colonial guilt. Saïd, and a great number of critics, have not asked themselves this question. It seems to me that we can do so. Then, there is the return to Algeria in his short stories, notably L’Exil et le Royaume (Exile and the Kingdom), which is also found in the last series of Actuelles (Actuelles III), in which he comes back to texts he wrote on Algeria in practically every chapter, starting with his 1939 report, Misère de la Kabylie, published in the Alger Républicain. And there, we find that Camus was extremely sensitive to injustice. But his reaction to that injustice lay within the republican tradition referred to above. Was he wrong? That’s another question. But, deep down, he believed that the republican model offered a model of progress for the Algerian people, whereas someone like Sartre would say that only Independence could be a model of progress for the Algerian people.
The final chapter of you book is about the colonial armies. What role did they play in the construction of the Republic?
The question of the colonial armies struck me as important, because right from the outset of colonization, the French trained colonial armies. And it was Faidherbe who created the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, who were not necessarily recruited in Senegal… From that moment on, the colonizer opted for a direction which, it seems to me, had not initially been envisaged. Of course, these soldiers were manipulated. But from the moment this category of soldiers was created, with a system of careers, we embarked upon a path which Jules Ferry had not foreseen when he imagined the conquest of the colonial territories. Firstly, these troops carried out the majority of the colonial conquests, with the help of very few French soldiers, during the conquest of Madagascar, Morocco, etc. Secondly, when the war loomed on the horizon, it was asked what role these Overseas troops could play in a world-wide conflict, and the troops from Africa and Indochina were widely used. This process, which was initially pragmatic, led to a reflection on France’s strategy as a world power. These troops from the colonial territories were a bonus for France, giving it a military force it did not have with just the soldiers recruited in France. But, just after the First World War, it became clear that if we wanted an efficient military tool, reforms had to be made in the colonies. I base my argument here on General Mangin’s book, Comment finit la guerre? In it, he recommended the use of Overseas troops in any potential new conflicts. But he thought that you could only have reliable troops if you modified the colonial nature of the system. He notably advocated an evolution towards a federation, and thought that it was only under this condition that the different territories would be able to provide troops to fight, that is to say, troops motivated by a real desire to defend a geopolitical ensemble they felt involved in. The validity of General Mangin’s idea, which was expressed just after the First World War, would, in a certain manner, find its confirmation during the second war, as France, which completely collapsed in June 1940, was one of the four countries (England, United States, URSS) to whom Germany unconditionally surrendered five years later. On German territory. Such a turn-around in events was only possible because De Gaulle’s France Libre disposed of troops recruited in North and sub-Saharan Africa. This is why the military question is fundamental: it is, in my opinion, at the heart of the Franco-African relation. I often say so: I think that if France has a permanent seat on the Security Council, it is because De Gaulle disposed of African troops during the Free France period. Who would have imagined it in 1940? It is in this respect that République et colonies can also be read as an African history of France.

Bernard Mouralis is a lecturer at the University of Cergy-Pointoise (France) where he is head of the Litterature and Sciences department. A specialist on Black African literature, he has published Individu et collectivité dans le roman négro-africain (Annales de l’Université d’Abidjan, 1969), Les Contre-littératures (PUF, 1975), L’Oeuvre de Mongo Beti (Les Classiques africains, 1981), Littérature et développement, essai sur le statut, la fonction et la représentation de la littérature négro-africaine d’expression française (Silex, 1984), V.Y Mudimbe ou Le discours, l’écart et l’écriture (Présences africaine, 1988), Montaigne ou le mythe du bon sauvage. De l’Antiquité à Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Pierre Bordas, 1990), « Les Contes d’Amadou Koumba » de Birago Diop (Bertrand Lacoste, 1991), L’Europe, L’Afrique et la folie (Présence africaine, 1993). He has just published République et Colonies (Présence africaine).///Article N° : 5451


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