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Dec 12, 2005 7:32 pm


The Jewel in the Meter Stick



If Niall Ferguson redeemed British imperialism (a debatable point), did he redeem all imperialism?

France’s National Assembly as been debating a bill (loi du 23 février) to create a curriculum on France’s imperial legacy. The proposal, part of an effort to reconcile with Algeria, when UMP deputy Christian Vanneste insisted on an amendment (article 4) that confirmed "the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa." The otherwise innocuous proposal caused a firestorm throughout French academia and into its oversees territories. Consequently, the intelligentsia of Martinique refused to meet with the minister of the interior on the first high level tour of the French Carribean in many years because his party refused to abrogate the amendment.

Both de Villepin and Chirac have walked on eggshells around the issue. Last week, de Villepin said, "There is no one French memory, but memories. Some of them are lively, hypersensitive, and ailing. ... There is the memory of those who were thrown into the holds of the galleons. ... It is not up to Parliament to write history, that’s not its role."

Of course, France has legislated and ruled as if there were one official history, at least one that descends from the Enlightenment and the Revolution – one that depicts a unitary nation bringing civilisation to the world. The history of progress determined how French imperial rule unfurled throughout the world, especially when it came to injecting officials and entrepreneurs with arrogance.

France must have given something to the people who were colonized – the skeleton of state administration and enoough impetus to allow resistance to emergeand a national identity to form. However, no former French colony matches the success in the contemporary world of Britain's India, Netherlands' Indonesia, or Portugal's Brazil. No one reaching for world power, or at least a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. France's contributions oftentimes look generic. It created a Francophonic elite that related to the general population with difficulty; it outlawed slavery, but only on paper; and in most cases the socio-economic structures were too directed towards the Metropole to be serviceable. Moreover, some of its post-imperial endeavors have been troubling as well (for every intervention in Côte d’Ivoire, there is a Rwanda.) Algeria, if it could be called a success, cannot outweigh the political and social problems in other former colonies.

The attempt to make an official judgement on French imperialism can only inflame passions on both sides, and it is not clear that such a judgement would be helpful. There may be a positive balance, but demanding that it be accepted will in the end be divisive. The controversy, however, enlightens in a small way one of the fundamental problems of French history: the insistence that the nation is the civilizing, progressive force par excellence. Any multicultural policy would be greatly weakened by France, one and indivisible.

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Louis N Proyect - 12/14/2005

Captainsquarters blog?

I see I have been wasting my time. So long.


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/14/2005

Right. And the DDR's per capita income was higher than Great Britain's (as the DDR statistics bureau claimed before 1989). Since the World Bank is simply recycling the statistical fictions of the Cuban government, I don't put much store in such reports.

Though these photos seem to indicate that the cockroaches in Havana's hospitals love their quality of care:

http://www.captainsquartersblog.com/mt/archives/004070.php


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/14/2005

I should have looked up the Gibralter date. My apologies for a lack of clarity in presenting my argument. I have actually thought about this comparison for a long time, but the argument is complicated since I am talking about many factors (like emigration, or comparative British strategic advantage) that are both causes and consequences.

My point was that France simply was already at a strategic disadvantage vis a vis Britain going into the Seven Years War, but that war made those comparative disadvantages obvious and effective.

There were many factors behind the fact that France's empire turned out to be both geographically smaller, strategically less valuable and (above all) less amenable to successful European settlement or influence than Great Britain's. Those factors became quite evident in the Seven Years War, and I am arguing that the war effectively closed off almost any possibility of France having built an empire like Britain's.

Both France and Britain got into the serious overseas empire building game almost a century after Spain and Portugal, so one would have expected them to achieve roughly equal status, influence and success (in terms of successful successor states to their colonies). But they did not.

My argument is that the French were also in an inferior position (in terms of emigration, commerce, development of non-plantation and non-resource extraction economies) from early on, but that inferiority did not manifest itself decisively until the Seven Years War.

For example, would Britain have succeeded at Quebec if French Canada had had a much larger French population? Would Britain have desired to hold on to the territory if that had been the case?

One of the more apparent consequences of that conflict was an end to any serious French competition with Britain for empire afterwards. Its victory in the American war of independence was a one-off affair that did not improve France's imperial competition with Britain (instead, it bankrupted the French monarchy), and it wasn't until after all pretence of competing with Britain was given up that France once again begain to build an empire of any consequence.

France did not expand into the South Pacific, North Africa, Equatorial Africa or Indochina until after it had effectively buried its martial rivalry with Britain with the defeat of Napoleon. Even if it had gotten to Austrailia and New Zealand before Britain, the British would have simply evicted them, so it didn't make sense to try for more overseas empire until a modus vivendi was worked out with the British. The British could have tried to colonize Polynesia; but why bother with small islands and pesky natives when Australia and New Zealand were available? Think 'marginal utility': Britain already had the prime cut, so why bother the French if they wanted the table scraps?

As far as the original blog post goes, this implies that the French Empire was of much shorter duration where it held sway, in more difficult areas, and was accompanied by far less emigration and successful Europeanization than Britain's colonies. And in cases like Africa where British colonization paralled France's in terms of small or no emigration, a plantation or resource extraction economy, and shorter duration, the results are not that much different: economic disaster, massive corruption, despotism and political violence. No counry is 'rich' without the human capital needed for successful political and economic development, and in places where climate, topography, local culture or brevity of imperial rule made the acquisition of those traits difficult, the consequences are plain to see.

Of course, those factors alone may not be decisive if the imperial power itself lacks many of them (Latin America, former Soviet republics, etc.) So even if French inflence and settlement had been more profound in the areas it did acquire, I'm not certain the outcomes in terms of political and economic development would have been much better when France herself did not acquire a stable political regime until after an attempted coup d'etat only slightly more than 40 years ago.

Even with higher European emigration and other improved indicators for success than what occurred historically, I think many French colonies would have resembled Latin America in reproducing many of the political and cultural pathologies already present in the colonizing power.


Louis N Proyect - 12/13/2005

Maubisson: "Yes, that certainly worked, didn't it? Cuba dropped from, what? Third in per capita income? in the Americas to Haitian levels."


http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/43b/185.html

Learn from Cuba, Says World Bank
By Jim Lobe, IPS, 1 May 2001

WASHINGTON, Apr 30 (IPS) - World Bank President James Wolfensohn Monday extolled the Communist government of President Fidel Castro for doing "a great job" in providing for the social welfare of the Cuban people.

His remarks followed Sunday's publication of the Bank's 2001 edition of 'World Development Indicators' (WDI), which showed Cuba as topping virtually all other poor countries in health and education statistics.

It also showed that Havana has actually improved its performance in both areas despite the continuation of the US trade embargo against it and the end of Soviet aid and subsidies for the Caribbean island more than ten years ago.

"Cuba has done a great job on education and health," Wolfensohn told reporters at the conclusion of the annual spring meetings of the Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). "They have done a good job, and it does not embarrass me to admit it."

His remarks reflect a growing appreciation in the Bank for Cuba's social record, despite recognition that Havana's economic policies are virtually the antithesis of the "Washington Consensus", the neo-liberal orthodoxy that has dominated the Bank's policy advice and its controversial structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) for most of the last 20 years.

Some senior Bank officers, however, go so far as to suggest that other developing countries should take a very close look at Cuba's performance.

"It is in some sense almost an anti-model," according to Eric Swanson, the programme manager for the Bank's Development Data Group, which compiled the WDI, a tome of almost 400 pages covering scores of economic, social, and environmental indicators.


Alan Allport - 12/13/2005

After that war, France's fleet couldn't even exit the Med without passing Gibralter

Huh? Gibraltar became British in 1704, more than half a century before the 7YW even began.

All it seems to me you're really saying is that France didn't colonize Australia because it chose not to try - because it had priorities elsewhere that were a better destination for its finite resources. Fine; no argument from me there. But by acknowledging that agency was involved we've moved a long way from the deterministic structural arguments that you began with. France's empire turned out the way it did not because of inexorable fate; it turned out the way it did because of decisions, some of which were sound, some of which were less so.


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

My point is that all the underlying weaknesses in terms of the navy, strategic bases, lack of emigration, etc., were already present but magnified to a decisive point by the outcome of the Seven Years War. After that war, France's fleet couldn't even exit the Med without passing Gibralter; before the war, France's access to the interior of North America was either the St. Lawrence (frozen half the year) or through a gauntlet in the Caribbean. Her position in India was already proportionately weaker before the war also. Even the French action at Yorktown was achieved by means of a feint towrds Britain's Caribbean colonies, not the defeat of Britain's fleet.


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

"Their greatest failing was in maintaining ties with the French rather than making a clean break with the capitalist system that the Cubans did."

Yes, that certainly worked, didn't it? Cuba dropped from, what? Third in per capita income? in the Americas to Haitian levels.

You see, that's why Aussaresses is a paragon of moral virtue in comparison to the FLN and their communist supporters: for him, torture and summary execution were a temporary and extraordinary means to attaining an ordinary political order.

For communists, summary arrest, torture and concentration camps ARE the ordinary political order: it is not a means, it is the end itself.


Alan Allport - 12/13/2005

Because it permanently marked France's naval inferiority to Britain, not simply on the basis of ships, gunnery and seamanship but in the fact that Britain acquired and/or improved a string of bases around the world that no one in France could ever seriously think of matching.

Even if true (and I think it's highly questionable that by 1763 France had a marked naval inferiority to Britain - that didn't really emerge for another 50 years), I don't see why any of this would have prevented France from trying to colonize the Antipodes. 'Staging areas' have little do with it; the British were just as much taking a leap into the unknown when they sent the First Fleet in 1789 (IIRC).


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

Because it permanently marked France's naval inferiority to Britain, not simply on the basis of ships, gunnery and seamanship but in the fact that Britain acquired and/or improved a string of bases around the world that no one in France could ever seriously think of matching. The loss of Haiti as a staging area and the lack of French settlement in Louisiana inclined even Napoleon to concede the last of France's best temperate territory to the US.


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

Because it permanently marked France's naval inferiority to Britain, not simply on the basis of ships, gunnery and seamanship but in the fact that Britain acquired and/or improved a string of bases around the world that no one in France could ever seriously think of matching. The loss of Haiti as a staging area and the lack of French settlement in Louisiana inclined even Napoleon to concede the last of France's best temperate territory to the US.


Louis N Proyect - 12/13/2005

Maubisson asks if the French were like the Nazis. No, the French were like the French. They were one of the major colonial powers in the world and made the lives of Haitians, Senegalese, Algerians and Indochinese miserable. With respect to the FLN, I have written about them here:

http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/algeria.htm

Their greatest failing was in maintaining ties with the French rather than making a clean break with the capitalist system that the Cubans did. The rise of the Islamic movement is clearly related to the emergence of a new ruling class that adopted the rhetoric of the liberation movement but the habits of a typical comprador bourgeoisie.

For people who want to find out more about the Algerian war of independence, go here:

http://www.marxists.org/history/france/algerian-war/


Alan Allport - 12/13/2005

The Seven Years War effectively excluded France from the best parts of North America (compare the trans-Mississippi US short of the coast with the rest even today), and meant she would never acquire any large scale non-European temperate or semi-temperate settlement area (Australia, New Zealand).

Why did the outcome of the 7YW prevent France from colonizing Australia and New Zealand, once it knew that they existed?


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

As others have noted, France's colonial efforts were always hampered in comparison to Britain's by the fact that comparatively very few French ever left France. Over a century of emigration to Quebec involved, what? about 50,000 people?


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

The notion of 'worth' didn't mean cash value in the original blog, but suitability for future non-plantation political and economic development.


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

I meant 'best' in the sense indicated in the original blog posting: those where a transplanted European culture could take root among European settlers, not completely dependent on a plantation economy (even the former British plantation economies in Caribbean are basket cases), those where a more cooperative relationship could be established between the local culture and the metropole (e.g., India).

The Seven Years War effectively excluded France from the best parts of North America (compare the trans-Mississippi US short of the coast with the rest even today), and meant she would never acquire any large scale non-European temperate or semi-temperate settlement area (Australia, New Zealand).


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

a) So the French were like the Nazis? I thought this was a history blog, not a fantasy blog. That analogy fits the FLN much more accurately. How many hundreds of thousands of Algerians have been killed by the FLN both during the war and in the 40+ years since? How about just during the 1990's in its battle against the FIS?

b) 'theft': spare me the 9th grade Marxism-Leninism. Almost anything of value produced in Algeria was produced through the infrastructure introduced by the French and through access to the metropole. What was Algerian labor worth without that? Even today, it's almost worthless without first being transported to Europe. Even now, what little Algeria produces of value is made possible through improvements initially made by the French (viniculture, for example).

If you want to lookm for Nazis, Mr. Proyect, take a glance at every left-wing celebrant of Third World socialist barbarism stretching from the FLN to Cambodia to Mao and Castro.


Alan Allport - 12/13/2005

Early modernists feel free to correct me on this, but at the time of the 7YW wasn't St. Dominigue's sugar trade worth more than the rest of colonial North America put together?


Louis N Proyect - 12/13/2005

The FLN certainly was guilty of bloody deeds, as was every revolutionary organization going back to the Jacobins. Perhaps I should have forwarded a different snippet from my MRZine review of "Battle of Algiers" to make things clearer. France was not just guilty of torture and massacre. It was also guilty of systematically disenfranchising the Algerians on their own land while enjoying the fruits produced by exploited labor. It was a brutal colonizing power that used the convenient fiction that Algeria was French to legitimize that theft. Whatever the FLN's sins, it was at least on the side of the angels in fighting to make Algeria Algerian. Mr. Mauboussin's tendentious reply to me would be analogous to posting something about how the French Resistance during WWII was guilty of bloody reprisals against civilians after I had just posted something about Nazi brutality.


Nathanael D. Robinson - 12/13/2005

If it were only a matter of being able to pick the best territories to develop, the Seven Years War would not have excluded France from making its empire either successful or profitable. Much of Africa was still up for grabs in the mid-19th century, and France was able to develop its enclaves to expand into the continent's interior. And even in most parts of Asia colonization had remained limited to establishing ports along the coastline rather than interior development.


Greg James Robinson - 12/13/2005

How does one figure out just what the
"best" territory is, either at the time or historically? And does it become so through luck of resources or good management? Actually, France in its imperial period held a number of rich territories, including colonial Indochina, Algeria, and Morocco. If one looks at things in 1763, for example, England took Quebec and gave back the sugar islands, which were far more valuable in what they produced for France. England also gained Spanish Florida, which they proceeded to lose--otherwise just think of the luxurious hotels in the swank resort of New Cornwall and Brighton Beach, Florida! Conversely, imagine if France had (after taking it back from Spain) had not sold all of Louisiana--would it ever have been anything like the territory it became?


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005

I'm surprised you didn't bring up the fact that one of the consequences of the Seven Years War was the loss of the best (or 'most likely to succeed') parts of the French Empire in North America and India.

The British effectively had their pick of the best available non-European territories.


Pierre Mauboussin - 12/13/2005


d’El-Halia

Twenty-two kilometers east of Philippeville, an isolated iron mine complex had also been targeted by the FLN.
...

The town was off guard. Aussaresses did not believe the rebels would attack a town where the colonists trusted their Muslim comrades implicitly, smoked kif with them, and shared in all of their activities. Two groups of rebels attacked and massacred children and women tranquilly having lunch.
...

Babies had been crushed against the wall. The women had been raped, disembowled, and decapitated. Aussaresses thought that he had forgotten what pity was. The innocent were killed by their neighbors with whom they drank and smoked kif.

Other massacres occurred in El Arouch, L’oued, Zenatti, Catinat, Jemmapes in the same time frame.

full:http://www.military.com/NewContent/0,13190,SOF_0704_Torture,00.html


Louis N Proyect - 12/12/2005

The Irish Times reported on November 28, 2001:

"We put electrodes on the ears or testicles of prisoners," Aussaresses wrote. "Then we turned on the current, with varying intensity . . . The summary executions were an integral part of our task of maintaining order. No one ever asked me openly to execute someone -- it went without saying." Aussaresses recounted ordering the slaughter of 60 prisoners at one point, 100 others a week later.

full: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/proyect120805.html

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