The French Empire Goes to San Francisco: Postwar Colonial Reform and the Founding of the United Nations

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM
Room 401 (Colorado Convention Center)
Jessica L. Pearson-Patel, Macalester College
In the wake of World War II, political leaders and policymakers began to ponder how a new postwar international organization could prevent war after the League of Nations had failed. Like the founders of the League, they were concerned not only with how great powers could ensure peace and prosperity, but also with how colonial empires would fit into this equation. If 1945 was a momentous occasion to re-imagine the structures of global governance, it was also an important moment to re-envision the way that colonial empires would operate, and more importantly, how they would be held accountable to a broader international community. In the minds of many present at the United Nations (UN) Conference in San Francisco, these two problems were intimately linked. In March 1945, a French position paper on the colonial question at the UN stated: “A global France of more than one hundred million people can survive and try to play a decisive role in world politics. A France reduced to its metropolitan territory and so relatively inconsequential would cease to exist. At San Francisco, France is gambling its definitive fate.” This paper draws on French diplomatic archives, UN documentation, and international press coverage to explore French perspectives on the colonial question at the 1945 San Francisco Conference. It argues that despite the progress that the French Fourth Republic made in promoting equality in the empire, these reforms fell short of exempting France’s overseas territories from the new system of UN colonial oversight. If the creation of the French Union in 1946 and the granting of citizenship to all inhabitants of France’s overseas territories represented an important step towards creating a more equal empire, these reforms had important local, national, and global limits as these reforms continued to evolve against a backdrop of growing international accountability.
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