French Decolonization in Global Perspective

AHA Session 213
National History Center of the American Historical Association 7
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Room 401 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Jennifer L. Foray, Purdue University
Jeffrey James Byrne, University of British Columbia

Session Abstract

As the Second World War drew to a close, France was faced with the gargantuan task of reconstructing not only its metropolitan infrastructure, but also rebuilding and reconnecting with its vast overseas empire. Between 1945 and 1970, the French government and its agents in the colonies engaged in a constant process of renegotiating France’s relationship to its overseas territories in the Caribbean, North and Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. The ultimate fate of most of these territories was political independence from France, often coupled with ongoing economic, military, and cultural relationships with the former metropole. For others, like Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion, the formal political relationship persists to this day, albeit on much more equal terms. While this slow and uneven process of colonial reform and decolonization certainly evolved in tandem with both French political imperatives and changing circumstances in the colonies themselves, this process was also unfolding against a backdrop of broader global turbulence. Global citizens after 1945 witnessed the founding of the United Nations and the emergence of new notions of international accountability. They worked through the psychological trauma of the Holocaust as they navigated decolonization. And, finally, they anxiously navigated a global Cold War between two emerging superpowers.

Although the number of studies that focus on the unraveling of the French empire have multiplied in recent years, with a few important exceptions these works continue to take a fairly limited approach to the study of French decolonization. In keeping with the theme of the upcoming annual meeting “Historical Scale: Linking Levels of Experience,” this panel breaks away from the traditional framing of decolonization as a negotiation solely between colonizer and colonized and uses French decolonization as a lens to understand broader global processes in the second half of the twentieth century: the founding of the United Nations, the Cold War, and the mass emigration of Europeans out of Algeria. Conversely, these three papers also use these global processes to shed new light on the process of French decolonization. Each of these papers navigates between different geographic “scales” of historical inquiry—tracing the history of French decolonization from local manifestations to wider global movements. Pearson-Patel’s paper “The French Empire Goes to San Francisco” explores French efforts to shape the emerging regime of international colonial accountability that accompanied the creation of the United Nations in 1945. Peterson’s paper “Think Global, Fight Local” examines how French Army officers in Algeria drew on and influenced cold war ideologies in their efforts to counter a growing movement for national independence. Hammerman’s paper “Burying Jewish Algeria,” focuses on the Jews who stayed in Algeria after independence, tracing their changing conceptions of home between 1962 and 1970. Each of these papers makes a significant contribution not only to the study of contemporary French history, but also to our understanding of the creation of a new world order after 1945.

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