“France gave itself a cheap colonial empire”

Economist Denis Cogneau recently published A cheap empire. History and political economy of French colonialism, XIXe-XXIe century (Seuil, 2023), the result of fifteen years of statistical and economic research on French colonialism. An interesting and clear economic history book about an era whose effects we still live with today.

In addition to the amount of information offered, the interest of the book lies in the fact that it completely questions the famous work of Jacques Marcel, which appeared almost forty years ago. French colonial empire and capitalism. divorce story (Albin Michel, 1984). While Jacques Marcel describes the financial burden placed on France at the end of the Second World War by the colonial displacement of capitalists, Denis Connot shows that they clung to the end to preserve their colonial presence. Empire became cheap for France.

The colonial spirit of the 3rd centurye République is the subject of a right-left consensus: what were the arguments put forward?

Denis Conneau: It should be understood that then we are witnessing a turnaround. The prevailing liberal political thought at the time contained traces of criticism of mercantilist and slaveholding France, the first colonial empire, which lost much of its territory after the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and the Napoleonic era. . Then, as the industrial revolution developed, the idea of ​​the superiority of European civilization took hold, and people became convinced that “liberal” colonization was possible and legitimate without returning to the bad practices of the past.

Including the left?

DC. : The leftists of the time were radical socialists, people like Clemenceau! He is certainly the most anti-colonialist, but he will not be followed by the rest of his party, which will provide colonial rulers like the other parties. Before becoming a socialist, Jean Jaurès was then in the center, close to Jules Ferry and his imperial ambitions. There was also an active colonial lobby supported by merchants who thought they could profit from Marseilles, Bordeaux, etc. All this supports the movement.

How did economists enter this debate?

DC. : In this regard, the liberal Paul Leroy-Beaulieu is the leading economist of the moment. is the author Colonialism among modern nations represents the economic manifesto of colonialism. The first argument, which is mainly political, can be summed up as follows: if we do not build an empire, the other great powers, especially England, and also France, will be squeezed. Moreover, no one knows whether it will be a source of great profit, the regions are poor, isolated from world trade, but it will still provide outlets for production and allow the import of cheap raw materials. Before him, Leroy-Beaulieu’s father-in-law, Saint-Simonian Michel Chevalier, who studied at the College de France, dreamed of an open world connecting Europe, Africa and the East, linked by French railways.

“For liberals, the violence of the conquest is a bad time to let the natives understand the benefits of the French presence.”

Economists such as Léon Walras or Clément Juglar do not particularly support the colonial project, but they are not outright opposed to it either. The fiercest opponent is Auguste Comte, who finds colonialism unacceptable. This opposition is also found in the pacifist economist Frédéric Passy. According to Tocqueville, the more France regains its honor and pride, the more its democracy will be preserved. For all liberals, the violence of the conquest was a bad time to pass before the natives understood the benefits of the French presence.

End of the 19th yeare The century 1914 corresponds to the era of the so-called first globalization: did the colonial empire play an important role for France?

DC. : Just before World War I, France was at the height of its economic power, able to create a vast colonial empire comparable in area to its British rival. Empire, however, plays a modest role: capital invested in colonies accounts for only 10% of assets invested abroad (15% for the British) and 2-3% of movable wealth (excluding land) and housing. only in 1914.

So there was no race for empire as a source of profit for companies?

DC. : Some authors explain the imperial will with nationalism and the quest for power of the time, while others insist on the greed of capitalists in search of profit. Apart from the fact that the two motivations can complement each other, my reading is that the French entrepreneurs had no reason not to try it.

As long as the state provides policing and undertakes the necessary investment in infrastructure, the costs to the private sector are not too high. Two-thirds of the capital invested in the African colonies is public, one-third private, the Trans-Indo-China line through Vietnam is public… The French capitalists were not in a rush for empire, they simply profited from its existence. .

But are fortunes built on colonialism?

DC. : Yes, but there were also big failures! Marseilles merchants dreamed of making Algeria a new Saint-Domingue (Haiti) by growing sugar or cotton there. In the end, the country will actually export wheat and wine, not exotic products. Some are betting big on rubber, its use is booming, but harvesting rubber trees is labor-intensive and will fail due to a lack of hands, with major humanitarian scandals involving forced labor in equatorial Africa.

On the contrary, he will work in Indochina, Michelin has plantations there, Edmond Giscard d’Estaing, the father of the future president, is very involved in the board of several colonial companies. Another great success is Lesieur oils from groundnuts from Senegal: thanks to a collaboration with the Mouride brotherhood, groundnuts are exported and then refined in Dunkirk. The wine will work very well in Algeria, it does not conflict with the production of the south of France, but a Languedoc wine cut with Algerian wine will be the drink of the hairy men of 1914. They also smoke Bastos. From a mid-cap company founded by a Spanish colonist living in Algeria.

And in the interwar period?

DC. : Between the rejection of Russian loans and the crisis of the 1930s, asset values ​​collapsed, with the colonial empire then serving as a safety cushion. Economies are closing in on themselves, and for France that means retreating to its territory and colonies. At the time, trade with the empire accounted for almost a third of France’s foreign trade, and colonial assets accounted for about 10% of transported wealth.

If we address the colonial balance strictly at the financial level, did public spending cost France?

DC. : Between 1830 and World War II, the French taxpayer paid an annual average of 0.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) for the French state’s spending in the empire. This is very little for an empire 20 times the size of France, and this “small” one has 80% military spending. This changes after World War II, where the annual average between 1945 and 1962 is 3% of GDP. However, there is still 0.5 percent of civilian spending and 2.5 percentage points of military spending. , the Indo-China war and the war in Algeria are very expensive. When France wanted to keep its colonies at all costs, the empire began to demand a lot of money.

“Between 1830 and World War II, the French taxpayer paid an average of 0.5% of GDP per year for French government spending in the empire”

We cannot say that money flows from France to the empire, to the detriment of the metropolis, France was offering itself a cheap empire. A lot of taxes were levied on the ground to keep the colonial state running: in the 1920s, tax revenues corresponded to about 10% of the colonies’ GDP, but by the 1950s this figure had risen to about 20%. Equivalent independent countries like Bolivia or Thailand. The fear of the coercive state and police forces people to pay their taxes. In order to work, move, you had to have a card justifying the payment of tax.

Has France contributed to the development of local economic and social infrastructure?

DC. : Mainly, the metropolis built roads, trains and ports, infrastructure necessary for exports. He did not try to develop the domestic market. The projects developed by French engineers also have a pharaonic side. But without general measure with all that has been achieved in France: to say the old motto, Correz has always come before the Zambezi!

At the beginning of the 20th centurye century Creuse or Corsica were no better electrified than Algeria, but by the mid-1950s they were more so. France also invested in colonial cities, where the settlers lived, their water supply, electricity, street lights, etc. Although irrigation and country roads are neglected, not so much in Creuse or Corsica, not to mention Finistère or Corrèze!

How do companies behave after the war?

DC. : French employers did not flee en masse. Even if he takes over the autonomy of the colonies, he believes that he can stay for a long time. His only fear is to see social rights advance too fast. He does not expect nationalizations in Algeria and elsewhere. We see very significant returns of capital just before independence, but also immediately after, that doesn’t mean they went back to France, we know that some of it ended up in Switzerland…

What is the economic legacy of French colonialism?

DC. : The break in Indochina is strong, the leaders are moving towards a real and truly applicable model of socialism! In Algeria, the mass and rapid departure of the Pieds-noirs is surprising, while in Tunisia and Morocco, French immigrants and local Jews leave a little more gradually. In sub-Saharan Africa, few colonists tended to remain, and power formed a transition that protected French interests, particularly through de Gaulle’s advisor, Jacques Foccart. Today, if “Françafrique” has not disappeared, France’s weight in trade, investment, and even development aid has greatly diminished.

If we place ourselves on the side of colonial countries, the main heritage is on the side of state structures. They maintained a fiscally coercive, authoritarian, and unequal state, dualistic in the sense that a small, well-paid public elite easily moved into the suit of French administrators. Anti-colonial figures such as René Dumont, Frantz Fanon and Samir Amin denounced what the latter would describe as “petty bourgeois socialism”.

There was never a rapprochement between the imperial countries and the metropolis. Returning to our starting point, the supposed civilizing mission of France, this includes material well-being, education, health care, etc. we could expect it to result in convergences in terms of This was not the case. There is some progress, but little compared to what has been recorded in mainland France or other independent countries, with no “bonus” associated with belonging to the empire. The balance sheet of the “Civilization Mission” proves that in the endVery bad.

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