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  • Foreword
  • Celia Britton

That the second World War had a profound effect on France's colonies is well known and universally accepted. What that effect was, however, is more contentious; indeed, it would be more appropriate to think in terms of multiple effects, of varying degrees of directness. While it is in the first place a matter of political and military history, the war also led to different kinds of geographical displacements, migrations, and exiles, throwing up unlikely encounters between different individuals and different social groups; and it became an important theme in the novels, films, and other cultural and intellectual productions of the (ex-)colonies. In assembling the articles for this collection, I have tried to reflect not only the geographical spread of the Empire but also the way in which the colonies/war topos can bring together political and social history with cultural and literary studies. The volume thus contains analyses of the political writings on Algeria of Camus and Ferhat Abbas, Césaire's campaign for 'départementalisation', Vichy propaganda surrounding the British attack on Madagascar, representations of the war in the films of Sembene Ousmane and the novels of Raphaël Confiant, the impact of the travels of French surrealists to the Caribbean during the 1940s, and Edouard Glissant's personal recollections of the period.

The impact of the war is usually seen as accelerating the movement towards decolonization: the humiliation of the fall of France in June 1940 put paid to the military prestige which had been a major factor in discouraging revolt, while the particularly repressive nature of the Vichy regime exacerbated the grievances of the colonized; conversely, the appeal to the peoples of France's Empire to rally and liberate the mother country, so eloquently formulated in De Gaulle's famous broadcast from London on June 18th, not only made the citizens of metropolitan France realize how much they owed to their colonized subjects but also, more importantly, enhanced the latter's status in their own eyes (or as Glissant puts it in an interview here, "il y a eu des participations de gens des colonies, qui ont fait qu'on a commencé à comprendre qu'on existait dans le monde, qu'il y avait quelque chose qui se passait" [103]).

The above account is accurate to a large extent, but it is somewhat oversimplified.1 The fight against fascism in Europe allowed Sembene Ousmane, for instance, to draw uncomfortable parallels between fascism and French colonial rule—and Aimé Césaire's Discours sur le colonialisme later developed this analogy into a devastating critique of French colonial racism2 —but [End Page 1] on the other hand Sembene vigorously rejects the simple contrast between 'good' Free French and 'bad' Pétainistes, claiming that "pour nous Africains il n'y a pas de différence entre les deux régimes" (Murphy, 59). Gaullist republicanism, in other words, was also seen as an enemy by the colonized. Gaullism's claims to embody a fairer, reformist, and more progressive attitude towards the colonized—a kind of 'colonialism lite'—turn out to be deeply ambiguous. Thus whereas Camus, as Edward Hughes shows, drew upon the egalitarian ethical discourse of republicanism in his attempts to bring about the reform of colonial abuses in Algeria, Jeremy Lane's study of Ferhat Abbas makes it clear that he, at more or less the same time as Camus was writing his articles, turned to the very different tradition of Napoleonic militarism inherited by Pétain in order to achieve exactly the same ends: Abbas strategically exploits the Pétainist themes of the return to the soil, political decentralization, and even the 'enemy within' in order to argue for land reform and greater political autonomy of the douars in Algeria. And the Vichy government itself claimed to operate a better form of colonial government than the British, for instance, as Eric Jennings demonstrates.

Hughes also reminds us—as, in a very different way, does Jennings in his analysis of Vichy propaganda's castigation of the British attack on Madagascar in 1942—of the extraordinary extent to which French public opinion, right across the political spectrum, simply took it for granted that the Empire...


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