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  • Departmentalization and the Logic of Decolonization
  • Nick Nesbitt

When the french elected their first postwar government in October 1945, this First Constituent Assembly was constituted by a majority government of socialist and communist representatives. Destined to be short-lived, this left-wing government pushed through a number of progressive laws related to colonial government before its dissolution in May, 1946. Primary among these were the Houphouët Boigny Act, which abolished forced labor in France's colonies, and the Lamine Gueye Act, which made citizens of France's colonial subjects. No sooner were new elections held in June 1946, than the communist/socialist/ radical majority evaporated, and progress in this spirit of the early postwar period became infinitely more difficult to obtain. In this brief window of opportunity, however, Gaston Monnerville and Aimé Césaire had managed to push through the French Assembly on March 19, 1946 the law proclaiming the "departmentalization" of France's "vieilles colonies," including Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and Réunion. Though it was the culmination of a tendency toward the progressive integration of these colonies that extended back beyond 1848 to 1789, it was undoubtedly the destruction of France's empire in the upheaval of the war that made possible this brief window of opportunity.

When France capitulated to Germany in 1940 and became divided between the Vichy- and German-occupied sectors, the Metropole was suddenly cut off from its colonies. Administrators in each colony were forced to take sides, with or against the occupiers. Initially, only the governors of Chad and the New Hebrides (jointly controlled at the time by Britain and France) sided with De Gaulle. In the French Antilles, a population that had been citizens of France since 1848 and colonial subjects since the seventeenth century was suddenly set economically adrift. Inhabitants were forced to subsist autonomously with the scarce local resources that remained after centuries of economic underdevelopment. One result was a newly awakened political sensibility, one particularly attuned to the dynamics of concrete, day to day situations. At the same time, this development of quotidian political acumen was coupled with the moral imperative of the concrete choices, for or against Vichy, which had been the stuff of daily existence during the years of the Occupation. [End Page 32]

The Communist Party benefited greatly from its role in the fight against Nazism, and spearheaded the call for full integration of the vieilles colonies after the expulsion of the Nazis. It was Césaire, as deputy of the French Communist Party, who was primarily responsible for articulating the demands of the new law. Though prior to 1947 it was commonly referred to as a law promoting "assimilation," this was highly misleading since its primary goal was never to socialize Antilleans within metropolitan French communal and behavioral norms, but instead to democratize colonial political structures. The citizenship extended to the inhabitants of the vieilles colonies in 1848 had always been, and remained in 1945, partial and subaltern. While the rights of citizens in the metropolitan French Republic were assured by the direct accountability of its representatives to their electorate, this had never been the case in the colonies. Since 1854, it was instead the executive head of state (first Napoleon III, later the president of the Republic) who had promulgated all laws in the colonies.

Departmentalization was expressly intended by Césaire to eliminate this quasi-feudalistic juridical relic. "These departments," Césaire stated at the time, "no longer leave [lawmaking] to the ministers, but give it to Parliament and thus wish to have accepted the principle that assimilation should be the rule and derogation the exception."1 The result of departmentalization was to replace the particularistic institutions of Third Republic colonialism such as the colonial gouverneur with structures systematically equivalent to those of the Metropole: the préfet, conseil général, and an identical legal code and judicial system. Though Article 73 of the Fourth Republic constitution allowed for "exceptions determined by law" to be applied in the Départements d'Outre-Mer, the colonial order of attribution had effectively been reversed: if previously all colonial laws, decreed by the executive, had been exceptions to French laws by their very nature...


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