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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.2 (2003) 91-92

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Martin Thomas, The French North African Crisis: Colonial Breakdown and Anglo-French Relations, 1945-62. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 287 pp. $65.00.

On 10 June 2001 Le Monde reported a dearth of interest in France in colonial studies. The prestigious Chair at the Sorbonne on these affairs has long been vacant, and scholarships for students working on theses on French North African history are going a-begging. Similarly, in the United States, diplomatic history in general and mainstream colonial history more specifically seem to be dying specialties. Yet for all this, there may well be interest in Martin Thomas's study of the end of the French empire in North Africa, for his approach is in some measure military history with a strong sense of geostrategic calculation on the part of the British—a subject still in fashion. Thomas raises questions about such matters as France's use of torture in fighting the Algerian Revolution, an issue that only recently has begun to draw general attention. More important, perhaps, for those looking for a new angle on the process of European decolonization or for additional insights into French beliefs about "Anglo- American" conspiracies to reduce France's position in world affairs, Thomas's book provides useful material.

From the standpoint of colonial history the most original aspect of Thomas's book is that it looks at French policy from the perspective of British authorities. British policy makers had a self-interested edge to their analyses, for they were concerned about the impact of France's travails on British imperial holdings while at the same time hoping to avoid the mistakes committed by the French. Moreover, the terms of London's analysis differed enough from those of Paris to act as a foil for investigating the ideological presuppositions of French policy makers.

The book's shortcoming, however, is its failure to raise analytical issues that would impose greater coherence on the information that Thomas produces. For example, [End Page 91] a fundamental question for historians of decolonization is why the British managed to retreat from empire with relative success while the French fought two terrible wars that they lost—first in Indochina, then in Algeria. Thomas does not ask this question directly, but his book provides useful insights into the French Algerian dilemma.

On the one hand, the divisions of the Fourth Republic gave the French settlers in Algeria a considerable voice in Paris. On the other hand, French military commanders were persuaded that the uprising in Algeria was somehow related to the Communist forces that had defeated them in Indochina. There also was a general delusion in official France that the Communist challenge in the Cold War was exacerbated by the British and Americans, who were out to diminish France's standing in the world by undermining its colonial regimes. The result was a tragedy for Algeria as well as for the French Fourth Republic, as hundreds of thousands died, hundreds of thousands more lost their homes or were forced from the country, and the government in Paris collapsed.

The most striking story Thomas tells is of the French conviction that the British and Americans were conspiring to reduce French power in North Africa for their own expansionist reasons. Unfortunately, although Thomas demonstrates that this belief was largely nonsensical, he explores neither the origins of French thinking (chiefly in de Gaulle's convictions formed during World War II and played out thereafter in colonial matters) nor its long-term consequences, still evident in recent years as France maintains a critical distance from Washington in world affairs. In the case of Rwanda in 1994, for example, France made the terrible mistake of seeing the struggle there as being fundamentally one between Francophone and Anglophone Africa.

To focus on French policy is perhaps to slight what Thomas says is "the core of this book" (p.12), namely, British reactions to the trials of French decolonization. Thomas finds the British sometimes smug...