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  • Intérêts économiques français et décolonisation de l'Afrique du Nord (1945–1962) by Samir Saul
  • Victoria M. Phaneuf
Intérêts économiques français et décolonisation de l'Afrique du Nord (1945–1962) by, Samir Saul. Geneva, Droz, 2016. 763 pp. $94.80 US (paper), $75.84 US (e-book), $113.76 (paper and e-book).

Academic and popular interest in French colonial North Africa has grown since the 1980s, along with a vast and often contentious corpus of literature. With Intérêts économiques français et décolonisation de l'Afrique du Nord, Samir Saul avoids polemic. Instead, he offers a micro- and macro-economic history of decolonization in French colonial North Africa based on detailed qualitative and quantitative analysis of extensive archival data. Already a prolific author on French colonial economy, here he focuses on one question: was decolonization of North Africa the product of French economic interests? The answer is no. Instead, decolonization was driven by the political demands of nationalists.

Saul divides his argument into three sections. In the first, he provides an overview of French economic policy in colonial Algeria, Tunisia, and [End Page 573] Morocco. For the French government, underdevelopment in North African colonies was considered a problem because it perpetuated low standards of living that both fostered migration to the metropole and encouraged nationalist tendencies. French elites saw industrialization as a solution that would stabilize the colonies while keeping migrants out of the metropole. Despite general optimism, there was no agreement on how to industrialize or what would be most effective at preserving the colonies, due to differing understandings of North African nationalism and the industrialization process. For example, industrialists and planners disagreed on if creating industries for local consumption would raise the standard of living, thereby reducing the power of nationalist movements, or if it would lead to self-sufficiency and thus fuel desires for independence. Here, as throughout, Saul carefully emphasizes the unique situation of each colony.

In the second section, Saul traces the development of key industry sectors by focusing on 154 French-owned businesses and corporations. Not all businesses or even sectors were profitable during the study period, though many were. Some were extraordinarily so, such as the Banque d'Etat du Maroc. Others, including the petrochemical companies in the Sahara, were still in the development phase and not yet expected to show a profit. Though many suffered due to the political instability, none sought North African independence.

In the third section, Saul analyzes the transition to independence of each of the three North African colonies from the French government's perspective. Though the dates, timelines, and processes varied, he builds his argument by highlighting three constants. First, the economic problems of late colonial North Africa were worsened by the political upheaval, not the inverse. Second, the French government attempted to retain political control and did not seek colonial independence. Third, when rupture appeared inevitable, France conceded political independence as a means to maintain economic ties, including trade and aid to the new states. In short, North African nationalist agendas drove the political outcome.

To conclude, Saul emphasizes that the decolonization of French North Africa was not motivated by French economic interests. In fact, the opposite is true: post-World War II French policy in North Africa is better understood as a series of attempts to maintain economic access, whatever the form of government. Neither France's economic advisors nor her business community encouraged independence for these colonies. In this discussion, Saul resists the impulse to make broader statements about the French colonial experience, except to state that capitalism and colonialism are not, by definition, antithetical.

Neither Saul's subject nor his conclusions are surprising, which does nothing to diminish the significance and utility of his work. He presents a coherent and methodically explained argument supported by a wealth of [End Page 574] meticulously researched archival data and analysis. For these reasons, this book will be of great interest to specialists in French colonialism, economy, and business, whatever their disciplinary background.

Non-historians or historians interested in topics such as migration, international affairs, or industrial planning will also find the text...


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pp. 573-575
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