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Francophone Africa at Fifty

Chafer, Keese (eds)
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 Although I960 is rightly celebrated as the 'Year of Africa', the series of independ­ence ceremonies across Francophone sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar which punctuated that climactic year exude the slightly weary air of faits accomplis (Shipway 2008b). If we are looking for the turning point at which France's African territories south of the Sahara took the first decisive steps towards their independence, then high on the list of possible moments must be the passing of the Law of 23 June 1956, better known as the Loi-Cadre (Framework or Enabling Law) or Loi Defferre, bearing the name of Gaston Defferre, Minister of Overseas France in the Socialist-led government presided over by Guy Mollet. Indeed, 1956 has some considerable claim to our attention as a pivotal year in the dissolution of the European colonial empires. It was the year of independ­ence of Sudan and of Morocco (although both were special cases, one an Anglo-Egyptian condominium, the other a French protectorate). It was the planned year of the independence of Ghana, but this had to be put back to March 1957, as the British sought (and failed) to accommodate a federalist challenge to Kwame Nkrumah's otherwise inexorable rise to power. Not least, of course, it was the year of the ill-fated Suez expedition, in which Britain, France and Israel colluded in an abortive attempt to overthrow the nationalist Egyptian govern­ment of President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Not even Suez marked the definitive beginning of the end of empire, how­ever, and arguably the will to empire persisted. Certainly, on the British side, though Suez marked a humiliating setback, it did not precipitate a wholesale retreat of British imperial power from the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. More generally, historians have increasingly emphasised the reinvigoration of British imperial enterprise in the mid- to late 1950s (Lynn 2005; Darwin 2005). On the French side, the Suez mission arose from the imperatives of the Algerian campaign, which, earlier in the year, had been hugely escalated by a series of decisions taken by the Mollet government. These included the passin of special powers', and the despatch of the contingent., that is, France's conscript army of appeles and reservists (rappeles), which ultimately built up French forces to some 450,000 men, in order to defeat the FLN insurgency. As Martin Evans (2011) has argued, moreover, Mollet's 'surge' must be understood alongside his commitment to an eventual Algerian 'peace', prefiguring De Gaulle's so-called Constantine Plan of October 1958, in which a developed and democratic French Algeria would be fully incorporated into the French Republic.

It would be somewhat strange, therefore, if the intention behind Defferre's law had been to bring about the rapid end of French rule in the sub-Saharan African territories of a France extending, as his ministerial colleague Francois Mitterrand would have reminded him, 'from Flanders to the Congo'. And yet the dominant interpretation of the Loi-Cadre has been, in various ways, as a 'big step towards decolonisation, if not in so many words' (Cooper 2002: 78). Indeed, one view of Defferre has been, precisely, as a would-be decoloniser, as for example in Edward Mortimer's view, derived in part from the testimony of Defferre's chefde cabinet, Fernand Wibaux:

Defferre was appalled by the bloodshed in Algeria, convinced that it could have been avoided if a more enlightened policy had been applied in time, and determined to avoid a similar catastrophe in Afrique Noire. He may have seen already that independence was the manifest destiny of the African territories. If so, he must also have seen that this destiny could and should be realised without war or even bitterness between France and the Africans, and without real damage to France's real interests (Mortimer 1969: 233, 234n).

Something does not ring true here, in particular the suggestion that a tough-minded politician of Defferre's calibre would articulate, even privately, an idea of Africa's 'manifest destiny' (though he might have done so in the late 1960s). In any case, Defferre, the Mollet government, and more generally the Fourth and early Fifth Republics, have more usually been charged in this matter with either neo-colonial conspiracy or imperial demission. Thus, in keeping with a critique of French 'neo-colonialism' derived from dependency theory, scholars such as Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch (1988) and Jean Suret-Canale (1998) pointed to the 'influence of the great capitalist entrepreneurs with African interests', although for Alexander Keese these authors 'have never managed to put forward any convincing source material' (Keese 2003: 34). Tony Chafer has placed the Loi-Cadre within the wider context of an 'emerging convergence of interests between French governing elites and African political leaders for the transfer of power to Africans'; these shared interests included the 'defeat of the nationalist movement', and the generation of a series of post-colonial collaborating regimes (Chafer 2002b: 206-7). But perhaps the most sophisticated interpretation of the Loi-Cadre is that of Frederick Cooper, who sees it bringing to an end a French tradition of assimilationism. .......