Challenging the myth of colonial to post-colonial: The case of the Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes

An exploration of the Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (OCRS), introduced by the French government in the 1950s, as a case study of Eurafrica in practice, provides an original entry to the complex dynamics of the end of the French empire. Through an examination of the paths considered but not taken by the colonial elites, Kelsey Suggitt, a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth and a member of the Francophone Africa cluster, challenges the myth of the inevitability of decolonisation.

 

In early September I made the 300 mile or so trek up to the University of Hull for the Association for Modern and Contemporary France’s (ASMCF) Annual Conference. The theme of the conference was ‘Myth Making’, something which resonates within my PhD project. For the past year, since I started working towards my PhD, I have been re-examining how decolonisation was imagined by French colonial elites during the late colonial period in North and West Africa. One myth which I have been exploring is the idea that decolonisation was either a peaceful transition, from colonies to nation-states, as in the case of French West Africa, or a violent conflict like the Algerian War. I also question myths that this passage to nation-states was inevitable and that decolonisation was the only way to end the empire.

My paper at Hull used these myths as its basis, using the notion of Eurafrica (a European idea with intellectual and political roots for close relations between Europe and Africa which originated in the inter-war period) in order to explore an alternative way to re-frame the empire which was considered by the French ruling elites during the 1950s. I then explored how this notion may have been put into action in North and West Africa through the Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (OCRS). This was a short-lived French project to unite the French Saharan territories (Algeria, Chad, French Soudan, Mauritania and Niger) and which I argue may be used to demonstrate the imaginings of Eurafrica in practice.

My approach to unpicking these myths about the end of the French empire in Africa consisted of three parts. Firstly, I explored the ways in which the ends of empires have been studied, based on the premise that scholars should avoid looking at history backwards and discussing the inevitability of certain events. Studies should instead focus on how these events evolved and the potential futures which were envisaged at the time. In this way it is therefore possible to understand events and ideas (such as the restructuring of the French empire in the 1940s and the 1956 Loi-cadre Deferre) as they unfolded and without the so-called benefit of hindsight[1].

I then discussed the resurgence of current interest in Eurafrica following Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 speech in Dakar in which he resurrected a term which had not been used in the public sphere for many decades, and smacked of neo-colonialism for many[2]. This use of the term led to a renewed literature treating the concept in a contemporary context[3]. However, by extracting the concept to discuss its neo-colonial connotations as a way of demonstrating Europe’s contemporary attempts to assert control over Africa, there is a tendency to leap-frog history. I argue that it is preferable to trace the term to its origin and to understand the particular contexts in which it re-emerges periodically. My paper explained that Eurafrica re-emerged as a concept during the 1950s , having been set aside by intellectuals and politicians by 1939 due to priorities shifting towards the Second World War, because of the need for European political and economic reconciliation following the Second World War, something which the French intellectuals and bureaucrats of the time believed could be achieved through their links with Africa. Moreover, the Cold War hostilities between the US and the Soviet Union led Europeans to seek a more substantial economic and political force, a Third Force which could protect itself from communist extremism and American political and economic domination.

It was through the OCRS that the French believed they could put this Eurafrican Third Force into practice. Through studying the language used by scholars and key figures of the time, links between the OCRS and Eurafrica become more apparent. This language, alongside the main political figures who were both involved in the OCRS and keen advocates of Eurafrica, including Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Jacques Soustelle and Robert Delavignette, highlights the way in which the late colonial French government envisaged Eurafrica through the Saharan project.

From this paper it became clear that there is a need to broaden the avenues of exploration. Eurafrica was not the only idea envisaged to reshape the empire at the end of the colonial period, and it was certainly not the only path to be attempted. My project now looks to examine many concepts of a vocabulary which was invented by the late colonial state to define France’s relations with Africa. These include ideas such as coopération, Françafrique, the Franco-African partnership, pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism, to name but a few. It is in this way that we can then begin to understand the different paths considered, including those not taken at the end of the French empire.

My thanks go to ASMCF and the University of Hull for hosting such an excellent conference, as well as my supervisor Professor Tony Chafer for chairing the ‘Portsmouth panel’ on myths about France and Africa. I’d also like to thank those who attended the panel who gave me valuable feedback from this paper and for their astute questions.

[1] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014, pp.466-467.

[2] Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson, Eurafrica: The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

[3] M. Koulibaly, Eurafrique ou librafrique : l’ONU et les non-dits du pacte colonial. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2009; D. Thomas. Africa and France: Postcolonial Cultures, Migration, and Racism. Bloomington, IN, USA: Indiana University Press, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com; S Minna, ‘The EU’s ‘Eurafrica’ roots’ – Al Jazeera (6 September 2014) http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/09/eus-eurafrica-roots-colonialism–20149611334511463.html. accessed 28 September 2015.

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