Whose postcolonialism? The French and their colonial past.

Dr. Emile Chabal will be speaking in a joint event on Wednesday 7 October, co-sponsored by the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History. Here he blogs on some of the themes to be discussed at this week’s seminar, in the first of a series of occasional guest pieces by visiting speakers and contributing historians around the world.

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Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

Memorial to French dead in Algerian War of Independence, Sète, France. Photo by Fagairolles 34, reproduced under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia.


Emile Chabal, University of Edinburgh

In my recent book, I place postcolonial questions at the heart of contemporary French politics. I argue that apparently insular debates about citizenship and the nation are, in fact, closely tied to France’s colonial past and its postcolonial present. I also argue that it is impossible to analyse the key dividing lines in French politics without understanding the attitudes of political actors to France’s colonial project.

Yet, over the course of my research, I have discovered just how nationally – and linguistically – bounded postcolonialism really is. There is a common misconception that France has not “dealt with” its colonial past and that French academia has been extremely hostile to postcolonial theory. To some extent this is true. Postcolonial studies courses, for instance, are still a rarity in university literature departments in France.

But this is hardly the whole story. In fact, one could easily argue that France has had a much more vigorous debate about its colonial past than almost any other country in Europe, especially the UK. Since the late 1990s, issues like colonial violence, torture and the relationship between Islam and the French colonial project have been at the forefront of public debate. Even if we go further back into the 1970s and 80s, postcolonial questions were clearly visible in the identity politics of France’s substantial pied-noir community.

So what’s the problem? Why do British and American scholars of France maintain that France has failed to come to terms with its colonial past?

The difficulty, it seems to me, is one of definition. Most people would accept that, in North America, the UK and South Asia, discussions of postcolonialism emerged from the disciplines of literary criticism and social theory through the works of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and others.[1] By contrast, the genealogy of postcolonialism is quite distinct in France, where it has been local politicians, activists and non-governmental organisations who have grappled with colonialism and its legacy.

This means that, while much of the debate surrounding postcolonialism in the English-speaking world has focused on “texts” and “representations”, in France it has focused on street names, memorials, museums, parliamentary laws and issues of historical memory.

One of the consequences of this is that postcolonialism has had a much wider reach in France than elsewhere. Instead of being confined to university departments and research seminars, the question of how colonialism should be remembered, what its impact was and what sort of legacy it has left is one that is fought out in the public sphere.

There are few better examples of this than a 2005 legislative package which included a clause to ensure that French schools teach the “positive” aspects of colonisation. Predictably, this caused huge controversy. Pied-noir organisations, who had been the driving-force behind the legislation came out strongly in favour of it, while historians and left-wing political organisations lined up to criticise it. Eventually, the offending clause was removed from the legislation by presidential decree, but this did little to stop a far-reaching discussion of French colonialism in every major press and media outlet.

The whole affair was a stark reminder that, even though the development of postcolonial ‘theory’ was a distinctly Anglophone phenomenon, the French have been no less engaged with their colonial heritage. It is simply that, as with so many other things in France, the political and partisan aspects of postcolonialism have always been much more prominent than its academic manifestations.

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[1] It is worth noting, however, that there have been many distinguished Francophone theorists of colonialism (including Édouard Glissant, Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon), and that many Anglophone postcolonial theorists were inspired by French thinkers like Jacques Derrida. So, even in this strictly theoretical definition of postcolonialism, the French are present.

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