French Society hosts panel on repercussions of colonialism in Francophone world

Tufts French Society hosted a panel discussion between professors and students on France’s colonial history and legacy at 6 p.m. Monday in the Alumnae Lounge. The panel included Professor of History Hugh Roberts, Professor of History Elizabeth Foster, Professor of French Mona El Khoury, Professor of French Adlai Murdoch and Professor of Arabic Alexandra Shraytekh.

Ned Connolly, president of the Tufts French Society, introduced the event. In his opening remarks, Connolly, a senior, said that the discussion was part of the French Society’s efforts to expand the breadth of their discussions.

Connolly went on to explain the format of the event. First, the discussion examined the roots of the French colonial effort, regarding when and where they started and what France’s motivations behind the colonization of specific locations were. Then, the panel examined the mechanisms — whether through language, culture or otherwise — of France’s colonization efforts. The effects and results of colonization, as well as how it ended, were also points of discussion. Finally, the panel examined the remnants of colonialism and its lasting effects.

Murdoch began by examining French colonialism in the Caribbean.

“France’s motivation for colonizing in [the Caribbean] was very simple and can be summed up in one word: money,” Murdoch said.

Murdoch explained that French colonization in the Caribbean was rooted in the idea of European cultural and ethnic superiority. Because the indigenous population suffered from disease, Murdoch said, the French relied on importing slaves from Africa for labor and soon the slave population outnumbered the white population by a factor of 10. According to Murdoch, this made the Caribbean extremely profitable for the French and by 1770 St. Germain’s production of sugar contributed to around 60 percent of France’s GDP.

El Khoury discussed the French colonization of Algeria. She said that unlike the Caribbean, Algeria was a settlement colony and by the time of its independence in 1962, there were one million French settlers living in Algeria.

According to El Khoury, the French colonization of Algeria started in 1832. She stated that Algeria was not a land unknown to the Europeans before colonization like the Americas, and that the French and Algerians had been trading for years.

El Khoury also said that alongside the majority of the indigenous people, French colonialism produced minorities who obtained French citizenship but remained very attached to Algeria. These people — the Pieds-noirs (who were mostly settlers from Spain, Italy and France), the Jews, the Harkis and the mixed-race individuals — have been for a long time either excluded from the French national narrative or from the Algerian one.

El Khoury also talked about how the rise of the extreme right in France has links to colonialism in Algeria, especially in the form of the National Front and its former leader French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“There is this nostalgia for something that is lost … and this is present today,” El Khoury said.

Roberts examined the roots of French colonization in the Middle East and North Africa.

“France was already interested in the possibilities of colonial expansion as early as 1798, when Napoleon Bonaparte [led] an expedition to Egypt that [had] a tremendous shock effect on Egypt,” Roberts said.

According to Roberts, the French expansion to Algeria began as a move to divert attention from domestic problems, but in 1840 the French decided to conquer the country in its entirety as a response to the threat of British expansion in the region.

However, the decision came at a cost for the French, as it took an additional 30 years of war for the French to finally conquer Algeria in 1872.

“This war was terribly brutal and terribly destructive,” Roberts said.

Roberts compared the colonization of Algeria with the colonization of Tunisia. The French took over Tunisia in 1881, and according to Roberts the time difference was extremely significant, because while Algeria was separated from the Ottoman Empire by the French invasion, Tunisia was a part of the Ottoman Empire during a period of extreme reform that created an attempt toward modernization and the creation of a constitution.

“This was part of the Tunisian success, having a constitutional revolution, unlike all the other places where the Arab Spring occurred,” Roberts said. “A crucial point is that Morocco and Tunisia [were] treated by the French as protectorates, and that means that [it was] much, much easier for France eventually to accept the end of the protectorate and allow a predominantly political process … without actually engaging in violence.”

Meanwhile, in Algeria, the conquest was followed by a decision to treat Algeria as an integral part of France, Roberts said. This meant that Algeria had to fight its way out, in contrast to the relatively peaceful exits of Tunisia and Morocco.

Murdoch said that the conversation about colonialism is still relevant.

“We should bear in mind that colonialism assumes many forms and … uses many terms,” he said. “Many officials … exercise imperial aggression and appropriation around the world and many countries are still guilty of that. We are sitting in one right now.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that Professor of French Mona El Khoury said that the people who obtained French citizenship but kept ties to Algeria were marginalized in French Algerian society. Rather, she said they were excluded for a long time from the French or Algerian national narrative. In addition, colonization in Algeria started in 1830, not 1832. The article has been updated accordingly to reflect these changes. The Daily regrets these errors.