Obscuring race: Franco-African conversations about colonial reform and racism after World War II and the making of colorblind France, 1945-1950

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Author: Emily Marker
Date: Winter 2015
From: French Politics, Culture and Society(Vol. 33, Issue 3)
Publisher: Berghahn Books, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 10,283 words

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In 1945, the first significant cohort of African, Caribbean, and Malagasy deputies were elected to the French National Assembly, where they participated in special parliamentary commissions tasked with colonial reform. This article traces the contours of postwar conversations about colonial policy, race, and racism that took shape in those commissions, as metropolitan and colonial deputies confronted these issues face-to-face, as ostensible equals, for the first time. Deputies of color tried to force frank discussions about racial inequality in their campaigns to reform political representation, working conditions, education, and compensation for Africans. Their metropolitan counterparts responded, however, by developing new code words and rhetorical strategies that deflected accusations of systemic racial inequality in postwar Greater France. The competing understandings and ways of talking about race and racism produced in this encounter helped consolidate a postwar speech regime of "colorblindness" that obscured the way racial logics were inscribed in the new institutions of the postwar Republic.

Keywords: Africa, antidiscrimination policy, colonial reform, Fourth Republic, race, racism


Beginning in 1945, a small but significant group of African, Caribbean, and Malagasy elus began arriving in Paris to serve in the French Parliament.* This first postwar cohort of deputies of color sat in a special parliamentary commission on overseas France to guide the French Provisional Government, and then the Fourth Republic, on matters of colonial reform. The commission was one of several new institutions tasked with turning the French Empire into a more democratic political entity in response to intensified claims of colonial populations for reform from within, and to external pressures of a new international order that, at least rhetorically, condemned "colonialism" and "racism." Metropolitan leaders cited the very presence of people of color in such parliamentary institutions as proof of France's commitment to colonial reform and racial equality. Deputies of color, however, refused to be reduced to mere political symbols. They agitated for sweeping political and social reform and were unreserved in connecting the need for such reforms to systemic racial inequality.

A growing body of scholarship has shown the central role race played in definitions of French nationality and citizenship from the interwar period to the dissolution of France's African empire. (1) Little attention has been paid, however, to the particular impact postwar preoccupations with the appearance of racism had on the reorganization of the empire after World War II. This article traces the contours of the conversation about colonial reform and racism that took place in the National Assembly's Commission on Overseas Territories in the immediate postwar years. I suggest this institution was a crucial site where white and non-white deputies confronted these issues face-to-face, as ostensible equals, for the first time. (2) Throughout the Fourth Republic, the chief architects of French colonial policy sat on this commission, including past colonial governors and future ministers of Overseas France. Members from the empire included famed Negritude poets Aime Cesaire and Leopold Senghor, as well as a remarkable number of future African heads-of-state: Felix Houphouet-Boigny (Ivory Coast), Sekou Toure (Guinea-Conakry), Leon Mba (Gabon),...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A439632967