The crimes of French imperialism

22 November 2015
Liz Walsh

“The home of freedom has been assaulted by terrorists determined to attack and suppress freedom.”

– Malcolm Turnbull on the Paris attacks.

France should not be synonymous with the word “freedom”. As with all colonial empires, its history is soaked with the blood of oppressed peoples across the globe. And its record of perpetrating violence continues.

The size of the territory claimed by the French empire in the 19th and 20th centuries was second only to Britain. From North Africa to South-East Asia, the Middle East to the South Pacific, millions were subjugated, repressed and murdered as French rulers scrambled to secure resources and markets for manufactured goods and profitable investments.

It was only in the face of heroic mass struggles by the colonised determined to win their independence that France was eventually forced to cede control in the 1950s and ’60s.

From the outset of French colonialism in Vietnam, any form of political dissent was met with repression. Books and newspapers deemed subversive were confiscated. Anti-colonial political activists were sentenced to death or imprisoned on island fortresses.

The grotesque violence would only escalate.

After the defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific War, the French ruling class was determined to re-establish its control over Vietnam. In 1946, the prime minister ordered the shelling of Haiphong, killing 6,000 Vietnamese.

It wasn’t until the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu that the national liberation forces drove the French out of the country.

Violence was part of the fabric of French rule. The best farmland was concentrated in the hands of the colonialists and their collaborators, leaving the majority of peasants vulnerable to famine. Some 2 million Vietnamese died during the Second World War; there was a famine despite the granaries being full with rice.

Conditions on the rubber plantations and in the mines were described as like slavery. Attempts at escape were met with hunger and torture. At one Michelin plantation, 12,000 workers died between 1917 and 1944.

Vietnamese workers were paid on average 48 piastres a year for their hard labour. This was a pittance, as Vietnamese historian Ngo Vinh Long noted: “Even a dog belonging to a colonial household cost an average of 150 piastres a year to feed”.

The French claimed a “civilising” mission as false as Britain’s white man’s burden. Take literacy. Pre-conquest, 80 percent of the population were considered functionally literate. By 1939, the figures had reversed, with 80 percent now illiterate.

The story was the same in Algeria. Before the French invasion in 1830, there was a high rate of literacy. By the time of independence, it had been reduced to a mere 10 percent.

The virulently racist French settlers, numbering 1 million by the 1950s, lived a luxury lifestyle. But for the 6 million Arabs and Berbers, French colonialism was a disaster that they resisted by any means necessary.

Violence wasn’t the terrain chosen by the independence movement. It was given. The crushing of a rising in Setif in eastern Algeria in 1945 paints a picture of a “pitiless war”. At least 15,000 were killed by French troops and settler death squads.

The National Liberation Front (FLN) was formed in 1954, and quickly became the dominant nationalist organisation. It was committed to military confrontation with the French, including bombings on French soil. But as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “It is not their violence, but ours, turned back”.

By the end of 1956, 450,000 French troops were on Algerian soil. This build-up was directed by the Socialist Party prime minister, Guy Mollet, the same party as François Hollande’s.

In 1957, an eight-day general strike was broken by repression. It took another round of mass protests, riots and strikes in 1962 for the Algerian revolution to triumph.

The violence of the French state was not confined to Algerian soil. In October 1961, Paris police massacred up to 300 Algerian immigrants. They were part of a peaceful unarmed protest of some 30,000 called out by the FLN to break an imposed curfew.

Confident that they could act with impunity, the police herded panicked protesters onto bridges across the city, where they clubbed and then tossed them unconscious into the River Seine. For weeks, bodies, mutilated by truncheons and rifle butts, washed up on the river’s banks.

Thousands more were arrested and taken to makeshift detention camps where they were tortured. This dark episode was the worst violence in Paris since the Second World War.

The colonial legacy lives on. The children of North African immigrants continue to live on the periphery of the “city of lights”. Their shantytowns of the 1960s have been replaced by impoverished ghettoised housing estates. Here, curfews and armoured vehicles are not a historic relic.

The 70 percent of the French prison population that is estimated to be Muslim is testament to the enduring reality of state violence and racism. The policing of oppressed identities is codified into law by various bans on the Muslim veil.

Nor is French imperialism a thing of the past. From the Ivory Coast to Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria, French foreign policy has been increasingly muscular, particularly in its old colonial stomping ground.

Today as French fighter jets scream over Raqqa and lifeless bloodied bodies of children are pulled from the rubble of bombed apartment blocks, we would do well to remember the millions who have suffered a similar fate in the name of French “civilisation”.

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