French Colonialism Unmasked


French Colonialism Unmasked

The Vichy Years in French West Africa

Ruth Ginio

France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization Series

264 pages
1 map, 3 photographs, 4 tables


May 2008


$24.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

Before the Vichy regime, there was ostensibly only one France and one form of colonialism for French West Africa (FWA). World War II and the division of France into two ideological camps, each asking for legitimacy from the colonized, opened for Africans numerous unprecedented options.
French Colonialism Unmasked analyzes three dramatic years in the history of FWA, from 1940 to 1943, in which the Vichy regime tried to impose the ideology of the National Revolution in the region. Ruth Ginio shows how this was a watershed period in the history of the region by providing an in-depth examination of the Vichy colonial visions and practices in FWA. She describes the intriguing encounters between the colonial regime and African society along with the responses of different sectors in the African population to the Vichy policy. Although French Colonialism Unmasked focuses on one region within the French Empire, it has relevance to French colonial history in general by providing one of the missing pieces in research on Vichy colonialism.

Author Bio

Ruth Ginio is a research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of articles in International Journal of African Historical Studies, Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine, Cahiers d'etudes africaines, and several other journals.


Ruth Ginio, French Colonialism Unmasked: The Vichy Years in French West Africa. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. 268 pp. Bibliographical references and index. $65.00 (hb.). ISBN-13 978-0-8032-2212-0.

Research of the last decade has made it clear that the history of metropolitan France cannot be fully grasped without engaging France’s colonies. Nor can the history of the countries colonized by France be sufficiently understood without considering the metropole. Ruth Ginio’s first book makes these necessary connections by examining the period of Vichy rule in the territories of French West Africa (1940–43). Her approach reveals that the Vichy period marked continuity in French colonial rule. This continuity, Ginio writes, was “manifested both in the administrators, most of whom remained in power, and in the policy and goals of the regime” (p. 31). Thus, Vichy rule in French West Africa was undertaken by the “old guard” (there were few changes in personnel after 1940), but there is little hint of the New Order that Robert Paxton found in the metropole. The racism and oppression that typified Vichy rule in France were already the rule of the day in French West Africa well before the war and would continue in its wake.

Ginio’s book, derived from a thesis written for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, draws the bulk of its archival material from the Centre d’archives d’Outre-Mer at Aix-en-Provence. There is also important material from national archives at Dakar, Paris, and London. Added to this are oral interviews Ginio conducted with a group of ten Senegalese men who lived in Dakar during the Second World War. Representing the opinion of French West Africa’s évolués, these interviews offer important insights into how Vichy rule was encountered locally.

Clearly, the French colonies occupied an important place in Vichy ideology. Like DeGaulle and the “vaste empire,” as he referred to it in his 18 June 1940 appeal, Pétain saw the overseas departments and colonies as part of a greater France, a symbol that the country was still a significant power despite defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany. Moreover, Ginio shows that Vichy’s enthusiasm for empire was also motivated by the social and cultural agenda of the National Revolution. The conservative regime’s hopes to restore the authentic, rural, and religious in France found inspiration in colonies like French West Africa, where Vichy leaders claimed to see fully traditional societies free of individualism and class conflict. Here too Ginio demonstrates continuity with currents of thought existing before 1940. In particular, Vichy leaders drew inspiration from the work of colonial administrators like Robert Delavignette, a person who, although very far from the right wing, lent form to Vichy’s thinking about the colonies through works like Les payasans noirs (1931) which celebrated traditional values still alive in Africa like respect for customs, land, and ancestors--the same sort of values that Vichy hoped might regenerate France.

For Ginio, Vichy’s policies in West Africa definitively lifted the mask of universalism with which the Republic had concealed the purposes of its colonial ambitions. Vichy’s embrace of empire suffered from none of the “difficulties and dilemmas” (p. 20) that had haunted the repressive policies pursued by republican administrators in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity. By contrast, Ginio argues, the authoritarian politics of Vichy harmonized well with long-standing colonial practices. Looking at its education policy and support for veterans’ groups, Ginio concludes that the only concern for those implementing Vichy’s counter-revolution in west Africa was not to carry its anti-republican rhetoric too far lest local people grasp the full importance of the guerre franco-française.

Untroubled by republican ideals, racism intensified after 1940. While conservative ideologues might express ambivalences about French cultural superiority and the loss of values in the metropole, Vichy colonial administrators were self-assured about their racial superiority. The writings of René Maunier and Jean Paillard prove particularly emblematic of the hardened racist climate and of Vichy’s antipathy towards the Republic’s professed universalism. Both refused the possibility of assimilation--the idea that education and acculturation might bring certain colonial subjects closer to French civilization and make them candidates for expanded rights. As Ginio shows, the approach after 1940 was simply to legitimate de facto discriminatory policies. For Maunier, this included the category of mitoyen, a blatantly racist half-citizenship for “good” colonial subjects (p. 99). One wishes here that Ginio had widened the scope of her inquiry to look at the attitudes of the wider body of the European community in French West Africa, as well as those of colonial administrators and officials. Ginio does provide a few suggestive asides noting that European planters “felt especially loyal to the new regime” (p. 77) and “settlers were ardent supporters of Pétain” (p. 82), and she explains that Vichy’s forced recruitment of African labor endeared white farmers to the new regime. I would have liked to have learned more about the planters and other settlers that made up the colony's small European community, however, in order to better gauge their support for Vichy. In the end, we are left to wonder if Europeans in French West Africa held the same sort of intellectual affinities for Vichy (and fascism more generally) as they did in other French colonies. Were there figures like the Algerianist writer Louis Bertrand who wrote from Nuremberg in 1935, “Why don’t we have anything like this back home?”[1]

For their part, many Africans expressed their initial attraction for Vichy, but soon cooled upon grasping the new regime’s “dogmatic and Hitlerian” racism (p. 111). This prompted leaders like Galandou Diouf, Senegal’s representative in the National Assembly, to denounce Vichy’s colonial rule in premonitory terms. In a poignant letter mailed just prior to his death in 1941, now classed at Aix-en-Provence, Diouf noted that, when asked to “work and die for France, the Negroes are considered good Frenchmen and good brothers. But when it comes to granting them some of the advantages enjoyed by some of their white brothers, we are good-for-nothing dirty Negroes” (p. 113).

In the final section of her book, Ginio examines the impact of Vichy rule on the long-term history of west Africa, including its effect on post-war independence movements. Under Vichy, Ginio writes, “the masks of French republican colonialism had all fallen away…” (p. 115) and this brought disappointment and intensified criticism in the post-war era. The Vichy example provided critics with a tool to attack the colonial rule of the Fourth Republic by linking it to the discredited regime of Pétain. Groups like the Amicale des condamnés, internes et victimes de Vichy du Sénégal et de la Mauritaine pointed to the negative example of Vichy in their push for reforms. The heavy-handedness that had once sustained French rule in west Africa became politically perilous after 1944 when “every act of repression immediately led to an embarrassing comparison with Vichy racism” (p. 178).

In the end, administrators representing the Fourth Republic were unable to convince important segments of West African society that Vichy was simply a parenthesis. Unlike metropolitan France, which quickly fell under the spell of national reconciliation and came to see Vichy as an aberration, people in French West Africa saw Vichy as an undisguised version of the same injustices found throughout the history of French rule.

Ginio’s work represents an important part of larger efforts to reconceptualize fields of research by linking the history of European fascism with African decolonization. Her history of Vichy’s colonial administration in French West Africa, its policies and personnel, demonstrates the insights to be gained from working across traditional fields and it points the way toward analogous future research. Moreover, this book, well-researched and thoughtfully argued, appears at an especially important moment, in the wake of heated debates taking place about the memory of France's colonial history. A new round of memory wars has opened in France and, in a field that has become consumed by polemics, Ginio makes an important contribution by grounding some of the most contentious points in archival research and by drawing her arguments with nuance.


[1] Louis Bertrand, Hitler: A View of the 1935 Reichsparteitag by a Member of the Académie Française, trans. Dan Desjardins (Bloomington, Ind.: Author House, 2005), p. 17.

“This first full-length book on Vichy colonialism in French West Africa will serve as a valuable contribution for scholars grappling with that challenging period of French national and imperial history. . . . Ginio’s book provides rich material and a clear argument that may serve as a starting point for fruitful debate. This rigorous synthetic account will speak to a wide range of scholars concerned with French fascism, the Vichy regime, Vichy colonialism, and colonial West Africa.”—Gary Wilder, American Historical Review

"Lively, meticulously researched, well-written volume. . . . . Ginio has give us a major new study in the [Robert] Paxton tradition, while also making skilled use of oral interviews, and a growing anthropological literature on African societies not available until more recent times. . . . French Colonial Unmasked will be a valuable addition to courses in French and African history, and to colonial studies in general."—Frederick Quinn, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“The first study to focus on the Vichy period in French West Africa…. It will be of interest not only to historians of empire and of metropolitan France, but also to historians of the Second World War, as studies focusing on the impact of the war in Africa remain scarce. It is thoroughly researched and clearly and economically written.”—Journal of Military History

“It significantly extends our knowledge about the Vichy period in AOF.” —Alexander Keese, Africa Affairs

“Direct, informative, and clear.”—French Review

“One of the strengths of Ginio’s narrative is her use of oral testimony, garnered from contemporary interviews she conducted with Africans who lived through the Vichy years in FWA, to add a personal dimension to the administrative policies she examines. . . . [Ginio] has written a book that will reliably and informatively guide anyone wishing to know more about FWA during the Vichy period.”—Richard S. Fogarty, H-Net Book Reviews/H-French-Colonial

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
PART ONE: French West Africa and Its Place in the Vichy Colonial Idea
1. Setting the Stage for Vichy: French West Africa on the Eve of World War II
2. "A Source of Pride and Greatness": The Place of the Empire in Vichy Ideology
PART TWO: The National Revolution in French West Africa
3. Vichy Settles In: Administrative Changes and Continuity
4. Spreading the National Revolution in FWA: Propaganda, Education, and Social Organizations
5. "Thinking Big": Vichy Economic Visions in FWA
PART THREE: Vichy Encounters with African Society
6. Vichy and the "Products" of Assimilation: Citizens, Western-Educated Africans, and African Christians
7. The Vichy Regime and the "Traditional" Elements of African Society: Chiefs, Soldiers, and Muslims
8. Vichy Colonialism and African Society: Change and Continuity
PART FOUR: The Long-Term Significance of the Vichy Period for West African History
9. Vichy Colonialism: A Comparative Perspective
10. Vichy's Postwar Impact: Decolonization in FWA