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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2014

1 - Introduction

Summary

In late 1945, elected representatives to France’s First Constituent Assembly began the task of constructing a new postwar constitution for the Fourth French Republic. In the Overseas Committee, the issue at hand was the place of France’s colonial possessions in the new constitution. Delegates wrestled with questions about how the empire would be governed in the postwar era, what status colonized subjects would have, and how to manage cultural differences within a wider polity. To answer these questions, the delegates needed not only to reconcile their own views, but also to think about the great diversity of opinions and aspirations of colonized populations throughout the French empire. For as the debates took place in Paris, various political movements were underway in the colonies and territories. Ho Chi Minh had just declared Vietnam independent to cheering crowds in Hanoi. Political leaders from Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guiana, and Réunion were seeking to turn their territories into French departments. In Morocco, the Independence Party had formed in 1944 and was organizing demonstrations in favor of national independence. Tunisia’s nationalist movement had demanded autonomy. In Madagascar, the leaders of the Malagasy National Socialist Party had asked for autonomy in April 1945. In other parts of French Africa, African leaders favored reforming colonial rule in an egalitarian direction, asking that Africans be accorded the political rights of French citizens while maintaining their distinct cultural identities. The Senegalese deputy Léopold Sédar Senghor had just urged his fellow Africans to “assimilate, do not be assimilated.” Algeria was still reeling from the May 1945 events in Sétif, where after a nationalist demonstration had turned violent and resulted in European casualties, a period of brutal retaliation and repression had ensued. Despite the viciousness of the French reaction, there was not, as yet, a consensus among Algerian leaders in favor of independence; some organizations advocated independence but others sought reform within the existing colonial system. In Paris and across the empire, political leaders and colonial subjects expressed diverse wishes for the postwar order.