The Consul at Dakar (Corrigan) to the Department of State

No. 54


  • Some Observations Concerning Racism and Politics in FWA

It seems to be a common notion that among white people, and particularly those whose countries have overseas possessions in Africa, the French are the least guilty of racialism. Replying to American charges of “colonialism” and exploitation of autochthonous peoples, the French rather tartly point to discrimination against the Negro in the United States. In fact, even without direct provocation, the French are wont to point the finger of scorn at the many evidences of racism in the great democracy across the sea. And it is doubtless true that the American Negro is much less restrained, and more readily accepted, in Paris than in New York or Chicago, let alone Atlanta or Charleston.

With Black Africa south of the Sahara subject to frequent disorder and sporadically boiling over here and there with often serious consequences, except apparently at the present time in the African extensions of the French Republic and in the Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese colonies, one is induced to reflect on the complexities and implications of the race relations problem and its possible effects on the future.

The writer personally is inclined to agree with the opinion that where, notwithstanding the extent of paternalistic benevolence, the indigenous population has no voice in the conduct of its affairs and in plotting its destiny, as reportedly is the case in the Belgian Congo, “the white folks are building up a lot of trouble for themselves.”* The subject takes on added importance in the world of today where we may assume that Communist agents and divers malcontents are quite ceaselessly working to fan flames of dissent and discontent wherever found.

Now, it seems to be quite generally acknowledged that a marked change in the status of subject Africans and in the relationship between Whites and Africans has taken place in French Africa. This is true to a certain extent. Since the Constitution of 1946, all of these natives are French citizens and have the right to vote. And, notwithstanding [Page 239] the favored position of the White Frenchman by virtue of the bi-college electoral system in all Territories except Senegal, the fact is that 17 out of the Federation’s 20 members of the Chamber of Deputies in Paris are Black.1 Consequently, a certain very small number of natives of this part of the French Republic have real influence in French political life and therefore on the governing of French West Africa. Conceivably, they could wield a balance of power which might, in certain circumstances, decide the fall or retention of a Government of France. Moreover, Africans are in the majority in the Grand Council of French West Africa and in the several Territorial Assemblies and thus have a voice in the conduct of the Territories’ fiscal and other affairs even if the functions of these bodies are mainly advisory. This seems to present a picture quite different from that in Belgian and Portuguese Territories.

The question may now be posed. Are the French truly liberal in respect of Africa? Are they, practically alone among Whites, free from the virus of racial prejudice which plagues the relationship between Whites and Blacks the world over? I am afraid not.

Santha Rama Rau wrote concerning Kenya in the July 19, 1953 issue of the New York Times Magazine as follows: “These three main population groups—the European, the Asian and the African—live in the same city (Nairobi) with a high degree of mutual exclusiveness or, as a friend of mine described it, as a racial pousse café, each element necessary to the whole, each retaining its separate identity, and, in the opinion at least of most Europeans and some Indians, a disastrous and unpalatable failure when the various elements mix.” If Lebanese is substituted for Asian in the above passage, it gives a rather apt description of the situation in Dakar. There is in this capital of the Federation of French West Africa about as sharp a cleavage between Black and White, in fact if not in appearance, as there is most every place else where the two races live together. French racism is less blatant than, say, the Belgian variety in Leopoldville, where it is understood [Page 240] that curfews and strict residential compartmentalizations are the rule; but I dare say that the basic antipathy of accepting the Negro on a basis of social, economic and political equality is about as strongly developed among Frenchmen, certainly those found generally in French West Africa, as among their White brethren of other nationalities. This assertion is not meant to castigate the French, and there is no disposition to withhold praise for their laudable philosophy and forward steps in the sphere of race relations. But it is important to face realities in order to have a better understanding of our subject and a better appreciation of developments.

In Dakar and the principal centers of the Federation, practically all of the apartments and modern dwellings are occupied by White (French or Lebanese). Outside of the Assemblies, as noted above, practically no position of importance is held by an African (although some “Administrateurs” of Negro heritage, usually West Indian, hold fairly responsible jobs on occasion, generally in the Customs Service or in the judiciary. An outstanding exception, of course, was Felix Eboué, former Governor-General of French Equatorial Africa).2 Practically no Africans in the Federation are prominent in business or industry, and almost none is an important agricultural producer or big landowner. Houphouët-Boigny of the Ivory Coast is a rare exception. Beyond occasional large official gatherings to which the dark-skinned legislators and a few professional people and their wives are invited, or smaller meetings of men for political reasons, there is, practically speaking, no social rapport whatever between local French and the indigenous population, notwithstanding how “evolved” the latter may be. While there are some instances of marriage between African women (often half-castes) and French civil servants, French military personnel and petits blancs (low class French workers who come to the Federation seeking work and adventure), such unions are rare and they are definitely frowned on by the French. There were audible utterances of disgust in the almost exclusively White section of a local theatre when the wedding of Cripps’ daughter to a Gold Coast Negro was shown on the newsreel.3 The most noted local Communist, the mulatto Gabriel d’Arboussier, is understood to have been driven into Moscow’s arms by a searing hatred of the White man consequent to his having been jilted, at the insistence of her parents, by a White French girl, the daughter of a French official in the interior. The Negro blood was enough to make him unacceptable, even though his father was not only White but a high ranking colonial administrator.

It is of interest in this connection to recall the prominent treatment [Page 241] given a few months ago by Afrique Nouvelle to the problem of marriage between Whites and Blacks. Afrique Nouvelle is a rather influential Catholic (The White Fathers) weekly newspaper published in Dakar and circulated throughout French Black Africa. An editorial type commentary on the front page quoted a sad letter to her Bishop from an African girl who had married a European and gone to France to live. The commentary pointed out that, while there are no theoretical objections to such marriages, the difficulties of a practical order are well nigh insurmountable. The newspaper commented: “May this cry of alarm calm the intemperate enthusiasm of those girls who dream of the Metropole.” The letter itself recounted the failure of the girl’s marriage to a Frenchman because of her color. She said her husband’s parents reproached him for having married an African and that he became improvident and eventually abandoned her and the children. Her French neighbors, she claimed, were noticeably unsympathetic and unfriendly, giving her the impression that they felt she, a Black woman, should have stayed at home.

A few years ago, the Reverend Père Bertho, head of the Catholic educational system in the Federation and also a member of the Grand Council of French West Africa from Dahomey, in a report to his religious superiors in France, credited the Apostolic Prefect in 1848, the Abbot Arlabosse, with having written as follows with respect to the unwillingness of slave owners to permit education for slaves for fear the latter would become unsatisfied and get ideas of freedom: “It seems to men without intelligence that, if the Blacks are left in ignorance, they will be able the more easily to exploit them.” Father Bertho harshly continued: “This judgment remains perfectly true in 1948 and, for a long time in the future, too many Europeans—among them even those who are considered important persons—will continue to consider education for natives as jeopardizing their own selfish interests (which are) cleverly confounded with the interests of the colony and the interests of the Metropole. Also, this is frequently the equivalent to a timid excuse that one will find in the mouths of Governors-General of French West Africa whenever they expose their plans for the development of education. The fear of making the African an évolué without social position—déclassé as they say—will be the argument put forward by the majority of Metropolitans.”

Perhaps Grand Counselor Bertho’s indictment is too severe. He may be hypercritical because of the difficulties encountered by private Christian education, both Protestant and Catholic, in getting financial assistance from the Government for its civilizing work. Rather ironically, such subsidies have been appreciably higher since 1946 when they have been voted by the Territorial Assemblies or, in other words, when the Africans themselves have had a part in establishing them.

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In any case, it seems to me, any objective observer of the local scene must incline to the viewpoint that the notion of French broad-mindedness and racial tolerance, at least so far as Africa is concerned, is rather largely mythical. I have travelled thousands of miles through French West Africa and have talked with scores of French administrators and businessmen. In great majority, their attitude toward the African is patronizing if not disdainful. Such attitudes can be and are often tempered by affection and a genuine solicitude. But I verily feel that the idea of accepting even the most advanced of them on their own political or social level is downright fantastic to almost the totality of the French Whites.

In most cases, the inferior economic status of the Blacks is enough presently to exclude them from living on the higher plane of the Whites. What about the future? On a tour of Abidjan in the company of a French Administrator, I was shown the beautifully situated new residential area “for Europeans” where only houses of high standards may be constructed. The cost of such dwellings will keep most Africans from the area but I inquired whether any of the few wealthier ones might be expected to reside there. The Administrator said that while of course the district could not by regulation or law be restricted to Whites, they hoped no Africans would move in and, with that idea in mind, they had purposely placed a design restriction on houses which was calculated not to appeal to Africans.

I wish to emphasize that this is not meant as a diatribe against the French. Also, I am not competent to discuss the acceptance or treatment of Blacks in France, although I have a suspicion that while Black students and intellectuals may circulate easily in academic, intellectual and “Bohemian” circles in Paris, they are not readily accepted either by the bourgeoisie or “high society”, particularly in the provinces. The point I wish to make is that, in Africa, although “free”, the Africans are considered neither “equal” nor “fraternal” by their White compatriots. The European worker is paid 2 to 5 times as much as the African worker. A young American student of Africa, who has been studying in Paris and is now observing conditions at first hand here, told me a few days ago that young African fellow students in the Metropole often have complained to him that the French in “the colonies” are obnoxious. While recognizing that the French seem to behave well enough toward the Blacks in the Metropole, they point out that the attitude of the Frenchman overseas is intolerable. For example, they say that the White man’s treatment of the Blacks in local markets, say, leaves much to be desired. And they resent the free use of the familiar “tu” form in addressing the Blacks, a form which among the French is used with children and servants. The Frenchman’s attitude is one born of deprecation and a conviction of superiority. A renowned Black woman Senator from one of the French Equatorial [Page 243] African Territories told Dr. Rayford Logan§ in Paris not long ago, “I become exceedingly anti-French only when I return home.”

Seen from here, French expectations for the political evolution of French Africa as an integral part of the French Republic, or at least of the French Union, seem to be predicated on the development and cultivation of a relatively few African leaders such as Léopold Senghor, Houphouët-Boigny, Silvandre, Conombo,4 etc. and on the evolution and pro-French orientation of a growing electorate. The education and outlook of these African leaders seem to be largely French and they have, presently at least, great influence among a still overwhelmingly uninstructed electorate. Political processes are still rudimentary. With human nature as it is, it would seem at least questionable, in view of these racial feelings noted above and their inexorable influence on the Africans’ thinking, whether French West Africa will in fact develop politically as neatly as planned in Paris and Dakar. Actually only a handful of the population knows the French language. Most of the people have practically nothing in common culturally or historically with the French. Few indeed, it cannot be gainsaid, are really imbued with any conviction that their destinies are necessarily allied with the White man’s. Liberia, geographically practically a part of French West Africa, remains an example of government by Blacks, and events in the Gold Coast and Nigeria, and perhaps even the (Anglo-Egyptian) Sudan, are bound to have more and more effect in these neighboring Territories. The pattern that may eventually emerge from the interplay of forces is of course unpredictable, but it seems safe to prophesy that there will be changes, and maybe drastic ones. African leaders with quite different ideas concerning French hegemony in this part of the world may emerge. They might be new ones with Nationalist aspirations, they could be Communist inspired and even under Communist influence, or they might be the present leaders who, forced by the necessities of local opinion, would find it prudent to abandon championship of a “made in Paris” program. It is quite likely that not a few of the present leaders are loyal to French viewpoints largely out of self-interest rather than as a result of any great love for France or for Frenchmen. The French are indisputably in control and it would be foolhardy openly to oppose them at this juncture. Moreover, it is definitely to the economic self-interest of the Territories at present to embrace a relatively bounteous France which pours in much treasure for the economic and social development of the region. It has been estimated that the French taxpayer pays about ¾ of the cost of running and physically improving the Federation. And if France didn’t take into her protected market [Page 244] practically all of the Federation’s exports, like peanuts, a severe depression would probably ensue unless a satisfactory new trade pattern could be fashioned.

In the long run, the attitude of Frenchmen, and their treatment of their African compatriots, will powerfully affect France’s position. A perhaps overly pessimistic view was expressed to the writer by the Director of the Lycée Van Vollenhoven in Dakar, the largest in French West Africa, who said he felt his Black students, for whom he had a greater solicitude than for his White students, looked upon him with antipathy. He referred to the substantial contributions made by France toward the improvement of economic, social and health conditions in the Federation but he concluded that, in spite of all this, “We are training enemies of France.”

In any event, it would seem to be too pious a hope to expect that some investments and the superimposition of a few liberal French political and social institutions on this vast and backward area will themselves assure a tranquil future “according to plan”, especially when there is no well defined plan. In considering this absorbing subject, I am often reminded of what seemed to me a particularly intelligent article by the Rt. Hon. P. C. Gordon-Walker,5 M. P. entitled “The White Man’s Place in Africa—Future Relationship Between White and Black the Most Urgent Problem” which appeared in the April 1953 issue of the “African World.” He stated, inter alia: “To my mind the most dangerous thing in Africa today is the way in which black Africans who have themselves so developed that they are cut off from the mass of their own race have no social contacts at all with the whites whose social equals they have become. They have crossed the time-gap, but have not safely landed on the other side. If this problem is not solved, these African leaders will inevitably in the end become the spokesmen of a black ‘proletariat’ in the true sense—that is, an element in society that rejects and fights against society.” In conclusion, I don’t say that the French are as guilty of racism as some others may be, or that they are less shortsighted than others may be. However, I do confidently believe that the French have not somehow miraculously escaped the complexes of superiority more or less common to the White man vis-à-vis peoples of a different hue; and I entertain the conviction that France is in for many sad disappointments with respect to its future influence in French West Africa unless the quite narrow attitudes of its official and commercial representatives in this part of the world are replaced by broader, more charitable and more realistic viewpoints. I see no imminent prospect of such a transformation, but that does not belie its desirability.

Robert F. Corrigan
  1. Statement made to the reporting officer some months ago by the well-known American Negro educator, Dr. Horace Mann Bond, President of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. [Footnote in the source text. Blake had cited essentially the same statement in his despatch 186 of Dec. 18, 1952. (032 Bond, Horace Mann)]
  2. There is a Gallic legal subtlety involved here. Article 80 of the Constitution of 27 October 1946 gives the “quality of citizenship” to all nationals of the Overseas Territories, while Article 82 provides for the two kinds of “citizens”, those of French civil status (the Whites and many évolués) and those of “personal status” who are not bound by certain restrictions of French law such as, for example, the interdiction of polygamy. This was principally to accommodate the many Moslems. Article 82 also provides for the renunciation of the personal status, which would automatically bring about “French civil status.” However, everyone is a citizen. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. The first electoral college is composed of electors of French civil status, and the second college or “autochthonous electoral college” is limited to so-called “identified” inhabitants, i.e. those who possess identity cards, civil servants, military personnel, holders of drivers or hunting licenses, heads of families, mothers of two or more infants, etc. There were slightly over 1,000,000 voters in the Federation in 1950 and probably about 2,500,000 today. The first section of the Territorial Assemblies, elected by the first college, has about ½ as many members as the second section, which is elected by the second or native college (e.g. about 18 and 32 respectively in Ivory Coast and Dahomey). [Footnote in the source text.]
  4. For the names of the West African members of the French National Assembly in June 1951, see Political Parties in French-Speaking West Africa by Ruth Schachter Morgenthau (Oxford, 1964), pp. 393–394.
  5. Eboué owed his advancement, in part, to his resistance to Vichy and loyalty to General de Gaulle.
  6. Sir Stafford Cripps had been one of the leaders of the British Labour Party until his death in 1952. His daughter Peggy married Joe Appiah, who became a prominent lawyer and politician in independent Ghana.
  7. Head of the Department of History at Howard University, Fulbright Fellow in Paris a year or two ago. [Footnote in the source text.]
  8. Jean Silvandre represented the Sudan in the French National Assembly and Joseph Conombo was a deputy from the Upper Volta.
  9. He had been Commonwealth Secretary in the Labour government which was defeated in October 1951.