ABSTRACT

If I had to sum up as briefly as possible my research on the economic history of French colonization since the end of the nineteenth century , 1 I would say that its principal contribution has been to challenge the periodization of that history which has been accepted up till now. Based on the analysis of only limited data , previous studies proposed a chrono­ logical classification which ended up by conflating the positions of histo­ rians and economists who , however , regarded themselves as belonging to different schools . From this , the classic chronological divisions since the 1880s have been as follows :

( 1 ) Until 1914 , colonial affairs were only a matter of secondary import­ ance , satisfying the ambitions of military men and nationalists and the appetites of certain profiteers . The low percentage which the empire represented in French foreign trade (1� 12 per cent of total trade in 1913) and capital investments (less than a tenth of world capital exports) was sufficient to show that colonial conquests owed nothing to the actions of financial groups . (2) From the beginning of the First World War , the contribution of the colonies to the defence budget of France itself revealed the interest in the colonial reserve of a French capitalism weakened both by recession in its fields of expansion , and by the instability of the franc. The economic opportunities offered by the empire consequently softened the effects of the crisis of the 1930s . (3) Finally , from 1945 on , the empire became the pillar of French econo­ mic strength : hence the fears displayed by certain parties faced with the process of decolonization . In 1957 , the Director of Economic Affairs at the Ministry of French Overseas Territories , Pierre Moussa, was thus able to say :

One can reckon that about 500 ,000 French people resident in France (300 ,000 of whom are in industry) draw their income directly or more or less directly from commerce between the metropole and the overseas territories: thus , in France itself, one household in 28 is dependent for its basic support on the imperial connection (it is estimated that there are about 14 million households) . The import­ ance of this mutual trade is thus considerable . Each of the partners ,

France on the one hand , the overseas territories on the other, owes an important part of its livelihood to the control of the other partner . 2

In fact , this sombre prediction of disaster if decolonization went ahead was not fulfilled . In the decade which followed independence , the growth of French capitalism was particularly vigorous , and its structural changes rapid. Deprived of its colonies, France progressively made up some of the backwardness which marked it off from the industrialized powers . It is this fact which needs to be explained. How did France bear, without ill effects , the loss of a preferential zone which during the 1950s took between 35 and 42 per cent of its total exports and supplied between 25 and 30 per cent of its imports?