No Pride for France in Africa

"If Only Napoleon had Left Instructions" 

by Jeremy Fonseca

The French experience in Africa from 1869 to 1912 can only be described in one manner: the desperate struggle to retain respect and pride. All of her experiences negatively influenced French national pride and international respect., which, slowly wilting since the time of Napoleon's demise and greatly traumatized by the loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, only deteriorated ever so much more by the incidences in Africa. The struggle for Africa, characterized by the competition with other European nations for land and influence, continuously situated France in the precarious position of groping for national pride. France was desperately battling to save face and restore her former glory in her competition with Britain and Germany, but the events throughout the continent always set back the efforts. From the loss of the Suez Canal, a definite damper on French national pride and international respect, to the Moroccan scenario which found France relying on her historic enemy Britain for protection from Germany, French imperialism in Africa served to further disappoint the French people and serve as more fodder for international criticism: all this just to make France as glorious as in her Napoleonic era. If only Napoleon would have left instructions...

France's first disgrace in Africa stemmed from a great endeavor which she had orchestrated: the Suez Canal. Completed in 1869, the monumental French triumph was a foundation of French influence in Egypt, and revenue generated from British vessels involved with India made the project a lucrative undertaking. At the same time Britain, France's perennial nemesis, viewed the Canal as a now-important mainstay of her commerce with India. Britain secretly purchased stock in the Canal, eventually amassing sufficient shares to gain majority holdings and usurp control of the Canal from the duped French in 1875. France's great triumph of mankind over nature and source of pride was now possessed by- of all people- the British. To add injury to insult, the manner in which Britain secretly took control of the Canal mocked French intelligence and competency, a contemptuously disheartening pill for the French to swallow.

As if losing the precious Suez Canal were not enough disgrace for the French in Egypt, the subsequent loss of more control in the region- to, once again, the British- further insulted French pride. The Khedive of Egypt's spendthrift lifestyle was dependent on loans from European powers, and eventually found Egypt in financial crisis. The powers who had vested interests in Egypt, those who had lent the Khedive the capital for his lavish lifestyle, Britain and France assumed more control of Egypt, establishing a dual control of the area. Britain saw Egypt as security for their possession in the Suez Canal, but at the same time recognized the moral and international implications of control of Egypt. France once again vanquished more control to the despised British, and consequently lost face and pride in her lackluster African efforts. To further test the French position, the Egyptian uprising under Arabi to depose the Khedive and expel the European presence presented France with the predicament of armed conflict in an international situation. The French government refused to take arms in the uprising, leaving the British to quell the insurgency. The aftermath found Britain with new political standing in Egypt (having taken arms to secure the region which was under "dual control"), sweeping French influence in the region out the door. Coupled with the loss of the Canal, the British take-over of Egypt demonstrated France's incompetence in handling African affairs, and consequently was a slap in the face to French pride- Not only could they not handle Africa, but what must those Brits be saying? The answer to this question would place France in a struggle to wrestle Egypt back from Britain, but would never achieve this goal.

This struggle transpired in the Sudan to the south, which further forced French acquiescence to the will of Britain despite domestic desire to win the region from the Brits. Both countries, entertaining long-term goals of unifying their respective extremes of the continent, viewed the Sudan area and the upper Nile region as vital to such plans. France was determined to control the area and use it against British Egypt (one plan was diverting the Nile into the Red Sea, killing Egypt in the process). Britain, battling against the Mahdists in Sudan, advanced to Fashoda, where they were met by the French forces under Marchand who were charged with possessing the area for France. War eminent, civil strife caused by the Dreyfus affair in France erupted among popular French discontent, placing the French diplomats in no condition to wage war. A conference was called, which ended in France receiving exclusive control of Morocco and Britain the Sudan. The French forces, defeated diplomatically, left Fashoda, and their East-African goals, once again victim at the hands of what the British desired. France may have fought a war, but because she could not even handle domestic matters effectively, more pride and international respect was also left at Fashoda.

More competition with Britain demonstrated more vividly France's incompetence to play hard ball with her counterparts. Both countries struggling for control of the Niger River valley, France attempted to flex her will in determining the outcome, under the impression that "possession is 9/10ths of the law." France seized possessions on the River in the "Battle of Flags," hoping to exercise the right of occupation in future dealing with the British over control of the area. Britain responded with claiming more possessions to try and out-do the French, and also with the threat of war. France backed down in the confrontation, conceding the lower part of the River to Britain while retaining the upper part. France lost in the attempt to "be one of the big boys" because of those pestering Brits. Couldn't France get a break and throw her weight SOMEWHERE to exercise control like the other European powers?

Morocco, the next stage for French embarrassment, proved to be nonetheless disappointing for the French people. Germany, conscious of Anglo-British agreements, charged France with violation of a treaty which guaranteed their compensation in the Moroccan situation. France would not attend the conference until threatened with war (an option not feasible in France's decrepit domestic and international situation), when they convened at Algeciras, Spain to settle the issue. France certainly awaited doom in the conference, until Britain assumed the responsibility of protecting France. The conference ended with the French retaining Morocco, but promising not to take full control. Not only had France not been able to defend herself, she had to enlist the help of- blasphemy- Britain. Definitely strange bedfellows, with France on the bottom. after fighting the British for centuries, France now had to have her save her in time of crisis- the equivalent of passing gallstones to French pride, which now was asking even louder, what are the Brits smirking at now? The next problem found France attempting to assume more control in her destiny. Germany was suspicious of French actions in a Moroccan uprising, sending forces to protect German interests in the area. France, unable to war with Britain a few years earlier, could not wage war with the Germans. Again the British to the rescue, calling a conference in which France was saved with good standing, but only after losing her Congo possessions in a conference called by the British.

All of these events demonstrate the struggle for French power in a world where she could not compete. Britain exercised continual dominance of the majority of situations in which France found herself, placing France at the mercy of those people across the Channel and dependent on what Britain policy deemed as of vital interest. The French government's inability to control their own domestic problems further advertised their incompetence. Being unable to settle problems at home, it came as no surprise to outside countries when the Insubordinate Army ran wild in Western Africa. France could not muster any international respect in her bid at colonialism in Africa, and all of the incidences served to cripple French pride and dignity. Would France ever arrive at the grandeur that Napoleon brought, commanding the respect of all nations and a true source of pride for her people- instead of having to acquiesce to foreign powers and even be rescued by the British. Why couldn't Napoleon have written down some pointers for his beloved countrymen?