“Free France in Africa, a little-known period of history”

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On October 27, 1940, four months after his famous call on the BBC, it was in Brazzaville, seat of the institutions of French Equatorial Africa (AEF), that General de Gaulle established the capital of Free France. . There he created the Defense Council of Free France, then set up his government. It was from Brazzaville, with the support of soldiers from Chad, Oubangui-Chari, Cameroon and then Gabon, that the reconquest began.

To celebrate this moment, Brazzaville welcomed with pomp from October 27 to 30 the demonstrations around this so special period in the history of France and Africa. The AEF played an important role in stimulating resistance on African soil in parallel with that implemented in metropolitan France. It will have made it possible to embody somewhere the appeal of June 18 on an important part of the French Empire. This only further highlights this paradoxical situation of a colonized territory participating in the aspiration for freedom and independence of its colonizer who continues to enslave it. For Le Point Afrique, Joseph Itoua agreed to discuss in detail the historical facts that allow us to consider building a common memory between the former French equatorial Africa and France in the early 1940s.

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Le Point Afrique: During the conference, you affirmed that in 1940 General de Gaulle “needed land” to establish Free France there. Among all the French colonies of the time, why did he choose the AEF?

Joseph Itoua : At that time, France had in fact in Africa a vast colonial empire, acquired since the XIXe century. South of the Sahara, it is made up of two federations: French West Africa (AOF), headquartered in Dakar, and the AEF, therefore, based in Brazzaville. When Marshal Pétain signed the armistice on June 22, 1940, these territories automatically came under the yoke of the Vichy regime established in July. On June 18, however, General de Gaulle, exiled in London, pronounced his famous call for non-submission. It finds an echo in France, but continuing the war without territory is impossible. The general then turns to the colonies and seeks support. He does not find it in North Africa, nor in AOF, despite an attempt in Dakar. Then there are the AEF colonies. Especially since the governor of Chad, Félix Éboué, chooses to continue the fight after the appeal of June 18.

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However, the capital of Fort-Lamy province, N’Djamena today, is not the seat of the federation. He is in Brazzaville, where governor Louis Husson, acquired from the Vichysts, exercises. With the support of Oubangui-Chari, which has meanwhile rallied to General de Gaulle, the partisans of Free France launch an offensive by force, in other words a coup d’état, to remove General Husson. . They left from Léopoldville, in the Belgian Congo, of which Governor General Pierre Ryckmans had also chosen to continue the war. Thanks also to the resistance which had been organized in Brazzaville in hiding, the French Gaullist and Congolese soldiers overthrew Governor Husson and took power. It was by taking the capital of the AEF federation, on French territory, that the Gaullists acquired their legitimacy.

How did this land base materialize militarily?

Free France will recruit and train the men present on its brand new territory, in the Middle Congo, in Oubangui-Chari, in Chad and in Gabon, after the capture of Libreville by the Free French Forces (FFL) in November 1940. The Gaullists will also seek men in the French part of Cameroon, a former German colony and now under a protectorate shared with the British, by decision of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

How were these soldiers recruited? Were there, as was said on several occasions during the conference, acts of “solidarity”? Or on the contrary, enlistments under duress?

It is a delicate subject because it concerns the army, a body which delivers little information and which remains rather secret. There is little documentation in Africa on how the Senegalese riflemen were recruited, these African soldiers from all the colonies. French researchers, on the other hand, have more access to this data, compiled by their historians. That is why we African researchers can only speculate on how the soldiers were recruited.

Read also: Tierno Monénembo – France and us

What are they ?

In times of war, there are only two modes of recruitment: voluntary or forced. Regardless of how they joined the army, these AEF soldiers were all trained at Camp Colonna d’Ornano in Brazzaville.

Was this large-scale military establishment coupled with an economic component?

The exploitation of the AEF’s economic resources was part of the war effort. The sale of cotton from Chad and Oubangui-Chari, that of timber from Gabon and rubber from the Middle Congo, all this made it possible to financially support the battles waged by Free France. The Ubangui-Chari mines, rich in gold and diamonds, have also been used.

Without the economic resources of the AEF, would Free France have been able to carry out its objectives of reconquest?

To embark on a project of this scope, one must have solid historical and geographical knowledge. General de Gaulle had of course understood this dimension. He had learned about the geography of the French colonies. He had also studied the geopolitics of the continent and sought to know which part could be the most receptive to his call.

Why was the capital of Free France transferred to Algiers in 1943?

I think there are several reasons for this. First, for geographical questions: Algeria is just on the other side of the Mediterranean compared to France. Then, of course, for strategic reasons. This transfer took place a few months after Operation Torch, the name given to the Allied landings in French North Africa.

How has this period of AEF history influenced the decolonization process several years later ?

At the end of World War II, the Allies gained the upper hand. General de Gaulle, who is keen to win, has already thought about the aftermath. He wished to rethink the colonial policy of France and for that purpose summoned the Brazzaville Conference, from January 30 to February 8, 1944. Social, economic and cultural proposals were made there. But only the colonial governors take part in the event. No African is invited.

Will the measures proposed by this conference materialize?

Shortly after, in 1946, the General distanced himself from politics. So the French Union, established by the Constitution of the Fourth Republic and which allows the creation of political parties in Africa, as well as the Defferre framework law adopted in 1956, are not carried out under his power. When he was called back to business in 1958, he proposed a new alliance between France and his colonial empire, under the aegis of the French community. In my opinion, it is with this political association that it fits into the dynamics of decolonization. Because two years later, all the countries which joined obtain independence. For me, General de Gaulle is, in fact, the father of the decolonization of Africa.

Other historians however assert that the French Community would in fact be only a last attempt by De Gaulle to retain, for some time yet, the ascendancy over the colonies. The statutes of the French Community also reaffirm the primacy of France in key sectors such as defense and economic policy.

The fact is that they nevertheless became independent in 1960. Within the AEF, only Cameroon had had independence claims before that date. We must clearly distinguish the independence inherent in this region from that of West African countries and elsewhere.

During the opening ceremony of the colloquium, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, declared that “Africa did not have the light it deserves” on this period in history. President Denis Sassou Nguesso spoke of a “forgotten” Africa. Given that Africa, at the time, was under French domination, should we not rather speak of “tirailleurs”, of “forgotten soldiers”?

No, because if we speak of “forgotten African soldiers”, we thereby forget the other Allied soldiers who made it possible to prevail over the enemy. To speak only of soldiers is rather simplistic.

As a teacher, what can you tell us about the outlook Congolese students have over this period?

We have to talk about young Congolese, but also young French people. Because the theme of the conference is “shared memory”. I think that, overall, there is a lack of knowledge about this period of history. It is unknown, because of the lack of documentation. Apart from Jérôme Ollandet’s book, Brazzaville, capital of free France, published in 2013, there are few books that cover these events. If we could access the necessary documentation, then we could write about this topic.



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