Paris possessed a twofold identity in the modern era: it was the “capital of modernity”, which was inseparably linked to the French revolution and the consequences it had on European politics and thought and, at the same time, already during the revolution also an “(Anti-) Imperial Metropolis”, governing parts of every continent and home of people from all over the world, especially so in the interwar period, when it became both the centre of anti-imperialism and an empire which had even increased its global influence. In the following, two sides of the changing national and at same time imperial identity, or imperial modernity, of this French metropolis in the interwar period will be analysed. The first one we call “banal imperialism”, following Billig’s concept of “banal nationalism”. It manifested itself in the different ways the citizens of the metropole could come in contact with their colonial empire: they could taste it in the form of food from the colonies; they could see it in the form of posters, adverts and colonial cinema or in forms of the pavilions of the 1931 exhibition, which will be a constant throughout the essay; they could hear about it in the radio; they could follow Tintin to his adventures to Africa; or they could experience it with all five senses by travelling the colonies themselves. This colonial experience, however, is connected to the politics concerning the most striking influence of the colonies on the metropole, immigration, which will serve as a transition to the second part, the political debate about the Rif war of 1925-26, thus the discourse about the most obvious and most violent side of French imperialism. Here we will compare four different views from the press to show the different positions French politics and the public had on this topic. Both sides of this imperial modernity are, however, closely connected and, as will be our argument, also linked to the specific political situation of the time and what we call the “multiple interwar modernities”, which resulted from the political turmoil WWI had created and the subsequent manifestations of ideological alternatives, i.e. fascism in Italy, and, most importantly, bolshevism in the former Russian Empire. Consequently, the Rif war was of major importance for both the French communists and the anti-imperialists from the colonies living in France, because it showed the – at least for a time – successful realization of an alternative, anticolonial world order, which was, in their view, part of the broader anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist vision realized in the Soviet Union. The interwar period was thus a time in which the French national and imperial identity underwent fundamental change: the first signs of anti-colonial resistance were interpreted in the metropole in a highly polarized debate shaped by global discourses about self-determination and anti-colonial resistance and made the French adapt the “mission civilisatrice” and its underlying racism to the metropole, either in the surveillance of colonial immigrants or Josephine Baker’s Revue nègre. The colonial Other was thereby made an essential and inseparable part of French identity and modernity in the interwar period.
Our journey through the “colonial subconscious” begins with the supposedly most profane part: colonial food. While exotic food from the colonies had already been available before 1914, the wartime necessities, caused by the loss of the agricultural self-sufficiency, changed the Parisian culinary world. The colonial lobby used these shifts to portray the colonies “as necessary to sustaining life in the metropole.” Although some of these new foodstuffs were rejected by the population, the volume, availability and interest in older colonial products – sugar, chocolate, and coffee – increased after the war and came more and more from the French colonies in particular, due to protectionist trade policies. Moreover, foods like rice, bananas and pineapples became easily available only after the war and changed eating habits permanently, unlike whole dishes from the colonies. Besides, the loss of livestock in the war made the French import non-exotic frozen meet, a way new technology was introduced in the colonial trade. The Colonial Exhibition from 1931, finally, presented the visitors a dual impression of colonial food: exotic goods were contrasted with Algerian wine and agricultural products symbolizing the progress the French had brought to their overseas departments. All these developments helped introduce the colonies in everyday life, the same way adverts with colonial imagery did, which used racist stereotypes already prominently featured in postcards and jokes about the West African troops serving in France.
The 1931 exhibition, however, was the most successful and prestigious presentation of the colonies in the metropole. Both in terms of visitors and money invested, the exhibition outside Paris celebrating the anniversary of the seizure of Algiers in 1830 surpassed its precursors, despite the economic crises. It offered its eight million visitors a virtual tour through the colonies, each being represented by its own pavilion. While the 1889 Paris Exhibition, marking the centenary of the Revolution, had been a symbol of France’s republican identity, this imperial show should cement France’s imperial identity, and, as Marshall Lyautey, head of the exhibition, put it, “intensify the loyalty of the metropolitan population to the colonial empire.” The leitmotiv of the show was to contrast French progress in form of modern technology with the colonial, exotic Other, as already seen in the Algerian pavilion. The best symbol of this was undoubtedly the electric illumination of the reconstruction of the “Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, the chief attraction of the fairground”. The availability to reach the exhibition with modern means of transport like the metro line built only for this purpose was part of this French imperial modernity. The French visitor was thereby reminded of the insurmountable line which separated him from, but at the same time connected him to the colonial world, which could only with the help of the French become modern, albeit only to a certain degree. This show, however, constitutes only the peak of a constant propaganda effort of the government and the colonial lobby to promote the colonies to the French. Apart from the memorialization of colonial conquest in street names or metro stations, which had already been a prewar propaganda tool, the colonies became a subject of the secondary school curriculum in 1925. Moreover, the colonial lobby tried to propagate the importance of the colonies for the metropole by publishing a vast amount of books and articles about their wartime participation. What is more, the government tried to make entrepreneurs invest in the colonies and import raw materials from France’s own possessions.
Another way the French came in contact with their empire were new technological advancements: radio broadcasts and movies. The former reached an ever increasing number of listeners in forms of state-controlled news broadcasts about the empire as well as through private-owned plays set in the colonies. These plays, unlike the state programs, did not present the colonies in a positive light, but rather exhibited disappointment in the colonial project and stressed both the dangers and the boredom French experienced in their empire. French culture was depicted as clearly superior to the native ones, the colonies were thus only an economic advantage and “all of the cultural and social advantages travelled in the other direction.” After all, the shows were more about French identify than about a realistic depiction of life in the colonies, which “could only show a poor reflection of the best that was France, and make the metropole and French home more glorious in comparison.” For many French in the metropole, these shows, however, were the only way to experience far-away places like Indo-China or Sub-Saharan Africa and therefore crucial for the French imperial identity by presenting a clear cultural hierarchy and racial stereotypes to their listeners. “Cinéma colonial” presented a similar picture. While documentaries showed the colonies in moving pictures to the French already since 1897, the interwar period saw the rise of colonial movies, which were shot mostly in North Africa and influenced by the colonial administration as the price for their financial backing of the shootings. These movies borrowed themes and images from the earlier films as well as orientalist paintings, magazines, dioramas or postcards. Like the radio shows, they stressed racial and cultural superiority of the French colonisers and legitimised the French rule, especially the Foreign Legion. What is more, “by disseminating colonial mythology, film helped Frenchmen transcend narrow identities and redefine themselves as bearers of civilisation to the colonized” and thereby also to overcome class differences, since both the French working-class and the bourgeoisie were part of this civilisation. The later discussed Rif War, finally, marked the end of the shootings in Morocco.
Although available only to a minority of the French, visiting the colonies as tourists also played an important part in consolidating the top-down relationship between colonisers and colonised in the French national and imperial identity. Also pushed by the colonial lobby and propagated at the 1931 exposition, colonial tourism was represented as a duty for French citizens, a vehicle for tourists to educate themselves about the ‘facts’ of colonialism and the ‘good news’ of France’s civilizing mission through first hand experiences.” Adverts for the organized tours, especially to North Africa and Indochina, stressed the exotic experience and the difference between France and “’timeless’ peoples and landscapes.” Also, tourism stressed again the technological superiority for instance by focusing on steamships in its posters. These ships transported over 300,000 tourists from France to Algeria and Tunisia in 1923. Again, colonial governors like Lyautey promoted colonial tourism, which shows the connection between the private companies and the government officials in the creation of the imperial identity.
The last analysed aspect of “banal imperialism” is the négritude of the 1920s. Being only one part of the “remarkable affinity for the things of the colonial world” of cultural modernism in interwar France, this phenomenon is inseparably linked to the success of Josephine Baker in the Revue Nègre and her subsequent career as a star of cinéma colonial. This fascination with black culture was a “particular form of cultural primitivism that developed out of earlier exoticist discourses in the French intellectual tradition.” For Carole Sweeney, this phenomenon, which “emerged out of a profound social and cultural crisis around modernity and empire in metropolitan France”, is “revealing an epochal desire for an alternative temporal and geographical space in which the increasingly alienated subject of modernity sought historical and aesthetic refuge in a process of racial re-imagination.” For our analysis this means, that it is a cultural manifestation of the racial barrier which is part of the imperial modernity created in interwar France, even if presented as fascinating and modern. We can thus state so far that “French culture had indeed devoured colonial culture, making it an integral part of itself.”
Another aspect of the interwar imperial identity is the relationship between the state and the colonial immigrants. In the interwar period, France had the highest level of foreigners worldwide, roughly 3 million or 7% of the population in 1931. Of these, North Africans, especially Algerians, the largest share of colonial migrants, constituted only a small percentage, but aroused a disproportionate degree of public attention. This migration as well as the attitude of the French public and administration towards it was closely connected to the French rule in Algeria. Not only was the double standard of humanity, which denied the universality of the ideals of the Revolution, developed in Algeria, but the French also created the poverty which made Algerians leave their homeland. Due to the high demand for labour in 1914 the government opened the borders for migrants from Algeria. The losses in the war together with a low fertility rate even increased this demand after the war. The vast amount of publications on the “Arab problem” following this immigration was an expression of the need the metropolitan society felt “to define itself in relation to an immediate, visible minority presence which was perceived as threatening, a barbaric intrusion into the heart of Empire.” This discourse reproduced racist stereotypes already present before the war and linked them to a perceived threat of a Communist “infection” of the colonial workers. This racism mixed with anti-communist fear also shaped the surveillance of the government, which the North African migrants faced more than any other immigrant group. A coalition of leading national politicians and right-wing municipal councillors in Paris created a surveillance system which shaped the attitude of the French state towards migrants from the Maghreb for decades to come. A joint institution was established, manned by Europeans from Algeria, “who introduced into the metropole colonial attitudes and techniques of control” and combining police surveillance and some kind of “welfare” institutions including mosques, worker hostels, and a Muslim hospital at the outskirts of Paris, which most migrants refused to go to. These measures were aimed at segregating the migrants from the rest of the society and their dangerous influences like Communism. They gained support from “across the political spectrum, from the right-wing leagues to the left wing of the Socialist Party.” What made the situation of the North African migrants even worse was the absence of any consular representation, which helped Italian or Polish migrant workers when they faced problems.
As already indicated at the beginning, the migrants from – not only the French – colonial world used Paris to share their visions of independence for their respective countries and developed an anti-colonial network closely linked to the Parti communiste français (PCF) and the Comintern-funded Anti-imperialist League. “The French capital functioned as a vantage point that clarified the contours of a global system.” Soon after the war, the first anti-colonial newspapers were published by colonial migrants and university students, who even organized an “anti-exhibition” to the 1931 colonial show, presenting colonial oppression. The cooperation between the French left and the anti-imperial movement was, however, ambivalent, as the case of the Algerian Etoile nord-africaine shows. It was founded in 1926 by the PCF, but tensions rose both with the Front populaire government over its colonial policy and the Communists. After it was dissolved in 1937, its leadership moved to Algiers, turned to radical nationalism and cut its connections to the French left.
The Rif War, finally, shows the cleavages in the French society and entailed a highly charged discourse over one of the first threats to the French imperial rule, which, as we have seen, had become a crucial part of French culture. The war was only one of four uprisings at the time, the others being rebellions in Syria, Vietnam and the Congo, which were, however, too far away from France to attract as much attention. The Rif war was the “by-product of a much longer struggle between Rif Berber tribes and the Spanish”, which had divided Northern Morocco between themselves and the French in 1912. Under their leader Abd el-Krim, however, several Berber tribes resisted the Spanish conquest and formed the Rif Republic, an independent Islamic State. In 1924, Rif troops started an offensive on French Morocco as well to further their influence and liberate the whole of Morocco. Being challenged by this attack, which even threatened the French position in Algeria, the French coordinated their effort to drive el-Krim’s forces back with the Spanish, and ultimately the two armies managed to crush the resistance and consolidated their rule in Morocco in 1926. This colonial war, fought with modern weaponry and even poison gas on the Spanish side caused heavy left-wing resistance in France, which was, however, only the most extreme form of the general criticism of the colonial project articulated in varying intensity. The protests, which culminated in a general strike in October 1925, were led by the PCF, which had very close links to the Comintern in Moscow, although the latter constantly reminded the former to pay more attention to the anticolonial struggle. The campaign started in late 1924 following the Spanish defeat with a fraternisation letter of the party leadership with el-Krim in l’Humanité, the party newspaper, and the demand for independence of the Rif Republic. While the majority of the governing socialists in the Cartel des gauches – which was divided over the issue – did not join the anti-imperialist campaign, other radical left-wing groups like Clarté, a pacifist group emerging from the bloodshed of WWI as an “International of the Mind” and a group of left-wing and surrealist intellectuals joined in a press war with the socialists and conservatives, which we will now have a closer look at.
In July 1925, at the height of the war, Henri Barbusse, leader of Clarté, published a letter in l’Humanité, headed “Les travailleurs intellectuels aux côtés du prolétariat contre la guerre du Maroc”, in which he and the other signatories, forced by the events in Morocco, protest against “cette nouvelle grande guerre qui se déploie et s’allonge sept ans après le massacre du dix-sept cent mille Français et de dix millions d’hommes dans le monde“ and demand independence for the Rif as part of the right for self-determination of every people. They see its origin in imperialism and the secret treaty between France and Spain. Yet, they argue in favour of French honour, which is, other than the government claims, not violated by anti-war protest, but by the new bloodshed, which shall be ended by the League of Nations. The reaction to this letter we find five days later in Le Figaro, in an open letter entitled “Les Intellectuels aux côtés de la Patrie”, signed by, inter alia, members of the Académie française. They claim that the majority of intellectuals was on the side of “la patrie” and accuse the writers of the former letter of hypocrisy, because they didn’t protest against the violence against intellectuals in Soviet Russia. The French are depicted as bringing peace, progress and humanity to North Africa, which has ended an eternal, inter-tribal war. In the same issue, an article entitled “Les réalités du Maroc” depicts the Rif rebellion as threatening the entire empire and consequently France’s position as a great power. The author finds the reason of the rebellion in “certaines imprudences de notre politique islamisante” as well as in the disorder WWI has left behind in Europe, a reference to the Communist Opposition. This anticommunism was, as we have already seen in the case of the colonial immigrants, deeply rooted in the political elite and the driving force behind efforts for colonial modernisation, which should, according to Colonial Minister Albert Sarraut, serve as an anti-communist security measure.
On the same day, l’Humanité published a call for fraternisation of French and Rif soldiers. The whole country is described as rising against the imperialists, who have brought war in the country they pretend to cultivate. Interestingly, they too draw a line between Communism and anti-imperialism by citing the resistance of French soldiers to intervene in the Russian civil war as an example for successful fraternisation. The socialist newspaper Le Populaire presents a forth position. Like Barbusse, they call for the League of Nations to solve the situation, but at the same time they consider the war necessary, although “le Parti socialiste n’assume aucune responsabilité du passé pour l’occupation militaire du Maroc.” Therefore, they condemn the propagated fraternisation, which would make the soldiers victims both of French militarism and “de la politique étrangère de bolchevisme.” The evacuation of Morocco would only worsen the situation and has therefore to be opposed. Yet, even the Communist resistance and attitude towards the colonial question was ambivalent, as we have seen already in the case of the Algerian nationalists. In the course of the 1930s, the party, whose base “had never been entirely committed to the rights of colonial people”, refrained from its anti-racist stance and “amounted to a tacit defence of the empire.”
The Maghreb, this essay has shown, “marked France’s passage through the twentieth century.” It formed a decisive part of the French inseparably linked national and imperial modernity by creating a constant duality and hierarchy of culture and humanity. The colonial Other was thereby imprinted on French culture and politics, visible in the Négritude or the racist surveillance practices. The discourse around the Rif war, the first real threat to the imperial world order, was closely linked to the rather inner-European contestation of varying vision of modernity. If we look further into the history of Western Europe in the 20th century, we find that the Rif war was of great importance for the dark side of modernity in both France and Spain, the two countries fighting the Rif Republic hand in hand: it is the same figures that lead or partake in the suppression of the first at least for some years successful African struggle for independence that will later lead the fight against the French and Spanish republics, Francisco Franco and, after Lyautey’s removal in 1925, Philippe Pétain. Part of this dark side of modernity was also the “colonial holy alliance”, which was apparent at the participation of fascist Italy at the 1931 colonial exhibition. At the same time, el-Krim’s guerrilla tactics inspired Che Guervara to create his version of an anti-imperial modernity, which had been imagined in interwar Paris, the place where Algerian, Chinese and Vietnamese anti-imperial fighters met who should change history so dramatically in the era of decolonization. The city thus remained the “capital of modernity” in the first half of the 20th century.
Barbusse, Henri: “Les travailleurs intellectuels aux côtés du prolétariat contre la guerre du Maroc”, in L’Humanité, 02.07.1925, p. 1.
“Devant La Tuerie. Fraternisation!”, in L’Humanité, 07.07.1925, p. 1.
“Les Intellectuels aux côtés de la Patrie”, in Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.
“Paix immédiate! Evacuation! Tout le Maroc se soulève contre l’envahisseur”, in Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.
“Pour la paix au Maroc. Une Conférence socialiste internationale”, in Le Populaire, 01.08.1925, p.2.
“Résolution sur le Maroc. Votée à l‘unanimité”, in Le Populaire, 31.07.1925, p. 1.
Romier, Lucien: “The realities of Morocco”, in Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.
Aissaoui, Rabah: Algerian nationalists in the French political arena and beyond: the Etoile nord africaine and the Parti du peuple algérien in interwar France, The Journal of North African Studies, 15 (2010), pp. 1-12.
August, Thomas G.: The Selling of the Empire. British and French Imperialist Propaganda, 1890-1940 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985).
Billig, Michael: Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995).
Daughton, J.P.: Behind the Imperial Curtain. International Humanitarian Efforts and the Critique of French Colonialism in the Interwar Years, French Historical Studies, 34 (2011), pp. 503-528.
Drake, David: The PCF, the Surrealists, Clarté and the Rif War, French Cultural Studies, 17 (2006), pp. 173-188.
Er, Mevliyar: Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi: The Unknown Mentor of Che Guevara, Terrorism and Political Violence, 0 (2015), pp. 1-23.
Ezra, Elizabeth: The Colonial Unconscious. Race and Culture in Interwar France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).
Furlough, Ellen: Une leçon des choses: Tourism, Empire, and the Nation in Interwar France, French Historical Studies, 25 (2002), pp. 441-473.
Goebel, Michael: Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Harvey, David: Paris, Capital of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2006).
Janes, Lauren Rebecca Hinkle: The Taste of Empire: Colonial Food in Interwar Paris (Pro Quest Dissertations Publishing, 2011).
Lebovics, Herman: True France. The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
MacMaster, Neil: Colonial Migrants and Racism. Algerians in France, 1900-62 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
Neulander, Joelle: Airing the exotic: Colonial landscapes on French interwar metropolitan Radio, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27 (2007), pp. 313-332.
Rosenberg, Clifford: The Colonial Politics of Health Care Provision in Interwar Paris, French Historical Studies, 27 (2004), pp. 637-668.
Slavin, David Henry: Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919-1939. White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
Sweeney, Carole: La Revue Nègre: négrophilie, modernity and colonialism in inter-war France, Journal of Romance Studies, 1 (2001), pp. 1-13.
Thomas, Martin: Albert Sarraut, French Colonial Development, and the Communist Threat, 1919-1930, The Journal of Modern History, 77 (2005), pp. 917-955.
Thomas, Martin: The French empire between the wars. Imperialism, politics and society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).
 Goebel, Michael: Anti-Imperial Metropolis. Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
 Billig, Michael: Banal Nationalism (London: Sage Publications, 1995).
 Janes, Lauren Rebecca Hinkle: The Taste of Empire: Colonial Food in Interwar Paris (Pro Quest Dissertations Publishing, 2011), pp. 1-20, 333.
 Thomas, Martin: The French empire between the wars. Imperialism, politics and society (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), pp. 190-191.
 Lebovics, Herman: True France. The Wars over Cultural Identity, 1900-1945 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. 53.
 Ibid., pp. 57-59.
 Thomas: Empire, pp. 188-189.
 August, Thomas G.: The Selling of the Empire. British and French Imperialist Propaganda, 1890-1940 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), pp. 54-64.
 Neulander, Joelle: Airing the exotic: Colonial landscapes on French interwar metropolitan Radio, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 27 (2007), pp. 313-332.
 Slavin, David Henry: Colonial Cinema and Imperial France, 1919-1939. White Blind Spots, Male Fantasies, Settler Myths (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), pp. xi-4.
 Furlough, Ellen: Une leçon des choses: Tourism, Empire, and the Nation in Interwar France, French Historical Studies, 25 (2002), pp. 441-473.
 Lebovics: France, p. 94.
 Sweeney, Carole: La Revue Nègre: négrophilie, modernity and colonialism in inter-war France, Journal of Romance Studies, 1 (2001), pp. 1-13.
 Ezra, Elizabeth: The Colonial Unconscious. Race and Culture in Interwar France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 3.
 MacMaster, Neil: Colonial Migrants and Racism. Algerians in France, 1900-62 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), p. 4.
 Rosenberg, Clifford: The Colonial Politics of Health Care Provision in Interwar Paris, French Historical Studies, 27 (2004), pp. 637-668.
 Goebel: Metropolis, p. 3.
 Thomas: Empire, pp. 186-201.
 Aissaoui, Rabah: Algerian nationalists in the French political arena and beyond: the Etoile nord africaine and the Parti du peuple algérien in interwar France, The Journal of North African Studies, 15 (2010), pp. 1-12.
 Thomas: Empire, p. 211.
 Ibid., p. 212.
 Daughton, J.P.: Behind the Imperial Curtain. International Humanitarian Efforts and the Critique of French Colonialism in the Interwar Years, French Historical Studies, 34 (2011), pp. 503-528.
 Drake, David: The PCF, the Surrealists, Clarté and the Rif War, French Cultural Studies, 17 (2006), pp. 173-188.
 L’Humanité, 02.07.1925, p. 1.
 Le Figaro, 07.07.1925, p. 1.
 Thomas, Martin: Albert Sarraut, French Colonial Development, and the Communist Threat, 1919-1930, The Journal of Modern History, 77 (2005), pp. 917-955.
 L’Humanité, 07.07.1925, p. 1.
 Le Populaire, 01.08.1925, p.2 and 31.08.1925, p. 1.
 Slavin: Cinema, pp. 4, 73-74.
 Er, Mevliyar: Abd-el-Krim al-Khattabi: The Unknown Mentor of Che Guevara, Terrorism and Political Violence, 0 (2015), pp. 1-23.