Why did decolonisation cause relatively more controversy in France than in Britain?

Decolonisation caused relatively more controversy in France than in Britain as France was unable to implement their radical plans of a ‘super state’ amongst their colonies, leading to violence and the eventual disillusionment of the empire. However, we will also consider the relative success of the British model for future relations, that which was voluntary and perhaps more progressive than their French counterparts. Furthermore, we will analyse the overarching theme across both empires, that which was a desire to remain influential on the world stage, as a catalyst for controversy.

Commonwealth of Nations

To analyse the French experience of decolonisation, we must first look at their British counterpart to understand in which areas French colonial policy was lacking comparatively. According to Smith, the British possessed a “legacy of the past in terms of ideas and procedures on imperial matters”[1]. Perhaps the best example of this trend towards gradual decolonisation comes in the form of the Indian Councils Act 1909 which sought to increase the involvement of Indians in the governance of British India[2]. Despite not intending to create a framework for the eventual independence of India in 1947, the ‘Morley-Minto Reforms’ provided the basis for parliamentary governance in India and spread the “spirit of English institutions”, according to Burke and Quaraishi[3]. Subsequently, decolonialisation in Britain caused relatively less controversy than in France as the British had long favoured the notion of ‘indirect rule’ over direct authority as it was far cheaper and more stable in the long-term, sparing natives “unnecessary contact with white men”[4].

In understanding the seeming lack of controversy around British decolonisation, one must also look at the institution left in the wake of the British Empire: The Commonwealth of Nations. Its very nature as a multilateral organisation allowed the Commonwealth to act as a force for good to maintain British influence through cooperation rather than rule. In her 1953 Christmas Day speech, Queen Elizabeth the Second claimed that this new Commonwealth would be built in the spirit of “friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace”[5]. It was in this spirit that the Commonwealth set a precedent for future British policy in regards to decolonisation. No longer was direct rule the norm but rather the exertion of soft power (i.e. cultural and linguistic influence) which would eventually culminate in far less controversy than the French policy of assimilation. It was the ability of the British to abandon ideas such as an ‘Imperial Federation’, a plan to reverse the trend of autonomy in favour of assimilation, that gave a much more pragmatic edge to British decolonisation and subsequently allowed Britain to remain influential on the world stage.

Despite the more progressive nature that the British employed in their policies for decolonisation, the organisation was not immune to controversy. Perhaps the greatest source of controversy came in 1956 as the Suez Crisis signalled an end to Britain’s formal pre-eminence as a world superpower. The intervention was seen as a poorly thought out and short-term solution to the challenges of decolonisation. Subsequently, two key pillars of this new organisation, defence and finance, quickly shifted responsibility to the US. The ANZUS treaty linked Australia and New Zealand militarily to the US, leaving the British to redefine their defensive priorities from the Commonwealth to NATO[6], further undermining the organisation. Furthermore, the financial hub of the world, London, became ever more reliant on American Marshall Aid financing to remain relevant[7]. Srinvasan summarised this overall limitation of the Commonwealth’s influence as a loss of enthusiasm on the part of the British[8]. A once sprawling and cosmopolitan institution of global affairs had been reduced to a symbolic gesture of the Empire on which the sun never set. 

French Union

Whilst the British Empire possessed experience in tackling the changing face of imperialism, France was steadfast in her colonial ideas and procedures much to her detriment in the long-term. As Marshall argued, the overwhelming cause of controversy in France was not due to external pressures, but rather the Republic’s inability to even consider a “colonial evolution towards independence”[9]. Perhaps the most radical attempt to revert this trend was pursued under Charles De Gaulle, assembling a conference of colonial governors in 1944. Whilst this did show a certain willingness on the part of the French government to adapt to a new model of imperialism, the overarching theme of the meeting was one of closer union as opposed to more autonomy. Following the meeting, the drafted Brazzaville manifesto remained adamant that the “work of civilization undertaken by France in the colonies exclude all idea of autonomy”[10], a stark reminder of the unwavering ideology that constituted the French Empire. It was this unflinching commitment to protectionist colonial policy which would shape France’s evolution into the ‘French Union’ and its subsequent controversy.

In 1946, the French government amended their constitution to dissolve the notion of colonies under the French state, instead opting for the creation of just one France[11]. When compared to the British Empire, it is clear to see that the French experience of empire was much more Franco-centric and aggressive in nature, lending prudence to the idea that this subsequently created more controversy and conflict. Whilst Britain championed local government, the French aimed for a single state “inhabited by French citizens, and blessed by French culture”[12]. This model for tackling rising nationalism throughout the empire was inherently non-metropolitan as a result, perhaps explaining the key problem with this new ‘French Union’: centralisation. Despite various mechanisms of power stemming from this new ‘federation’, including national and regional assemblies, the power to legislate social, economic and military doctrines ultimately stemmed from the French Parliament, rendering these instruments useless[13]. This lack of consideration for the rights and desires of her supposed ‘former’ colonies would ultimately lead to controversy in the form of violent uprisings in areas like Algiers and Morocco[14], spelling an end to French cultural hegemony over the Union and far less influence over international affairs in the long-term when compared to Britain.

It was not until 1956, with the passing of an enabling law in France, that the French policy of assimilation was abandoned in favour of autonomy and eventual independence. Despite this, the conditions in which a new and voluntary collection of nations, known as the ‘French Community’, were that of violence and widespread unrest in crucial areas like Algeria[15]. This in turn would set the tone for the whole ‘French Community’ project as states fully embraced self-determination and self-governance. The epitome of this shift from aggressive ruler to a benevolent nation-state can be seen with President de Gaulle’s assertion that Mali’s claim for national sovereignty were in fact valid and appropriate for the time[16]. This in turn set a precedent throughout the newly formed institution, granting states that had long been developing their own national identities separate from France and who now saw this as an opportunity to enter the modern world as a fledgling new nation-state.

A shared desire to maintain influence on the world stage

For both Britain and France, the overriding desire to maintain the ‘burden of empire’ can be said to stem from their wishes for international influence in matters of foreign policy. In Britain’s case, it was widely accepted that the era of ‘Pax Britannica’ had drawn to a close, now being continued by another Anglo-sphere world power: The United States[17]. Smith argued that whilst rising to prominence during this period, the United States still retained a level of “immaturity in foreign affairs”[18] which British foreign policy sought to utilise to maintain their prominent status as the leading diplomatic entity globally. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen with Sir Anthony Eden’s (British Foreign Secretary 1951-1955) policy in the Middle East. With the assistance of the US, the British were able to preserve military hegemony in the region through the Baghdad Pact[19], a stunning example of political brinkmanship even in the face of weakened influence from decolonisation. Consequently, the amount of controversy from decolonisation in Britain was limited as they remained unique in their deep-seated ties to nations across the globe and well versed in matters of foreign policy which the US was unable to replicate sufficiently on their own.

The French, however, did not possess a natural alliance with the US like the British. In fact, a wide array of contentious points grew following the Second World War as to what post-war France would be: a satellite puppet or a self-determined world leader. De Gaulle characterised this best in his memoirs, claiming that France needed to “recover her vigor, her self-reliance and, consequently, her role”[20] in international life. As a staunchly anti-imperialist state, the US often clashed with France over matters of colonial policy even through the process of decolonisation. Elgey summed up this tension as an inevitability as France became ever increasingly reliant on US aid to maintain her monopoly in Indochinese affairs as well as to rebuild following the Second World War through Marshall Aid[21]. Consequently, decolonisation was far more controversial in France than in Britain as support for her imperial ambitions wavered from the new hegemonic power of the US.


Overall, it was the ways and means in which France believed it could retain its diplomatic reputation abroad that ultimately doomed the French Empire to more controversy when compared to the British Empire. A harsh policy of ever more union with colonial subjects may very well have worked had the imposition of French culture been more gradual both in scope and time taken. The British comparatively took a more gradual process to decolonization, favouring relations with independent states over further integration, thus reducing immediate unrest and maintaining her diplomatic vigour globally. So too was each nations approach to the US and recognition of its new position as world hegemon important as it proved an ability to adapt foreign policy both in the context of waning empires and the wider cold war. Arguably, it was nationalism across Frances’ colonies that created a desire for self-determination which the French were simply unable to control and unwilling to adapt to that spurred on greater controversy than the British could ever had experienced during this period.


[1]Smith, Tony. 1978. “A Comparative Study Of French And British Decolonization”. Comparative Studies In Society And History 20 (01): p 71.

[2] Ilbert, Courtenay. “The Indian Councils Act, 1909.” Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 11, no. 2 (1911): p.243-54.

[3] Burke, Samuel Martin, and Salim al-Din Quraishi. 2004. The British Raj In India. 1st ed. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

[4] Roberts, Andrew. 2010. Salisbury. 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber Ltd. P.529

[5] Harrison, Brian Howard. 2011. Seeking A Role: The United Kingdom, 1951-1970 (New Oxford History Of England). 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P.102

[6] Starke, J. G. 1965. The Anzus Treaty Alliance. 1st ed. Melbourne: Melbourne U.P.

[7] Harrison, Brian. 2011. Seeking A Role: The United Kingdom 1951—1970

[8] Krishnan Srinivasan (2007) Nobody’s Commonwealth? The Commonwealth in Britain’s post-imperial adjustment, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. PP. 257-269

[9] Marshall, D. Bruce. 1973. The French Colonial Myth And Constitution-Making In The Fourth Republic. 1st ed. New Haven: Yale University Press. PP.102-115

[10] Gildea, Robert. 2002. France Since 1945. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P.16

[11] Simpson, Alfred W. B. 2010. Human Rights And The End Of Empire. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. P.285

[12] Ibid. P.285

[13] Ibid PP.285-286

[14] Ibid. PP.286-287

[15] Ibid. PP.285-287

[16] “French Community”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 9. London: William Benton. 1963. pp. 756B–756C.

[17] Pugh, Martin. 1999. Britain Since 1789. 1st ed. Basingstoke: Macmillan. p.90

[18] Smith, Tony. “A Comparative Study Of French And British Decolonization”. Comparative Studies In Society And History . P.77

[19] Martin, Kevin W. (2008). “Baghdad Pact”. In Ruud van Dijk; et al. Encyclopedia of the Cold War. New York: Routledge. p. 57.

[20] Gaulle, Charles de. 1967. The Complete War Memoirs. 2nd ed. New York: Simon and Schuster. P.574

[21] Elgey, Georgette. 1993. La République Des Illusions (1945-1951). 3rd ed. Paris: Fayard. P.139-41


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