Roundtable 7-18 on Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism: Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire

Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism coverImperial rule inevitably brings about a nationalist reaction. A brief glance at the title of Adria Lawrence’s book might suggest that her argument amplifies an already dominant historical consensus. However, such a view would be mistaken because Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism offers a powerful challenge to the common wisdom about colonialism and nationalism. In Lawrence’s view, based on extensive primary research in French colonial archives, scholars have been far too quick to assume that nationalist responses were the inevitable consequence of imperial rule. In order to understand the politics of nationalism in the French Empire, Lawrence argues that we need to understand the prior importance of demands for political equality because “nationalist demands began when and where the French refused calls for political equality. Exclusion led to nationalist movements seeking to end colonial rule” (xiii-xiv).

H-Diplo | ISSF  Roundtable, Volume VII, No. 18 (2015)

A production of H-Diplo with the journals Security Studies, International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies, and the International Studies Association’s Security Studies Section (ISSS).

H-Diplo/ISSF Editors: James McAllister and Diane Labrosse
H-Diplo/ISSF Roundtable and Web/Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo/ISSF by James McAllister

Introduction by James McAllister

Adria K. Lawrence. Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism:   Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire. Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN:   9781107037090 (hardback, $85.00); 9781107640757 (paperback, $29.99).

Published by H-Diplo/ISSF on 8 June 2015



© Copyright 2015 The Authors.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Introduction by James McAllister, Williams College

Imperial rule inevitably brings about a nationalist reaction. A brief glance at the title of Adria Lawrence’s book might suggest that her argument amplifies an already dominant historical consensus. However, such a view would be mistaken because Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism offers a powerful challenge to the common wisdom about colonialism and nationalism. In Lawrence’s view, based on extensive primary research in French colonial archives, scholars have been far too quick to assume that nationalist responses were the inevitable consequence of imperial rule. In order to understand the politics of nationalism in the French Empire, Lawrence argues that we need to understand the prior importance of demands for political equality because “nationalist demands began when and where the French refused calls for political equality. Exclusion led to nationalist movements seeking to end colonial rule” (xiii-xiv).

Both of the reviewers in this roundtable agree that Lawrence has written an important book with important and controversial implications for understanding both the past and the present. Paul MacDonald argues that Lawrence’s book is “a must read for those interested in nationalism, contentious politics, and the dynamics of imperial rule in international politics. It also stands as an excellent example of the use of multi-method and archival research in political science, one that qualitatively inclined scholars should strive to emulate.” Harris Mylonas is similarly enthusiastic, arguing that “Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism makes a significant contribution to the study of nationalism and nationalist mobilization.”

Not surprisingly, the most important concerns of both reviewers are related to theoretical issues rather than the specific historical evidence put forward by Lawrence. Noting that the most successful examples to support Lawrence’s argument were the small overseas departments and territories (DOM-TOMS), MacDonald wonders whether it is possible to make larger generalizations from these distinctive cases. In addition, he points out that the postwar experience of the British Empire in India and Malaysia was quite different than the French cases analyzed by Lawrence. Mylonas questions Lawrence’s sharp distinction between nationalist movements and “movements for political equality” given that many colonial subjects were motivated by both objectives.

H-Diplo/ISSF thanks Professor Lawrence and all the reviewers for contributing to this important debate that should be of great interest to both political scientists and historians.


Adria Lawrence is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University and a Research Fellow at Yale’s Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.  Her research focuses on violent and non-violent opposition to imperial and authoritarian rule.  She is a scholar of nationalism, collective action, and Middle Eastern and North African politics.  Her book, Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism, won the 2014 Jervis-Schroeder Best Book Award, given by the American Political Science Association’s Organized Section on International History and Politics, and was named one of the best books of 2013 on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel. She is currently working on a project that investigates the use of direct and indirect rule in the French Empire.

Paul K. MacDonald is an associate professor of political science at Wellesley College. He has held research positions at Williams College, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Center for International Security and Cooperation. He has published articles in International Security, Review of International Studies, Security Studies, International Organization, and the American Political Science Review. His first book Networks of Domination: The Social Foundations of Peripheral Conquest in International Politics was published this year by Oxford University Press.

Harris Mylonas is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. He is the author of The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities (Cambridge University Press), for which he won the 2014 European Studies Book Award by the Council for European Studies, The Peter Katzenstein Book Prize in 2013, and an honorable mention by the Rothschild Prize in Nationalities and Ethnic Studies Committee of the Association for the Study of Nationalities in 2014. His work has been published in Perspectives on Politics, Security Studies, Comparative Political Studies, Ethnopolitics, and the European Journal of Political Research

Review by Paul K. MacDonald, Wellesley College

In her impressive new book, Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism, Adria Lawrence challenges conventional interpretations of the role of nationalism in anti-colonial protest. While much of the literature sees nationalist protests against European overseas empires as inevitable, Lawrence contends that the process was much more contingent than is often appreciated. Early reform movements in the colonies did not necessarily advocate for complete independence, and individual colonies experienced nationalist agitation at different times and to different degrees. Dismissing teleological views of decolonization and anti-colonial protest prompts Lawrence to ask two critical questions: “What prompted those living under imperial rule to begin making nationalist demands? Why did nationalist demonstrations erupt in particular places and times?” ( 9).

The answers that Lawrence provides are compelling. First, she claims that social movements are more likely to embrace nationalist rhetoric in cases where imperial powers have rejected calls for assimilation and reform. Nationalist demands are not the product of a certain level of development or normative shifts in the international environment, but rather a reaction to failed efforts to achieve political equality within the context of the colonial state. In making this claim, Lawrence makes a strong case that early reform movements in the colonies were not simply precursors to subsequent nationalist agitation. While “nationalists sought to capture the state,” she argues, “reformists strove to democratize it” (51). In places where imperial powers granted political rights to their colonial subjects, as France did in Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guiana, Reunion, Polynesia, New Caledonia, and portions of Senegal, calls for independence were muted. In contrast, in colonies where calls for assimilation were rejected, reformers increasingly embraced nationalist rhetoric. As Lawrence pithily concludes, “exclusion produced nationalism” (92).

Nationalist claims are only part of the story, however. Anti-colonial movements must not only be motivated to demand independence, they must also have opportunities to mobilize. This leads to Lawrence’s second main argument: nationalist protests are more likely to occur when “disruptions in imperial authority” provide “openings for political opponents to stage nationalist demonstrations” (132). She points to two sources of potential disruption: “international war” and “the colonial power’s own decision to devolve authority over the administrative apparatus of the state to local leaders” (136). Such disruptions can reduce the coercive capacity of the colonial state, encourage collaborators to abandon their colonial masters, prompt populations to identify more strongly with the nation, and send strong signals that independence is a viable option. In a dramatic example of this dynamic, Lawrence finds that “nine out of the eleven” French colonies occupied by foreign forces during the Second World War experienced nationalist outbursts (150), compared to none of the twenty-one colonies that remained under French control during the war. She concludes that nationalism was not a “slow-growing, gradual phenomenon,” but rather “erupted swiftly in the French empire, following a rupture in state control” (165).

Lawrence develops these two hypotheses over a series of chapters, drawing primarily from the empirical record of the French Empire during the interwar and post-war periods. She skillfully switches between broad cross-colony comparisons of France’s thirty-five overseas colonies and territories, and more fine-grained analyses of particular nationalist movements in Morocco, Algeria, Senegal, Vietnam, and French West Africa. The highlight of the empirical analysis is a chapter in which Lawrence draws on archival resources to construct an original dataset of monthly nationalist incidents in colonial Morocco from 1934 to 1956. She not only shows that nationalist events were more likely to occur when imperial authority was disrupted, but that the form of nationalist protests differed in these moments as well, with large demonstrations being preferred to strikes, store closings, or meetings. She also presents a fascinating discussion of nationalist agitation during settled times, which finds that anti-colonial movements often took advantage of the cover provided by apolitical religious or secular holidays to avoid repressive reactions by imperial authorities.

In short, Lawrence’s book is a must read for those interested in nationalism, contentious politics, and the dynamics of imperial rule in international politics. It also stands as an excellent example of the use of multi-method and archival research in political science, one that qualitatively inclined scholars should strive to emulate. That being said, Lawrence’s analysis does raise some questions that merit additional discussion. First, her assessment of political equality and nationalist reaction rests on a provocative counterfactual: could political assimilation have worked? Had the French made genuine efforts to transform colonial subjects into citizens, could political independence have been postponed, or even avoided altogether? The most successful cases of assimilation are found in the French overseas departments and territories, or DOM-TOMs. Lawrence notes that these territories are small and “generally had a longer history of French control” than France’s other colonies (118). Can we draw broad conclusions from these seemingly exceptional cases?

Along the same lines, successive French post-war regimes did make modest strides towards political equality. Lawrence notes that the 1946 French constitution granted the populations of certain colonial possessions “the promise of citizenship within a federal structure” (105), although the precise details remained ambiguous. The subsequent 1956 Loi-cadre likewise devolved power to a number of African colonial “assemblies elected through universal suffrage” (160), although France retained certain prerogatives. The fact that these sorts of concessions were met by further demands suggests that political equality was essentially indivisible: nothing short of full citizenship would ever have proved acceptable. Yet even had Paris been willing to accept an “empire of citizens,” to use Frederick Cooper’s term,[1] would it have been sustainable over the long term? What economic interests or ideological values would have held such a sprawling entity together? Nationalism may not have been an ideological inevitability, but something like the nation-state may well have been a practical one.

Second, because Lawrence is interested in variation in nationalist mobilization, her analysis is primarily focused on the level of individual movements in specific colonies. This leaves the motives of French politicians and administrators somewhat underdeveloped. Why did French leaders make the concessions towards equality that they did? Why did they refuse to go further? The answers to these questions are critical, because, as Lawrence notes, it was the French decision to devolve authority to a number of colonies under the 1956 Loi-cadre that eroded French authority and ultimately paved the way for political independence. French preferences are not incidental to the story, they account for both the timing of this voluntary “disruption” to imperial authority, and the eventual severance of the colonial tie (161).

Lawrence does note that French policymakers were “influenced more by ideology and political competition in France than by conditions in the colonies” (117). In particular, left-leaning parties tended to favor greater political equality than did right-leaning parties. But one wonders about the broader context: what role did the colonies play in France’s post-war political economy and overseas security posture? Were decisions influenced by French leaders’ assessments of the quality and character of local politicians in the colonies or by the presence of settler populations? Because Lawrence is interested more in nationalist mobilization than decolonization itself, she tends to sidestep these complex questions, but they seem central to understanding why the French allowed openings for nationalist mobilization to appear in the first place. One also wonders whether the two categories of disruption to imperial authority are entirely unrelated: might the experience of nationalist mobilization in war-torn colonies immediately following the Second World War have shaped subsequent French colonial policy across the broader empire?

A third and related set of questions concerns the ability of international factors to influence both the motives and opportunities for nationalist action. Lawrence acknowledges that nationalists’ “options were shaped by a wider global context” (23) In her analysis of the data on colonial Morocco, she also explores the role of “international events” (206), which she codes as the onset of mobilization or the granting of autonomy in other parts of the French empire, finding that they are associated with, but cannot completely account for, variation in the presence of nationalist protest. These statements suggest that international factors are important, but it is not clear entirely how. Did the sharing of ideas and best practices between anti-colonial movements shape their willingness and capacity to mobilize along nationalist lines? Did patterns of Cold War competition, along with the particular stance taken by the United States and international organizations towards colonial questions, shape French decisions about how best to balance fresh concessions versus increased repression?

Along the same lines, one wonders whether the hypotheses Lawrence develops are applicable to all colonial empires or are unique to the French experience. The ideological foundations of the French empire may have made issues of assimilation and citizenship much more potent concerns than in other colonial contexts. Moreover, because the Third Republic was defeated so dramatically in 1940, it is perhaps unsurprising that this would have significant repercussions across an exposed and vulnerable empire. In this context, the post-war record of Britain paints a somewhat different picture. Despite remaining in firm British control throughout the war, India experienced immediate, and widespread, nationalist mobilization in its aftermath. In contrast, although Malaya suffered under Japanese occupation, Britain was able to quickly reestablish authority and dampen nationalist demands through timely constitutional concessions. In short, to understand global patterns of nationalist mobilization, as well as explain variations across different empires, we may have to turn to different sets of variables. Yet Lawrence should be commended for producing a work that pushes scholars of international relations to grapple seriously with the interrelated origins of nationalist mobilization, imperial collapse, and post-colonial state building.

Review by Harris Mylonas, The George Washington University

Adria Lawrence has written an important book on the politics of decolonization and the timing of nationalist mobilization in the French Empire. Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism is motivated by two empirical puzzles. First, she observes that—contrary to many of the existing accounts[2]—mobilization against the French Empire was—at least at first—not nationalist in content but rather turned nationalist at a later stage. According to Lawrence, many scholars characterize protests for equal rights that did not involve any nationalist claims as nationalist, thus dodging the shift to nationalist content that took place over time. Second, Lawrence points to the difficulties in organizing protests and highlights the important variation in timing, intensity, and location of nationalist protests across the French Empire as well as within Senegal, Algeria, and Morocco in particular. From these puzzles she generates her research question: Under what conditions did colonial subjects mobilize for national independence from the French Empire? Lawrence suggests that disillusionment with the French empire—in places where the French administration failed to extend equal rights to its colonial subjects—led to the abandonment of mobilization solely for equal rights and disruptions/triggering factors (in the form invasion, occupation, or France’s decision to decolonize) offered opportunities for mobilization that account for the variation in the patterns of nationalist mobilization across the Empire but also within particular colonies.

In her award-winning book, Lawrence combines archival research, fieldwork, and historical analysis, and moves between different levels of analysis (cross-colony analysis of the territories of the French empire, and several subnational analyses including Senegal, Algeria, but most prominently of Morocco both across space and over time), to test her argument. Her research design allows her to test her argument against prominent alternative arguments such as norm diffusion, damaged French prestige, versions of modernization theory, and experiences of local exploitation. Lawrence focuses on French colonies in the twentieth century—French North Africa in particular. Thus, the mode of conquest, the nature of the metropole, and whether the empire was contiguous or not are variables that are not varying in this research design and shape her scope conditions. Her careful process tracing should be emulated by other social scientists who engage in historical qualitative work.

Lawrence makes a strong and convincing case that anti-colonial mobilization was not always nationalist in content—i.e. it did not aim at independence from the French Empire. In fact, she shows that in many cases demands for equality were not simply initial stages of nationalist mobilization—as many scholars before her have suggested[3]—but rather alternatives to nationalist goals. In certain cases, however, what Lawrence calls “movements for political equality” (54) could be understood as nationalist movements organized by non-core group members aspiring to be fully included in the constitutive story of the French Empire,[4] and to become core group members.[5] This interpretation of course is more plausible in cases where the French Empire—at least in theory—pursued an assimilationist policy (e.g. Algeria), rather than cases like Morocco where assimilation was not the stated goal.

Lawrence uses the term nationalism to describe only its indigenous version. Is there a possibility however that colonial subjects who were asking for equality and citizenship were also motivated by nationalism. There is some evidence of that in Lawrence’s account. French nationalism—and its particular content—gave certain colonial subjects the discourse and the inspiration to make such demands at the first place. Lawrence informs us that “Algerian elites asked for political equality with French settlers and criticized the French for failing to assimilate Algerian Muslims” (50), as opposed to Algerian Jews or Algerians who denounced their Muslim civil status (74). The French constitutive story could—and did—change to include Muslims. In other words, the French understanding of nationhood was not irreconcilable with Islam, or at least was a legitimate point of contestation in French political discourse.[6] In fact, Lawrence writes that “Young Algerians sought to eliminate inequality via incorporation. They asked France to assimilate Algerians in accordance with France’s stated policy, but for them assimilation was political and did not entail the abandonment of their religion or culture” (86). The civic understanding of French nationhood does not seem too far from their position. All in all, a distinction between movements that engaged in anti-colonial activity—not of the indigenous nationalist variety—and movements that demanded inclusion to the French nation is in order.

Lawrence is careful to note that she is not trying to account for the emergence of nationalism. “Focusing on mobilization eliminates the need to demonstrate either the existence of stable, long-standing ‘nations’ or the presence or absence of nationalist commitments among a specified population” (14) she writes. Thus, nationalist acts are the ones that are “discursively constructed as such” (15). My own sense is that it remains unclear why colonial subjects who were disappointed by the French empire would turn to nationalism and nationalist mobilization instead of pan-Arabism, communism, federalism,[7] or internationalist ideas.[8] In other words, the link between political inequality and nationalism is something that we need to problematize further but this is clearly something that goes beyond the scope of her argument. Perhaps in the case of the French Empire socialization into a French understanding of nationhood was the reason that colonial elites turned to indigenous nationalism instead of turning to other ideologies once the policies of the French Empire disillusioned them.

Lawrence is transparent in her theoretical discussion and addresses head-on the potential endogeneity problem for her political equality argument. The main question in this respect is whether the French government ended up extending political equality to places that were less likely to develop their own nationalist mobilization and/or less likely to assimilate to the French nation. What was the selection mechanism for extending political equality (and/or pursuing assimilation) from France’s perspective? Lawrence argues that the cost to France of extending political equality was lower for certain colonies since the population was small and French control was long established. This was the case, for example, when it comes to the Four Communes in Senegal. But she also provides an alternative reading for the role of size: smaller places were also less viable on their own and were thus dependent on the Empire from a security point of view. The two variables, size and time in the Empire, can be seen as indicators of assimilability of the population to the French nation. Moreover, small size and dependence on France could also impact the likelihood of the development of indigenous nationalist movement. Thus, the French may have targeted certain colonies with political equality and assimilationist policies because they thought of them as more assimilable.[9] Lawrence enriches our understanding of the French Empire, but future work focusing on the debates and political alignments surrounding the politics in the metropole would be helpful to adjudicate between the different causal paths.

Turning to the impact of modernization on the emergence of nationalist resistance to colonial rule, Lawrence suggests that “the more modern French territories would experience nationalist resistance ahead of less modern territories” (39). In Chapter 3 she meticulously tests this hypothesis using data on urbanization as a proxy. She finds that this linear correlation does not hold true in the French Empire. Lawrence’s test is convincing given the availability of data. Building on Lawrence’s analysis, I would like to propose another way of testing we could test the modernization argument, namely by taking into consideration the identity of the modernizer. In other words, there may be an interaction between the level of modernization and the identity of the modernizer. The following hypotheses would then follow: a) modern territories that were modernized by the French would experience less indigenous nationalist mobilization; b) modern territories that were not modernized by the French would experience more indigenous nationalist mobilization; c) less modern territories would experience less indigenous nationalist mobilization. The underlying assumption here is that loyalties to the modernizer would develop in the cases where the French were the modernizers. Older colonies, that were modernized by French rule, were more likely to receive political equality and thus less likely to mobilize against the Empire using the idiom of indigenous nationalism. Of course, data availability would severely constrain such an endeavor.

Lawrence joins a list of scholars who view nationalist mobilization as a by-product. In her account nationalist mobilization is a by-product of “disruption in imperial authority at the level of the colonial territory.” (132). According to Lawrence, “Nationalist mobilization is not an exogenous force affecting the state; it is shaped by the state of the state itself” (223). Her argument is a much-needed corrective in a literature filled with anachronistic arguments. A question that emerges from my point of view—which is fundamentally shaped by the study of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire—is how would her argument account for the emergence of nationalist mobilization in the absence of disruptions. In particular, there is evidence from other parts of the world that nationalist mobilization is often the result of external involvement—covert, clandestine, or overt—by Great Powers,[10] kin states,[11] as well as transnational non-state actors. Lawrence discusses briefly the Pan-Arab movement but pays very little attention to external actors and their involvement in this process. The author is right to point out to the domestic political opportunity structure (134) but, apart from the mechanism of occupation by a third party, there is little (152) consideration of the role of transnational movements and external backing by patrons. The nature of the French Empire and its politics may be unique in that respect—maybe educating elites from the colonies in the metropole was one way of fending off such external threats—but a comparative look forces us to theorize this variation.

Lawrence’s work is destined to provoke because it raises an important—yet controversial—policy implication: colonialism could have worked if the metropole was able to extend political equality to the whole Empire.[12] Another implication can also be drawn from Lawrence’s empirical work. Nationalist movements were not just the result of disillusionment with the French Empire; the absence of colonizers also lead to the emergence indigenous nationalist movements, as in the case of Morocco in the 1920s (146).

Overall, Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism makes a significant contribution to the study of nationalism and nationalist mobilization. Scholars and policy-makers interested in nationalism, social movements, and decolonization should read it. Her careful empirical work at different levels of analysis and her compelling theoretical framework give rise to many crucial questions that we have not adjudicated in comparative politics at large and in nationalism studies in particular.

Author’s Response by Adria Lawrence, Yale University

In the 25 years following World War II, the European colonial empires confronted waves of violent and non-violent mobilization for national independence. A powerful conventional wisdom treats these uprisings as a natural consequence of imperial rule in the age of nationalism. In this view, differences of identity – race, religion, and language – rendered the continuation of a common sovereignty unacceptable to colonized populations. In writing Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism, I contested this conventional wisdom by examining the response of indigenous political actors to imperial rule in the late colonial era. Specifically, my analysis of anti-colonialism in the French Empire had four main goals: to argue against equating anti-colonialism with nationalism; to investigate why anti-colonial actors shifted from a program of reform to one of national independence; to identify the opportunities that facilitated nationalist mobilization; and to offer some general insights about how and why subordinated peoples organized to oppose systematic inequalities that may be applicable in other settings. The reviewers provide valuable comments on all four of these goals, for which I am exceedingly grateful. It is a privilege to take part in the current wave of social science scholarship devoted to systematic, historical inquiry and I am particularly appreciative of the opportunity to exchange views with two scholars within this community whose new work has contributed significantly to our understanding of how powerful states have conquered and ruled peoples with differing ethnic and national identities. With their commentary in mind, I revisit each goal below.

My first objective was to unsettle accounts that group together demands to reform imperial rule and demands for independence under the same conceptual umbrella: nationalism. Prior work portrays movements seeking political rights within the imperial structure as the initial stage of nationalist movements for independence.[13] Against this view, I point to the tensions between these agendas. Proponents of political reform argued that the democratic principles of the French republic were universal and therefore applicable to the colonies. They opposed the authoritarian nature of colonial rule and advocated treating colonial subjects as political equals. In contrast, it was the foreign nature of French rule that nationalists seeking independence opposed. Instead of emphasizing individual rights, or equality between French citizens and colonial subjects, they stressed the distinctiveness of the nation. While both sets of demands were anti-colonial, their aims were different. It is important to recognize the distinctiveness of these platforms if we wish to understand why political activists shift from one set of goals, particularly if, as I found, the fate of one movement affects the other.

In his review, Harris Mylonas revisits the argument that both of these forms of anti-colonialism were, at their core, manifestations of nationalism. Intriguingly, he proposes that colonial subjects fighting for equality should be understood as French nationalists, at least for the cases where calls for equality took the form of demands for French citizenship. In other words, he agrees that movements for equality were distinct from the subsequent movements for independence, but he characterizes the shift as one from one type of nationalism to another.

Yet this proposition involves an equally unhelpful conflation of citizenship and nationhood. Colonized populations could argue for the rights of French citizens while asserting a distinctive nationhood. Demanding the right to citizenship did not need to imply becoming French, as the leaders of the Negritude movement made clear. They argued that citizenship was compatible with an African identity; assimilation did not have to mean assimilation to the French nation. In Algeria, the French considered Algerian Muslims to be French nationals but not citizens, in accordance with international laws pertaining to conquest. Algerians contested this arrangement, preferring to be citizens while retaining their religious identity. They proposed a citizenship status that would not require abandoning Muslim civil codes in favor of French civil laws and culture; this proposal went against the legal unity required in the Napoleonic Code.[14] These brief examples illustrate the deeply unsettled relationship between citizenship and nationhood that persisted throughout the colonial period. Mylonas suggests that these proposals reflect a civic understanding of French nationhood that was not dissimilar in content from the nationalism of metropolitan France, but these were highly contested questions that challenged French notions of national unity.

The problem with recasting anti-colonialism as either a manifestation of French nationalism or indigenous nationalism is that it poses too stark a choice. The choice was not between being a French citizen/national or being a citizen/national of an independent state.   African and Algerian leaders’ proposals instead point to multi-national conceptions of citizenship that do not conform to the canonical nation-state model. In his own book, Mylonas rejects the notion that there is a binary choice between assimilation and exclusion, arguing that states may also engage in what he calls “accommodation,” a state project that does not seek to alter the “national type” of groups that are distinct from the core.[15]

Moreover, many (though not all) African and Algerian proponents of assimilation would likely have objected to being characterized as French nationalists. Most of them did not claim this identity. My definition of nationalism was deliberately discursive: I took seriously what people said about their aims and objectives because I wanted to avoid assigning identities and allegiances to them that could not be empirically verified. Studies of nationalism have found it difficult to obtain direct measures of national loyalty; my solution to this problem was to study actions and discourses instead of identities.

A final reason to resist re-conceptualizing calls for citizenship as French nationalism is that this terminology it cannot be applied to places where there were no calls for citizenship, such as the protectorates. Mylonas accurately notes that there are meaningful differences within the movements for political equality – these movements did not all seek assimilation, and the variation within them merits further exploration. There are also, however, striking similarities in the content of political appeals. Even though citizenship was not held out as a possibility in in places like Morocco, there were nevertheless calls for the French to live up to their democratic principles and to allow political participation. The ubiquity of appeals for political equality would be less evident if calls for citizenship were to be treated as a type of nationalism.

My second goal was to consider why movements began seeking independence instead of political equality within the imperial structure. I argue that nationalist aims became dominant only when colonial elites found the route to equality within France definitively closed. France’s colonial subjects sought an exit not because they were different from the French, but rather because the metropolitan French refused to let them in as political equals.

Paul MacDonald’s discussion is directly relevant to this goal. He agrees that demands for political equality were substantively different from nationalist demands, but raises questions about the import of the former. French imperial history, lamentably, provides only a few examples where calls for equality were answered with an extension of full French citizenship. The small number of cases reflects the immense obstacles that prevented full-scale political assimilation. It also complicates empirical evaluation of the claim that incorporation would have forestalled demands for independence. But as MacDonald reiterates, while full assimilation was rare, the French took steps toward political equality in 1946, when France made erstwhile colonial subjects citizens of the French Union. This status applied to Algeria and all the territories of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa. These cases are useful because they provide another opportunity to examine the responses of leaders in the colonies to the prospect of equality: was political equality genuinely appealing, or did empowered leaders build on their successes to begin issuing nationalist claims in favor of self-determination? In the places where political equality was, if not fully extended, continuing to make gains, opponents of colonial rule kept pressing for equal rights, asking France to deepen and extend democratic concessions. Thus, when MacDonald asks whether political assimilation could have “worked,” the answer is yes, it did work, in the sense that colonial subjects eschewed nationalist demands and continued to seek political equality for as long as they were able to make progress toward that goal.

If ultimately, however, incorporation as citizens of France was largely unfeasible, perhaps movements to achieve that goal are not that substantively important. I want to stress that regardless of the number of cases, the argument matters because it tells us something about the motives of those who mobilized to oppose colonial rule. Much of the literature implies that political equality was impossible or doomed because it was unacceptable to the colonized population, whose aspirations were bound to turn nationalist. In contrast, my book demonstrates that colonized peoples in Senegal, the DOM-TOMS (départements et territoires d’outre-mer), Algeria, and the rest of French Africa, were willing to entertain incorporation on fair and equal terms.

MacDonald also has a more provocative meaning in mind when he asks whether political assimilation could have worked: he wonders whether genuine efforts to make colonial subjects into citizens would have postponed or forestalled independence. This is not a claim that I make; my argument is about the effects of political equality on the desire for independent statehood. I argue that proponents were genuine in their quest to be treated as political equals, and that reforms in that direction forestalled nationalist demands. Decolonization is outside the scope of the book because its occurrence was not solely, or even primarily, a consequence of the actions of the nationalist movements seeking independence that are the focus here.[16] However, I appreciate MacDonald’s enthusiasm for joining me in picturing alternate worlds. Much can be learned from considering counterfactuals, and throughout this project I thought seriously about how the history of the French Empire might have been different if the French had dismantled political inequalities more or less often than they actually did. They could have done so. Incorporation was not an all-or-nothing decision, and its prospects differed across territories and within them, as the French debated whether to extend rights to those they considered worthy of the status. Political leaders like Léopold Senghor of Senegal, Ferhat Abbas of Algeria, and Mohammad al-Fasi of Morocco likewise envisioned alternative endings to empire – configurations that would have looked more like a federal system or a commonwealth, as well as other types of relationships and alliances between France and its colonial populations. [17]

In hindsight, it is tempting to see these proposals as unrealistic, and MacDonald suggests that while nationalism was not inevitable, something like the nation-state might have been, even if France had continued down the path of incorporation. It makes considerable sense to wonder about what a state that included France and its former territories would have been like. MacDonald raises a profound, unsettling question about what it is that holds a polity together, and I can only offer a few speculative thoughts on the answer. My instinct is to agree with Jane Burbank’s and Frederick Cooper’s injunction against accepting teleological accounts of the nation-state’s triumph.[18] The nation-state is a historically recent political form that may not prove to be the most durable or viable form of statehood in the long run. Mylonas points to alternatives in his review when he asks why colonial subjects turned to nationalism instead of transnational ideas like pan-Arabism, communism, or federalism. The short answer is that they did consider these alternatives, particularly federalism, both before and after the empire disintegrated.

Further, the existence of multi-ethnic and multi-national states suggests that diverse populations can form a single political community. Over time, states that were once composed of distinctive linguistic and ethnic groups may develop such a strong national character that we forget how unlikely it once seemed that they would unite within one polity.[19] For the French empire, up until the very eve of its demise, what seemed least likely was that its component territories would all go their separate ways. In the years before decolonization, neither French nor African politicians anticipated the outcome that actually occurred, which again suggests the need for caution before assuming that the state system that succeeded decolonization was a historical inevitability.

Regardless of the feasibility of their proposals, which is quite difficult to evaluate, the very fact that political leaders in the colonies put forward multiple ways to dismantle the inequalities of empire undermines the notion that demands for political inequality were indivisible, as MacDonald suggests. The elites who advocated deepening the democratic rights of colonial subjects and treating them as political equals were well aware of the costs these reforms entailed. They were willing to entertain solutions that would extend the rights and privileges enjoyed by Frenchmen to the colonies in a gradual and piecemeal fashion.[20]

MacDonald posits that the post-war efforts of the new French Union citizens in the African and Algerian colonies to solidify and extend their rights shows that they would not have been satisfied with anything short of full citizenship. In contrast, I interpret their active political opposition as evidence of growing democratic subject-hood. The desire to improve the status quo through active political participation is at the core of democratic politics; in this sense, the activities of those seeking to reform colonial rule differ little from those of politically-engaged, underprivileged groups in metropolitan France such as workers, students, and women. We should not assume that political actors who achieve measures of political equality will disband in satisfaction. Their continued activism might be expected in a democratic polity characterized by political give-and-take. Mobilization might continue even with full citizenship, and indeed, the new French citizens in the DOM-TOMs continued to press their political agenda after the extension of the franchise. I agree with MacDonald, however, that escalating demands on the part of colonial subjects for better and fairer treatment in a variety of different arenas, including the labor market, the workplace, and democratic assemblies, made political equality less palatable for French politicians and affected their calculations about decolonization.

The politics of the metropole are intentionally secondary in my account, which is centered on the anti-colonial activists in the colonies who tend to get far less scholarly attention than the European powers. Both MacDonald and Mylonas understandably wish to hear more about French decision-making and I fully agree that there are many remaining questions to explore. For this study, I focused on showing that French policies on political equality were not a function of nationalist resistance. Reverse causality was improbable because French decisions were not influenced by any expectations of encountering nationalist resistance, and France did not consider granting equality only to populations who were unlikely to turn nationalist for other reasons. Mylonas presses further on this question, positing that nationalism may have been dampened by the very factors that rendered some populations more assimilable. The sub-national analysis of Senegal is particularly helpful on this point, because it shows the consequences of granting political equality and taking it away among the same population.

As both reviewers point out, the shift away from promises to assimilate and democratize French colonial possessions remains puzzling. The French proclaimed themselves to be on a ‘civilizing mission’ throughout much of the colonial period, and historians have argued against dismissing this ideology as mere rhetorical window-dressing, showing that French actors took this mission seriously.[21] In my current book project, I am investigating imperial rule from the perspective of the colonial power, studying when and why the French retreated from their civilizing mission. I disaggregate the French actors, examining the proponents of civilizing and transforming the colonies in France’s image, as well as those who took the position that France should refrain from direct intervention and work with existing structures of authority, rather than altering them. I consider the conditions under which each of these viewpoints prevailed over the other, seeking to explain variation in French colonial policy over time and place.

My third objective for the book was to identify a set of opportunities that provided openings for nationalist action. In focusing on these opportune moments, I sought to emphasize the suddenness of nationalist mobilization. It was not a slow-growing phenomenon; nationalist protests often surprised the French and outside observers when they began. Mass mobilization was difficult, even when the failure to achieve political equality provided a motivation. It occurred only when imperial rule was disrupted by foreign occupation during wartime or by political devolution, which cracked open the authoritarian structures of the colonial state.

MacDonald points out that French actions were not incidental to all of these openings. Specifically, the French decision to devolve authority to its colonies in 1956 and again in 1958 represented a step back from assimilating these colonies into the French core and led to large-scale decolonization in French Africa in 1960. As African territories gained autonomy, the political center shifted from Paris to the capitals of the individual territories and discussions of independence increased. In his review, Mylonas asks why nationalism, rather than federalism or other transnational ideologies, replaced calls for political rights. For French Africa, the political salience of the individual territories increased with greater autonomy, particularly because the institutions of the federations of French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa were weak, and elections were held on a territorial basis. MacDonald wonders why the French made these moves if they wished to forestall nationalist mobilization. The answer is that this goal was no longer primary. France gradually pulled back from governing Africa, likely for the reasons that MacDonald suggests and others, such as the post-war political economy, strategic concerns, and the growing costs of colonial rule. Settlers also played an important role in imperial calculations: where settlers were numerous, they often opposed the extension of rights to colonial subjects, resisted decolonization, and advocated the brutal repression of anti-colonial protests.[22] My purpose was to study the consequences of French decision-making on politics in the colonies, not to re-examine decolonization from the perspective of the colonial power, but MacDonald rightly emphasizes that the actions of the French and activists in the colonies were not independent of one another. This insight is consistent with my argument, which traces how the French response to anti-colonialism, whether for rights or independence, affected subsequent mobilization in the colonies.

In the book, I criticize arguments that link modernization to nationalist mobilization on the grounds that modernization theories tell us little about the opportunity structure; it is difficult to ascertain at what level of modernization we should expect to see nationalist action. Mylonas suggests that the level of modernization may still affect where nationalist mobilization occurs.  I offer a simple test that looks at whether urbanized colonies were more prone to nationalist mobilization; I do not find a clear relationship. Mylonas proposes an alternative hypothesis: perhaps colonies modernized by the French were more likely to be loyal to the French and therefore less likely to make nationalist demands than colonies modernized by other actors.  This hypothesis reflects his expertise in European politics, but it is difficult to apply to the French Empire, which was largely underdeveloped at independence. The lesson I take from this is that nationalist mobilization does not require a high degree of modernization: it can occur in places few would consider modern. For better or worse, the French were the sole modernizing force in the empire; there were no alternatives. To take the case of Morocco, in the pre-colonial period, the sultan made few attempts at modernizing. The French built the railway, ports, and the modern road system; they constructed villes nouvelles in all the major cities and turned Casablanca into the country’s capital; they initiated some industrial production, including phosphate mining, which was Morocco’s major export commodity. Yet Moroccans ultimately allied with the sultan to demand independence; modernization, to the degree it occurred, did not produce enduring loyalty to France.

Both MacDonald and Mylonas ask how the international environment affected anti-colonial protest, noting that factors such as the Cold War, external patrons, transnational movements, and the flow of ideas between different anti-colonial leaders may have been important factors that affected when nationalist protests erupted. I do not disagree that international factors played a role; my claim is not that domestic disruptions alone mattered. I concentrated on domestic disruptions – the invasion of French territories during World War II and the post-war devolution of power – because these factors appeared best able to account for the timing of nationalist protest in this set of cases. I have not found an alternative explanation about international changes or events that better explains the variation across the empire and within cases. Events that transpired in the international arena are perhaps best thought of as facilitating conditions. The exchange of ideas among activists in Paris and elsewhere, international norms about both self-determination and individual democratic rights, and support from leftist or communist parties, provided frameworks for action that occurred when conditions on the ground were favorable. I will only dispute the importance of the Cold War for anti-colonialism in the French Empire. For the most part, the Soviets and the U.S. refrained from intervening in France’s sphere of influence. For all its anti-imperial rhetoric, the U.S. supported France in its post-war re-invasion and occupation of Vietnam.

The book’s fourth aim was to offer some insights for the study of nationalist protest in other contexts.  Here, I hoped both to make a substantive contribution to the broader field of nationalism and to suggest a methodological approach for historical inquiry.

My substantive aims in this regard are modest; I do not claim to have a general theory of nationalist mobilization that accounts for other empires and multi-ethnic states. Identifying patterns in one large, diverse empire in a parsimonious way is tricky enough. The French Empire is also less familiar to English readers than the British Empire, and this influenced my decision to evaluate my arguments in this context. Still, I hoped my arguments would raise questions about the motivations for nationalist opposition elsewhere and generate new hypotheses.  My analysis pointed to the importance of enduring inequalities, rather than differing ethnic, national, and religious identities, for producing resistance. It is easy to assume the salience of these cleavages for politics in empires and multi-ethnic states, but by focusing on these identities, we may miss underlying motivations for conflict.  Work that addresses the conditions under which people come to express opposition in nationalist or ethnic terms avoids erroneously privileging ascriptive identities over other political demands.  To do otherwise is to attribute more causal power to national, ethnic, and religious differences than may be warranted.

Both MacDonald and Mylonas ask about scope conditions. Questions of equality and citizenship were particularly acute in the French Empire. At the core of France’s civilizing mission was the idea that the values of the Republic could and ought to be transplanted in the colonies.  Opponents of empire held France to these promises; the specific content of its civilizing mission provided a framework for activism. The French Empire is not the only context in which populations organized to demand citizenship and equality. In other cases, the rationale for rule has differed; the British had their own civilizing mission, which did not include promises of British citizenship. The lesson for other contexts is that the stated objectives and the promises made by the state or empire matter for politics; they shape demands by affecting what people expect from rulers. Ideologies of rule, even (or perhaps especially) when they are not implemented, provide a language that can be used to hold the powerful accountable.

The argument that disruptions in imperial authority provided opportunities for nationalist protest is a more general one that may well prove to account for the timing of nationalist protest elsewhere. The two cases that MacDonald offers in counterpoint do not, in fact, provide evidence against this argument. Malaya (as well as Burma) did experience nationalist mobilization in the wake of the Japanese invasion; the ability of the British to re-establish authority despite nationalist demands does not differentiate the British from the French experience. The French too re-established control in Algeria following the nationalist events in Sétif and in Madagascar in the wake of the nationalist uprising. Indeed, the durability of the French Empire in the immediate decades after the war belies the claim that France’s defeat and weakness made it particularly susceptible to anti-colonial opposition. There was no nationalist opposition in the French territories that remained under French control during the war, and France successfully reasserted its authority where war-time invasions had prompted nationalist protest. Only the Syrian and Lebanese mandates gained independence at the close of the war.  MacDonald makes the point that India did experience nationalist mobilization in the aftermath of the war despite remaining in British hands, but this is unsurprising because nationalist mobilization was already underway well before the war began. My theory allows for path dependency; once mobilization has begun, it is easier to sustain even in the absence of rupture in imperial control. As Mylonas points out, it is certainly the case that other kinds of shocks may provide opportunities for nationalist protest; I do not claim that disruptions in imperial authority are the sole source of political opportunities. Disruptions in state authority are likely to be particularly helpful for mobilization in contexts where the regime severely limits free political expression, but these disruptions can take different forms than those discussed here.

My approach to evaluating these arguments was to combine comparative and sub-national historical analysis.  The comparative, medium-N analysis allowed me to hold the imperial power constant and investigate why nationalist mobilization varied within one empire. It facilitated the identification of similarities across cases, such as the ubiquity of calls for political equality across much of the empire, as well as differences in the timing of appeals. It provided a way to evaluate generalizability, without introducing too much heterogeneity by adding other European colonies.  Macro-comparisons alone, however, are inadequate because there might have been differences among the cases that I missed, but which could better explain patterns of protest.  For this reason, I also employed sub-national analyses. The examination of Senegal, for instance, was crucial for understanding the consequences of political equality for subsequent political activism because parts of Senegal were granted citizenship while others were excluded.  Sub-national analyses were also useful for evaluating the observable implications of my arguments for what we should expect to see during times when political equality was making or losing ground, or when imperial rule was stable or disrupted.  My sub-national study of Morocco made use of French archives to construct an original dataset of nationalist events from 1934-1956. Political scientists are increasingly turning to historical archives as a source for quantitative analyses; the availability of good detailed records enables fine-grained hypothesis testing.  By combining comparative case study methods with sub-national approaches that draw on archival sources, there is an opportunity to contribute to the systematic investigation of important historical topics.

I conclude by reiterating my gratitude for the reviewers’ thoughtful and provocative comments. I also wish to thank the editors of H-Diplo, particularly James McAllister. It is a pleasure to be included in this forum.


[1] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship Between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014), p. 67.

[2] Some of the works that Lawrence mentions include: Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation: The Rise of Self-Assertion of Asian and African Peoples, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960); Nicola Christine Pratt, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Arab World, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007), 29; Rom Landau, Moroccan Drama: 1900-1955, (San Francisco: The American Academy of Asian Studies 1956), 141; Clement Henry Moore, Politics in North Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, (New York: Little Brown & Company, 1970), 34.

[3] Some of the works that Lawrence mentions include Rupert Emerson, “Colonialism,” Journal of Contemporary History 4 (1) 1969: 3-16, 4; Jamil Abun- Nasr, A History of the Maghrib, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 313; Anthony Clayton, Anthony. 1994. The Wars of French Decolonization. (London: Longman Group, 1994) 24; Tony Smith, The End of the European Empire: Decolonization after World War II, (Lexington: DC Heath and Company, 1975), vii; Roger Owen, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, (London: Routledge, 2000), 20; B. Rivlin, “Contexts and Sources of Political Tensions in French North Africa,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 298 (1955): 109-116.

[4] For more on constitutive stories, see Rogers Smith, Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] For more on the conceptualization of core and non-core groups, see Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 23-29.

[6] Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nation- hood in France and Germany, (Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

[7] Frederick Cooper, 2014. Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945–1960, (Princeton University Press, 2014).

[8] Karl W. Deutsch, Nationalism and Its Alternatives, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).

[9] Another possibility is that since “settler opposition to reducing their own privileges vis-à-vis colonial subjects constituted a serious obstacle to proponents of reform” (117), the percentage of settlers at a colony may determine the likelihood of both French government treatment and national mobilization.

[10] Enze Han and Harris Mylonas, “Interstate Relations, Perceptions, And Power Balance: Explaining China’s Policies toward Ethnic Groups, 1949-1965,” Security Studies, Vol. 23, Issue 1, 2014: 148-181.

[11] Myron Weiner, “The Macedonian Syndrome: An Historical Model of International Relations and Political Development,” World Politics, Vol. 23, No. 4, (1971): 665-683; Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism reframed: nationhood and the national question in the New Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 1996); Stephen M. Saideman, “Discrimination in International Relations: Examining Why Some Ethnic Groups Receive More External Support than Others.” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2002): 27-50; Erin Jenne, Ethnic Bargaining: The Paradox of Minority Empowerment, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

[12] For some such a development seems impossible, see Samuel Moyn, 2015, “Fantasies of Federalism,” Dissent Magazine Winter 2015. Available at:

[13] For examples taken from the North African cases, see John P. Entelis, Comparative Politics of North Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1980), 33-34; C.R. Pennell, Morocco Since 1830: A History (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Rudolph von Albertini, “The Impact of the Two World Wars on the Decline of Colonialism,” in The End of the European Empires: Decolonization After World War II, edited by Tony Smith (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1975), 3-19; John Waterbury, Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite – A Study in Segmented Politics (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), 35; and Daniel Zisenwine, The Emergence of Nationalist Politics in Morocco: The Rise of the Independence Party and the Struggle Against Colonialism after World War II (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2010).

[14] Michael Brett, “Legislating for Inequality in Algeria: The Senatus-Consulte of 14 July 1865,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 51, no. 3: 440.

[15] Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[16] For a recent treatment of decolonization, see Martin Thomas, Fight Or Flight: Britain, France, and Their Roads from Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[17] Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014).

[18] Jane Burbank, and Frederick Cooper,Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[19] For instance, on the formation of French national identity, see Ernest Renan, “What Is a Nation,” in Becoming National, edited by Geoff Eley and Ronald Grigor Suny, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 41-55; and Peter Sahlins, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

[20] On this, see Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation.

[21] Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997); Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

[22] Elsewhere, I discuss the contribution of settlers to violent conflicts in the empires: Adria Lawrence, “Driven to Arms? The Escalation to Violence in Nationalist Conflicts,” in Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict, edited by Erica Chenoweth and Adria Lawrence, (Cambridge: the MIT Press, 2010) 143–72, and “Triggering Nationalist Violence: Competition and Conflict in Uprisings against Colonial Rule.” International Security 35, no. 2: 88–122. On the effects of settlers and the colonial lobby on French decolonization, see Hendrik Spruyt, Ending Empire: Contested Sovereignty and Territorial Partition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).