Harper on Carroll (2022)

Carroll, Christina B. The Politics of Imperial Memory in France, 1850-1900. Cornell UP, 2022, pp. xiii + 284: illustrations, ISBN: 9781501763083

This provocative, deeply researched study in intellectual history and cultural memory offers a new approach to nineteenth-century debates in France around the interrelated, contentious, and fluid concepts of “empire,” “colony,” “republic,” and “nation.” Navigating the extensive scholarship on the history of France's overseas colonial empires on the one hand, and the memory of Europe's continental empires on the other, Carroll makes a compelling argument that rather than offering separate accounts of these two sets of narratives, an analysis of the connections between them can offer new insights into France’s politics of empire and nation in the nineteenth century.  

 Drawing on a rich trove of source material including theoretical articles, political brochures, the popular press, literature, visual imagery, and educational materials, Carroll traces nineteenth-century France's dialogue with its past and future imperial imaginaries: the enduring legacies of Rome, myths of Napoleonic military power, the 1830 conquest of Algeria, and newer models of colonial expansion into Mexico, Senegal, Vietnam, Madagascar. The study is structured around six chapters, organized chronologically by a number of key historical moments that offer a lens to examine political ideologies and theoretical debates around the multiple meanings of “empire” in this period. Carroll’s broad and deep history of ideas highlights the ways these debates shaped domestic politics as well as France's “politique coloniale.” Her argument follows Napoleon III’s evolving imperial ideologies at home as well as in Mexico and Algeria, moves to the political conflicts following France's humiliating defeat in 1871, and focuses on the central paradox faced by the Third Republic—how to justify its own expansionist colonial ambitions while distancing itself from the imperialisms of Napoleon I and III and “the specter” of despotism at home.

By skillfully tracing the interrelated concepts of “nation” and “empire” under Napoleon III, his conflation of a domestic program fostering national identity and security with new models for projecting French power overseas, Carroll highlights the long afterlife of Bonapartism in the Third Republic. Napoleon III conceived of new kinds of French empire in Mexico and Algeria while invoking the legacy of ancient Rome and the ambitions of Napoleon I. His theoretical visions coalesced around the familiar Orientalist model of bringing “order,” “regeneration,” the “liberation” of nationalities through military power, and the imposition of French civilizational and racial hierarchies. But Carroll also offers a fascinating interactive account of the many debates in France as well as Mexico about the theory and practice of empire, foregrounding the overlapping discourses of political instability, Saint-Simonian racial theory, and “latinité”—a vision of Latin unity under the leadership of France—exploited to justify France's invasion of Mexico in 1862. In Algeria, Napoleon III reimagined a “royaume arabe,” a model Arab state with its own national identity under France’s leadership. By the late 1860s, however, both these new imperial visions had collapsed, Carroll reminds us, under the weight of critiques at home and abroad, and the complex realities of both Mexico and Algeria.   

The structure of each chapter foregrounds the strategic importance of memory as a lens to examine the political ideologies shaping these debates around the continuing appeal and threat of Bonapartist imperialisms. The centerpiece of Carroll's study is an analysis of the challenges—rhetorical and ideological—faced by the Third Republic in mapping out its own political program for colonial expansion based on republican principles. The new republic was founded in opposition to the Bonapartist “empire” viewed as a despotic, corrupt, political system that failed both at home and abroad. So how would Republicans envision a new relationship for France with its overseas territories? That is the central question informing the second half of Carroll’s study, which examines Republican colonial politics on the ground in Algeria, Senegal, Vietnam, Madagascar; the impact of these politics on republican discourse at home; and, of particular interest to Carroll, the gaps between actual practice and the rhetorics of empire in France.

 A key argument of this study is that the enduring struggle for the Third Republic was to find a coherent vocabulary to reimagine France's relationship to its overseas territories. Carroll’s close attention to language in her sources tracks the constantly shifting and ambiguous concepts of “empire,” “colony,” “assimilation,” “association,” along with their historical resonances. More examples quoted in the original language would have added clarity and context here since, as her analysis amply shows, multiple conflicting visions of empire still circulated through the 1870s and 1880s. Republicans now reconceived Algeria, for example, as an extension of France rather than a “colony,” drawing on a long intellectual tradition of “assimilation.” Shifting away from the language—though not the practice—of military conquest, Senegal is viewed by the Republic as an opportunity for a new model of “peaceful” expansion and “civilizing” influence through trade and exploration. An engaging aspect of Carroll’s approach in these later chapters is the inclusion of case studies, the voices of individual explorers and theorists of empire at home, drawn from reports, letters, books, as well as articles in the popular press. These stand in striking contrast, as Carroll points out, to the silence of indigenous voices and absence of a public sphere in France's overseas territories.              

 By the mid 1880s broad discontent around France’s invasion of northern Vietnam had provoked wide-ranging debates in the metropole and the collapse of Ferry’s government, bringing France's “politique coloniale” center stage and marking a turning point. This colonial project would now become mainstream, as Carroll demonstrates. As the final chapters of her study underscore, republican ambivalence around the concept of empire, its relationship to French national identity and indigeneity, would continue until its postwar implosion in the 1960s.           

 Carroll's project is a challenging and ambitious one—an intellectual history that traces a multiplicity of overlapping influences, contradictory narratives, and shifting ideologies circling around critical concepts which are themselves fluid and ambivalent. Admirably, Carroll avoids the temptation of resolving contradictions too soon, instead adopting a long and panoramic view which keeps multiple political perspectives in play. While this inevitably comes with a challenge for the reader of navigating some density of prose and repetition in the discursive structuring of chapters, Carroll’s approach is particularly valuable for the way she foregrounds not only the grand political narratives but also the less visible and familiar ones, the dissenting voices, paradoxes, conflicting theories, and abandoned projects in both elite and popular sources, enabling a broad, complex account of the impact of imperial imaginaries on late nineteenth-century France and its overseas territories. 




Mary Harper
Princeton University