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Regeneration Through Empire: French Pronatalists and Colonial Settlement in the Third Republic Review


Margaret Cook Anderson's tome Regeneration Through Empire: French Pronatalists and Colonial Settlement in the Third Republic is a thoroughly expansive and impressive investigation of the ways in which French pro-natalism was transported to the colonial territories of the French Third Republic, and also modified, created, and experimented with in these "laboratories" for French public policy, Linking together the history of French demographic thought, the key policies and trends which French pronatalists sought to enact in the empire,

The introduction to the book discusses the historical development of pro-natalism in France, driven by defeat in the Franco-Prussian War which also led to an explosion in French colonialism. These two were linked and pro-natalists were heavily influenced by visions of empire and saw French imperialism as a way to resolve problems at home. Their ideas were often, although not always, heavily influenced by the idea of strengthening the French race, as opposed to foreigners and non-French, Most critical of these myths was the idea that colonial settlement would lead to higher birth rates among French people, and that thus the solution to France's low birth rates was settlement in the colonies.

A picture from the book illustrating European pronatalist racial solidarity

A picture from the book illustrating European pronatalist racial solidarity

Chapter 1 explores the creation of the settler colonial myth, born out of demographic researches in Algeria which seemed to indicate that the French colonial population there had a significantly higher birth rate than back in France. This led to French pronatalists attempting to figure out how to encourage the creation of migratory networks to the colonies which would encourage French demographic growth.

Chapter 2 shows how this idea was put into practice, with the Union colonial française and the effort to recruit settlers for the empire. French imperial pronatalists thought that one reason for the limited colonial emigration of France was that France did not have organizations to promote imperial settlement like Britain, and so formed societies to send settlers overseas, particularly women; necessary for stable overseas populations. These ideas continued various class and gender interests, by favorably contrasting men who went overseas to feeble and emasculated bureaucrats who stayed in France, and believing that middle class women were the preferable group to send to the empire unlike uncouth lower class women.

Chapter 3 looks at the specific French colony of Madagascar, where French governor Gallieni passed a raft of pro-natalist measures intended to improve the native population's demographic growth. These not only were a target of curiosity and praise on the part of French metropolitan observers, but generated their own reactions by local Madagascar natives who were educated and trained in the European way, and who commented on the French reforms and their relevance to local society. Madagascar shows the way in which French colonialism could function as a laboratory for introducing reforms which would not be politically feasible in France.

Chapter 4 shows another attempt at encouraging population growth, this time for the French settler population in Tunisia and later Morocco, with the passage of a "family vote" scheme which would grant votes to parents to represent their children. This matched interest in the subject in the metropole (with the 1920s family vote movement covered at length), and reflected priorities of competition which trumped egalitarian or individualistic conceptions of political representation. It furthermore aimed to increase the authority of the father as the head of the family. Like with Madagascar, it provided a positive example for French metropolitan pro-natalists to praise.

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Chapter 5 looks at the ending years of the Third Republic in French Algeria, where in contrast to rosy predictions of settler fecundity, French settler birth rates had dropped by the 1930s. Despite this, pro-natalists continued to speak encouragingly of the empire, caused by the influence of colonial family organizations which worked to support pro-natalism in the colonies. Not all of these exclusionary, and many welcomed both non-French Europeans, and some Muslims as well.

The conclusion emphasizes that the colonial experience of French pronatalism helped to shape it at home as well, both during and after the empire. After defeat in 1940, the empire continued to serve as a hope for regeneration for France,

Regeneration through Empire: French Pronatalists and Colonial Settlement in the Third Republic offers a nicely balanced and well organized, extensive, account of French colonial pro-natalism, which connects it back to the metropole while exploring the unique colonial context. A holistic text, it does an excellent job in particular of examining the French Empire in various regions, particularly North Africa and Madagascar.

There could I feel, have been some further improvement through comparison to other colonial empires and the degree to which the colonial context affected them - there is some talk of this through British emigration socieites and the support given to Italian settlers in Tunisia by the fascist regime of Mussolini - but were there any comparable schemes to French governor Gallieni's Madagascar pro-natalism? Perhaps there were efforts in British Kenya, with its high lands and the effort to install a European population? After all, substantially more British settlers did go to Kenya than French people went to Madagascar, so it seems like it would have encouraged more efforts for them, particularly given probable fears about the size of the indigenous population. But then, this could have been exactly why there might not have been any British equivalent: French Madagascar after all, genuinely wished to expand the native and not simply European population.

Also, while there is a discussion of the Malagasy reaction to the French portrayal of their land, Madagascar, as backward and in need of French efforts to allow for demographic uplift, what about the Muslim reaction to French pro-natalism aiming to increase their own population and the demographic rivalry between the two populations? How did the Arabs perceive the demographic struggle between the French and Italian populations in Tunisia? Did they perceive the demographic weakness of the French in terms of degeneration and decline, as the French did? Colonialism hinged greatly on the prestige of the colonizer population, but here the French themselves admitted themselves to be inferior to the more fecund natives, and this must have been an interesting note for indigenous intellectuals and resistance figures to discuss!

An excellent point of the book is how the colonial experience impacted France to this day - the laboratory of empire in Madagascar, and North Africa, enabled France to experiment with new projects and models, such as the family vote, public education, children's day, women's health clinics, public health etc., which even when they didn't come back to metropolitan France, nevertheless influenced the discourse on pro-natalism and helped lead to the contemporary French raft of pro-natalist measures. Of course, one cannot ignore that much of the impetus of this was driven by developments confined to metropolitan France, but at the same time the field of the colonies proved to be vital for the development of French pro-natalism in practice, with its ability to actively put its ideas into effect.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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