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Impossible endings? : reimagining the end of the French empire in the Sahara, 1951-1962

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

This thesis examines a late colonial attempt to reimagine the French empire in the Sahara, through the little-known case of the Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes (OCRS). This organisation, which lasted from 1957-1962, was created by the French state as an economic and social development project which would operate in the Saharan regions of Algeria, Chad, French Soudan (Mali), and Niger. This case study of the OCRS is at the intersection of a number of key developments in the field in recent years.
Firstly, studies of the ends of colonial empires have moved away from discussing whether independence was ‘snatched away’ or given in a ‘transfer of power’. The historiography now emphasises the messiness and contingency of the end of empire and questions the inevitability of the shift from empire to nation-state. Secondly, in discussions about France’s (post-)colonial ties with Africa, scholars are increasingly focusing on delineating French strategies for retaining a sphere
of influence in the region rather than labelling change and continuity. Thirdly, with an explosion in global and transnational history, historians stress the importance of studying connections and the ‘politics of comparison’ (Stoler, 2001) moving away from treating French colonial history, and particularly Franco-Algerian history, as exceptional.
In light of these historiographical developments, this thesis uses the example of the OCRS to explore the possibilities and impossibilities of reimagining and ending the empire, whilst at the same time retaining control over the region. The OCRS is examined from multiple angles: as a transitional organisation that was both connected to and reflective of shifting international and domestic circumstances, as a self-aware organisation that sought to establish its success and its status in comparison with other projects across the globe and as an attempted reimagining of colonial rule where its planners sought to learn from the 'mistakes' of former planners.
This thesis demonstrates how the OCRS was used as a possibility to reimagine French colonial rule, and the impossibility of this feat. French planners intended to reshape political, economic and social structures in the Sahara. Using comparisons with other, purportedly similar, socio-economic projects without colonial ties, they attempted to make these structures more palatable to a range of other actors, including African political elites. This attempt, however, was impossible because of the weight of history and the increased importance of sovereignty and self-determination in this period.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Advisors
Award dateAug 2018

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