The Colonial School and the New Generation

William Cohen
Rulers of Empire: the French Colonial Service in Africa

Hoover Institution Press. Stanford University. 1971. 279 p.

V. — The Colonial School and the New Generation

A decree promulgated in 1912 shaped the basic recruiting practices of the Corps of Colonial Administrators for over a quarter of a century. This decree, it will be remembered, had given the Ecole Coloniale a monopoly over the training of all administrators; it required that cadets attend the school for two years, and that lower colonial officials (the agents of civil affairs) take a one-year training program before becoming eligible for appointment into the Corps. Because of the monopoly of the Ecole Coloniale, it is important to study the school and the changes it underwent in the period between the two world wars. With the outbreak of the war in 1914, the school was temporarily closed, and its ninety students were mobilized. A measure of the cadets’ brave “spirit of sacrifice,” as a military citation was to put it , may be seen in the fact that twenty-six, or nearly a third of the cadets who had been attending the school when war broke out, were killed. Thirty-eight graduates of the school, including four who had graduated at the head of their classes (among them Van Vollenhoven), were also killed.
During the war the Corps was short of manpower. A high proportion of administrators left the colonies to return to fight in Europe; and others needed to be relieved of their posts overseas where they had served as long as six consecutive years without furlough. German Togo and a part of the Cameroons were conquered by French troops, thus adding to the French administrative burden. Very few new recruits entered the Corps during the war.
Because of the lack of personnel, the officials of the ministry of colonies found it necessary to find new ways to fill the Corps. One method used was to waive temporarily the requirement that the agents attend the Ecole Coloniale, but even so, only a few were promoted into the Corps.
After 1912 Rue Oudinot was convinced of the virtues of the training given at the Ecole Coloniale. Furthermore, the record of the school’s cadets and graduates during the war seemed additional proof of the school’s success. As a result, the ministry of colonies continued to insist that all the men entering the Corps (except the agents) be trained by the Ecole Coloniale, although the period of study during the war was reduced. Cadets who had already attended the school for a year were appointed as administrators immediately after their release from the army, while cadets who had been admitted to the Ecole Coloniale, but had been drafted before entering it, were required to take only a one-year program before being appointed as administrators. A decree issued in 1917 provided that wounded soldiers with a baccalaureate degree or its equivalent and who were physically fit for colonial service could enter it after serving overseas as agents for a short period and undergoing a six-months’ training program at the Ecole Coloniale. Approximately twenty-five wounded veterans entered the Corps under this option.
These were stopgap measures, but once the war was over, the administration returned to peacetime methods of recruitment. Beginning in 1921 the agents were again required to undergo a regular one-year training program at the Ecole Coloniale before being appointed as administrators, and the cadets returned to the regular two-year training program.
Immediately after the war there was a noticeable drop in the number of candidates applying for admission. In 1919 the school wanted to accept thirty-eight students, a record number, but only twenty-seven candidates took the entrance examinations. The number increased somewhat in 1920, but it still fell short of the pre-1914 figure.
Before the war there had been three candidates for every post, but in the early 1920s there were only two . The professional association of colonial administrators found cause for worry in this state of affairs, and its president asserted that the major cause for the decline was economic:

Before 1914 a majority of the students belonged to the lower bourgeoisie, which consented to make the sacrifices represented by study in Paris to allow their sons to win a position with better pay than they could hope for in the metropole.
The war has hit a part of this class of the population. Today it is often unable to bear the considerable expenses of studying two or three years at the Ecole Coloniale. Young men who previously would have gone into a colonial career, now, by necessity, turn to professions requiring a less costly preparation

A few years later, when the number of candidates continued to lag, the blame was placed on the low salaries paid the colonial administrators . Like most government services, the Corps was more poorly paid after the war than before it, but the administrators seem to have suffered more severely than other government officials-for example, military officers. A chief administrator earned more than an army colonel before 1914, but in the 1920s he had to serve eight years before he approximated the latter’s salary. An assistant administrator before the war earned a salary equal to that of a captain in the army, but after 1920 it was hardly equal to that of a lieutenant
Still, the decline in candidates for the Ecole Coloniale did not simply reflect specific conditions within the colonial service. Generally speaking, after World War I there was a drop in the number of men seeking all government positions . Jobs similar to those available in the civil service opened up in industry and commerce after 1918, and were generally better paid. An official in the ministry of colonies thought the drop in the number of candidates for civil service posts was owing to a process of “Americanization,” which put sole emphasis on making money while neglecting the esteem granted before the war to people in government service . The tragic loss of young men which France underwent as a result of the war certainly contributed to the decline in the number of candidates; 10 percent of France’s active male population had been killed.
The sudden drop in the number of candidates made it necessary for the school to extend financial aid in order to continue attracting the needed students. The Indochinese administration felt the dearth of administrators most severely, and to attract future functionaries, it began to offer in 1923 a monthly stipend of 250 francs to all young men at the Ecole Coloniale preparing for service in Indochina. But in order not to lose all the young men to Indochina, the government-general in Dakar found it necessary to extend stipends to all men preparing for service in AOF also; shortly thereafter the administrations of the Cameroons, Togo, and Madagascar followed suit. (AEF, because of its lack of funds, was unable to offer stipends.) In 1923 the administration of the Ecole Coloniale provided free lodging for the students in greatest financial straits. The stipends given by the different colonial administrations and the free housing provided by the school helped to stimulate a new interest in the Ecole Coloniale. In 1923 there were forty-nine candidates, or nearly twice as many as in 1919.

Since the founding of the administrative section in 1889, the Ecole Coloniale had had as directors a number of men of varying abilities, who had seen their tasks primarily in terms of ensuring the daily administration of the school. A few courses had been added to the curriculum after 1900, but the main innovations had come indirectly. They had occurred less because of conscious planning than as a result of having superior teachers like Delafosse. The basic curriculum and the traditional methods of recruiting students, established in 1896, were retained for over a generation, until the middle of the 1920s.
The appointment of Georges Hardy as director in 1926 brought with it a profound change in the school’s organization and curriculum. Before coming to the Ecole Coloniale, Hardy had been director of education in AOF (1912-1919) and then of Morocco (1919-1926). Overseas he had had the opportunity to think and to write at length about colonial problems. An academician both by training and by profession, Hardy was nevertheless aware of the limitations inherent in formal education; he introduced into the Ecole Coloniale a new curriculum which to a larger extent than previously avoided the traditional emphasis on legal studies, and thus gave the future administrators a training more applicable to the daily realities of colonial administration.
Having known Hardy in AOF, Gaston Joseph, directeur du cabinet to Léon Perier, minister of colonies, recommended that Hardy be appointed to head the Ecole Coloniale. After appointing him, Perier indicated to Hardy his desire to see the levels of both recruitment and training raised at the school and Hardy then worked out the details of the reforms which were immediately put into effect
One of Hardy’s first innovations was to change the method of recruiting students; that method which had been initiated in 1896, no longer seemed capable of attracting a sufficiently large number of candidates. In France there were highly esteemed grandes dcoles, such as the Polytechnique, Saint-Cyr, and the Ecole normale, which as a rule attracted better students than did the universities. Their success stemmed from the fact that they held competitive examinations, unlike the universities, and were considered more prestigious institutions because of the difficulty in entering them. In turn, the success of the graduates of these schools in French public life added lustre and prestige to the institutions . Indeed, the success and tradition of the grandes écoles were so strong that Hardy saw no need to create a new pattern in recruiting young men and, using them as a model, he abolished the current preparatory section of the Ecole Coloniale and organized special preparatory classes in the same lycées in which the grandes écoles held their classes—a measure which put Coloniale on a par with the noted grandes écoles. These preparatory classes were held in Paris at the lycées Louis-le-Grand, Henry IV, and le Chaptal; and in the provinces at the lycées in Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Grenoble, and Montpellier, and were attended for a year by secondary school graduates wishing to take entrance examinations for the Ecole Coloniale.
Attendance was not mandatory, but the overwhelming majority who passed the examinations after 1929 had attended these preparatory classes. Of the fifty-five admitted in 1934, for example, fifty-three had been enrolled in’preparatory sections 10
By 1930 Hardy had completed the transformation of the Ecole
Coloniale into a grande école. In his efforts to give the Ecole cadets opportunities equal to those enjoyed by the students of the other grandes écoles, he introduced a further innovation in 1930-free tuition. This change in the school’s status made its diploma highly desirable. For many young Frenchmen a diploma from the Ecole Coloniale became now as attractive as one from the Ecole navale. To those who had failed in their entrance examinations to the Ecole nonnale or the Polytechnique, the Ecole Coloniale now became an acceptable alternative. One result was a significant increase in the number of applicants seeking entrance to the school, partly because the students, since the establishment of preparatory classes in the lycées, could now prepare for entrance to the Ecole outside Paris. Another result was that the preparatory classes helped kindle a new national interest in overseas careers. The students of most of the major lycées in France, as a result of the preparatory classes in their schools, were aware from the beginning of their lycée careers of the possibility and attractions of the colonial service.
Under Hardy’s leadership, the number of applicants to the Ecole Coloniale rose spectacularly. In 1927 there were seventy-two candidates for admission, 187 in 1930, 216 in 1931, and 410 in 1933 11. After the mid-thirties, the school became increasingly selective, taking an ever smaller proportion of applicants, and finally became as difficult to enter as the best of its rivals. In the long run only the letters section of the Ecole normale, the most prestigious of all the grandes écoles, was as selective in its recruitment as was the colonial school.
Geographically, the school’s recruitment tended to favor cadets coming from Paris; consequently, more than half of all the cadets came from preparatory sections in the capital-in 1935, of fifty-five students admitted, twenty-two came from the lycées Louis-le-Grand and eleven from Le Chaptal. This was partially owing to the concentration of sons of higher civil servants in Paris and to the heightened status of the Ecole Coloniale, which ensured the interest of the sons of an ambitious Parisian bourgeoisie. The tradition of intellectual concentration in Paris also meant that both the most gifted lycée students and the teachers most capable of preparing them for the entrance examination to the Ecole Coloniale were in the capital.
Of course, not all candidates coming from preparatory sections in Paris lycées had done their secondary school work in the capital. In 1938, for example, 60 percent of the students attending the reparatory sections in Paris had gone to secondary school in the provinces 12
Other administrative services recruited an even larger proportion of men from Paris. For example, 40 percent of the inspectors of finance came from Paris between 1870 and 1954 13

*Although the Ecole nationale de la France d’outre-mer (Ecole Coloniale) had the second largest number of candidates among the grandes écoles, the candidates for the different schools were not necessarily of the same quality. It is quite possible that for the most prestigious schools such as the Ecole normale and the Polytechnique a large number of candidates excluded themselves by hesitating to apply.

It might seem that Hardy’s reforms would have had a democratizing effect on the recruitment of the school and that the financial aid given to the school’s cadets would have led to a recruitment of men from more varied social backgrounds than before 1927. Also, the new measures which made it possible for candidates to prepare for entrance to the Ecole Coloniale outside Paris would presumably have permitted a greater geographic distribution of the recruitment. In reality, however, the Hardy reforms had the opposite effect, for they resulted not only in an elite recruitment but in an increase of students from the Paris area. Since some of the brightest secondary school pupils were attracted to the Ecole Coloniale, they made up an intellectual elite; and since secondary education was generally limited to the upper middle classes, the school also recruited a social elite.
The Ecole Coloniale began to keep statistics on the professions of the cadets’ fathers in 1929, and these reveal (see Table 7) that the school remained basically upper middle class in its recruitment, and seems to have become even more socially selective in the 1930s than it had been before World War I.

The statistics in Table 8, of former administrators who attended the school, confirm the middle class recruitment of the Ecole in the interwar period and the proportion of cadets whose fathers had been in the higher civil service 14

Rarely has any regret been expressed in France over the limited class origins of the administrators. It has been traditionally accepted that selectivity in quality be accompanied by a certain class restrictiveness. A high official in the interwar period (later governor-general of Indochina in the 1940s), who may be considered a representative of the high bourgeoisie, was asked if he regretted the socially circumscribed origins of the administrators. He answered that, on the contrary, the upper middle class recruitment was necessary for the very success of the Corps. “The middle classes,” he added, “have certain virtues which are well known. They make honest, reliable, and generally impartial agents of the State. 15” The British deliberately recruited men belonging to the gentry, believing that this class possessed certain innate virtues 16, but the French class-bound recruitment, limited to the bourgeoisie, was not a matter of policy. It was rather a result of the competitive examination system which emphasized formal learning. That the sons of the bourgeoisie tended to score best on the examinations and thus win access to the Corps was, of course, a reflection of the class-bound educational system of French society rather than of specific policies of the Corps itself.

*Nearly all the cadets’ fathers who were in the liberal professions, according to the answers to the questionnaire of October 1965, were medical doctors or engineers.

With the change in methods of recruitment, Hardy also introduced innovations in the curriculum. Instead of two years, the students now were required to spend three years at the Ecole Coloniale. During the first year the students were to improve their general culture; during the second they were to do individual research under a professor in the area in which they intended to serve; and during the third they were to prepare themselves for their professional tasks in the colonies 17

Hardy was deeply concerned about the basic ignorance of the French relative to the colonial societies. In 1925 he observed that the French knew practically nothing about how and what the indigenous populations of the colonies thought 18. Later he was to complain that “we lack almost completely any monographs on the psychology of tribes, of regions, of cities, of professions, or of social classes 19.” He argued for a greater understanding of the colonial populations, especially those that had been regarded as primitive or savage. “The most typical savage,” Hardy argued, “is not a mere savage, he has a collective experience that should not be disdained; his good instincts are often but hidden behind a mask of barbarism.” And one can guide him to lead a reasonable life without asking him to suddenly renounce all the habits of his race 20

By establishing new courses in geography, ethnology, traditional African law, African history, geology, botany, zoology, and agronomy Hardy hoped to reveal more of the colonial realities to the young men preparing for the service. In tune with the new emphasis on economic development in the colonies, the Ecole Coloniale also introduced a course entitled Economic Development.
The curriculum of the school, in spite of all these changes, retained the emphasis on legal studies as the backbone of the training program. It also retained much of its former encyclopedism, but now combined with new courses, it had the merit of being fused to a larger body of practical knowledge. Hardy quite consciously attempted to give his students practical training for the realities they were to face overseas. In his own words, his aim was “less to make men who knew everything, than to open minds and make men 21.” At least some of the former administrators seemed to think that he succeeded; a man who was a student at the Ecole Coloniale during the period of Hardy’s directorship writes, “At the time, we had the impression that the multiple courses made us into superficial dabblers. But they opened up our minds and allowed us to mature 22.”
Through a series of practical programs Hardy attempted to give the future administrators not only theoretical knowledge but also practical experience in the study of societies. In 1932, for example, he had his students conduct a series of voter motivation research projects in France. And to prepare the cadets better for Africa, he began an informal program that encouraged them to spend their summers in North Africa. There they had the opportunity to observe not only the nature of a non-Western society, but also French administration in action. Two students additionally were given the rare opportunity to see Henri Labouret, the well-known French ethnologist, at work. In 1932 Hardy sent a student to Senegal to accompany the ethnologist, and two years later another student was sent with Labouret to the Cameroons.
As an educator he emphasized academic studies, but Hardy realized full well that the best students would not necessarily make the best overseas administrators. His evaluation of the students was important, for it helped the ministry decide where to place them. In considering a candidate’s fitness for overseas service, Hardy, unlike most of his predecessors, not only evaluated his academic achievements but also considered the total person. He described a student graduating next to last in his class in the following terms:

[He looks like] Sancho Panza and appears to be greatly concerned with keeping himself in good condition and health. But under this somewhat amusing exterior there is an extraordinary sense of social service, a capacity to make friends immediately, and to obtain from them what he desires. Besides, he is very interested in ethnography and native languages. He will make a picturesque bush administrator, but he will prove brilliant, since basically he has a warm heart and an adventurous character 23

Hardy proved to be a good judge of human qualities. The following year the same young administrator was described by his governor as an “excellent recruit for the administration”; three years later as possessing “a high sense of duty 24.” Hardy was rarely wrong in his judgment of his students.
Hardy’s reforms at the school, his enthusiasm for the colonial vocation, and his personal interest in his students gave him great influence over them. One-third indicated that of all the men at the school Hardy had had the greatest influence 25. In both his writings and his courses, Hardy proclaimed his faith in the French empire and in its civilizing mission. In fact, one student of the Ecole during Hardy’s directorshig has described the school’s task as “to instill in us a faith in our mission 26.” This role was aptly put in a speech by a former governor-general of AOF, later president of the Ecole Coloniale, who told the students:

Whom do we want to train in this institution? Good functionaries knowing their regulations well and ready to apply them with exactitude? Yes, undoubtedly, but that is the least of our tasks. We want them to have faith, the colonial faith; we want them to be suffused with the grandeur and the nobility of the mission which they have to fulfill 27

Hardy saw the French mission as being the protection of the colonial peoples and their gradual promotion toward French civilization. He saw colonization not as the right of conquest but as the responsibility of greater maturity (devoir d’afnesse) 28. He upheld the authoritarian and paternal system of rule existing in the colonies. If there were any deficiencies in the colonial administration, Hardy saw them as stemming mainly from a lack of understanding of the colonial societies by the administrators. Deep study of the social and political structures of these societies, Hardy believed, would remedy the defects existing in the colonial system.

Hardy’s contribution to the school and his influence upon his graduates were certainly important, but his appointment of Henri Labouret in 1929 was of even greater significance in shaping the future administrators. Labouret, a military officer who participated in the conquest of the northern Ivory Coast, became a colonial administrator and published a number of studies on the peoples living under his rule. Upon Delafosse’s death, he was appointed to the Institut des langues orientales where he occupied his predecessor’s chair in ethnology. He also succeeded Delafosse at the Ecole Coloniale.
At the school, Labouret’s students eagerly attended his classes. Those who had been at the school in the late 1920s and early 1930s almost unanimously called his course on African languages and history the most useful of all those given. His research methods in ethnology, stressing the importance of regional monographs, influenced a whole generation of French colonial administrators who were to make important ethnological contributions. Among these administrators were Gilbert Vieillard, who wrote on the Fulani of Futa-Djallon; Bernard Maupoil, who studied the Fon of Benin [formerly Dahomey]; Robert Cornevin, who authored a work on the Bassari of northern Togo; and Pierre Alexandre, who is one of the leading French experts on African linguistics. An eminent historian of Africa and a former student of Labouret said of him:

He marked several generations of students…. How can we signal the importance -of Labouret for all students and the personal manner in which he was able to make us understand Africa? It was manifestly a magisterial course, but it was also and primarily a series of [personal] reflections 29

In fact, Labouret’s influence and that of several of his students had an effect outside the walls of the Ecole Coloniale or the Institut des langues orientales. An African nationalist leader, Hamani Diori, in 1970 the head of state of Niger, has written about Labouret’s works.

Like all my classmates at the Ecole William Ponty [primarily a teachers’ training school in Dakar] I knew his works on black Africa which had made him the brilliant successor of the works of Delafosse. To us young students there was a feeling of joy and pride to discover that the African languages, the material civilizations of Africa … were honestly studied, exposed, explained, and recognized as realities that were essentially different, but in no way inferior to those of the Western world. Thus this European, this « white man, » revealed us to ourselves, liberated us from a certain complex and strengthened our feeling of dignity 30

Hardy’s efforts had made it possible for future administrators to become more closely acquainted with the realities of the overseas societies. The program of studies he introduced was sound enough to win praise from the Australian critic of French colonialism, Stephen H. Roberts, who wrote:

The French educational system and the nature of French officialdom being what they are, the courses at the Ecole Coloniale represent a conspicuous triumph-one of those touches of mystery that from time to time have transmuted the drabness of their colonial effort. 31

Not all of the men who became administrators after World War I had been cadets at the Ecole Coloniale; of those appointed in the 1920s, nearly 70 percent were minor officials in the colonies, agents of civil affairs. Both before and after World War I, the colonial administration thought that the Corps needed not only men with academic training but also men with practical experience in serving overseas. Most of these minor officials had served between four and ten years in the colonies, often as aides to a comrwndant. To qualify for the post of administrator, an agent was required to undergo a one-year training program at the Ecole Coloniale before being appointed to the Corps.
In the 1920s most of the agents attending the school were not of very high academic quality. In 1928, although the Ecole Coloniale opened sixty-one places for agents, only forty-six were able to pass the entrance exammations. Once the agents were admitted, the school had to lower some of its standards to allow them to complete the course. In 1928, Hardy remarked that although all forty-four agents attending the Ecole Coloniale had been given their diplomas, the one who passed last in his class did so thanks only to the “encouragement and even indulgence” of the examining committee 32. Two years later, four agents failed and others received their diplomas only because of the committee’s leniency 33
The poor academic performance of the agents was doubtless traceable to the low average level of their formal education. Also, the pay received by the agents was hardly sufficient to attract the better educated young Frenchmen to the colonial posts. The American Raymond Buell remarked in 1929 that the agents were so poorly paid that their wives had to work to make ends meet 34
In the 1930s better salaries and more difficult examinations for the young men wishing to be appointed as agents meant that as a rule the agents applying for entrance to the Corps were better educated than those of a decade earlier. Since the entrance examinations to the Ecole Coloniale emphasized literary knowledge, only the most formally educated agents were able to pass. In 1939 the candidates with law degrees constituted 30 percent of the total admitted. Although 41 percent of the candidates had only a baccalauréat, they made up only 13 percent of the total admitted. As a result of the school’s competitive entrance examinations, the agents were becoming similar in education and social background to the regular cadets of the Ecole Coloniale.
The French civil service has traditionally considered the quality of government functionaries to be determined by their degree of formal education. After World War I the ministry of colonies put greater stress than before on the Ecole Coloniale, but it still recognized the value of practical experience and therefore continued recruiting the agents. In the 1920s their continued recruitment was probably determined at least in part by the low number of applicants to the Ecole Coloniale. But in the 1930s, when there were several hundred candidates, it would have been quite simple to put an end to the appointment of agents as administrators. That this was not done may be partly because of the continued stress within the colonial bureaucracy on the value of practical experience.
A decree of 1920 had set the proportion of former agents in the Corps at three-sevenths; in the 1920s, however, twothirds of those entering the Corps were former agents, and it was only in the 1930s that their recruitment was reduced to the proportion that had been set by the decree.
In 1938 Georges Mandel became minister of colonies. A man identified with the political right (a former aide and close friend of Clemenceau), he surprised the colonial bureaucracy by initiating a series of administrative reforms. He was disturbed by the irregular manner in which the agents continued to be recruited. The administrators since 1887 had been members of one Corps, subject to uniform methods of recruitment, hiring, and promotion, but the agents were still hired according to the whims of the individual governors-general in the colonial federations and of the governors in the mandated areas. This method of recruitment, Mandel observed, had “led in more than one instance to abuse. For many years efforts were made to stop certain practices of favoritism that damaged the public interest…. But they did not always succeed.” In order to put a definite end to favoritism, Mandel established a corps of agents of civil services for all of French Black Africa and Madagascar, with uniform regulations for recruitment. All young men wishing to become agents from that time on took an entrance examination set by the ministry of colonies 35

In 1933 the Hardy era came to an end with his appointment as rector of the Academy of Algiers. His successor was Henri Gourdon, director of public instruction in Indochina and a respected scholar in the field of Far Eastern art. He had lost an arm and had only partial eyesight as a result of wounds in the first world war. This grand mutilé was regarded with considerable awe by his contemporaries, but his poor health led him to retire four years later, in 1937. One significant change occurred under Gourdon’s directorship: in 1934, the school’s name was altered from Ecole Coloniale to Ecole nationale de la France d’Outre mer (ENFOM).
Gourdon’s successor, the man who was eventually to carry on Hardy’s innovations and bring about further distinguished change was Robert Delavignette. Delavignette was the first director of the ENFOM with previous experience as a colonial administrator in Africa. After serving in the war, Delavignette entered the colonial administration in 1919 as agent of civil affairs. As a veteran he was eligible to enlist in a six-months’ training program at the Ecole Coloniale, and after serving for a brief period as an agent in Dakar, he returned to Paris where he received his training at the Ecole Coloniale. He was then appointed to the Corps of Colonial Administrators, in which he served for two years in Niger and four in Upper Volta.
Delavignette had preferred to leave for the unknown and seemingly unlimited horizons of the colonial world rather than remain in a France devastated by war. In the colonies he quickly showed an aptitude for territorial administration. His superiors found him a poor accountant but an excellent bush administrator. To a greater extent than most of his contemporaries, he was able to achieve the nearly impossible task of at the same time fulfilling the demands of the administration, which constantly clamored for increased crop production and higher taxation, and also of significantly improving the welfare of the local populations. Under his administration, his region increased its peanut production twentyfold within two years. Increases in production often profited only a handful of Africans, usually the local chiefs, but Delavignette saw to it that the profits were beneficial to the entire society. His method of administration was widely admired by his contemporaries, and Governor-General Jules Carde labeled him as the best administrator of his generation 36
In 1930 Delavignette returned to France, and though ill and fatigued, he not only occupied a post in the AOF economic bureau in Paris—a bureau which was a combination of an economic research group and a chamber of commerce—but also began his career as a journalist. In 1931, he wrote Les Paysans noirs; he also wrote for several colonial and Parisian journals and became an active contributor to the liberal Catholic review Esprit, writing on colonial questions. Delavignette was—and still is—an admirable stylist. He vividly portrayed the problems and needs of the colonial peoples, especially in Les Paysans noirs, which like nearly all his writings is semiautobiographic; undoubtedly it is his most important work. In it he has described the daily life of the African peasants and that of the young commandant charged with their welfare. The book was enormously influential in France and won the prize for the best colonial novel of 1931. In 1932 President Doumer, minutes before he was shot by a crazed Russian, personally handed the award to the winner.
Les Paysans noirs was an idealization of the life of the black peasants by a man who himself came from a rural area, Burgundy. Having studied in Dijon, Delavignette was influenced by the historian Gaston Roupnel, who was both his teacher and his friend. Roupnel taught a mystique of the peasantry which he later expressed eloquently in his Histoire de la campagne française

The rural soul is a complete richness. Filled by nature, it contains all of history and all of humanity. In it is reunited all the lives of the past, the whole ancestral existence. … Let us listen within us to this murmur! … you exist in us as the thousands and thousands of lives which still sigh in the spirit as if they still worked the earth! … Strong and pure lives, you are not memories of the tomb, a lost memory! … but you live in us, and we live but through you 37

Les Paysans noirs was in many ways a transfer to the African scene of Roupnel’s mystique of the peasantry, the toilers of the land in France. The title itself was important; it gave Africans an identity beyond the nebulous term “indigène” which was too often linked with African inferiority. By identifying Africans with their profession rather than with their color, Delavignette gave them universal significance. Both the title of the book and its contents—by emphasizing the similarities between the peasant existence of the Africans and that of the rural population of France—could have had an assimilationist implication. But the book did not, for Delavignette was thoroughly familiar with both the African and the French peasantry, and he carried these similarities to a point beyond superficial parallels. Did not the French peasants also have their own local customs, habits, and superstitions which had to be given consideration? The task of the administration, as Delavignette saw it, was to promote economic and social development, but to do so only if it were humane and in the short-term as well as long-term interest of the local populations.
All his writings, and especially Les Paysans noirs, of which a movie was also made, were influential in forming French opinion on colonial matters. Many young men were inspired to enter the colonial administration because of his book, and a large number of administrators have indicated that their methods of administration were directly influenced by it. If any one figure should be chosen in France as a shaper of public opinion on colonial matters after World War I, that person is Robert Delavignette.
In the late 1920s, while in the colonies, Delavignette had encouraged the work of the Dahomean Paul Hazoumé, who became an outstanding African researcher in ethnology. Later, in Paris Delavignette established important contacts with African intellectuals, many of which he still maintains. In the 1940s he became acquainted with and later indirectly launched Léopold Senghor on his political career. Senghor became one of the greatest twentieth-century poets writing in French, an eminent politician of the Fourth French Republic, and is now, in 1970, the president of the Republic of Senegal.
Delavignette also struck up a close friendship with the ethnologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who introduced him to Marius Moutet, the Popular Front minister of colonies. Moutet, impressed by the young man so earnestly devoted to colonial change, appointed him as his chef de cabinet. When the vacancy at the ENFOM occurred in 1937, Delavignette was appointed as the school’s director.
He had had no academic training beyond the baccalauréat, but Delavignette turned out to be an extraordinary teacher and an excellent director. He left his mark on a whole generation of ENFOM students. The students who attended the school during his directorate nearly unanimously claim him as the most important single influence at the school. Even after he resigned his post as director to become high commissioner of the French Cameroons in 1946 and later the highest permanent official of the ministry of overseas France, he retained a personal influence on the cadets at the school and the administrators overseas. In 1952 Delavignette left the ministry of overseas France and returned to the school as a teacher.
The curriculum changes that Hardy had instituted in the late 1920s were left virtually unchanged a decade later. He had done much to make the training more relevant to the tasks that the future administrators would be called upon to perform, but there still was too much useless encyclopedic knowledge and too much emphasis on the study of law. A student complained in 1938 that the school was making very little original contribution in training the administrators, for much of the curriculum still consisted of law, which could have been taught at any faculty of law, and most of the other courses were but “fragments of knowledge.” He found the courses to be irrelevant to his future career and accused the school of being boring and devoted to producing sheep rather than men of action 38. By coincidence, later in the same month reforms were instituted which attempted to solve exactly the problems the student had complained about.
Delavignette, before heading the Ecole Coloniale, had already expressed his opposition to the encyclopedic and basically sterile nature of the school’s curriculum. In 1931 he had expressed the thought that it was vital to appoint as administrators young men capable of observing the realities of the colonial scene rather than those who were “strong in composition and could recite without error the membership of the conseil de contentieux 39.”
Also, because of his personal administrative experience, Delavignette was probably more aware than were any of his predecessors that the school could perform only a limited function in preparing men for the colonial service, and that in fact the completed training could come only from experience of the job itself. As he stated in 1942:

The training of the administrator is not accomplished in … a specialized school; it is a training which lasts a whole lifetime and which is constantly put to the test; it is a training which demands the continuous enrichment of the character and the spirit…. The colonial administrator owes it to himself always to be—from the beginning until the end—a cultured and educated man 40

Education could be no substitute for experience, but Delavignette attempted to establish a program of studies that would help create a more realistic preparation for a colonial career. Previously, cadets preparing for overseas service in Black Africa or Madagascar were required to take courses on both regions. Delavignette split the African section into African and Malgache sections, thus freeing the administrators who were going to Black Africa from studying the Malgache language, history, and ethnology, and giving them more time to study the regions to which they would be assigned; also, of course, it freed the administrators destined to serve in Madagascar from needless study about Black Africa. To prepare the cadets better for local realities, Delavignette expanded the language offerings of the school: in 1938 Fulani, Mandingue, Djerma, and Hausa were added.
In spite of this emphasis on practical training freed from academic sterility, Delavignette, like all his predecessors, saw the study of law as an essential and necessary preparation for a colonial administrative career. He believed that the study of law would give the future administrators a sense of legality and a concept of what was right and what was wrong, and would inculcate in the cadets a sense of the importance of following regulations and their superiors’ orders 41
But Delavignette was also well aware that in the past students had spent too much time studying law, and too little in studying courses dealing more directly with colonial problems. Therefore he required that all candidates for admission must have studied the equivalent of the first year of the law school curriculum. Thus, although the cadets upon graduation were required to obtain a licence en droit, they were not required to take as many law courses while they were attending the ENFOM. The academic training, Delavignette believed, had a double role:

… on the one hand to teach what is legal, on the other hand what is humanly possible in the native society. If the first notion can be taught by the study of administrative sciences, the second is no more than a sensibility, which can no more than be awakened at the school by the study of native countries and peoples 42

Delavignette emphasized on-the-job training and in January 1939 a decree was issued requiring all cadets to serve overseas in the middle of their studies. The outbreak of the war, however, temporarily prevented this reform from being instituted.

The full impact of the changes and the reforms in the ENFOM were to be felt only after World War II, when a preponderant majority of the Corps consisted of men who had graduated from the school. In the interwar period, just as before 1914, only a minority were former cadets of the Ecole Coloniale. In 1938 only 28 percent of the Corps consisted of former cadets of the ENFOM 43; the remainder were former agents who had studied at the school.
As a result both of the greater selectivity of the Ecole Coloniale during the interwar period and the special training given the agents at the school, a much more highly educated Corps was being formed. The heightened prestige of the school and its change into one of the grandes écoles of France meant that it now attracted young Frenchmen of the highest quality.

In education and social background the Corps began in the 1930s to consist of men very similar to those in the higher civil service within France. But in addition, the young men entering the Ecole Coloniale were as a rule motivated by a desire for adventure and a high sense of social service to the colonial populations. A career guide of 1931 described the colonial service as providing an outdoor life which included hunting, fishing, long trips by horse or boat, palavers, and native feasts 44. It was this idyll of government service under conditions resembling the life of a boy scout rather than that of a bureaucrat that attracted many young men. The colonial vocation was generally born of an urge to flee the more repressive aspects of French society. When in the 1930s Delavignette asked his students why they had chosen their careers, he found that “all the answers throb with desire for freedom 45.” Many administrators came from small provincial towns, places that were often stifling for the young. “I wished to get out of the limited horizons of the French hexagon,” one administrator wrote 46. The petty-bourgeois environment of the provinces offered few exciting career possibilities for young men, and among the provincial bourgeoisie it was usually expected that the sons would take on their fathers’ careers. The son of a pharmacist in a small provincial town wrote that he became an administrator because “I wished to do something other than pharmacy, law, or medicine, and live somewhere other than in Riom [Puy de Dôme].”
Exoticism was of course deeply connected with a desire to escape French life. An entrant to the school in 1924 wrote that he had chosen his career because of a “desire to travel and to know other modes of life, other peoples, other civilizations, other climates than those prevailing in France, a desire and curiosity that had been awakened as a result of exoticism in art and literature.” One administrator mentions Rimbaud and Robert Louis Stevenson as influencing him in his “wish to escape the bourgeois life of the provinces, love of the ocean, curiosity about other countries and peoples.”
There were many influences extolling the colonial opportunity to command and to serve. There was the religious influence. A number of young men became interested in the colonies after attending schools run by religious orders carrying on missionary activities overseas. Some even regarded their profession as the lay version of missionary activity.
There was also a rich historical tradition which influenced many young men. There were the heroes of the past such as Cartier or Champlain. There were contemporaries or near-contemporaries, men especially like Galliéni and Lyautey who indeed had a most important influence in determining the administrators’ choice of career. In their writings, especially their published collections of letters, Gallieni and Lyautey glorified the life of action in the colonies. Other French colonial figures influencing young aspirants were Savorgnan de Brazza, the explorer of the Congo, and Auguste Pavie, the explorer of Laos. Individual acquaintances or relatives who were in the colonial service also, of course, inspired colonial vocations.

Public glorification of the territories overseas, such as the international colonial exposition held in Vincennes in 1931, strongly affected many young men. Almost all of the imperial powers had been invited to the exposition. In the Park of Vincennes, the French had reproduced colonial villages, mosques, temples, and other structures; every colony within the French empire was represented. The most impressive and widely admired exhibit was a full-sized replica of the Khmer temple of Angkor Vat. Lyautey lent the exposition the prestige of his name by presiding over it. He also provided it with its slogan: « Colonization is essentially constructive and beneficial. Native policy is primarily a policy of concern. »
The architectural wonders, the exhibits of colonial products, the presence of famous colonial figures and of people coming from all corners of the French empire made the exposition immensely popular. An average of 150,000 people a day visited it; within one month of its opening three and a half million people had seen it. For the six months of its duration the exposition continued drawing visitors, especially school children. It inspired a large number of them to aim at overseas service. Many of the men who entered the colonial school in the 1930s mention the Vincennes exposition as having had an important influence on their choice of a career.
By the 1920s a number of families had lived in the colonies, and a relatively large number of the young men entering the Ecole had either been born and raised in the colonies or had parents employed overseas. Twenty percent of the administrators in 1939 had been born in the colonies, and roughly 30 percent were connected with the colonies in one way or another-born or raised in the colonies, or having parents in a colonial career. By 1938, 35 percent of the students in one preparatory class for the ENFOM were from a general colonial background 47. Many young men who were raised overseas had little desire to live in France; they could not easily adjust to what they considered to be a humdrum fife, and many felt emotionally attached to the areas they had known as children. One administrator born in the colonies wrote that he chose the career because of his affection for “the colonial environment I knew as a child in Sudan. The great beauty of the sky, the earth, the rivers, and the African steppe.”
The colonial career opened opportunities for exercising nearly unlimited authority and responsibility. An entrant to the school in 1928 wrote that his choice of career was shaped by a desire “to change the world. To assume real responsibilities, to dispose of real powers of tutelage and protection. In sum, to be a chief.”
In republican France the feudal order was long abolished, but the colonies represented a world in which the sons of the bourgeoisie could exercise an authority which not even their forefathers had possessed in France: namely, to belong to a ruling caste. A colonial administrator who was an active member of the Socialist party was to write in 1931:

We leave [France] to become kings. And soon because of the development of revolutions, we shall be the only kings on earth. And not do-nothing kings, but sovereign artists, enlightened despots, who organize their kingdoms according to maturely reflected plans 48

The kind of satisfaction that young men experienced from their positions overseas was demonstrated by Gilbert Vieillard, a graduate of the Ecole in the 1930s. He wrote his family that his service overseas made him happy because it was physically invigorating and because it made him proud to be a white man. He wrote his mother:

In the country to be “white” means to be surrounded by a certain respect. When I cross a market, a village, I receive the welcome of the women, the grave and cordial greetings of the men, the skipping and laughter of the children; to create happiness with small things, instead of being evil, makes me feel good and makes me proud 49

The colonies also had a patriotic appeal; they would be the means through which France would be strengthened. A pamphlet on colonial careers published in 1937 spoke of a beleaguered France needing the material power of the colonies. The tract evoked the ideal “of a hundred million men conforming to the same laws, working for each other, exchanging freely their products 50.”
In general, there was a whole set of motives that attracted young men to enter the ENFOM and then to go overseas. If their motives were not much different from those of some of the men who had entered the school before World War I, there now were a greater number of such men in the Corps and they gave it its imprint.
Albert Bernard, a young administrator who was killed in 1935 while defending the people he administered in Somali against a raiding nomadic tribe, was quite typical of a breed of young men entering the colonial service in the interwar period. Shortly before his death Bernard wrote to his family about his vocation:

Our profession is not difficult; it consists of doing good around onself. One must do that; one must give some of one’s salary to good works, to schools and clinics. There is a need for justice and humanity 51

And of the indigenous populations, he wrote: “They are good people. They are poor. They deserve pity and our friendship 52.”
The American Raymond Buell, by no means a friendly critic of French colonialism, remarked in 1929 that the graduate of the Ecole Coloniale was “usually a high type man, having both character and intelligence 53.” One French writer observed that the image of the colonial service as the refuge of men who had failed at home was receding, as a new elite, trained at the Ecole Coloniale, was growing in number in the Corps 54


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.