Cartierism: A Pragmatic Abandonment of Empire


Cartierism, named after the French journalist Raymond Cartier, wasn’t so much a doctrine as it was a pragmatic recognition of a changing reality. It emerged in the mid-20th century, as European empires grappled with the rising tide of anti-colonial nationalism and the economic burdens of maintaining vast overseas territories.

At its core, Cartierism argued that colonialism was no longer a “good business” for European powers. The days of extracting raw materials and exploiting cheap labor were numbered. New independent nations demanded fairer trade and challenged colonial monopolies. Costly military campaigns to suppress independence movements drained metropolitan treasuries. And the moral costs of empire, long ignored, were becoming impossible to justify.

Cartier wasn’t the first to question the value of empire. Anti-colonial thinkers had been making the case for decades. But Cartier’s voice resonated because he spoke from within the belly of the beast, as a journalist with deep knowledge of French colonial affairs. He wasn’t a starry-eyed idealist, but a realist who saw the writing on the wall.

The Algerian War, which began in 1954, became a bloody crucible for Cartierism. France, bogged down in a seemingly endless conflict, poured money and manpower into Algeria, only to see its grip on the territory weaken. The war exposed the hollowness of French claims of “civilizing mission” and the brutality inherent in maintaining colonial control.

Cartierism wasn’t simply about cutting losses and retreating. It also involved a critical reassessment of France’s relationship with its former colonies. Cartier argued for a shift from domination to cooperation, based on mutual respect and economic interdependence. He envisioned a “neo-colonial” arrangement where France could maintain influence through trade, cultural exchange, and technical assistance, without the baggage of direct political control.

This approach wasn’t without its critics. Some saw it as a mere換湯不換藥, a way to preserve French dominance under a different guise. Others worried about the potential for exploitation and neocolonialism. But for many, Cartierism offered a pragmatic middle ground, a way to salvage some of the benefits of empire while acknowledging the legitimacy of anti-colonial aspirations.

The full extent to which Cartierism shaped French decolonization is a matter of debate. It’s difficult to isolate its influence from other factors, such as domestic political pressures, military realities, and the broader international context. However, there’s no doubt that Cartier’s ideas resonated with policymakers and helped pave the way for France’s eventual withdrawal from its colonies.

Cartierism’s legacy extends beyond France. It became a model for other European powers grappling with similar dilemmas. It also influenced postcolonial thinkers in Africa and Asia who sought to build new relationships with their former colonizers, based on equality and partnership.

In conclusion, Cartierism wasn’t a grand ideology or a rigid doctrine. It was a product of its time, a pragmatic response to the unfolding realities of decolonization. It may not have offered all the answers, but it did provide a necessary course correction, nudging European powers away from their imperial ambitions and towards a more just and equitable world order.

Here are some additional points to consider:

  • The impact of Cartierism on specific French colonies, such as Indochina and Tunisia.
  • Comparisons between Cartierism and other decolonization strategies, such as the British approach of granting independence within the Commonwealth.
  • The enduring relevance of Cartierism in the context of contemporary neocolonial practices and power imbalances.