13 September 2019

Anticolonialism, Surveillance and Intimacy in Interwar France

In a recent article for The Journal of Modern History, Michael Goebel “unmasks” undercover agents who infiltrated anticolonial movements in France in the 1920s. He finds that spying and honest politics were sometimes surprisingly compatible, and deeply linked to intimate spheres such as marriage. Far from the conventional understanding that the French state and anticolonial activists were adversaries, it emerges that individuals fluidly navigated the boundary between the two. 

Professor Goebel’s article “Spokesmen, Spies, and Spouses: Anticolonialism, Surveillance, and Intimacy in Interwar France” builds upon research that he had done for his last book on the history of anticolonialism in the French Empire in the 1920s, but eventually not used. It is based on the study of surveillance and policing documents about anticolonial activists and their political efforts.

A bulk of these documents were generated by undercover agents who had infiltrated the anticolonial movements on behalf of the French state police. Historians have critically used such sources and pointed to their limitations as they are often highly curated and filtered to represent a state point of view. However, in a departure from these approaches, Professor Goebel attempted to “unmask” who the undercover informers were. This was not easy to do as they wrote under code names. Methodologically, Professor Goebel used digital technologies such as optical character recognition (OCR), which proved particularly helpful. Enabling digital within-text searches across thousands of pages of historical documents made it easier to trace and track some of these agents. As he uncovered their identities, he found out that quite a few of these police spies were also anticolonial activists. Moreover, it is often hard to tell at what stage they played which role – police agents or activists – and what was their “genuine” allegiance. All of this goes against the conventional understanding and portrayal of the state police and anticolonial agents as each other’s nemeses. 

Professor Goebel dug deeper with an interest in excavating the social milieu from which many of these activists came from. This led him to other important findings pertaining to race, gender and spheres of intimacy such as marriage and sexuality, in particular the relations of activists with French women. Furthermore, anticolonial activism in France during this time also played a substantive role in the making of postcolonial political leaders across former French colonies like Algeria, Senegal and Vietnam. Many of these activists were male and had arrived single in the French metropole. While only a small share of all colonial subjects in the metropole had European partners, the overwhelming majority of the political leadership of anticolonial movements married or lived with French women. As activists rose higher up on the political ladder, which was concomitant with better social and educational mobility, there seemed to be greater possibilities of intermarriage. Marriage and politics were interlinked, but marriage often came first for many of the agents he had traced and was a trigger for their politicisation.

This is where the French state intervened due to both legally and racially articulated fears about keeping control of the sexual lives of French women and preserving French “prestige”. This included concerns about marriage and children born out of such contexts. The French bureaucracy threw a barrage of obstacles to such relationships, which in turn pushed several of these men to navigate the legal terrain of citizenship, which in turn eventually braced them into a certain type of political leadership. These intimate relationships triggered a logic of politicisation by which these men joined or founded political movements as spokespersons for anticolonial movements. Professor Goebel points to an ironic and surprising finding: the French police managed to leverage the personal relationships for converting many activists into spies that infiltrated the movements. For instance, the state bureaucracy would promise to grant them citizenship or to remove other legal obstacles in their personal lives along with money to work as agents. This led to a situation in which it was often hard to tell whether these spies always genuinely reported to the police and to unpack the complex political games they engaged in.

Professor Goebel concludes from his tracing of these anticolonial spokespersons and undercover agents that spying and honest political actions were often compatible. While existing studies portray the French state and anticolonial activists as antagonists, following their lives and actions shows how so many of them in reality straddled the boundary between the two. The ranks of anticolonial movements had in fact been populated by persons who had been variously integrated or co-opted within metropolitan societies. 

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Full citation of the article:
Goebel, Michael. “Spokesmen, Spies, and Spouses: Anticolonialism, Surveillance, and Intimacy in Interwar France.” Journal of Modern History 91, no. 2 (2019): 380–414. doi:10.1086/703145.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the article via this page of the Institute’s repository.

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By Aditya Kiran Kakati, doctoral candidate in International History and Anthropology and Sociology; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner image by jgolby/