The Color Line Behind the Lines: Racial Violence in France during the Great War

TitleThe Color Line Behind the Lines: Racial Violence in France during the Great War
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsStovall, Tyler
JournalThe American Historical Review

The Great War was a turning point for France in many respects. It produced issues that would dominate the life of the nation during the twentieth century. Most important, it signaled the decline of church-state conflicts and the birth of the French Communist Party, gave new impetus to the public role of women and demands for gender equality, further reinforced the role of the centralized state in French life, and created a dynamic new intelligentsia that sharply questioned the nineteenth-century faith in positivism. However, one critical development that has received relatively little attention from historians is racial difference and the presence of people of color on French soil. Nonwhites have lived in France for many centuries, but after 1914 they became a widespread and integral part of French life. During World War I, several hundred thousand people came from China and various parts of the French Empire in Africa and Asia to serve the French war effort as either soldiers or workers. While many received a warm reception from the French people, others encountered suspicion and hostility. During the latter years of the war, conflicts between the French and these nonwhite newcomers escalated into a wave of racial violence, ranging from numerous small-scale incidents to a few major riots. Although World War I would give a powerful boost to the myth of French racial egalitarianism, especially among African Americans, it would also produce conflicts contradicting that myth.

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