Madeline Woker
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The cost of thrift
The politics of ‘financial autonomy’ in the French colonial empire, 1900–14
in Imperial Inequalities
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This chapter charts the evolution of French colonial finance at the turn of the twentieth century and draws the lineaments of the French imperial state’s fiscal hierarchy. It focuses specifically on political debates about the ‘cost’ of empire at a time of resurgent imperial protectionism and how they led to the voting of a series of laws in 1900 imposing ‘financial autonomy’ on French colonies and Algeria. From this moment onwards, French colonies were increasingly asked to draw on their own fiscal resources, but this did not equate to financial self-determination for the millions of French colonial subjects living in the empire. Instead, ‘autonomy’ served as a disciplining device which gave the metropole greater control over imperial expenditures. Like other imperial powers at the time, France sought to govern its empire ‘on the cheap’. In practice, this meant that locally levied taxes became the main revenue source for French colonial states. This chapter argues that this policy emerged out of the necessity to preserve a precarious metropolitan fiscal bargain in a context of extreme inequality and alleviate fears of colonial ‘profligacy’ in the aftermath of massive territorial conquest. The political fallout of this policy was immediate and generated a flurry of tax revolts, prompting several reformist colonial officials to rethink colonial financial relations in the aftermath of the First World War.

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Imperial Inequalities

The politics of economic governance across European empires

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