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French Community

Updated on June 12, 2010

French Community, created in 1958 as a new constitutional arrangement of the French overseas empire. Now in abeyance, it served as a historical link between the former French Union and the system of loose associations of sovereign states developed in the 1960's.

The French Union. The 1946 French constitution transformed the French empire into the French Union in recognition of the important role the colonies had played during World War II. The Union was composed of the French Republic and the associated territories and states. The French Republic itself consisted of metropolitan France, Algeria, the overseas departments (Reunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana), and the overseas territories (the former colonies). The associated territories were the United Nations Trust Territories of Togo and Cameroon. The associated states — Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — constituted the former French Indochina. Tunisia and French Morocco, also associated states, were never part of the Union.

The territories and departments comprising the French Republic were represented in the French Parliament. All members of the French Union participated in that organization's central organs. The Union was governed by a president (the president of the French Republic) and a purely consultative high council and assembly.

Developments within the French Union moved rapidly. By 1954 the French possessions in India had been transferred de facto to Indian control; Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam had become independent (with Vietnam divided into two parts) and had left the Union; and in Algeria the Muslims had begun a rebellion that would lead to that country s independence in 1962. The passage of the loi-cadre (framework law) of 1956 prepared the way for independence in the territories, which elected their own assemblies in 1957.

Establishment of the Community. Building on these precedents and reflecting the ideas of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the 1958 French constitution created the French Community (in French, simply La Communaute), superseding the French Union. The constitution was ratified by all the territories except French Guinea, which opted for independence as the Republic of Guinea and thus broke with France. Twelve African territories — Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), Mauritania, Upper Volta, Dahomey, Ivory Coast, Niger, Gabon, Middle Congo (Republic of the Congo), Chad, Ubangi-Shari (Central African Republic), and Madagascar (Malagasy Republic) — chose to become autonomous republics within the Community. Six other possessions — French Polynesia, New Caledonia, French Somaliland (French Territory of the Af ars and Issas), the Comoro Islands, St.-Pierre and Miquelon, and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories — retained their status as overseas territories of the French Republic with varying degrees of internal autonomy and were joined in 1961 by the former Wallis and Futuna protectorate.

The French Community thus consisted of (1) the French republic, comprising the overseas departments (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion, and Guiana) and territories, and metropolitan France, and (2) the 12 autonomous African republics, which had the status of separate member-states. The overseas departments and territories participate in the institutions of the Republic, except for the Southern and Antarctic Territories and the Wallis and Futuna Islands.

Structure of the Community. The Community had jurisdiction over foreign policy, defense, currency, common economic and financial policy, strategic raw materials and, except by special  agreements, supervision of justice, higher education, transport, and telecommunications. These matters were handled by the Community's organs of government. The presidency, an office held by the president of France, was represented in each state by a high commissioner. The executive council was composed of the president, the heads of governments of the member-states, and the French ministers responsible for the common affairs of the Community. The senate was composed of representatives of the French Parliament and the local legislatures. The court of arbitration, composed of judges appointed by the president, settled disputes between member-states. The Community's jurisdiction and organization gave it a unique character halfway between a federation and a commonwealth, and ensured continued French dominance over the former African territories.

Evolution of the Community. The elaborate constitutional structure of the Community soon began to dissolve in response to a growing demand for independence by the member-states. By the end of 1960 all the African member-states had become independent. Only six (Senegal, Gabon, Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, and the Malagasy Republic) remained within the "renovated Community." The Community's institutions lapsed, although legally they continued in force.

Since 1960 a new "contractual Community" has taken shape, loosely linking France with the other participating states and those with one another by a system of interlocking agreements. These bilateral and multilateral agreements have provided for varying degrees of cooperation in areas previously reserved for Community jurisdiction. Most of the states of the former Community still belong to the franc zone. French influence is still dominant and is coordinated by a fund for aid and cooperation, a treasury, and a ministry for community relations.


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