Theses Doctoral

Empire of inequality: the politics of taxation in the French colonial empire, 1900-1950s

Woker, Madeline

This dissertation provides a comparative and connected political history of taxation and inequality in the French colonial empire between 1900 and the 1950s. It explores the archives of the French metropolitan state and of various French colonial states in North Africa, Southeast Asia and West Africa, parliamentary debates, the writings and personal papers of colonial officials and theorists, the publications of imperial watchdog organizations, settler, reformist, and anticolonial press outlets as well as literary production in order to probe the ways in which colonial tax regimes were established, debated, resisted and transformed. This political history of colonial taxation thus follows two complementary analytical strategies: it describes the workings of imperial fiscal power and it captures a sense of political possibility.The imperative to preserve the precarious and highly unequal fiscal bargain of fin-de-siècle metropolitan France led to the transfer of the tax burden of empire onto colonized populations. This dissertation argues that this turn to colonial “financial autonomy” in 1900 spawned decades of endemic austerity in the empire, setting the tone for future debates about the legitimacy of taxation and tax fairness in the French imperial state. It also recovers the violence of colonial fiscal seizures and examines the performative role of racial constructions and colonial knowledge in the concrete deployment and justification of French colonial fiscal power.

This dissertation ultimately seeks to destabilize the category of “colonial taxation” and argues that at least until the First World War, colonized populations mostly perceived French taxation as the “price of defeat” rather than any sort of legitimate contribution to the common good. Furthermore, the imposition of direct and indirect taxes was often a highly violent endeavor. Early political activists sometimes sought to advance their own vision of fair taxation but they were firmly stonewalled by colonial authorities. Colonial fiscal power only “normalized” overtime.

New potentialities arose after the conflict. The war reconfigured the world order and opened the way for a renovated politics of colonial taxation both in France and in the empire. Fiscal inequities became increasingly politicized, especially as reliance on private investment effectively gave greater bargaining power to European settlers and firms operating in the empire. French colonial authorities responded by brandishing the virtues of corporatism and this re-organized but did not curtail the influence of economic elites on the making of tax policies. Fiscal modernization was timidly debated in various colonies in the 1920s and 1930s and income taxes were sometimes implemented. Yet colonial solutions to the “problem” of colonial fiscal inequities (repression, the doling out a modicum of “representation”, corporatist anti-politics) faced significant backlash as the economic upheavals of the Great Depression began to kick in. The synchronous and empire-wide tax revolts of the 1930s considerably raised the stakes of tax politics as tax resistance became a prime tool for early nationalist groups eager to enter colonial public spheres on their own terms. Despite reformist efforts, WWII and the postwar period saw the continuity of this system of imperial fiscal exception exemplified for instance by the tax avoidance practices of colonial firms who used the empire as a tax shelter.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-10-19.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Saada, Emmanuelle M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 23, 2021