During the quarter of a century following the 1907 Nogent exhibition, Paris did not succeed in imposing its leadership in the organisation of the great imperial apotheoses. The Roubaix exhibition in 1911, the Lyon exhibition in 1914, the Marseille exhibition in 1922, the Bordeaux exhibition in 1923, and the Strasbourg exhibition in 1924 all took precedence. However, since the bill of Louis Brunet, deputy of the Seine, in 1910 proposing the organisation of an "international colonial exhibition" in Paris, the capital had been impatiently waiting for its time.
The organisation of the Exposition interalliée des Arts décoratifs in 1925 postponed the project even further. Then, in 1927, it was postponed once again until 1930, before being postponed by a year to give full expression to the commemorations of the Centenary of Algeria.
Twenty-five years of waiting. More than a thousand days of work (excluding dismantling, which lasted six months, and only nine hundred days between the laying of the first stone and the inauguration). This International Colonial Exhibition wanted to accompany the French colonial process, which was at its peak, in all its dimensions. Since 1927, the promoter of this grandiose event, appointed by the French government, is Marshal Lyautey. As Commissioner General of the International Colonial Exhibition, he wanted the event to be monumental, because for him it was a question of exalting the Empire, this "Greater France" which covered almost 10 million km2 and had 100 million inhabitants, 40 of whom were French citizens. It also had to surpass the British exhibition at Wembley which had just been held six years earlier. It was also a way for him to affirm France's "civilising and beneficent" mission to its colonies and to make Paris the capital of this Empire.
On 6 May 1931, the Minister of Colonies, Paul Reynaud, accompanied by the President of the Republic, Gaston Doumergue, opened the International Colonial Exhibition in Vincennes. In his radio speech, Paul Reynaud emphasised that "the essential aim of the Exhibition is to make the French aware of their Empire", and millions of French people came to see the grandiose spectacle of a reconstituted Empire.
Obviously, the work was colossal and more than 110 hectares of the Bois de Vincennes were developed. The permanent Museum of the Colonies was built at the Porte Dorée, which later became the Museum of the Colonies, then the MAAO (on the so-called "primitive arts"). With the exception of the Musée des Colonies and the Pavillon des Missions, the vast majority of the reconstructions proposed on this occasion by France and the other nations present were ephemeral.
Among the most remarkable is the temple of Angkor Wat, which will be reproduced to scale; as well as the mosque of Djenné, other pavilions representing each colony and various pavilions presenting the entire foreign colonial domain, there are also pavilions for "missionary work" (such as that of Notre-Dame des Missions, which was dismantled piece by piece and rebuilt in Épinay-sur-Seine) and a Cité de l'Information. Entire streets were reproduced, and bars, restaurants and shops were set up for the tens of thousands of visitors (day and night) who rushed through the alleys of the exhibition, not forgetting the zoological park, the Colonial Woods pavilion, and the Black Cruise pavilion.
The show would be incomplete without the presence of the colonised populations recruited for the occasion: thousands of Annamite dancers, families of African craftsmen in reconstituted villages, Arab horsemen and "Kanak cannibals" (in the Bois de Boulogne) were part of the decorum.
The Exhibition, with its sumptuous and idealized representations of the colonies, exalts before the amazed eyes of the visitors all the wealth and exoticism of the French possessions. Africa, Asia, the West Indies, the Middle East and Oceania were all presented. Each day, more exotic shows transported visitors from Annam to Djenné.
This 1931 exhibition was undoubtedly the high point of imperial propaganda. It also followed the Centenary of Algeria, which in 1930 had already set the "colonial tone" in the capital. But the 1931 Exhibition was also a propagandistic and artistic apotheosis. It marked the advent of a resolutely modern and planned conception of colonial propaganda: a year before the opening, an intense press campaign was launched under the aegis of the General Agency for the Colonies, with all the newspapers reporting, week after week, on the progress of the work.
For the exhibition, it was necessary to extend the metro line that would allow visitors to access the exhibition, to build the Museum at the Porte Dorée (intended to receive a permanent museum of the colonies after the exhibition to rival the Imperial Institute in London, the Tervuren Museum in Brussels or the Colonial Institute in Amsterdam), to reconstitute temples and mosques to scale, to recreate temples and mosques on a scale, to bring together the colonial powers in the pavilions reserved for them, to organise the daily life of the 250,000 people present on the site every day and every evening, to create a zoo, to programme shows on the lakes every evening, or to organise daily programmes based on ritual processions from Annam or Saharan camel races.
The Fine Arts, like the Decorative Arts, are grouped together in the permanent museum of the colonies, and it is one of the richest collections that is offered to visitors. Among the best known names of the architects and artists who will work for the exhibition are Ruhlmann, Prou, Guillemard, Montegnac, Renaudot, Cheuret, Sabino, Perzel, Daum, Baccarat, Massoul, Daurat,
Subes, Rochas. Finally, all the major French brands were present, with their own pavilions: Byrrh, Banania, St James rums, but also the major banks, heavy industries, car or luxury brands, and jewellers. Finally, all the colonialists were part of the decor, because on the façade of the Palais de Colonies you can still read the names of all the empire-builders, engraved in stone by Jonniot, from Godfrey of Bouillon, "the first sovereign of the kingdom of Jerusalem".
The exhibition was to have an unprecedented media impact. Colonial propaganda worked to the full, making the event an unprecedented popular success. A Congress of colonial actions and propaganda, organised within the framework of the Exhibition, placed particular emphasis on "school propaganda" to prolong the effects of the Exhibition. The promoters of the Congress recalled that the education of a people was done through its children and that it was necessary to rapidly undertake "the entire colonial education of the French people".
The Exhibition was undoubtedly the first major amusement park in Europe. Eight million visitors, 33 million tickets sold: the public's enthusiasm was phenomenal.
Not since the Universal Exhibition of 1900 has an event been so successful in the capital. It was conceived with the clear and avowed aim of making the French love their colonial Empire. The colonial epic was presented as a real lesson in nationalism, with the colonial act fully in line with the values of the Republic.
Similarly, the essential themes of imperial propaganda can be read in the exhibition. France's "civilising mission" is at the heart of the exhibition. In contrast, "local" cultures, which are widely represented in the various exhibitions, are folklorised.
Similarly, the shows, while borrowing from local cultures, were rethought and arranged according to the wishes of the public and an unprecedented modernity in the scenography. Finally, carpet sellers and other "exotic restaurants" take on colonial and picturesque colours to satisfy them. Other cultures are discovered in the colonial exhibition, but they are reconstructed, splendid fictions that respond to the expectation of the eye.
The colonial theatre unfolds all its splendour, in the double and ambiguous discourse of a surface attention paid to "local" cultures, cultures themselves doomed to disappear before the benefits of modernity.
Around the exhibition, there was little or no debate: the colonial counter-exhibition, organised by the Ligue contre l'impérialisme et l'oppression coloniale (League against Imperialism and Colonial Oppression), in reality by the CGTU, Parisian communist sections and the Surrealists, received only 5,500 visitors. The comparison with the 33 million tickets sold for the Vincennes exhibition highlights, by contrast, the extraordinary consensus that reigned around the great commemoration and, beyond that, on the colonial question.
However, the Surrealists' leaflet "Don't visit the colonial exhibition", like the counter-exhibition on "Truth in the colonies", with its six large didactic panels, were premonitory of the future of an empire which, thirty years later, would collapse.
However, this awareness is not reflected in the splendours of Vincennes. The whole decorum of the exhibition demonstrates that France is not only powerful thanks to its Empire, but also that it does "good" in the colonies. The fiction, magnified by the exhibition, of an Empire united behind its leaders, of an Empire uniformly loyal to France and of 'docile' and 'grateful' populations reinforces this good conscience.
All social groups, and almost all political parties, shared in the celebration of the Empire, a metaphor for a France that was itself united.
To the disarray caused by the recent fallout from the economic crisis of 1929, to the anxieties provoked by social change, to the anxiety generated by the exacerbation of extremes, notably the rise of the conservative leagues and the ultra-right, to the fears of the "degeneration of morals" and the weakening of the "nation", To the emerging concerns about "exotic immigration" and "undesirables" expressed by "specialists" such as Georges Mauco, the exhibition opposed the tangible sign of national vitality and proposed that the French unite around a "great imperial nation".
We also note that times have changed, including in the colonial dialectic. To avoid the "excesses" of yesteryear, Marshal Lyautey insisted that all "picturesque aspects" and "human exhibitions" be excluded from the Colonial Exhibition. For example, he refused to allow the Kanak tour, organised by the French Federation of Former Colonials, to be presented permanently in Vincennes. This is why they were regularly exhibited as the "last polygamous and cannibalistic savages" of the Empire in the Bois de Boulogne and were only sent to Vincennes occasionally, for a few "folk dances".
Between each occasional appearance in the Bois de Boulogne Exhibition, after the purchase of an entrance ticket, visitors attended the "show" with a brochure with the evocative title "Cannibalism" in hand. This "pitiful" exhibition was denounced by some, notably Alain Lambeaux, in the newspaper Candide on 14 May 1931, under the title "Une heure chez les mangeurs d'hommes".
On the day the Exhibition closed, November 15, 1931, Parisians were invited to the closing of the gates. 500,000 people crowded into Vincennes.
L'Illustration of November 21, 1931 wrote: "Then, behind the immobile and standing Marshal, his command staff in his hand, the Angkor palace lit up while the colonial troops began to march, acclaimed by the crowd that mixed their name with that of Marshal Lyautey".
As soon as it closed, the officials were already thinking of repeating the experience in 1932! This will delay the demolitions by a few months, which should normally be completed by March 1932. Everyone is waiting. But the economic crisis was at its height and the idea was abandoned. The exhibition had to be dismantled, which was decided on 10 January 1932. By the summer of 1932 there was nothing left, but it was not until March 1933 that the Bois de Vincennes returned to its normal appearance. The remains were distributed according to need and demand. The Permanent Museum of the Colonies recovered the collections. The Colonial Museum of Lyon got the mannequins, Marseille and the Museum got the ethnographic elements, the Guimet Museum got the pieces of the Indochina Pavilion, the Trocadero got the elements of the Cambodia Pavilion and the big statues of Angkor ended up at the Crédit Agricole. In a few months the decorum of Vincennes was dispersed.
It was the end of the most important Parisian exhibition of the 20th century. It was then that we witnessed a double turning point. In 1931, it was the penultimate event of this magnitude that France would organise in terms of colonial affairs and, at the same time, it was the end of human zoos with the story of the Kanaks. A new era began, in the aftermath of 1931, which would lead the colonial empire on the road to independence.