The word "assimilation" comes from the Latin term assimilatio, which means, "to render similar," or "cause to be similar." The import of this idea in French colonial politics may be linked to the ideals of fraternity, equality, and freedom emerging from the 1789 revolution there. Although colonial subjugation mitigated these core radical values, late-eighteenth-century France considered it appropriate to extend rights of citizenship and political rights to the African residents of Dakar, Gorée, Rafisque, Saint Louis, and Senegal. This foremost French colonial enclave in West Africa became the experimental laboratory for assimilation practice.
As an imperial policy, assimilation tried to affirm the assumed superiority of French culture to those of its non-European colonies. Generally, the various European imperial powers—Britain, Germany, France, Holland, Spain, and Portugal—had claimed the obligation to civilize the "barbaric" peoples of the world as the major motive behind colonial exertion. In other words, "civilization" for the peoples of French Africa involved the imposing of French values on African culture. This implied, unquestioned acceptance of French language, dress, food, education, mannerisms, and ways of life distinguished France from its colonial peers. Instead of an indirect approach, France treated African political institutions and culture as if they were irrelevant.
However, a big dilemma confronted the implementation of assimilation policy. Theoretically, assimilation expounded the potential equality for people of all races. This implied political, economic, and social equality among the French and the inhabitants of their overseas extensions, including Africans. But the consequences of this understanding and the attempt by the French to evade them drew indignation of the colonized people, while provoking a nationwide debate among politicians, academics, and colonial officials in France. The conservative monarchists and their Catholic allies confronted the more liberal-minded republicans. Consequently, the intention to assimilate was restricted to Senegal, while being subjected to closer scrutiny, revisions, and changes—especially between 1815 and 1945.
These changes underpinned the dilemma facing an imperial France that tried, with limited success, to clothe its colonial interests in a liberal and progressive garb. France's intentions became more obvious in the 1860s when Louis Léon César Faidherbe (1818–1889), the governor of French West African territory, received orders to embark on a more aggressive and ambitious territorial acquisition. While Faidherbe strengthened French possessions in Senegal from one to four communes, now comprising Dakar, Gorée, Saint Louis, and Rafisque, the privileges of the four communes were denied to the vast population of Africans that eventually came under French control. The great majority of Africans were denied assimilation and French citizenship. Only the African citizens of the French communes in Senegal were granted the right to elect deputies to the National Assembly in France. Prior to 1914, the African deputies to Parliament had come from a small class of elite, mainly people of European descent or of mixed race. But by 1914 a new African educated elite had emerged. Among them was Blaise Daigne, whose election in 1916 marked the first appearance of an African deputy in the French Parliament.
Meanwhile, as the French expanded its African empire in the late nineteenth century more voices joined the rank of conservatives in the debate over the appropriateness of assimilation in colonial administration. Some held the view that Africans were unfit for complete assimilation. Others opposed the huge costs of educational programs needed in making assimilation a success, arguing that only rudimentary education was more proper for the Africans. There also were groups who desired that colonial development focus more on Algeria with its huge and influential French population.
These relentless attacks on the policy resulted in restricting full citizenship rights and privileges to very few Africans in the colonies. In 1912, for instance, a law established that no one except those in West Africa could gain French citizenship. Additionally, those hoping to acquire citizenship were to meet a certain level of Western education, speak French, and accept both Christianity and European mannerisms. For the Africans, these conditions entailed a total rejection of their indigenous roots and African personality. In effect, between 1914 and 1937, the total number of assimilated Africans in Senegal was roughly 50,000.
In the late 1930s, the French eventually began to acquiesce to the reality that Africans had a very different culture. The logic was then accepted that a different policy was required to make colonial administration attuned to African needs. This understanding led to the adoption of "association" as a new policy for building a better colonial order.
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