The French policy of association in Africa was adopted to resolve the problems connected with the implementation of its assimilation policy. Rather than causing Africans to be black Frenchmen, the association acknowledged that the Euro-African relationship should be one of mutual cooperation for the overall profit of the colony and metropolis. In theory, the new policy was supposed to respect African culture and institutions. The association also was considered more cost-effective, and less prone to local resistance.
In practice, however, the association was nothing remarkably different from assimilation. In fact, many scholars agree that, from the start, the French had practiced a combination of assimilation and association. Once the colonies were subdued, the various colonizing powers tried many strategies. While the British adopted the system of indirect rule, the Portuguese used assimilation, the Dutch used racial segregation, and the Germans used colonialism. Whatever it was called, the systems were broadly the same. They were forms of exploitation, oppression, and a way of selling colonizers abroad, while inferiorizing the colonized.
Under association, the French created auxiliary instruments for entrenching authority in the hands of French officials. The Africans were hardly allowed to offer any input in policy decisions. Under the new policy, the French divided African societies into thousands of cantons or districts placed under chiefs who were, in reality, collaborators in the colonial system. Indigenous rulers who understood the culture and customs of their people, but remained hostile to colonial control, were alienated from the system. In this way, the French systematically eliminated African customary law, and created advisory councils to provide knowledge of African law and customs at each level of the bureaucracy.
Determined to maintain the distinction between citizens and subjects, the French legal code was set aside for whites and other assimilated Africans, whereas the millions of unassimilated Africans were subjected to a system called indigène. On paper, indigène was established to implement African law in civil and criminal justice administration, but it actually operated according to the whims and caprices of the French officials and their African collaborators. Additionally, this policy empowered colonial officers to incarcerate their African subjects without trial. The policy also mandated Africans to volunteer twelve days of unpaid labor for civic services.
Forced labor, harsh penal codes, heavy taxation, and poor living conditions put the African subjects of French West Africa through intense sufferings. The people were denied freedom of speech and association while being exploited through heavy taxation that undermined local food production as the people struggled to cultivate more cash crops to meet their tax obligations. To avoid this hardship, large numbers of Africans emigrated in droves. Some of the migrants left the French colonial territories. New diseases and other health hazards accompanied the mass movement of people. However, African population increased in many areas of colonial Africa, as a consequence of a decline in death rates and the introduction of Western medical services.
With the exception of Senegal, educational development evolved slowly in French West Africa. This was partly because the predominantly Muslim hinterland people of West Africa demonstrated little interest in Christian mission schools. Also, the colonial education system was elitist, and French was the language of instruction. The curriculum, completely modeled after that in France, neglected African needs. In other words, assimilation was sustained as before despite the adoption of association.
Suddenly, things began to improve for the better after World War II (1939–1945). The defeat of the French by Germany had so hurt French colonial pride that it would have amounted to criminal shortsightedness not to reward the contributions of Africans to the Allied victory. Accordingly, the colonial officials began to treat their African colonies more as an integral part of France. In addition to the rights to elective deputation in the French parliament, a free press, trade unions, and political parties were allowed to grow in the colonies.
By and large, nationalist movements developed slowly in French West Africa, in contrast with the British colonies. This was because the openings of the post-World War II era brought the African political elite into a close-knit relationship with France. A handful of them served in French cabinets in the period of decolonization. Except for Guinea, where the emergent political leaders demanded immediate independence, and in Algeria, where nationalists engaged France in a bloody independence struggle in the 1950s, French West Africa demonstrated an attitude of complacency to colonial rule.
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