The first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies, Blaise Diagne transformed Senegalese politics and helped prepare the way for development of democracy in Senegal.
The Four Communes of Senegal (Saint-Louis, Dakar, Rufisque, and Gorée) had from the 1870s the right to elect a municipal council, a General Council, and a deputy to the French Parliament. Senegal was the only colony north of South Africa where ordinary Africans had the right to vote. These elections were contested largely by French commercial houses and a mulatto elite, called the métis, but in the first years of the twentieth century, educated Africans, organized in a group called the Young Senegalese, wanted a more important role in government.
Blaise Diagne was born on the island of Gorée, the son of a Sereer cook, but he was adopted by a member of a leading métis family and sent to a Catholic school. After secondary studies, he passed the exam for the French colonial customs service. Within the service, he was frequently transferred because of his reputation for insubordination and for encouraging local people to oppose the colonial regime.
By 1913 Diagne was dissatisfied with the constraints of the civil service and decided to contest the election for deputy from Senegal. He was not well known, but he was able to win support from different groups, of whom the most important were the Young Senegalese and the Lebu, the original inhabitants of Dakar. Diagne campaigned against the disenfranchisement of black voters and for compensation of the Lebu for their lost lands. He won a hotly contested election. The governor-general, William Ponty (1866–1915), was under pressure to annul the election, but he refused to do so.
Three months after the election, World War I broke out. This put Diagne in a strategic position because France was less populous than Germany and counted on Africa to supply some of the soldiers it needed to hold the line. Diagne used the issue to resolve problems that troubled those who voted for him. First, in 1915, he won approval of a law that allowed originaires, the resident of the Four Communes to serve in the betterpaid regular army rather than with the colonial troops. The second problem was that it was not clear that African originaires were French citizens. Muslim originaires, the majority of the electorate, were the only voters in the French Empire who preserved Muslim personal law in matters like marriage and inheritance, rather than being subject to the Code Napoléon. In 1916 Diagne persuaded the Chamber of Deputies to pass a law recognizing originaires as French citizens.
After the war, Diagne organized the Republican Socialist Party. In 1919 he was reelected and his party won control of all municipal councils and the General Council. Unfortunately for Diagne, there was a sharp swing to the right in French elections, which meant less influence for Diagne in Paris. The General Council was restructured to include many appointed chiefs, who voted with the government. In 1923 Diagne forged an alliance with his former enemies, the commercial houses based in Bordeaux. He remained a deputy until his death in 1934.
see also Empire, French.
Johnson, G. Wesley. The Emergence of Black Politics in Senegal: The Struggle for Power in the Four Communes, 1900–1920. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971.