Africa: French Colonies

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Africa: French Colonies








The construction of race in France’s African colonies arose out of the turbulent political, intellectual, and cultural contexts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century France, as well as the specific dynamics of each colony itself. An understanding of race and racism as operative conceptual categories in French political culture must pay particular attention to the specific colonial contexts in which these concepts arose. There are broad themes that emerge out of the French colonial experience in Africa. Empire itself represented a profoundly racialized extension of state power outside of the boundaries of the incipient French nation-state, while at the same time it fundamentally reconfigured the French nation through the internalization of colonial policies of racist exclusion. The colonization of Africa profoundly altered both France and the various African nations that were colonized.


Administratively, politically, and practically, Africa never functioned as a unified object in French colonialism. Indeed, even at the height of its African empire, France never governed Africa under a single colonial apparatus. Rather, numerous forms of political control arose in geographically discrete portions of the continent, all of which were, to varying degrees, authoritarian and aggressively imperialist. Long-term French colonization of Africa began in earnest in 1830 with the French invasion of Algeria. The long duration of French occupation, its intense violence, and the large numbers of European colonial settlers made Algeria—in law, in political cultural, and in administrative fact— an entirely unique case in the French colonial world. Indeed, an administrative decree in 1878 ended the status of Algeria as a colony, ostensibly integrating it as part of metropolitan France. This decree merely served to reinforce the two-tiered political system that accorded rights to European settlers while denying them to Algerians, and Algeria largely remained, in fact if not in law, a colony.

Tunisia, despite its geographic proximity and linguistic affinities with Algeria, became a French “protectorate” rather than a colony. The establishment of the protectorate in 1881 ushered in a fundamentally different form of French imperialism on the north coast of Africa. Although Tunisia retained its cosmopolitan, Mediterranean atmosphere, the imposition of French rule represented yet another form of empire in Africa. Similarly, in 1912, France established a protectorate in Morocco, nominally maintaining the role of the Sultan while effectively controlling economic and political life in the kingdom. Though the structures of governance in Tunisia and Morocco differed both from each other and from those in Algeria, the protectorate system insured French control over the remainder of North Africa.

In sharp contrast, other forms of political control arose in other parts of French-controlled Africa. The creation in 1895 of Afrique Occidentale Francaise (French West Africa, or AOF) unified a vast, culturally and linguistically diverse region under one administrative body. Comprising the area of the modern nations of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal, French West Africa attracted very few European settlers. As a result, the administrative policies that French governors implemented here differed substantively from those of the Maghrib (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and at times Libya and Mauritania). Similarly, Afrique è quatoriale Francaise (French Equatorial Africa, or AEF) contained only a tiny number of European settlers in an area of tremendous diversity. The colony, covering what later became the nations of the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), and Gabon, combined under one central administrative body a large number of disparate ethnic and linguistic groups. Both French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa functioned primarily as administrative and political bodies, and in no way did they respect preexisting boundaries or groupings. France governed its other African colonies— Madagascar, the Indian Ocean territories, the Territory of the Afars and Issas (French Somaliland; later Djibouti)— through separate administrative structures. Finally, following the dismantling of Germany’s colonial empire after World War I, France acquired two so-called mandate territories, Togoland and Cameroun (later called Togo and Cameroon).

Thus, the political organization of French colonial Africa did not correspond to clearly defined ethnic, linguistic, or other boundaries. Not only did French colonial boundaries embrace a tremendous diversity of peoples and places, it also comprised a wide variety of divergent and often incommensurable internal political systems.


Despite this wide variety of colonial political systems in French colonial Africa, and without regard to the diversity of colonized populations, Africa itself at times functioned as a discursive unity in French culture. Particularly in the twentieth century, primitivism (whether in art or literature) represented Africa as a unified space, juxtaposing artwork and cultural objects and attributes from vastly different places, contexts, and even chronological periods and combining them under the rubric of “African art.” Indeed, at times both popular images and scholarly treatises conceived of Africa as an indeterminate, yet somehow ultimately cohesive and coherent, signifier. The diversity of the continent—whether ecological, linguistic, ethnic, geographic, religious, or political— at times disappeared, subsumed under the generalizing and homogenizing impulse of imperial political culture into an irreducible African Other.

This coalescing of cultural diversity into such overly generalized representations arose in part out of the larger intellectual climate of the emergence of social scientific thought in France. In the nineteenth century in particular, physical anthropology emerged as the dominant intellectual paradigm to describe human differences. Racial pseudoscience drew conclusions about cultural attributes, “civilization,” intellectual abilities, and social characteristics from wholly spurious cranial measurements, meaningless descriptions of facial and other physical “characteristics,” and a wide variety of racialized assumptions about individual potential. Utilizing such “data,” early human scientists (largely physical anthropologists) elaborated collective portraits of racial “types,” including Africans. Despite their complete lack of foundation, these “portraits” functioned as broad-based, intellectually unfounded stereotypes with the force of scientific authority behind them.

At the same time, this impulse towards the creation of simplified, unitary discursive representations of Africa were by no means totalizing within France. Scholars and popular figures could and did recognize a cultural multiplicity and diversity within the African colonies that both undermined the conception of irreducible difference and failed to correspond to the political boundaries of the French colonies on the continent. Most notably, many French writers (whether in academic journals, in popular newspapers, or at the colonial expositions) distinguished between the Maghrib and sub-Saharan Africa, frequently labeled Afrique noire (Black Africa). Despite the longstanding economic, cultural, and political links between the Maghrib and sub-Saharan Africa, many in France and Europe more broadly preferred to conceive of the Sahara not as the highway and meeting place it was, but rather as a racialized boundary dividing black Africa from the Mediterranean world. In particular, representations of Algeria were an attempt to sever France’s largest and most important colony from Africa and bind it to France through the racialization of colonial boundaries. Algeria was, according to such thinking, not “black” but Mediterranean, a kind of lesser-white region more closely tied to Europe than to Africa. In many ways, this exercise succeeded in effecting the intellectual separation of North Africa from Africa in French thinking. Colonial scholars largely dismissed the continued connections across the Sahara, and across Africa, and administrators encouraged

attempts to hermetically seal North (meaning “white”) Africa from l’Afrique noire.

Thus, there arose a fundamental paradox in French colonial thought. Although the colonial project predicated its political organization on the recognition of two basic categories of political rights (those of the colonizer and those of the colonized, whose rights were often nonexistent), colonial states, including France, at times admitted the diversity of peoples included under the rubric of “colonized.” French recognition of cultural plurality among Africans was in no way constant, however. Instead, administrators strategically deployed their limited understandings of differences for politically useful purposes that varied from colony to colony. The forms and articulations of French colonial racism differed dramatically, and they require elucidation in the context of individual situations in order to emphasize the responses and resistance of Algerians, Togolese, Senegalese, and countless others.

Nevertheless, certain patterns in colonial politics emerge across the French colonial empire in Africa. As Alice L. Conklin has demonstrated in A Mission to Civilize (1997), colonial bureaucrats in French West Africa (and, by analogy, throughout the empire) conceived of their role as part of a civilizing mission. The French civilizing mission maintained the necessity of European tutelage for the peoples of Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas. Portraying non-Europeans as fundamentally less civilized, colonial apologists drew upon a long tradition of evolutionary racial pseudo-science that categorized the world’s peoples according to hierarchies that implicitly valorized European civilizations. As a result, French colonial bureaucrats interpreted their role as one of education, of tutelage, and of bringing advancement and enlightenment to colonial children. As the essays in Julia Clancy-Smith and Frances Gouda’s edited volume Domesticating the Empire (1998) demonstrate, the logic of the civilizing mission, and of colonialism more broadly, concealed a profoundly racist and gendered configuration of the relationship between colonizer and colonized, with the colonizing nation providing education, protection, and chastisement to wayward colonial children. The civilizing mission functioned as both an ostensible rationale for empire and as a convenient cloak for colonial violence, casting the oppressive apparatus of colonial statecraft as tutelage and guidance for the benefit of the very victims of that oppression.


At least two major intellectual strands emerged out of the cultural politics of French colonialism. Indeed, French colonial administrators rarely pursued one to the exclusion of the other, instead vacillating between the two as the exigencies of colonial domination demanded. Both strands shared the fundamental assumption that the cultural identity of Africans should rightly become a site for the political intervention of France. Drawing upon the racist conceptions of cultural evolutionary thought implicit in the civilizing mission, the ideas of “association” and “assimilation” imagined African cultures and identities solely in terms of comparison with normative French political and social values. Association reached its apex in French West Africa in the early twentieth century, according to Conklin. Politically speaking, association promoted the coexistence of preexisting political structures with the superstructure of empire, allowing, for example, continued roles for chiefs and other African elites alongside new colonial elites, such as African bureaucrats educated in colonial schools. Associationist policies imagined a colonial governance in which older elites joined with new African leaders in reinforcing the colonial order through nominally consultative assemblies and other such superficially participatory institutions. Association rested on a profoundly racist conception of cultural identity. The doctrine of association held that the differences between colonizer and colonized prevented the establishment of political systems in Africa divorced from preexisting institutions. In other words, association, as an intellectual concept, viewed Africans as inextricably wedded to the past and incapable of attaining the level of French political and social forms. Association took root in twin assumptions: (1) that French social and political organization represented the pinnacle of cultural achievement, and (2) that Africans could never quite achieve that pinnacle.

As a political program, assimilation required the eventual adoption of French culture, politics, social mores, and beliefs by Africans. Assimilation followed directly upon the conception, incorrect though it was, of empire as a project of tutelage. As the civilizing mission maintained that colonialism aimed at raising Africans to the level of European colonizers, at its core it implied the ultimate abandonment of colonial cultures in favor of assimilation to the French model. Assimilation was, in its essence, an ideology of cultural annihilation. Assimilationists held that colonial cultures, whether in Madagascar or Africa or Djibouti, would inevitably die out as people abandoned their previous, backward practices in favor of the civilized, French model. Assimilation was, of course, in no way less racist than associationist thought—the first implied a teleology that valorized French norms and denigrated any non-European ways of life, while the later reinforced a belief in the definitive inability of non-Europeans to accommodate change. Assimilation, with its implied cultural annihilation, and association, with its ideology of irreducible difference and inferiority, articulated diametrically opposed political programs for the colonies, yet both refused to grant Africans the ability to participate, as equals, in political and intellectual life in the French colonies.


In addition to its intellectual ramifications, French colonial racism manifested itself in specific policies implemented in the colonies. These policies arose out of, and in dialog with, other forms of colonial racism, such as representational, academic, and political racisms. Nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century conceptions of religion interpreted African Islam as essentially racialized. Reaffirming the largely artificial division of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, colonial administrators and academics conceived of Islam south of the Sahara as Islam noir (Black Islam). Islam, however, emphasizes the total equality of all Muslims, regardless of ethnic origin, in the eyes of God and the faith. Thus, the term Islam noir reflected a division unrecognizable to African Muslims of the time. In sharp contrast, as Christopher Harrison demonstrates in France and Islam in West Africa (1988), French policy clearly distinguished Muslim practices and beliefs in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia from those of French West Africa and, to a lesser extent, French Equatorial Africa.

According to the hypothesis positing an Islam noir, sub-Saharan Islam differed from Islam in the Middle East and North Africa because of racial difference. Racial pseudoscience (the legacy of early, evolutionist physical anthropology) had created clearly articulated and rigidly defined hierarchies of race. As a result, colonial scholars and the administrators they influenced could not conceive of religious practice outside of a highly racialized schema that ranked civilizations and races, attaching collective and spurious cultural and intellectual traits to entire groups of people. This categorization placed Europeans (and especially French) at the pinnacle of civilizational achievement, evaluating Arabs as a distinctly less advanced society, though largely still interpreted as “white.” Racial pseudoscience placed Africans dwelling south of the Sahara towards the bottom of this scale.

These artificial categorizations not only reinforced colonial racism, they drew on other, broader, popular representations. Such images often portrayed Africans as primitive, as existing at a previous stage in human development. Thus, scholars of religion in the colonial period ascribed to “Islam noir” traits deemed primitive. Following their lead, administrators denigrated the beliefs of pious African Muslims as superstitious, primitive, and base, discounting the numerous centers of Islamic learning scattered throughout the Sahel and Sahara. Islam in sub-Saharan Africa was in no way more “primitive” than Islam anywhere else, and it resembled rather closely Islam in the part of Africa deemed “white” by scholars, the Maghrib, whose denizens had initiated the conversion to Islam centuries earlier.

However, the interpretation of “Islam noir” bore no stable relationship to colonial primitivism. Whereas many viewed ostensibly primitivist elements of religion as signs of an insufficiently advanced civilization, others viewed that same ostensible primitivism as rejuvenating. French writers who were invested in reaffirming hierarchies of civilization often demeaned Arab societies as ossified and decadent, having lost the vestiges of their greatness in the medieval and early modern eras. As a result, they depicted purported African primitivism as rejuvenating a frozen and backward Islam. Moreover, administrators maintained, Arab Muslims that shared a cultural predisposition towards fanaticism and anti-European hostility, a predisposition that sub-Saharan Africans could mitigate.

Even within North Africa, colonial administrators created largely artificial, racialized distinctions within Islam. Algeria (like much of the rest of North Africa) had two major population groups speaking the languages of two distinct groups, Arabic and the various Berber languages. Berbers, the original inhabitants of North Africa, and Arabs, who were later arrivals, had coexisted largely without conflict for centuries. They could be found trading, inter-marrying, and often cooperating despite differences in language, customs, and culture. The advent of empire in Algeria substantially altered such previous relationships. Colonial scholarship on Algeria depicted Arabs as invaders, as usurpers who brought Islam to the region and imposed it, by force, on Berbers. As a result, administrators and scholars contended, Berbers maintained a collective cultural affinity for France and for European civilization. Vestiges of a pre-Islamic (Christian) past, Berbers appeared in colonial texts as more akin to Europeans, as amenable to the civilizing mission, as noble and ultimately less refractory to French colonialism. Patricia Lorcin calls this the “Kabyle Myth,” and it completely diminished both manifest and frequent demonstrations of Berber opposition to the extension of French colonial rule and the similarities and connections between Arabs and Berbers.

Nevertheless, the Kabyle Myth had very real consequences for both colonial statecraft and postcolonial Algeria. To some extent, French policy did in fact favor Berbers, but the greatest legacy of the Kabyle Myth was discursive, as Lorcin notes. Colonial representations reinforced notions of difference between Arabs and Berbers. These myths set the two up in opposition to each other, imagining Algerian Arabs as fanatical, intractable, unruly, and inclined to violence and disruption. In contrast, representations of Berbers offered images of nobility, honor, and hospitality. Even Berber opposition to colonial rule fed into myths about Algerian cultural identities. Arab resistance loomed in texts as a violent menace, whereas uprisings deemed “Berber” appeared as a more romanticized and somehow heroic, if doomed, struggles. Moreover, colonial administrators and scholars consistently portrayed Berbers as less Islamic and more civilized. Just as many writers distinguished a wholly illusory “Islam noir,” so too did they create an artificial separation between Arab and Berber Muslims in Algeria. In contemporary Algeria and among Algerian populations in France, Arab and Berber have become operative categories of social, cultural, and political difference. French colonial mythmaking and racialization of identity exacerbated, and, indeed, largely instigated, tensions between ethnic communities in Algeria.

These strategies of racialization took place throughout French colonial Africa. In Madagascar, the presence of a mixture of African and Austronesian populations resulted in the extension of racialized anthropological discourse to colonial practice in the island. Indeed, Françoise Raison Jourde (2002) sees in the colonial literature on Madagascar the infusion of racist hierarchies of civilization. Colonial writers and administrators distinguished among three races, hierarchically arranged, on the island: whites (French colonists); jaune (yellow), used to refer to the highland Merina who speak an Austronesian language; and noir, for speakers of African languages. These illusory categories conflated linguistic and ethnic identity, racializing population groups and individuals’ affiliations without regard to culture contact and internal class divisions. Chantal Valensky, in La nation malgache, describes such racialized depictions of ethnic groups operating not just in colonial manuals and anthropological texts, but also in popular images such as postcards, the dissemination of which contributed to the popularization of racial imagery of nearly all colonial populations. Racialized categories of difference not only determined the political, economic, and social roles of peoples in colonial Madagascar and complicated the internal political dynamics of interethnic relations; they also proliferated throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth-century French-speaking world through photography and colonial postcards. French manipulation of communal relations during the colonial period may have exacerbated tensions that came to the forefront during the political crisis of the 2002 presidential elections in Madagascar.


Even participation in colonial bureaucracy and administration provided no insulation against French colonial racism. In particular, African soldiers (known as tirailleurs) serving in French armies found little recompense or recognition, and almost no compensation for their sacrifices for the French colonial state. In some colonies, although service in the armed services seemed like an opportunity for social advancement (and at times provided an advantage for future administrative employment), serving as a colonial soldier to some extent alienated such troops from communal social structures, particularly after independence. They were, in the words of one scholar, “caught between two worlds and uncomfortable in either” (Echenberg 1991, p. 140). At the same time, Gregory Mann contends, in Native Sons (2006), that the preexisting social and political structures, conceptions of responsibility, and communal ties inflected Malian soldiers’ conceptions of their relationship with the colonial state (and, by implication, those of colonial soldiers more broadly). In particular, the legacy of slavery and the transition to a postslavery social system in Mali fundamentally reordered social relations, a reordering whose consequences were felt in the ties between soldier and state.

As Myron Echenberg explains in Colonial Conscripts (1991), of the European colonial powers, only France utilized colonial soldiers throughout its empire, including in France itself. Germany and Britain used colonial soldiers extensively in the actual colonies but refused to use them on the home front. World War I had taken as great a toll on African soldiers as it did on Europeans, as battle deaths, climate, and epidemics decimated the soldiers. By World War II, French colonial soldiers loomed in the imagination of the German Nazis as an indication of the decadence and depravity of the French “race.” Echenberg notes that both Adolf Hitler and Erwin Rommel singled out African soldiers in the French army for particular disdain.

Even before the massive battles of World War II, African veterans (of both World War I and various colonial clashes) organized into political pressure groups. Collectively organized with roots in prior political actions, veterans played a major role in the politics of postwar French colonies and newly independent African nations. As both Mann and Echenberg describe, the 1944 mutiny of African colonial troops at Thiaroye in Senegal demonstrated the insistence of veterans upon fair treatment and equitable recompense. French colonial administrators quashed the rebellion with the use of other colonial units.

Despite such activism, the tirailleurs rarely received a fair response. Not until 2001 did the French state admit to the injustice of the unequal pensions allotted to French and African soldiers, by which point most veterans had died. France utilized colonial soldiers not only to police the boundaries of its empire, but also to protect France itself. However, the racist logic of empire could not acknowledge the equality of the sacrifice of African and French soldiers. In the allocation of unequal pensions, the state quite literally attached a different value to the lives of former colonial subjects and French citizens.


The legacy of colonialism in French Africa has extended, after independence, to other French-speaking colonies in the region. Broadly speaking, France has pursued active connections with Francophone Africa, with varying intents and consequences. Such foreign policy has, at times, veered toward the interventionist, with various French governments of all political stripes providing support or even arms to client states and friendly regimes.

Perhaps the most infamous of such interventions occurred, not in a former French colony, but in the former German and later Belgian colony of Rwanda. French President François Mitterand’s government considered Rwanda to be part of Francophone Africa, and as such a region of special interest for France. As Andrew Wallis notes,

French intervention in Rwanda in the last 1980s and early 1990s was first and foremost an attempt to keep its beloved francophonie intact. It was symptomatic of 30 years of military intervention by Paris on the continent. Despite appalling human rights abuses by its ‘client’ African governments, France has continued to support dictators and regimes whose murderous policies towards their own people have been well documented. The continuity of this policy is as striking as its longevity through Presidents de Gaulle, Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing and Mitterand, and has survived changing times, values and world politics.” (2006, p. 11)

International scholars, human rights activists, and others have levied against the French government charges of complicity with the Hutu regime responsible for Rwanda’s 1995 genocide. Within France as well, academics, activists, and, to a lesser extent, elements of the media (most notably Patrick Saint-Exupéry in the French newspaper Le Figaro) have called for further investigation into the Mitterand government’s alliance with the genocidal Rwandan government, and into the French army’s intervention on their behalf, a decision undertaken with no parliamentary debate in France. Jean-Paul Gouteux’s Un génocide secret d’État draws a direct link between European colonial racism, both French and Belgian, and the Rwandan genocide. Indeed, many French writers have pointed to the French response to the Rwandan genocide as indicative of the need for a larger engagement with the ethical responsibilities of empires to their former colonies (despite the fact that France had, in fact, never colonized Rwanda). However, in an indication of the still-fraught relationship between postgenocide Rwanda and France, the Rwandan president severed ties with Paris in 2006.

The legacy of colonial racism and the political constructions of race in French colonial Africa reverberate throughout both the former colonies and France itself. Divisive policies enacted in the name of empire, the creation of racialized differentiations among peoples, and their rearticulation in the present complicate the postcolonial inheritance of France and the independent nations of Africa. The profound and intrinsic racism of the colonial project, expressed in manifold ways, continues to haunt the present.


Cole, Jennifer. 2001. Forget Colonialism? Sacrifice and the Art of Memory in Madagascar. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Conklin, Alice L. 1997. A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895–1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Echenberg, Myron. 1991. Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gouda, Frances, and Julia Clancy-Smith, eds. 1998. Domesticating the Empire: Race, Gender, and Family Life in French and Dutch Colonialism. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Gouteux, Jean-Paul. 1998. Un génocide secret d’État: La France et le Rwanda 1990-1997. Paris: Éditions Sociales.

Harrison, Christopher. 1988. France and Islam in West Africa, 1860–1960. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lorcin, Patricia M.E. 1995. Imperial Identities: Stereotyping, Prejudice and Race in Colonial Algeria. London: I.B. Tauris.

Mann, Gregory. 2006. Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mas, Monique. 1999. Paris-Kigali 1990–1994: Lunettes coloniales, politique du sabre et onction humanitaire pour un génocide en Afrique. Paris: L’Harmattan.

McDougall, James. 2006. History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Raison-Jourde, Françoise, and Solofo Randrianja, eds. 2002. La nation malgache au défie de l’ethnie. Paris: Éditions Karthala.

Silverstein, Paul A. 2004. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Valensky, Chantal. “Le sortilège des images.” In La nation malgache au défie de l’ethnie, edited by Françoise RaisonJourde and Solofo Randrianja Paris, 77–79. Paris: Éditions Karthala.

Wallis, Andrew, 2006. Silent Accomplice: The Untold Story of France’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide. London: I.B. Tauris.

George R. Trumbull IV

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Africa: French Colonies

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