France in Africa



French West Africa

French West Africa was a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin), and Niger.

Learning Objectives

List some of the modern-day countries that were once part of France’s West African territories

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As a part of the Scramble for Africa, France planned to establish a continuous west-east axis of the continent.
  • During this time the Voulet–Chanoine Mission, a military expedition, was sent from Senegal in 1898 to conquer the Chad Basin and unify all French territories in West Africa.
  • Until the unification of these colonies into French West Africa, these conquered areas were usually governed by French Army officers and dubbed “Military Territories.”
  • The administrative structure of French colonial possessions in West Africa, while more homogeneous than neighboring British possessions, was marked by variety and flux. However, the Cercle system at the lowest level was a constant.
  • A Cercle was the smallest unit of French political administration in French Colonial Africa as headed by a European officer. It consisted of several cantons, each of which in turn consisted of several villages headed by village chiefs.

Key Terms

  • Cercle system: The smallest unit of French political administration in French Colonial Africa that was headed by a European officer. A cercle consisted of several cantons, each of which in turn consisted of several villages, and was instituted in France’s African colonies from 1895 to 1946.

French West Africa (French: Afrique occidentale française, AOF) was a federation of eight French colonial territories in Africa: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger. The capital of the federation was Dakar. The federation existed from 1895 until 1960.

As the French pursued their part in the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s and 1890s, they conquered large inland areas, and at first ruled them as either a part of the existing Senegal colony or as independent entities. These conquered areas were usually governed by French Army officers and dubbed “Military Territories.” In the late 1890s, the French government began to rein in the territorial expansion of its “officers on the ground,” and transferred all territories west of Gabon to a single governor based in Senegal, reporting directly to the Minister of Overseas Affairs. The first governor general of Senegal was named in 1895, and in 1904, the territories he oversaw were formally named French West Africa (AOF). Gabon would later become the seat of its own federation, French Equatorial Africa (AEF), which would border its western neighbor on the modern boundary between Niger and Chad.

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King N’Diagaye, a local chief near Dakar Senegal, receiving a French Administrator. c.1910.

Colonial Structure of the AOF

The administrative structure of French colonial possessions in West Africa, while more homogeneous than neighboring British possessions, was marked by variety and flux. Throughout the history of the AOF, individual colonies and military territories were reorganized numerous times. Each colony of French West Africa was administered by a lieutenant governor responsible to the governor general in Dakar. Only the governor general received orders from Paris, via the minister of Colonies. The minister, with the approval of the French National Assembly, chose lieutenants governor and governors general.

Despite this state of flux, and with the exception of the Senegalese Communes, the administrative structure of French rule at the lower levels remained constant, based upon the Cercle system. This was the smallest unit of French political administration in French Colonial Africa that was headed by a European officer. They ranged in size, but French Sudan (modern Mali) consisted of less than a dozen Cercles for most of its existence. Thus, a Cercle Commander might be the absolute authority over hundreds of thousands of Africans. A Cercle consisted of several cantons, each of which in turn consisted of several villages, and was almost universal in France’s African colonies from 1895 to 1946.

Below the “Cercle Commander” was a series of African “Chefs de canton” and “Chefs du Village”: “chiefs” appointed by the French and subject to removal by the Europeans. Regardless of source, chiefs were given the right to arm small numbers of guards and made responsible for the collection of taxes, the recruitment of forced labor, and the enforcement of “Customary Law.” In general, Canton Chiefs served at the behest of their Cercle Commander and were left to see to their own affairs as long as calm was maintained and administrative orders carried out.

The Maghreb

With the decay of the Ottoman Empire, in 1830 the French invaded and seized Algiers. This began the colonization of French North Africa, which expanded to include Tunisia in 1881 and Morocco in 1912.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the French presence in Northern Africa and how these colonies differed from others

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • French North Africa, which at the height of French colonial control amounted to most of the Maghreb region, began with the French invasion of Algeria in 1830.
  • From 1848, when France officially made Algeria a colony, until independence in 1962, the whole Mediterranean region of Algeria was administered as an integral part of France. Algeria became a destination for hundreds of thousands of European immigrants.
  • The French protectorate of Tunisia was established in 1881 during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the Russians, and lasted until Tunisian independence in 1956.
  • During French rule of Tunisia, major developments and improvements were undertaken in several areas, including transport and infrastructure, industry, the financial system, public health, and administration, although French businesses and citizen were favored, to the anger and resentment of the Tunisians.
  • The French Protectorate in Morocco was established by the Treaty of Fez in 1912; it had been a Spanish protectorate since 1884.
  • In opposition to the approach taken in Algeria and Tunisia, in Morocco, the French abandoned their typical assimilationist approach to culture and education, instead using urban planning and colonial education to prevent cultural mixing and uphold the traditional society of Morocco.

Key Terms

  • pieds-noirs: A term referring to Christian and Jewish people whose families migrated from all parts of the Mediterranean to French Algeria, the French protectorate in Morocco, or the French protectorate of Tunisia, where many lived for several generations. They were expelled at the end of French rule in North Africa between 1956 and 1962. The term usually includes the North African Jews, who had been living there for many centuries but were awarded French citizenship by the 1870 Crémieux Decree.
  • Maghreb: Previously known as Barbary Coast, this area is usually defined as much or most of the region of western North Africa or Northwest Africa, west of Egypt. The traditional definition includes the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
  • protectorate: A dependent territory that has been granted local autonomy and independence while still largely controlled by another sovereign state. In exchange, the dependent state usually accepts specified obligations, which ay vary depending on the nature of their relationship. They are different from colonies as they have local rulers.

French North Africa was a collection of territories in North Africa controlled by France and centering on French Algeria. At its height, it was a large part of the Maghreb.

The origins of French North Africa lay in the decline of the Ottoman Empire. In 1830, the French captured Algiers and from 1848 until independence in 1962, Algeria was treated as an integral part of France. Seeking to expand their influence, the French established protectorates to the east and west of it. The French protectorate of Tunisia was established in 1881 following a military invasion, and the French protectorate in Morocco in 1912. These lasted until 1955 in the case of Morocco and 1956 when full Tunisian independence arrived.

Until its independence, French Algeria had been part of metropolitan France (i.e., not an overseas territory) since before World War I.

French North Africa ended soon after the Évian Accords of March 1962, which led to the Algerian independence referendum of July 1962.

French Algeria

The French conquest of Algeria took place between 1830 and 1847. It was initiated in the last days of the Bourbon Restoration by Charles X, as an attempt to increase his popularity among the French, particularly in Paris where many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars lived. He intended to bolster patriotic sentiment and distract attention from ineptly handled domestic policies. In 1827, an argument between Hussein Dey, the ruler of the Ottoman Regency of Algiers, and the French consul escalated into a naval blockade. France then invaded and quickly seized Algiers in 1830, and rapidly took control of other coastal communities. Amid internal political strife in France, decisions were repeatedly made to retain control over the territory, and additional military forces were brought in over the following years to quell resistance in the interior of the country. The methods used to establish French hegemony reached genocidal proportions and war, as famine and disease led to the death of between 500,000 and 1 million Algerians.

A painting depicting French soldiers firing upon the Algerian army at the gates of Algiers during the invasion of Algeria.

French Invasion of Algeria: Fighting at the gates of Algiers in 1830.

From 1848 until independence, the whole Mediterranean region of Algeria was administered as an integral part of France. The vast arid interior of Algeria, like the rest of French North Africa, was never considered part of France. One of France’s longest-held overseas territories, Algeria became a destination for hundreds of thousands of European immigrants known as pieds-noirs. However, indigenous Muslims remained a majority of the territory’s population throughout its history. Gradually, dissatisfaction among the Muslim population with its lack of political and economic status fueled calls for greater political autonomy and eventually independence from France. Tensions between the two population groups came to a head in 1954, when the first violent events of what was later called the Algerian War began. The war concluded in 1962 when Algeria gained complete independence following the March 1962 Evian agreements and the July 1962 self-determination referendum.

French Protectorate of Tunisia

The French protectorate of Tunisia was established in 1881 during the French colonial Empire era and lasted until Tunisian independence in 1956.

Tunisia formed a province of the decaying Ottoman Empire but enjoyed a large measure of autonomy under the bey Muhammad III as-Sadiq. In 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russian victory foreshadowed the dismemberment of the empire, including independence for several Balkan possessions and international discussions about the future of the North African provinces. The Berlin Congress of 1878 convened to resolve the Ottoman question. Britain, although opposed to total dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, offered France control of Tunisia in return for Cyprus. Germany, seeing the French claim as a way to divert attention from vengeful action in Europe (where France suffered defeat at Prussian hands in 1870-1) and little concerned about the southern Mediterranean, agreed to allow France to rule in Tunisia. Italy, which had economic interests in Tunisia, strongly opposed the plan but was unable to impose its will.

The French presence in Tunisia came five decades after their occupation of neighboring Algeria, when the French were inexperienced and lacked the knowledge to develop a colony. Both countries were possessions of the Ottoman Empire for three centuries, yet had long ago attained political autonomy from the Sultan in Constantinople. Before the French arrived, Tunisia began modern reforms, but financial difficulties mounted until the installation of a commission of European creditors. After its occupation, the French government assumed Tunisia’s international obligations. Major developments and improvements were undertaken by the French in several areas, including transport and infrastructure, industry, the financial system, public health, and administration. Yet French business and its citizens were favored, which angered Tunisians. Their nationalism was early expressed in speech and in print; political organization followed. The independence movement was already active before World War I, and continued to gain strength against mixed French opposition. Its ultimate aim was achieved in 1956 when it became the Republic of Tunisia.

A painting of the Congress of Berlin, which depicts a few dozen men standing and sitting around a large table, some of them shaking hands.

Congress of Berlin: A depiction of the Congress of Berlin, which resulted in France receiving Tunisia from Britain.

French Protectorate in Morocco

France officially established a protectorate over Morocco with the Treaty of Fez in 1912, ending what remained of the country’s de facto independence. From a legal point of view, the treaty did not deprive Morocco of its status as a sovereign state. The Sultan reigned but did not rule. Sultan Abdelhafid abdicated in favor of his brother Yusef after signing the treaty. On April 17, 1912, Moroccan infantrymen mutinied in the French garrison in Fez, in the 1912 Fez riots. The Moroccans were unable to take the city and were defeated by a French relief force.

In establishing their protectorate over much of Morocco, the French had the experience of the conquest of Algeria and of their protectorate over Tunisia; the latter was the model for their Moroccan policy. There were, however, important differences. First, the protectorate was established only two years before the outbreak of World War I, which brought with it a new attitude toward colonial rule. Rejecting the typical French assimilationist approach to culture and education as a liberal fantasy, Morocco’s conservative French rulers attempted to use urban planning and colonial education to prevent cultural mixing and uphold the traditional society upon which the French depended for collaboration. Second, Morocco had a thousand-year tradition of independence; though it was strongly influenced by the civilization of Muslim Iberia, it had never been subject to Ottoman rule. These circumstances and the proximity of Morocco to Spain created a special relationship between the two countries.

Under the protectorate, French civil servants allied themselves with the French colonists and their supporters in France to prevent any moves in the direction of Moroccan autonomy. As pacification proceeded, the French government promoted economic development, particularly the exploitation of Morocco’s mineral wealth, the creation of a modern transportation system, and the development of a modern agriculture sector geared to the French market. Tens of thousands of colonists entered Morocco and bought large amounts of the rich agricultural land. Interest groups that formed among these elements continually pressured France to increase its control over Morocco.

In late 1955, Mohammed V successfully negotiated the gradual restoration of Moroccan independence within a framework of French-Moroccan interdependence. The sultan agreed to institute reforms that would transform Morocco into a constitutional monarchy with a democratic form of government. In February 1956, Morocco acquired limited home rule. Further negotiations for full independence culminated in the French-Moroccan Agreement signed in Paris on March 2, 1956. On April 7 of that year France officially relinquished its protectorate in Morocco.

French Efforts toward Assimilation

Assimilation was one of the ideological hallmarks of French colonial policy in the 19th and 20th centuries. In contrast with British imperial policy, it maintained that natives of French colonies were considered French citizens with full citizenship rights as long as they adopted French culture and customs.

Learning Objectives

Compare the French policy of assimilation to the manner in which other imperialist powers treated their subjugated populations

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • French colonial policy as early as the 1780s was distinguished by the ideology of assimilation. By adopting French language and culture, the indigenous populations under colonial rule could eventually become French, sharing in the equal rights of citizenship.
  • This policy was put most famously into practice in the oldest French colonial towns, known as the Four Communes.
  • During the French Revolution of 1848, slavery was abolished and the Four Communes were given voting rights and the right to elect a Deputy to the Assembly in Paris, which they did in 1912 with Blaise Diagne, the first black man to hold a position in the French government.
  • The promise of equal rights and respect under the assimilation policy was often merely an abstraction, as the assimilated Africans (termed Évolué ) still faced substantial discrimination in Africa and France.
  • In addition, in the largest and most populous colonies, a strict separation between “sujets français” (all the natives) and “citoyens français” (all males of European extraction), along with different rights and duties, was maintained.

Key Terms

  • civilizing mission: A rhetorical rationale for intervention or colonization, purporting to contribute to the spread of civilization and used mostly in relation to the Westernization of indigenous peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Évolué: A French term used during the colonial era to refer to a native African or Asian who had “evolved” by becoming Europeanized through education or assimilation and had accepted European values and patterns of behavior.
  • Four Communes: The four oldest colonial towns in French-controlled West Africa, in which the theory of assimilation was put into practice with the aim of turning African natives into “French” men by educating them in the language and French culture. In 1916, natives were granted full voting rights in these colonies.
  • Blaise Diagne: A French political leader and mayor of Dakar. He was the first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies (1914), and the first to hold a position in the French government.

Colonial Assimilation

A hallmark of the French colonial project in the late 19th century and early 20th century was the civilizing mission (mission civilisatrice), the principle that it was Europe’s duty to bring civilization to “backward” people. Rather than merely govern colonial populations, the Europeans would attempt to Westernize them in accordance with a colonial ideology known as “assimilation.”

France pursued a policy of assimilation throughout much of its colonial empire. In contrast with British imperial policy, the French taught their subjects that by adopting French language and culture, they could eventually become French. Natives of these colonies were considered French citizens as long as French culture and customs were adopted. This also meant they would have the rights and duties of French citizens.

The initial stages of assimilation in France were observed in the “first French empire” during the Revolution of 1789. In 1794, during the revolutionary National Assembly, attended by the deputies of the Caribbean and French India, a law was passed that declared: “all men resident in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights assured by the Constitution.”

In the early 19th century under Napoleon Bonaparte rule, new laws were created for the colonies to replace the previous universal laws that applied to both France and the colonies. Napoleon Bonaparte rejected assimilation and declared that the colonies would be governed under separate laws. He believed that if the universal laws continued, the residents of the colonies would eventually have the power to control the local governments, which would have an adverse effect on “cheap slave labor.” Napoleon at the same time reinstated slavery in the Caribbean possessions.

Even with Napoleon Bonaparte’s rejection of assimilation, many still believed it to be a good practice. On July 24, 1833, a law was passed that gave all free colony residents “civil and political rights.” In the Revolution in 1848, “assimilation theory” was restored and colonies again were under the universal rules.

Aside from the Four Communes in Senegal (discussed below), for the most part, in the largest and most populous colonies, a strict separation between “sujets français” (all the natives) and “citoyens français” (all males of European extraction), along with different rights and duties, was maintained. As pointed out in a 1927 treatise on French colonial law, the granting of French citizenship to natives “was not a right, but rather a privilege.” Two 1912 decrees dealing with French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa enumerated the conditions that a native had to meet in order to be granted French citizenship, which included speaking and writing French, earning a decent living, and displaying good moral standards. From 1830 to 1946, only between 3,000 and 6,000 native Algerians were granted French citizenship.

French conservatives denounced the assimilationist policies as products of a dangerous liberal fantasy. Unlike in Algeria, Tunisia, and French West Africa, in the Protectorate of Morocco, the French administration attempted to use urban planning and colonial education to prevent cultural mixing and uphold the traditional society upon which the French depended for collaboration, with mixed results. After World War II, the segregationist approach modeled in Morocco had been discredited and assimilationism enjoyed a brief revival.

The Four Communes

The famous “Four Communes” in Senegal are one of the foremost examples of the French assimilation project. The Four Communes were the four oldest colonial towns in French-controlled west Africa. In 1848, the French Second Republic extended the rights of full French citizenship to the inhabitants of Saint-Louis, Dakar, Gorée, and Rufisque. While those who were born in these towns could technically enjoy all the rights of native French citizens, substantial legal and social barriers prevented the full exercise of these rights, especially by those seen by authorities as “full blooded” Africans.

The residents of the Four Communes were referred as originaires. When they had been exposed to assimilation for a long enough period, they would become a “typical French citizen…expected to be everything except in the color of his skin, a Frenchman.” Those few Africans from the Four Communes who were able to pursue higher education could “rise'” to be termed Évolué (‘Evolved’) and were nominally granted full French citizenship, including the vote. They were considered “African Elite.” One of those elites was Blaise Diagne, the first black deputy in the French assembly. He “defended the status of the originaires as French citizens.” During his service as deputy, he proposed a resolution that would allow the residents of the Four Communes all the rights of a French Citizen, which included being able to serve in the Army. This was especially important during World War I. The resolution passed on October 19, 1915. Despite this legal framework, Évolués still faced substantial discrimination in Africa and the Metropole alike.  The Four Communes remained the only French colony where the indigenous peoples received French citizenship until 1944.

A photo portrait of Blaise Diagne

Blaise Diagne: Blaise Diagne, a Senegalese man who attained French citizenship and rose to political prominence during the height of the assimilation movement in colonial France, was the first black African elected to the French Chamber of Deputies and the first to hold a position in the French government.