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colonial france african soldiers

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.


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.


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.


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about 7 years ago

the best write up ever