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The Mission Civilisatrice (1890-1945)

The old French empire was founded on the belief that France had a "mission civilisatrice", to civilize the natives. just as the United States believed in the propagation of the American "way of life" and the the British took up the "white man's burden." In the 19th Century France had long celebrated the 'grande nation' with its 'gloire' and its 'elan' and its 'drapeau civilisateur' and its 'mission civilisatrice'. In 1874 Leroy Beaulieu preached 'la haute mission civilisatrice de la colonisation'; a new school of thought arose.

It is probably impossible to determine when the term ”Mission Civilisatrice” was first used in France. The noun "civilization" first came into use in the 18th century, though not before 1766. By then, French philosophes were searching for a word that would connote the triumph and development of reason, a word that would capture the essence of French achievements. Some ancien régime colonial officials in the New World were among the first to insist that France could civilize the enslaved and subject peoples. The crisis of slavery in the lucrative sugar-producing island of Saint-Domingue was one context in which the notion of a mission to civilize emerged at the end of the 18th century. By the French Revolution, it was generally taken for granted that the whole of the non-Western world was in need of French civilization. The idea of the mission civilisatrice did not originate in 1870 with the Third Republic, but it acquired a particularly strong resonance after the return of democratic institutions to France. The French colonizers were attempting overseas what French republican administrators and teachers were trying to accomplish in the rural areas of metropolitan France. A zeal to modernize and cast out the perceived demons of ignorance and superstition was as characteristic of domestic republicans as it was of their colonial counterparts. The mission civilisatrice ensured support for the imperial enterprise from otherwise democratic elements in the French population.

After the Great War, these values weakened as the Third Republic grappled with the losses and traumas of the war and the growth of nationalist protest throughout the empire. Opponents saw the coarse wickedness of imperialist vanity, the crafty nonsense of "the civilising mission," the brutality of mere military pride. There is not much in the history of the early relations of the European peoples with the peoples whom they found in new lands which commends itself to the conscience of the modern world. The wave of social reform that swept much of the world in the second half of the 20th century profoundly altered understandings of race: the old verities of race were discredited, especially taken-for-granted claims of racial hierarchy advanced in prior to World War II under the rubrics of scientific racism and white supremacy. But all this came later.

In the early 20th century, colonial empires were associated with ideas of national greatness, competitiveness and the survival of the fittest. The colors painted on maps over vast areas of Asia and Africa symbolized national power, prestige and destiny. Colonies seem to enrich national character and to encapsulate national glory. The natives -- as the inhabitants of much of the rest of the world were then called -- were to be civilized, while the raw materials and other resources of the colonies would benefit the economy of the metropolitan country.

By the time of the Second World War, the French empire was the only worldwide empire comparable to that of the British. In 1939 the French Empire covered over five million square miles with a population of 65 million. Algeria was administered directly as part of France. This major settlement colony had nearly one million Europeans and over six million Muslims, with one of the highest rates of population growth in the world. Other parts of the North African and Middle Eastern Empire included the protectorates over Tunisia and Morocco and the mandated territories of Syria and Lebanon. In Southeast Asia the French held sway over Indochina. In the Pacific, France held Tahiti and various island groups, as it did in the Caribbean. In tropical Africa the French domain was larger than that of any other power, extending from southern Algeria to the Congo, and east to the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. French possessions further included French Somaliland, Madagascar and island groups in the Indian Ocean.

In all of these territories one distinct aim since the time of the French Revolution had remained the same -- France’s republican heritage and civilization would be offered to all of its subjects, who could become assimilated as French citizens. The empire would become an integral part of France. But by the early 20th century, it had become clear that this would be difficult if not impossible process in places such as Algeria, Indochina and black Africa. In 1924, there were only 94 black African citizens in West Africa.

Although France was a democratic European nation, it ruled its African colonies in an autocratic and undemocratic manner. The African populations had the legal status of subjects and thereby did not enjoy political and civil rights. They had to endure forced labor, imprisonment without trial, and taxation without representation. French rule viewed through the vantage point of the "democratic disciplines", more than a half century of autocratic colonial rule did little to build a democratic culture.

The rules were established in the metropole. Africans were not consulted in making policy or determining the rules of the game. Few limits were set on administrative authority and there was little recourse for Africans from abuse of state authority. Colonial subjects had no political rights and could not participate in the political life of the colony. Only a small number of naturalized citizens could vote or become candidates in representative colonial institutions. The French Governor named the canton chiefs who became the main intermediaries between the colonial regime and the subject populations and the principal tax collector.

The francophone countries in Sub-Saharan West Africa were governed as territories within two federations. Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Upper Volta belonged to Afrique Occidentale Francaise (AOF) and Chad belonged to Afrigue Equatoriale Francaise (AEF). A Governor-General appointed by the French Chief of State and responsible to the Government in Paris, administered each Federation. A Governor, appointed by the French Chief of State and assisted by a Conseil d'Administration, headed each colony or territory within the federations. The Governors were in turn assisted by appointed officials at the regional level. In no sense selfgoverning (except for a limited number of local administrative areas within Senegal) the colonies were closely tied to the French administrative system centralized in Paris.

After World War II through the French Constitution of 1946, the French colonies in West Africa became Overseas Territories and gained representation in the French National Assembly. They also acquired regional representation at territorial and intra-territorial levels. During this period, many Africans, later to become leaders in their own countries, gained political and administrative experience in the Territorial Assemblies or the National Assembly in Paris.

The embryonic representative institutions during this period were dominated by French colonial administrators. The French sought little input from the subject populations. Nominated chiefs sitting on local and territorial councils were expected to serve as transmission belts for directives from the colonial governor rather than to represent the subject populations. Executive dominance as exercised by the Governor and the colonial administration precluded any real decision making powers by elected bodies or subject public opinion.

Colonial subjects did not enjoy the right to associate and to organize in defense of their own interests. Subjects could not organize trade unions, political parties, or other political associations. The first political association in Guinea did not appear until 1943 after French West Africa had rallied to General DeGaulle. In short, colonial rule stifled the emergence of civil society and open public debate. Criticism of the administration was considered to be a crime by the colonial authorities.

In French Africa the French instituted a three-tiered legal system. The first tier consisted of courts and laws modeled on the metropolitan system which was geared to French living in Africa and the few naturalized French citizens. The second tier was a system of administrative justice known as the indigenat which gave colonial officials broad authority over their colonial subjects and the right to recruit forced labor and punish colonial subjects for alleged insults and lack of respect for French authority without a hearing. The third tier consisted of traditional or customary courts which settled family, inheritance, and land disputes on the basis of customary or Islamic law. During the period of autocratic colonial rule, there were few checks on the abuse of state authority by colonial officials. The French colonial system was highly centralized and designed to prevent the emergence of autonomous African institutions. Political authority was concentrated in the hands of the colonial governor. The autocratic phase of colonial rule thus left most subject people with a distrust and fear of state power.

In the absence of representative political institutions, ethnic groups had no outlet for political competition. Instead, members of different ethnic groups formed ethnic hometown associations which maintained their ties with their villages back home and provided mutual aid for their members.

The French loi cadre, passed in 1956 granted increased autonomy to members of the Overseas Territories and provided for Africanization of their Civil Service. It introduced universal suffrage and established a Council of Government within each territory to administer the territorial services. The Territorial assemblies were given power over the organization and management of the administrative services. The new law also provided for changes in the powers and functions of the Governors-General of the AOF and AEF and authorized the establishment of district and other local councils in rural areas.

With the promulgation of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic of 1958, the former French West African colonies acquired political independence but remained bound by economic and military ties to France. The President of France as head of the Communaut' presided over a Council of the Chief Executives of the new African states each of which had its own Constitution.

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Page last modified: 15-08-2017 16:20:09 ZULU