Assimilation (French colonialism)

Assimilation was one ideological basis of French colonial policy in the 19th and 20th centuries. In contrast with British imperial policy, the French taught their subjects that, by adopting French language and culture, they could eventually become French. The famous 'Four Communes' in Senegal were seen as proof of this. Here Africans were afforded all the rights of French citizens.

Defining assimilationEdit

The French Assimilation concept was based on the idea of spreading French culture to the colonies outside France in the 19th and 20th century. Natives of these colonies were considered French citizens as long as the culture and customs were adopted. This also meant they would have the rights and duties of French citizens.

The meaning of assimilation has been greatly debated. One possible definition stated that French laws apply to all colonies outside France regardless of the distance from France, the size of the colony, the organization of society, the economic development, race or religious beliefs.[1] A cultural definition for assimilation can be the expansion of the French culture outside Europe.[2]

Arthur Girault published "Principes de colonisation et de Legislation coloniale" in 1885 which defined assimilation as "eclectic". Its ideal he considers "the constantly more intimate union between the colonial territory and the metropolitan territory".[3] Arthur Girault also wrote that all military responsibilities of a French citizen also apply to the natives of the colonies.

Protests against assimilationEdit

People in West Africa devised a variety of strategies to resist the establishment of a colonial system and to oppose specific institutions of the system. For example, labourers engaged in strike action in the late 19th and early 20th Century in Lagos, the Cameroons, Dahomey, and Guinea.[4]

Ideological protests included the banding together of the Lobi and the Bambara of French Sudan against the spread of French culture. Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba founded a movement, called Mouridiyya, to protest against the French presence. British West African colonies rebelled by forming their own messianic or millernarian or Ethiopian churches with distinctively African liturgies and doctrines, such as the Native Baptist Church, founded in Nigeria in 1888.[4]

During this same time period, a variety of groups formed to protest specific colonialist laws or measures imposed on indigenous populations, such as the Young Senegalese Club and the Aborigines' Rights Protection Society, which used newspapers, pamphlets, and plays to protect themselves from assimilation.[4]

Despite widespread protest, Colonialism was firmly entrenched in the whole of West Africa by the time of World War I.[4] Till the abolishing of the colonial rule, Africa had endured many oppressions in relation to religion, tradition, customs and culture.


The creation of modern France through expansion goes back to the establishment of a small kingdom in the area around Paris in the late 10th century and was not completed until the corporation of Nice and Savoy in 1860. The existing "hexagon" was the result of a long series of wars and conquests involving the triumph of French language and culture over what once were autonomous and culturally distinctive communities, especially the Occitan-speaking areas of the South, whose language (langue d'oc) distinct to French was banned from official use in the 16th century and from everyday use beginning with the French revolution. The creation of the French hexagon by conquest and annexations established an ideological precedent for the "civilizing mission" that served as a rationale for French colonialism. A long experience of turning peasants and culturally exogenous provincials into Frenchmen[5] seemed to raise the possibility that the same could be done for colonized peoples of Africa and Asia.[6]

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".[7]

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."[8] Napoleon at the same time also 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 which gave all free colony residents "civil and political rights." Also, in the Revolution in 1848, "assimilation theory" was restored and colonies again were under the universal rules.[9]

There were many problems that emerged during the colonization period, those faced with the dilemmas thought assimilation sounded simple and attainable. Specifically, those who wanted to spread French culture. Claude Adrien Helvétius, a philosopher and supporter of assimilation, believed that an education was essential to assimilation.[2]

Senegal's Four CommunesEdit

Examples of assimilation in practice in the colonies were in Senegal's Four Communes, they were: Gorée, Dakar, Rufisque and Saint-Louis. The purpose of the theory of assimilation was to turn African natives into "French" men by educating them in the language and French culture and hence become French citizens or equals.[10] During the French Revolution of 1848, slavery was abolished and the four communes were given voting rights and they were also granted the right to elect a Deputy to the Assembly in Paris. In the 1880s France expanded their rule to other colonies at which point there was opposition from the French locals and so the universal law did not apply to the new colonies.

The residents of the Four communes were referred as the "originaires"[11] and had been exposed to assimilation for such a long period of time that they had become a "typical French citizen...he was expected to be everything except in the color of his skin, a Frenchman."[12] They were "African Elite."[13] One of those elites was Blaise Diagne, who was the first black deputy in the French assembly. He "defended the status of the originaires as French citizens."[14] During his service as deputy, he proposed a resolution which would allow the residents of the 4 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. The Four Communes remained the only French colony where the Indigènes received French citizenship until 1944.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Lewis page 133
  2. ^ a b Betts page 8
  3. ^ Lewis page 132
  4. ^ a b c d Boahen, A. Abu. "Africa Under Colonial Domination 1880-1935, Volume 7". Unesco. Retrieved 20 November 2015.
  5. ^ Eugen Weber:Peasants into Frenchmen: the modernization of rural France, 1870-1914, Stanford, California 1976.
  6. ^ George M. Fredrickson, Race, Ethnicity, and National Identity in France and the United States: A Comparative Historical Overview, Proceedings from the Fifth Annual Glider Lehrman Center International Conference at Yale University, November 7–8, 2003.
  7. ^ Lewis page 134
  8. ^ Betts page 17
  9. ^ Lewis page 135
  10. ^ Lambert page 241
  11. ^ Lambert p. 241. Originaires were either born or had lived for at least five years in the communes
  12. ^ Michael Lmbert page 242
  13. ^ Michael Lambert page 242
  14. ^ Michael Lambert page 244
  • Raymond F Betts ASSIMILATION AND ASSOCIATION IN FRENCH COLONIAL TERRITORY 1890 TO 1915. (First ed. 1961), Reprinted University of Nebraska Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8032-6247-7.
  • Erik Bleich. The legacies of history? Colonization and immigrant integration in Britain and France. Theory and Society, Volume 34, Number 2, April 2005.
  • Michael Crowder. Senegal: A Study in French Assimilation Policy. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Mamadou Diouf. The French Colonial Policy of Assimilation and the Civility of the Originaires of the Four Communes (Senegal): A Nineteenth Century Globalization Project. Development and Change, Volume 29, Number 4, October 1998, pp. 671–696(26)
  • M. M. Knight. French Colonial Policy—the Decline of "Association". The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Jun., 1933), pp. 208–224
  • Martin D Lewis ONE HUNDRED MILLION FRENCHMEN:THE "ASSIMILATION" THEORY IN FRENCH COLONIAL POLICY Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 4, No. 2. (Jan., 1962), pp. 129–153.
  • Michael Lambert FROM CITIZENSHIP TO NÉGRITUDE: MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN ELITE IDEOLOGIES OF COLONIZED FRANCOPHONE WEST AFRICA Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 2. (Apr., 1993), pp. 239–262.