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French Colonial Assimilation

Introducing Assimilation

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.

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. A cultural definition for assimilation can be the expansion of the French culture outside Europe.

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.

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.

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.

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

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. 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” 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.” They were “African Elite.” 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.” 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.

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