Revisiting the French devised Code de l’indigénat and it’s aftermath
Written by Ritankar Mallick
Is withdrawal of troops an ongoing sudden nationalist trend or a hasty measure for the appeasement of the domestic populace? As Western powers prepare to leave their grounds in Asian and African regions, whom will these changes benefit? Quite a few questions hover around as the globe has begun to slowly fuel it’s engines either to start off or preparing to start off in the post-pandemic situation, as the current international events shape the upcoming global timeline.
Previously the occupational therapy that the colonial powers used to provide to the colonies were labeled as “civilizing the uncivilized ” or “making them westernized” and if not that exactly, then something almost similar. As the United States prepare to leave Afghani ground by September 11 of this year completely, marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. French President has been vocal about reducing the number of troops from the Military Operation Barkhane which operated in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
President Macron has expressed to be committed in the Sahel region but he voiced that a “profound transformation” is on it’s way and the military operations won’t be the same anymore. With this recent move, we try to trace back to a period of time in African history to revisit the regime de I’indigenat of French colonization in Africa.
The French ruled Algeria as the colonial power for nearly 135 years. This code of nativity (Code de l’indigénat) has been an integral part of their colonial policy from the beginning. They went on to impose similar laws in the other parts of Africa as they increased their occupied territory across the continent. The French invasion ceased the Algerian slave trade and piracy but it instead summoned aggression against the resistance towards colonization resulting in bloodshed and inviting more.
The French devised a way where it relied upon its subjects to maintain their colonialism in the lands of their subjects. The policy was demographically divided into three categories which were called communes. The communes with a significant amount of French people elected their administrative bodies and were the self governing parts of the colons (colonies). The native Muslim communes elected some but had a grand chieftain who was selected to head the elected council. The communes with more uninhabitable or uninhabited places were under the military’s jurisdiction. This began after the implementation of the Royal decree of 1845 in Algeria.
But as a de facto ruler tightens it’s grip and becomes a colonial power, a small group of natives, those who exercise certain influence over the settlers come in handy for the occupiers. The small group of French speaking indigenous influential elites formed during this time mainly consisting of the Berbers, mostly Kabyles. As a consequence the French government favoured the Kabyles. Almost about 80% of the indigenous schools were constructed for the Kabyles. Similarly the French government favoured them in the local positions and vice versa.
The Code of the Indigénat categorized the citizenship of it’s population and subjects into two: the French citizens (with metropolitan descent) and French subjects, namely black Africans, Malagasy, Algerians, West Indians, Melanesians, etc. The code of the Senatus Consulte deprived them of most of their freedom and political rights; among the people, they only retain their own religious or customary descent identity.
A method of promotion was laid for the assimilation of the African people or the “civilizing” people. In July 14th 1865, the king Napoleon III in the first clause of the Senatus Consulte of full citizenship allowance request made it clear that though a Muslim or a Jew indigenous is French, even after that if he or she wants to enjoy the rights of a French citizen he or she will have to admit it, to be subjected to the political and civil laws of France. It established specific penalties for the indigenous and organised lawful dispossession of their own lands. But this wasn’t where it ended, as these establishments went through further improvements (1874, 1876, 1877, and 1881) as more offenses went on getting specified and enlisted since then. Since 1860s several changes were made in the upcoming years. The laws on exercising of public movement and assembly turned more restrictive in nature for the indigenous people. Punishment for the natives included, fines or penalty of a demotion other than the prevailing sequestration.
The attempt towards naturalization that the French government tried to carry out was very depressing. In 1865 the first clause of the Senatus Consulte highlighted the requirement of naturalization that was expected to happen for a healthy assimilation to take place. This initiative didn’t turn out well as in a country of millions they received less than 200 naturalization requests from the Muslims and nearly 160 requests from the Jews and other groups. This reaction wasn’t satisfactory at all for the French government back then.
The French administered the whole of Mediterranean region of Algeria as an integral part and departement of the nation since 1848 till the independence. When the French entered, only 1.5 million Algerians lived and when they gained independence it was more than seven times of it.
Between 1825-1847, fifty thousand French people emigrated to Algeria. These settlers benefitted from the French government’s confiscation of communal lands from the tribal peoples and the application of modern agricultural techniques that increased the amount of arable land. Many Europeans settled in Oran and Algiers, and by the early 20th century they formed a majority of the population in both cities.
The improvements of the code eventually went on widening the difference between the thought processes invested, separately for the indigenous and the French settlers from Europe. The true harsh identity of the code of the nativity was becoming visible as in 1881 some specific offenses were codified, which were to be distinguished from the crimes or acts committed in violation of the French law.
Since 1887, different powers started implementing a similar kind of native code in their respective colonies. The implementation of the native Algerian code acted as an inspiration behind the implementation of something similar or more strict for several other colonies like New Caledonia.
During the late 19th and the early 20th century; the European share was almost a fifth of the population. The French government aimed at making Algeria an assimilated part of France, and this included substantial educational investments especially after 1900. The indigenous cultural and religious resistance heavily opposed this tendency but in contrast to the other colonies of Central Asia and caucuses, kept it’s individual skills and human capital intensive agriculture alive.
Gradually, dissatisfaction among the Muslim population, which lacked political and economical status in the colonial system gave rise to demands for greater political autonomy and eventually independence from France.
In the code’s basic understanding it used to treat natives with forceful labour laws and banned the free movement of an individual and etc. The reason explaining the theory of colonialism in colonial literature as an objective of the European settlers in any part of the world has been, an attempt to civilize the inhabitants of the colonies. Similarly the French government also attempted, but the primary understanding of the code was perceived incorrectly as it should have helped the growth of institutionalism within the natives, instead it helped the settlers and the grounds for more injustice and inequality brewed.