“Race” as a concept has been used for centuries as a manner with which to differentiate and subjugate populations around the world.
Othering people based on racial markers, who look slightly different and practice unfamiliar customs, begins a process of dehumanisation, where no common ground can ever be reached because of how different one group perceives the other to be. As has been seen in the colonial sense, the process of othering has been used by European settler states in order to control and organise their colonies, and it has enabled Europeans to dominate native populations despite being outnumbered by them.
Interestingly, when the French began their colonial expeditions in the mid-nineteenth century, they exerted power over their North African colonies by employing a process of othering that allegedly juxtaposed the values of French society.
Since the French Revolution at the close of the 18th Century, French society has struggled with the ideas of equality between men. With the loss of the majority of their remaining colonies under Louis XV, the French state was no longer an empire. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on internal affairs and that of Europe, and its influence no longer reached the Americas or India (Davray, 245-64) .1 During this time, the republican values of “individual and collective liberty, political rights, and of class equality” became commonplace throughout France and were even regarded as a distinct part of French culture (Knight, 103-15). However, as the 19th century progressed, France became interested in the prospects of colonisation and its economic benefits. In this period, the English Empire continued to expand, although the Thirteen Colonies achieved independence, and the inherent wealth from imperial exploitation increased in tandem. In addition, the Barbary States that existed in North Africa were widely considered nuisances due to their frequent attacks on merchant vessels and enslavement of European sailors and villagers when their slave vessels raided coastal settlements (Davray).
The initial invasion of Algiers gradually transformed from a punitive expedition against the pirates of the Barbary Coast into total colonisation of the region, replete with thousands of settlers from mainland France and other areas of Europe who flooded to Algeria as part of the French government’s efforts to turn the Algerian coast into a major food-producing region of France. These newly arrived settlers almost immediately faced the apparent contradictions between the French value of equality and the assumed racial hierarchy inherent to colonial societies. Throughout the periods of the Third and Fourth Republics, the French establishment attempted to balance the supposed equality of the French government with the reality on the ground in the colonies.
The French Conquest of Algeria via Musée de L’Histoire de France
However, it would be incorrect to assume that these instances of discrimination were isolated to the colonies, as “the French colonial archive clearly establishes that imperialism and the invention of race did not happen in faraway places, out on the colonial frontier; they were fundamental aspects of Western imperial modernity” (Taoua 43-55). The government put forth an informal hierarchical system that balanced the social superiority of the French settlers with the desire to civilise and westernise the populations of North Africa. This was achieved by placing the white settlers, or pied- noirs, at the top of the racial caste system, followed by locals who had sufficiently engaged with French culture to be seen as civilised, followed by those who had resisted French culture and were classified as primitive and indigenous (Marker 1- 23).
As the Third Republic transformed into the Fourth Republic after the Second World War, the language became even more convoluted, as the French sought to further mask, but not necessarily repeal, any discriminatory policies while promoting a new constitution that guaranteed racial equality, “rhetorically prohibiting differentiation between its citizens on the specific basis of race at the same time that it codified two different citizenship statuses that were unevenly distributed among white and nonwhite populations in the French Union” (Marker). In addition, the change of language from Empire to Union suggests something that all member states were willingly a part of, which clearly was not the case for the majority of native populations that had been conquered and colonised so recently in the past. These glass ceilings and double-speak were characteristic of the French colonial approach, especially in North Africa, and eventually resulted in the native populations being weary of the lack of promised reform and revolting in the Algerian War.
In the case of the Imazighen, the French and later Algerian governments attempted to deal with them in different ways. When they assumed control of North Africa, the French believed that the Amazigh people, separate from the Arab majority, were only reluctantly observant of Islam and the other cultural customs of the area, and would therefore be more receptive to European concepts. As the Amazigh people had long existed in North Africa, predating the Muslim conquests, the French reasoned that they would be more culturally similar to their French neighbours across the Mediterranean basin than their Arab overlords who had originally come all the way from Arabia and brought their religion and culture with them (Derderian). They established different codes of law for the Arab and Amazigh populations through the ‘Berber Decree’ in 1930. “This decree was meant to institutionalise two different legal systems in Morocco: one for the Imazighen, deriving its essence from the local customary laws, and one for the Arabs, based on the Islamic law or the ‘Shariâa” (Aissati 57-69). As a classic example of divide and conquer, the decree sought to enhance the visibility of cultural differences between the two groups to allow the gradual ‘pacification’ and ‘civilising’ of the two populations through the introduction of French cultural institutions.
While the Amazigh populations would never achieve the cultural prestige of the pied-noirs – immigrants from France to Algeria – many were still given French education and embraced elements of French culture, much to the chagrin of the Arab community. In fact, “the contact of Amazigh with the French culture and academic institutions is often used by opponents of the Amazigh movement as a piece of evidence that this movement is inspired by colonialists. The fact that the early Amazigh writers were among the most ardent opponents of French colonialism is simply, but not surprisingly, ignored” (Aissati). French-educated Amazigh people were among the first and most prominent opponents of the colonial movement, in both their home countries and in France, where many had moved in order to work as labourers and became increasingly opposed to the colonial rule (Derderian). The French Communist Party and other left-leaning parties were particularly supportive of the decolonisation movement and provided support to the burgeoning intellectuals that found themselves in France, attempting to influence them through the internationalist ideology.
After achieving independence from France, the new North African states set about creating their own new national identity. Throughout the colonial period, the French – as with most colonial powers – had sought to rule by division, pitting the groups against each other in order to make them more manageable. These divisions that were created made it far more difficult to create a unified identity, especially with the unequal amount of French influence in the different regions, so they instead turned to something that had long caused the French fear. The “French [were anxious] about Islam and the power of religious leaders to politically influence Muslims in the colonies. African leaders were well aware of this and addressed the issue directly,” opposing the secular values of France and promoting a new Islamic and Arabic identity that erased many segments of the country like the pied-noirs and the Imazighen, who they viewed as subversive and a threat to the unity of the country (Boittin et al.).
By attempting to wholly reject the French past of the countries, and recreate the Islamic culture that existed pre-colonisation, they alienated large portions of the country that were also indigenous, including the Amazigh population, the North African Jewish population, and anyone else that did not fit their narrow definition of national identity (Derderian). It also negated the positive and significant contributions that members of the Amazigh community made in resisting the French colonial apparatus during the struggle for independence.
Algerians carry Algerian and Amazigh flags in demonstration via Arab Reform Initiative
The French colonisation of North Africa was a comparatively short colonial venture when compared to many areas controlled by the British and Spanish. Nevertheless, the differences that they exposed between the native populations have not easily resolved themselves, whether in France or in North Africa, and the issues that they utilised to bolster their campaign of dividing and conquering will continue to reverberate throughout the region for the foreseeable future. In addition, as the values of Westernisation and secularism have been firmly put on the side of the coloniser, there seems to be little chance that they will be implemented in the near future.
As El Aissati says, “it follows then, according to this view, that anyone advocating any sort of separate or different identity is working in the same direction, that is, supporting a colonial ideology” (Aissati). This persecution of Imazighen has continued to the modern day, with detractors still claiming that they were agents of colonial oppression in the period before independence, and Lounes Matoub’s assassination in June 1998 underscores the continued debates surrounding national identity in Algeria and throughout North Africa.
Aissati, Abderrahman El. “Ethnic Identity, Language Shift, and The Amazigh Voice in Morocco and Algeria.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 8, no. 3, 2001, pp. 57–69. JSTOR.
Boittin, Jennifer Anne, et al. “Hierarchies of Race and Gender in the French Colonial Empire, 1914-1946.” Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques, vol. 37, no. 1, Jan. 2011. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.3167/hrrh.2011.370104.
Davray, Henry D. “France in North Africa.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 74, no. 3820, 1926, pp. 245–64. JSTOR.
Derderian, Richard L. North Africans in Contemporary France: Becoming Visible. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2004. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1- 137-06698-5.
Knight, Franklin W. “The Haitian Revolution.” The American Historical Review, vol. 105, no. 1, Feb. 2000, p. 103. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.2307/2652438.
Marker, Emily. “Obscuring Race.” French Politics, Culture & Society, vol. 33, no. 3, 2015, pp. 1–23. JSTOR.
Taoua, Phyllis. “The Effects of Censorship on the Emergence of Anti-Colonial Protest in France.” South Central Review, vol. 32, no. 1, 2015, pp. 43–55.