French Colonial Policy
From the time of the French Revolution in 1789, the two main characteristics of French colonial policy in West Africa were the quest for international prestige and the cultural assimilation of indigenous populations. France's efforts to build a colonial empire may be considered a reaction to British imperial successes: colonies were a necessary burden the French took on to maintain their international stature. These efforts were always subordinate to the considerations of continental politics. As a result, little attention was paid to the political, social, and economic development of the overseas territories.
The policy of assimilation had its origins in the French Revolution, when the Convention in 1794 declared that all people living in the colonies were French citizens and enjoyed all republican rights. Under Napoleon and the Consulate (1799-1804), the law was soon repealed. In 1848, at the outset of the Second Republic, citizenship rights were again extended, and representation in the National Assembly was provided for the four communes of Senegal (Saint Louis, Dakar, Rufisque, and Gorée). Although these rights were retained by the Senegalese, they did not apply to Mauritania or other French territories in West Africa. Elsewhere in West Africa, although assimilation was the theoretical basis of administration, a policy evolved that shared elements of British colonial practice. For example, Africans were subjects of France, not citizens, and had no political rights or rights of representation. The centralized and direct administration embodied in the doctrine of assimilation was maintained, however, and a functional collaboration between French rulers and an assimilated indigenous elite developed. Although by World War II colonial policy was still labeled assimilationist, only a very few Africans were assimilated. For the majority of Africans, the realities of French colonial policy were far from the spirit of French egalitarianism.
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