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French views of the Maghreb vs. sub-Saharan Africa. The construction of race in France’s African colonies.

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french views of the maghreb vs sub saharan africa

French views of the Maghreb vs. sub-Saharan Africa

The construction of race in France’s African colonies


French colonial policies were based on racist exclusion & racial theories as we have seen before..Gobineau: 3 main races (white, yellow, black); weaknesses & qualities, but white people placed on top of racial hierarchy.

Indigenous muscians, Morocco


Non-Europeans were less civilised

  • Colonial apologists usedevolutionary racial (pseudo)science to place the world’s peoples according to European values (of civilisations).
  • French colonial bureaucrats’ role:
  • To educate,
  • To instruct, &
  • To bring advancement & enlightenment to the “colonial children”.

France never governed Africa under a single colonial apparatus.

  • Many French writers distinguished between the Maghreb & sub-Saharan Africa, frequently labelled Afrique noire (Black Africa).
  • France ignored the longstanding economic, cultural, & political links between the Maghreb & sub-Saharan Africa.

Many in France & Europe preferred to regard the Sahara not as the highway & meeting place, but rather as a racialised boundary dividing black Africa from the Mediterranean world.


Algeria: attempted to sever France’s largest & most important colony from Africa & bind it to France through the racialisation of colonial boundaries.

  • Algeria was not “black” but Mediterranean, a kind of lesser-white region more closely tied to Europe than to Africa.

The oasis town of El-Oved in the Sahara, Algeria.


In many ways, this view & policy succeeded in achieving the intellectual separation of the Maghreb from Africa in French thinking.

  • Colonial scholars largely dismissed the continued connections across the Sahara, & Africa, & administrators encouraged attempts to ‘seal’ the Maghreb (meaning “white”) from l’Afrique noire.
  • Colonial administrators & academics saw:

Islam south of the Sahara as Islam noir(Black Islam).

(Islam: emphasis on equality of all Muslims, regardless of ethnic origin, in the eyes of God & the faith.)

Islam noirreflected a division unrecognisable to African Muslims of the time.

christopher harrison
Christopher Harrison
  • France and Islam in West Africa(1988),
  • French policy clearly differentiated Muslim practices & beliefs in the Maghreb from those of French West Africa & French Equatorial Africa
  • sub-Saharan Islam differed from Islam in the Middle East & North Africa because of racial difference.
  • Colonial scholars & the administrators could not imagine religious practice outside of an organised scheme.
  • They ranked civilisations & races = Europeans (especially French) at the top of civilisational achievement.
  • Arabs: distinctly less advanced society, though still considered as “white.”
  • Africans (sub- Saharans) located at bottom of this scale & were portrayed Africans as primitive
  • French view : Arab Muslims had a cultural predisposition towards fanaticism &anti-European hostility.
colonial administrators created artificial racialised distinctions within islam
Colonial administrators created artificial, racialised distinctions within Islam
  • Algeria- 2 major population groups, speaking Arabic & various Berber languages.
  • Berbers & Arabs(late arrivals): lived without much conflict for centuries- trading, inter-marrying, & often cooperating despite differences in language, customs, & culture.
  • French Empire changed this
  • * footnotes next 3 slides
pause for footnotes algeria s population now consists almost entirely of arabs
Pause for footnotes: Algeria’s population now consists almost entirely of Arabs
  • Arabs in Algeria are chiefly of Berber derivation, particularly in the Kabilia & Aurès areas & in the Sahara oases, or mixtures of Berbers with invaders from earlier periods.
  • The Berbers, who resemble the Mediterranean sub-race of Southern Europe, are descendants of the original inhabitants of Algeria & are divided into many subgroups.
  • They account for 99% of the population.
the berbers continued
The Berbers (continued)
  • Kabyles (Kaba\'il), mostly farmers, live in the compact mountainous section in the northern part of the country between Algiers & Constantine.
  • Chaouia (Shawiyyah) live in the Aurès Mountains of the northeast.
  • Mzab, or Mozabites, include sedentary date growers in the Ued Mzab oases.
  • Desert groups: Tuareg, Tuat, & Wargla (Ouargla).
there were jews in algeria before during the arrival of the french
There were Jews in Algeria before & during the arrival of the French
  • ½ descended from converted Berbers,
  • & the remainder were mainly descendants of Spanish Jews.
  • After independence, about 70,000 Jews emigrated to France & 10,000 to Israel.
  • Almost all the rest left Algeria during the next seven years

<100 Jews remained as of 1998, & virtually all synagogues were converted to mosques.


Colonial scholars thought : Arabs invaded Algeria, usurpers who brought Islam to the region & imposed it, by force, on Berbers.

  • Thus somehow the Berbers retained a collective cultural empathy for France & for European civilisation.
kabyle myth
Kabyle Myth
  • Berbers gave the impression in colonial texts as similar to Europeans, as open to the French civilising mission, as noble & ultimately less rebellious to French colonialism.
  • Patricia Lorcin calls it the Kabyle Myth: it completely diminished both manifest* & frequent demonstrations of Berber opposition to the extension of French colonial rule and the similarities & connections between Arabs and Berbers.
  • * obvious
consequences for both colonial govt postcolonial algeria
Consequences for both colonial govt. postcolonial Algeria
  • French policy did in fact favour Berbers.
  • French reinforced ideas of difference between Arabs & Berbers.
  • Myths set up the 2 groups in opposition to each other:
  • AlgerianArabs- fanatical, obstinate, unruly, & inclined to violence & disruption.
  • Berbers - noble, honourable , & hospitable; less Islamic & more civilised
berber opposition to colonial rule fed into myths about algerian cultural identiti es
* Berber opposition to colonial rule fed into myths about Algerian cultural identities.
  • Many writers created an artificial separation between Arab & Berber Muslims in Algeria.
  • In contemporary Algeria & among Algerian populations in France: Arab & Berber now mean something in terms of social, cultural, & political difference.
  • * French colonial mythmaking & racialisation of identity worsened, & mostly created, tensions between ethnic communities in Algeria.