Anne Judge, University of Surrey

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French, a tool for colonialism: aims and consequences

Anne Judge, University of Surrey

This paper examines the use of French as a political tool during the 2nd French Colonial Empire (1830-1946), with special reference to educational policies, in the main areas of expansion, namely Africa, the Maghreb and Indochina. One of my aims is to show the continuity of French linguistic policies, since the same methods were used, at least in part, to impose French in France and in the colonies (section1), and it was the same belief in the superiority of the French language and French culture which justified these policies both at home and abroad (section 2). The principles behind these policies were adapted, however, to the purpose and organisation of the 2nd Colonial Empire (section 3), which in turn affected the educational system (section 4). My conclusion will outline some of the present-day consequences of these policies. It is important to remember, however, that the French language has traditionally played a major political role outside the narrow context of colonialism.

1. The imposition of French in France : a model for its colonial enterprise

i) French gradually became one of the pillars of the state during the Ancien Régime, and finally Francis 1st’s edict of Villers-Cotterets in 1539 made French the official language of law and administration. But this was the culmination of earlier decrees displacing Latin in favour of the vernaculars, and more particularly French, the royal language, for both legalistic and practical reasons. A century later, French had become a matter of policy since Louis XIV in 1688 justified the annexation of the Franche-Comté on the grounds that it was French speaking.

This was, however, after French had become the main literary language. The date usually given for this coming of age of the French language is 1549, date of publication of Du Bellay’s famous Défense et Illustration de la langue française. It is also around that period that French started playing an important role in international diplomacy (in 1558 Du Bellay even wrote in a poem that French was ‘the mother of the arts, arms and the law’ cf. Regrets IX). The following century, in 1636, saw the creation by Richelieu of the Académie française, whose mission was to make French an ever sharper tool of communication. (Rivarol’s statement in his 1784 essay on the universality of the French language that Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français remains famous to this day). In the 18th century, the use of French spread well beyond the borders of France through the influence of her philosophers, which led to the concept of le rayonnement de la langue et de la culture française ­i.e. French language and culture as the light of the world. The fact that the Alliance internationale israélite, founded in 1860, adopted French as its language illustrates that this vision of French as an international and universal language was shared by many outside France.

ii) Under the Ancien Régime, however, French was only the language of the elite, probably less than one fifth of the population. All this changed in 1789 when France became a unified and centralised nation-state, with French playing a central role, not just as a pillar of the state but as the ‘cement’ of the whole nation. This ‘Jacobin’ concept of one state/one language/one nation is still very much in evidence to this day not only in France but also in the Maghreb where Arabic monolingualism is a stated principle. Even the term ‘cement’ has been used in this context.1

Moreover by the 1790s French was no longer seen only as the language of the arts, culture and diplomacy, but as a symbol of the universal ideals of the Revolution. This is when the French language became ‘nationalised’ as it were, and proselytising began in earnest. It took, however, until 1918 for French to become the first language of the whole nation, i.e. governments were still trying to spread French in France whilst at the same time trying to do so in the colonies, albeit in a truncated form.

The same methods were used in the colonies as had been over time i.e. military conquest, a unifying administration, schools and conscription, hence accusations made by the regional languages of France today of having been colonised. Indeed frequent comparisons were made during the colonial period between methods used for the teaching of French to non francophone French children both in France and in the colonies. This, in turn, encouraged the habit of seeing the colonies as a mere extension of France. But whereas in France, the spread of French aimed at achieving not only unity but equality, at least in principle, in the colonies a more Ancien Régime approach prevailed, with French being reserved for an elite. This was mirrored linguistically by the fact that whereas the French in France were ‘citizens’, the ‘natives’ in the colonies were ‘subjects’.

How could this unequal approach be justified in the country of Les droits de l’homme et du citoyen? In this respect, it is interesting to note how the official discourse on Human Rights changed through time. During the first Republic everybody was to have access to the universal rights proclaimed by the Revolution, but in the course of the 19th century, it became clear that these principles were only to be applied, in the first instance to Europe, the argument being that the non Europeans could aspire to them only when they had become Évolués i.e .’civilised’ . Hence the origin of the ‘civilising mission’, to be achieved through French education, which underpins the whole colonial project. Clearly ‘civilising’ too much and too quickly was not in the colonial empire’s interest, with many wanting to give only restricted access to the French language to the indigenous populations. This led to general disenchantment on the part of the colonised, particularly in Indochina, when they gradually realised in the 1920s and 30s that they would never be seen as real equals, and ultimately to the downfall of the Second French Colonial Empire.

2. The status of French as a justification for French linguistic policies in and out of France

The rise in the prestige of French from the 1539 until the 1789 Revolution was accompanied by a decline in the status of the other vernaculars, which became known as ‘dialects’, ‘vernaculars’ ‘patois’, or ‘jargons’, particularly if they could not boast an impressive written literary tradition. Matters became much worse in France after 1789 when such ‘dialects’ – or ‘patois’ – represented either backwardness or a danger for the new Republic (Breton and Basque for example). This emerges clearly in the Rapport Grégoire (1794), the first linguistic survey of its kind, which revealed that the majority of those who filled in the questionnaire were indeed keen to be rid of their ‘dialects’ or ‘patois’. Such views were very generally accepted throughout the 19th century. Thus Balzac referred to Breton being a ‘patois’ in Les Chouans, and Gélu in a preface to a work he had written in Occitan wrote : ‘I have taken my heroes from the very bottom of the social scale, because our patois could only be placed appropriately in their mouths, because it excludes all ideas of grace and can only express force’2.

These negative views were reinforced by the development of historical linguistics, with Humboldt (1765-1835) maintaining that every language is a product of its past, with some languages more advanced than others as instruments of thought, Sanskrit being the best3. Then A. Schleicher (1821-68), among others, postulated a hierarchy of languages in terms of their linguistic structure4, which led to the notion of the superiority of the Indo-European languages. This view accorded well with both Darwin’s theory of evolution and the concept of primitive races and Aryanism. Thus Littré, in his dictionary (1863-1873), defines Aryan as “a name given to those peoples who speak Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, German, Slave and Celtic” 5.

Not surprisingly the African languages, not being written, came off worst, and it became common to contrast `civilised` people who spoke ‘languages’ and ‘savages’ who spoke ‘dialects’6, ‘jargons’ or even petit nègre. Thus, in 1889, E. Aymonier, director of the École coloniale, referring to Indochina, stated “ they do not have a language. Their national idiom, flattened by the constant and secular use of Chinese writing and literature, has remained at the stage of a rudimentary patois”.7 During the same period, however, the geographer Onésime Reclus referred to Wolof, Arabic and Berber as ‘languages’, but described the last two as sharing a passion for ‘terrible guttural sounds which resemble vomiting’8. Harsh words, from a colourful writer, but at least he recognised these forms of speech as languages, which was enlightened for his day.

As a result, teaching the French language and values became one of the main driving forces of the 19th century, with France being described as the Mère patrie, nourricière i.e the ‘motherland’, the ‘mother provider of nourishment’ etc. The Alliance française (1883) and the Mission laïque (1902) – still important today –were founded to spread French abroad, although not only in the colonies. A consequence of this was to debase the local unwritten languages. This has had major consequences in the Maghreb, where the local ‘languages’ are not recognised as such partly because of the negative connotations of the term ‘dialect’ with which they are associated. The result is that children are educated in a so called ‘mother tongue’ – ‘Standard Modern Arabic’ – , which is in fact nobody’s mother tongue in these countries. This is now causing major educational problems. This does not mean that Standard Modern Arabic could not or should not become a real mother tongue – which is a different issue – but since this is not yet the case, the arabisation policies set in place should at least take these languages into account. The fact that they do not – being seen as mere ‘dialects’ – is one of the factors in their lack of success.

As for the African states, they are still reeling from the crisis of confidence they suffered by being classified as having no history or civilisation since they had no written tradition, in an era when oral tradition had no worth. 19th century attitudes towards languages in general have much to answer for in terms of present day problems both in the ex-colonies, and in France in relation to the regional and minority language.

3. French in the context of the 2nd Colonial Empire

The military expedition to Algeria in 1830 marked the beginning of the establishment of a new empire, complete, in the case of Algeria, with settlers. France then turned to Africa in order to expand her trade by creating trading posts9 and, between 1837 and 1842, acquired a number of islands in the Pacific. A few years later, the French arrived in Indochina, ostensibly to protect French missionaries, but also to achieve influence over China in competition with Britain.

The 2nd colonial empire was organised around centralised blocs, each under the direction of a gouverneur général. The first bloc to be created was the Union Indochinoise in 188810. The second was l’Afrique occidentale française or AOF11 in 1895. The third was l’Afrique orientale française or AEF12 in 191013 (and Madagascar in 1897, but I am not dealing with Madagascar here). Since French civil servants were frequently on the move and only acquired a rudimentary knowledge of the local languages, there was a need to impose a minimum of spoken French for communication purposes. The mobility of high civil servants in charge of colonial affairs ensured, however, continuity in terms of policies. Those possessions which were felt to be highly assimilated, namely the remnants of the first colonial empire and Algeria were administered directly from Paris, by governors and general councils. The influence of French was much stronger in these possessions. In 1898 an école coloniale was founded to train colonial administrators. This accentuated the uniformity of colonial administration..

Other areas of French influence became ‘protectorates’: Cambodia in 1863, Tunisia in 1881, Annam and Tonkin in 1887, Laos in 1893, and Morocco in 1912. Although the Protectorates were supposed to keep their own administrative structures, the distinction between ‘colony’ and ‘protectorate’ soon became blurred, because of the extreme nature of French centralisation. Protectorate status did, however, imply respect for local social organisation (often to the colonisers’ advantage, a particularly good example being Morocco) while the colonies were seen as a mere extension of France.

The expansion of the 2nd French Colonial Empire was largely driven by France’s desire to compete for influence with Britain. Interest in colonialism in France was thus mainly strategic, with colonial trade with metropolitan France allegedly never exceeding 15% of the total of French foreign trade14. This figure is debatable, to say the least, but it is true that for a number of colonialists trade was not the only aim of the Empire. Thus in 1883 Reclus, after pointing out that only Saigon and Pondicherry brought in more than they cost, wrote: ‘but the worth of an overseas country must not be measured by what it costs or brings in the way of financial gain to the State. Metropolitan France dragged out of her torpor [after the loss of Alsace-Lorraine], the colonies ceasing to be deserts, barbaric lands becoming human, entrepreneurial alertness and cross fertilisation, the French flag sailing across the seas, the language of the mother country winning over homes and its chefs-d’oeuvres altars, it is for those reasons mainly that we must spread beyond the oceans’15. Reclus and others clearly saw colonialism as a civilising mission in which language played a central role.

The most famous defender of colonialism during the 2nd Colonial Empire was Jules Ferry, whose good reputation (in terms of the number of streets in France named after him) is founded on the provision of free, secular and compulsory education in France in 1882. His aim was to spread the Republican ideals in the colonies. He explained this in a famous Parliamentary debate on March 30th 1885: There is a second point I wish to refer to; it is the humanitarian and civilising question…The superior races have a right in relation to the inferior races. I say they have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilise the inferior races’16. The race aspect was later tempered by Mgr Freppel who maintained that there was no such thing as an inferior race, but only inferior cultures.17. Reclus also questioned the concept of ‘race’, when trying to classify the Algerians, being baffled by the multiplicity of physical types he found there (p. 681). The commonly held view, however, was in the superiority of European, and in particular, French culture.

Ferry’s racism – shocking from our point of view – was a consequence of the philosophical, linguistic and scientific views of the 19th century, and the belief, dear to the 1789 revolutionaries (Condorcet 1741-1794 in particular) that the aim of education was to improve the human race. During the 19th century this led to the establishment of paternalistic assimilation policies to help others ‘to catch up’ with the Europeans. In other words, for this group of thinkers, the inferiority of a race was not necessarily a permanent condition. From a practical point of view, this meant trying to give the colonised the same advantages through education as those enjoyed in metropolitan France. This approach prevailed during the 19th century.

This can be contrasted with the views held by others that other races were inherently inferior and therefore fair game for exploitation. This justified a policy of riding rough shod over other cultures and languages, while only allowing a strictly utilitarian and minimal access to the French language and culture, which was to be admired from afar. This is sometimes referred to as a policy of ‘adaptation’. This view became very popular in the early years of the 20th century.

A third approach was based on the belief that different cultures were inherently different but worthy of respect nonetheless. This led to the theory that policy should be adapted to each colonial context. Indeed the motto of the École coloniale was “Épousez le pays”, and Lyautey was one of the most fervent enthusiasts of this approach. Respecting the local social structures meant flattering the elite and keeping the masses in their place. This policy was typical of the protectorates and has sometimes been referred to as a policy of ‘association’. The exact meaning of ‘association’ and ‘adaptation’ is very ambiguous, however, and some administrators played on this for the benefit of the colonised or vice versa .

Colonialism thus came in different formats, depending on place and time. But not everyone in France was in favour of the establishment of a colonial empire. Indeed opinions among the politicians were more or less equally divided. Opponents were of various types: some accused the government of merely trying to compensate for the 1870 French defeat by the Germans which left French morale and self-respect in tatters. The famous politician and writer, Déroulède, attacked the colonial policy stating: ‘I have lost two children [Alsace and Lorraine] and you are offering me 20 servants18, a fairly telling comment. Others thought colonialism would cost more than it was worth. As for Clemenceau, he was very much in a minority when he stated that the policy was an insult to the ideals of 1789.

Since the proponents of colonisation had only the barest majority in parliament, they started a major propaganda campaign in France to promote colonialism. This culminated in the 1931 Exposition coloniale in Paris, which was intended to show the benefits of colonisation. Elements of this propaganda survived into the 5os. The Y’a bon banania publicity was a typical illustation of ‘le bon noir’ at our service, speaking ‘petit nègre, to the general amusement of all.

France’s position was therefore inherently duplicitous. It was caught between the ideal of ‘assimilation’, dating back to the Revolution and founded on the principle of one language/one nation, and the colonial principle of domination and self interest (this has been irreverently referred to as the ‘foi et pognon principles of colonisation’, i.e. the ‘faith’ and ‘dosh’ principles, ‘faith‘ being used in its broadest sense to include both religion and the Republican ideals). Efforts were made, however, to combine these two types of policies. In the 1830s, the Duc de Rovigo wrote: ‘I consider the promotion of instruction and of our language as the most efficient way of improving our domination of the country…What would really be prodigious would be little by little to replace Arabic by French.’19. This is why, when France first conquered Algeria, the aim was to assimilate all the various population groups and the Duc of Rovigo’s aim was to see Jews, Moors, Italians and Spaniards all being taught at the same time, under the same roof, by the same teacher, in order to achieve a desirable ‘fusion’ of all the populations20.

There were, however, objections both in France and among the settlers to ‘natives’ being given as broad an education as in France on the grounds that this would lead to the collapse of the colonial system. Opponents of assimilation wanted an ‘adapted’ form of education, i.e. sufficient to train useful collaborators for the regime. The aim of this ‘minimalist’ form of education, as outlined by J. Chailley at the Congrès colonial de Marseille in 1908, was for: “80% [children] to be kept in their traditional spheres of employment, 10% to become your associates in becoming lowly collaborators, 6 to 7% to enter the civil service at various levels, 3 to 4 % to go into pure sciences, the higher levels of administration and politics…Thus you will not have produced idle listless people’….You will not have produced misfits because you won’t have helped anybody to change social class…. Finally you will have been useful to the colonists, since you will have made sure they benefited from the likelihood of a regular flow of disciplined labour; you will have been useful to yourself; you will be well remembered; you will leave an honourable trace of your passage, and you will be able to say to yourself that you worked usefully and generously in the interest of the conquered race’21. Twenty years on, however, the results for the AOF do not even achieve these minimal goals: only 15.66% went beyond their village school, 1.9% reached the Higher Primary level, and 0.33% either went to teacher training schools or specialised schools. There was no risk of anybody becoming a ‘misfit’ or getting ideas above their station in life.

The proponents of assimilation responded rather endearingly to the fear of creating rebels through an excess of education. They maintained that once the colonised populations had benefited from assimilation they would be suitably grateful and would, of their own free will, accept France’s authority over them. This was clearly the view of Jules Cambon, responsible for education in Tunisia, when he wrote in 1882 : “We do not have at present a better way of assimilating the Arabs in Tunisia, as far as that is possible, than by teaching them our language […]; we cannot count on religion to achieve assimilation, they will never convert to Christianity; but as they learn our language, this will introduce them to a multitude of European ideas22. This may now appear rather utopian, but many of the colonised elite at that time aspired to the same advantages as the French, and hoped to obtain them in time by remaining within the French sphere of influence, since it seemed impossible to dislodge the colonial power. This is seen in the constant demand in the 20th century for ever greater access to the French educational system, which had been previously spurned for fear of conversions and loss of identity.

But France had neither the desire, the financial means nor the teachers to grant this. So assimilation, the preferred option in the 1880s and 90s, was abandoned and the minister for the colonies, Etienne Clémentel, opted for a policy of ‘adaptation’, which was approved by the Colonial Congress of 1905, the previous policy having been accused of being both utopian and destructive of the social structures in place. This was an excellent excuse to keep people in their place, and the local elite at least reasonably content. This only lasted until the 1920s and 30s, however, after which disillusion gradually settled among the elite and despair among the masses, which led to a generalised movement towards independence.

4. Teaching French in the colonies

4.1. General principle of colonial education

The basic principle was to establish the same educational system as in France, but this policy, based on the 1789 ideals, changed in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, as the revolutionary ideals were compromised by economic and financial constraints as well as by conflicting ideological values. Even in France, many people wished to maintain the social hierarchy, once again motivated by the fear of creating ‘social misfits’.

The system gradually set up in France was one in which there were primary schools in each commune, or parish. These were primarily aimed at inculcating in the children a sound moral education and preparing them for ‘useful’ lives within the economy. This led to the Certificat d’études at the age of 11 or 13 depending on ability. The most successful children could then go on to an École primaire supérieure (EPS) – or Higher Primary School – where the approach was more academic, and led to the Brevet élémentaire. There was one such school in each chef-lieu de département and in towns of over 6000 inhabitants. The very brightest could then go on to an école normale of which there was one per département. These prepared students for the Brevet supérieur and the Certificat d’aptitude pédagogique. The system did not originally lead to secondary education, which was reserved for the the upper classes and was completely separate until 1937, when the EPS became collèges and part of the secondary system. The colonies were sometimes used for educational experiments which explains why this change happened in Indochina in 1924. There were also various types of professional training, which developed piecemeal depending on the needs of the day.23

Transposed to the colonies, the French communal schools corresponded to (i) a ‘village’ school run by a ‘native’, with a very few of the best pupils going on to (ii) a ‘regional’ school run by natives but also including European staff. This led to a diploma a little lower than the Certificat d’études. The schools corresponding to the Higher Primary Schools were situated in urban centres and trained pupils to be either low level civil servants or skilled workers. The very best pupils were sent to the écoles normales to be trained as primary school teachers and interpreters. In a few very rare cases pupils were able to complete their education in France, since it was not usually possible to do the baccalauréat in the colonies, except where there were schools for the Europeans, and even then access for the local population was either very limited or denied.

One of the first problems specific to the colonial context was to decide whether schools should be bilingual or not but, after the 1883 decree, all education was to be in French. To quote the decree: ‘It is […] in the name of the republican principles of the equality of all in relation to the acquisition of knowledge that its proponents plead in favour of “an education entirely in French”, since it is the only way of creating the same school for all’ 24. This policy was not extended to the protectorates, however, where the schools remained bilingual, nor in Cochin-China, where it proved to be inapplicable.

4.2. Specific aspects of the educational policies in the Maghreb

i) Most educational experimentation took place in Algeria because of its early annexation by France. The early bilingual Franco-Arab primary schools (three years tuition) with teaching shared between French teachers (in French) and partly by Algerian Coranic teachers (in Algerian Arabic) were not a success, despite various financial incentives given to encourage attendance. Neither were the Franco-Arab secondary schools, the first of which was founded in 1858, any more successful in attracting pupils. As a result, from 1867 onwards, the local population was encouraged to attend the European schools, which they did not do either. Once it became an integral part of France in 1870, the 1883 decree imposing monolingual secular schools was extended to Algeria. This meant an end of the partnership with the local Coranic teachers, which was seen as a disaster by the local population. Efforts were again made to get children to attend, based on the belief that ‘nothing separates a Muslim from a French person except for ignorance or fanaticism, which is one of the consequences of ignorance’25. But by 1889 only 1.9% non European children attended French speaking schools, whether public or private, and by 1929 the figure was still only 6%26. Moreover those who attended were often the children of servants, who had little say in the matter.

The lack of success was due mainly to the fear of the Algerian elite that French schooling would lead to religious conversions and loss of identity. This was made worse by the fact that the Algerians had had their own schools long before the conquest, and a high level of literacy (Algerian literacy in Arabic was reckoned to be around 40 to 50% in 183027). The only beneficiaries were the Algerian Jews, who willingly embraced French, which led to their being granted French citizenship by the decree of Crémieux of 1870. This caused much bitterness on the part of the Arabs, that is still in evidence today.

Not attending school did not mean, however, that the population remained impervious to French. All economic and administrative functions (such as going to the post office) were in French, and conscription during the First World War helped to generalise the use of French (as in France), to the extent that the 1930 edition of the Guide Bleu stated that tourists in Algeria would only very exceptionally need an interpreter28.

A completely different approach to language developed between the two wars: French suddenly became in demand, either as a means to acquiring equal rights – as it was hoped –, or as a way of beating the system from within. The result was that, whereas only 8% of the Arab and Berber children attended French school in 1940, 13% did so in 1954 and 30% in 196029- 30. On the other hand, the decree of 8 March 1938 declaring Classical Arabic to be a foreign language, reinforced the status of Arabic as a martyr language, which became a weapon in the fight for independence31. This martyr status of Arabic also explains the arabisation policies, which were established the moment independence was achieved in 1962.

ii) Matters were quite different in Tunisia since, at the time of the protectorate in 1883, there were already many Christian schools going back to the 1830s (Italian, French, British, Maltese) and Jewish schools. These schools had been welcomed by the Tunisians who wished to modernise their country: Ahmed Bey founded the École polytechnique of Bardo in 1840, intended to disseminate European scientific and technological knowledge in both Arabic and various European languages, then 1873 saw the creation of the Sadiki school, which was also bilingual and secular. Its founder, Prime Minister Khreredine, was a great believer in pluralism in all contexts.

When, in 1883, a state system of education was established, it was unique in integrating the existing religious schools to win over the Italian and Maltese populations. Louis Machuel, the head of education in 1883, also set up secular bilingual Franco-Arabic schools, but with French in a dominant position (not being a colony, Tunisia did not come within the 1883 decree). These schools were well received by the Tunisian elite. Sheikh Al-Islam, the highest religious authority in the country wrote to Louis Machuel: ‘I definitely want my children to learn French, because in this day and age, not to know what is happening next door, particularly in Europe, is not acceptable, and your language is obviously the one we must learn […] As for the Muslims of Tunisia, they are getting used to your presence and no longer reject the progress in your influence’.32

This policy was, however, opposed by colonists, who did not want the local population educated beyond the bare minimum, and also by some Tunisians who felt that French took up too large a part in the educational system. But on the whole there was little or no hostility towards the French language, although there was much opposition to colonialism. The result after independence in 1956 was a much more flexible approach to arabisation, with little antagonism towards French. Indeed in 1970 Tunisia played a major role, with a number of African countries, in the foundation of what was to become the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, which resembles the Commonwealth, except that its membership, which now includes 56 states, is not limited to the colonies, but includes any country with an affinity with the French language and culture.

iii) Morocco did not become a Protectorate until 1912. There were already fee paying French, English and Spanish schools meant mainly for Europeans, and the Alliance universelle israélite founded its first establishment in Morocco in 1860, followed by a number of others, which led to French becoming the normal daily language of many Moroccan Jews. By 1912 there were also a few Franco-Arabic schools due to the efforts of the Alliance française and the Mission laïque. The idea was to win over the Arab population and thus penetrate the country peacefully.

The main architect of this approach was Lyautey (in Morocco from 1912 until 1925), who was a firm believer in the importance of respecting local social structures and adapting to them. This meant setting up schools associating French and Arabic, which would reflect the various echelons of Moroccan society, hence the creation of the écoles de fils de notables, i.e. special schools for the sons of the elite, which did not include manual work as the others did. A few very privileged children managed to attend schools meant for the Europeans and finished their studies in France. Such a very static social system was doomed to failure, however, in the changing world between the wars, and the feeling the Moroccans had of having been ‘colonised’ in all but name led them to fight for independence, which they also achieved in 1956.

This was followed by a vigorous arabisation policy, which has, so far, not been a success, and has given rise to a strong private French educational sector. Education is now in French for the elite, and in Standard Modern Arabic for the masses. This ambiguous attitude in relation to French was reflected in Morocco only joining the OIF in 1981. Algeria, on the other hand, has staunchly refused to join, as a matter of principle, despite her large number of Francophones. Algeria did, however, send an observer to the Beirut OIF summit in 2002, and President Bouteflika was himself present at the 2004 summit in Ouagadougou.

In other words, French is still widely spoken in the Maghreb where it is seen as the language of modernity. It is also the literary language of many, who do not feel at home writing in Arabic because of the cultural and religious taboos associated with what is felt to be, in the Maghreb, a predominantly sacred language. The fact is that with so many Maghrebis in France, and general access to French radio and television, there are now more Francophones in North Africa than ever before. This further worsens Maghrebian post-colonial identity problems, although some have become reconciled and consider themselves as the unique synthesis of their history (see Assia Djebar for example).

4.3 Africa

French had already spread to the Senegalese coast in the 17th century, when trading posts were established there. Then during the colonisation period, the spread of French was linked to military conquest, with linguistic influence limited to the contacts between officers and non-commissioned officers and their domestics and interpreters. This remained true for a long time since it became traditional to recruit colonial civil servants among retired professional soldiers. African soldiers from the colonial army also acted as intermediaries between the masses and their administrators.

The aim of education, once it was established, was to train native collaborators. An overall scheme was not conceived until 1903 and put into practice in 1912 in the AOF in 1912, and 1925 in the AEF. It was a highly selective system, only training a very small elite. The rule that everything should be taught in French was enforced by numerous decrees throughout the colonial period, and restated during the Conférence de Brazzaville in 1944 (where, interestingly, no Africans dignitaries were present).

The characteristic of French in Africa was that, although always remaining a second language, it was a source of power and social promotion, on condition it was used perfectly. This led to the frequently made statement that educated Africans ‘speak like books’ (in contrast to those who spoke pidgin French or petit nègre). Another reason for this quest for perfection is the enormous importance attached to linguistic precision in a society based on oral tradition. As a result, French also fulfils a literary function, to the extent that some writers, such as Senghor, have even been accused of having become ‘assimilated’ through colonisation, although he maintained his aim was to absorb the best of what was French, without being assimilated. French therefore still functions as the High form of language in diglossic or even triglossic contexts.

This situation survives to this day: figures published in 1994 stated that nearly 99% of education in francophone Africa was in French, as against not quite 56% in the Maghreb, and 0.21% in the far East.33 This would explain the major role played by the ex-African colonies in the establishment of the OIF. But this dependency on French is also due to the identity crisis in most African states, many of which are faced with a three cornered dilemma: traditional cultures and mother tongues, Western influences, and the counterbalancing influence of Islam.

4.5. Indochina

In Indochina the traditional forms of education survived alongside the Franco-native schools until 1917. No coherent system could be set up before, partly because Cochin-China (1863) was the only colony, and partly because it was not until then that the ‘pacifying’ period was seen as over. The period 1870 -1890, however, saw the establishment of three Collège des interprètes in Cochin-China (1860), in Cambodia (1873) and Tonkin (1886). These schools were secular, bilingual and free, and the brightest students were given bursaries to study in France. The first Cochin-Chinese went to Paris in 1869 and the first Cambodians in 1889. The aim of these schools was purely to train future administrators and teachers.

Other schools were founded in Cochin-China to train a larger share of the population. These were bilingual from the start, with the teaching of French together with Vietnamese in its roman alphabet quôc ngu transcription, established by missionaries. A teachers training college was set up in 1874, also open to girls. The system was made completely free in 1879, i.e .before it became free in France. But despite what was felt at the time to be an ‘enlightened’ approach, the system was not a great success in terms of attendance.

It was even more difficult to attract pupils in the protectorates. Despite the creation in 1886 of Franco-native schools in Annam, parents preferred their children to continue in the traditional local forms of education. Nor were the schools created in Cambodia in 1884-5 any more successful. The professional schools on the other hand, which started being established in 1896, were extremely popular, and so were efforts to reform some of the traditional schools.

The 1917 to 1931 period, on the other hand, saw the setting up of a coherent educational system, by Albert Sarraut, a strong believer in the duty to give real education to the natives. A first reform led to the creation of an elementary level taught in the mother tongue, and then a primary and secondary system which were bilingual. Sarraut was also responsible, in 1918, for the foundation of a university. A further reform in 1924 allowed both for French programmes to be adapted to local conditions, and for continuity between primary and secondary education (this only happened in France in 1937). He made a famous speech in 1919 on a form of associationism which was to be beneficial to the colonised, but this led to disillusion later, when it became clear that the acquisition of diplomas by the local population did not lead to improved professional opportunities. This problem was also exacerbated by the 1929 world crisis.

Efforts were also made during this period to reform the traditional forms of education, on the principle that if you can’t beat them, join them. Thus the écoles des pagodes in Cambodia were reformed during the 1920s and 30s, with great success. Various establishments were also created to preserve and promote local arts such as the Ecoles des Arts Cambodgiens’ and the Bibliothèque Royale du Cambodge. These provided training in traditional arts and crafts in danger of being lost.

It is in Indochina, at one time considered the jewel in the French colonial crown, that French educational policies have left fewest traces. And yet Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are all now members of the OIF, Vietnam having typically joined early on in 1970, whereas Cambodia and Laos, i.e. the ex protectorates, only joined in the 90s.


To conclude, it seems that the French did indeed use their language as a tool of colonialism during the 2nd colonial empire. This supports the maxim that the Lusophones colonised through their churches, the British through trade and the French through their schools. But their linguistic and educational policies varied from being generously paternalistic to being cruelly self seeking. It is interesting to realise in this respect how paternalistic racism, which led to the concept of the civilising mission – misused by many as an excuse for oppression – was the inevitable outcome of the development of European thought during the period, and in particular Darwinism and historical linguistics.

Among the linguistic consequences still with us are the adoption by Algeria, Morocco and to a lesser extent Tunisia, of the Jacobin concept of one state, one language, one nation, which bedevils them at present, particularly in relation to their mother tongues, downgraded to mere dialects. The Jacobin ideal is also clearly unsuited to the African context, where frontiers were drawn up without any regard to notions of identity, particularly linguistic identity, which has become so important worldwide in recent years. Even when not faced with the problem of multilingualism, African countries still have to function internationally in the language of the coloniser, resulting in a crisis of identity for many. Indochina, on the other hand, seems to be untouched by such an inheritance, French influence having always remained at a superficial level.

On a more positive note, many of the elite in these countries have embraced French not only as a means of international communication, but as the expression of a civilisation with universal appeal, partly thanks to the efforts of devoted and idealistic teachers. To quote the Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, “a civilisation is an architectural building made up of answers. Its perfection, as that of any building, may be measured by the comfort that Man experiences in it, by the amount of freedom it gives him”. This is the foundation upon which the expanding Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie is built, many of its enthusiasts recognising that French was not only a tool for colonialism. Some also claim it as a ‘butin de guerre’ (i.e. spoils of war).

As for the French, they have gone back to their traditional approach to foreign linguistic policies. Indeed it seems that half the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs goes towards projects aimed at disseminating the French language. Clearly the policy of spreading the French language and culture did not end with colonialism.

1 See in A. Memmi, Portrait du décolonisé rabo-musulman et de quelques autres, 2004, Paris, Gallimard, p. 57 : « Sans doute, la langue fait-elle partie de la personnalité collective, dont elle est l’un des ciments, mais elle est aussi un outil de communication ; or le meilleur outil de communication demeure la langue de l’étranger », p. 57

2 Quoted in Calvet (1974), Linguistique et colonialisme : petit traité de glottophagie, Paris, Payot p. 49: “J’ai pris mes héros au dernier degré de l’échelle sociale, parce que notre patois ne pouvait être placé convenablement que dans leur bouche, parce qu’il exclut toute idée de grâce, et ne peut bien rendre que la force… »

3 See R.H. Robins, A Short History of Linguistics, Longmans, 1967, chapter 7 , p. 175.

4 Isolating languages were supposed to correspond to a first stage of development, agglutinative languages to a second, and inflectional to the third and highest.

5 Calvet (1974) p. 35

6 Quoted in Calvet, see note 7, p.53.

7 Quoted in A. Léon, Colonisation, enseignement et éducation, 1991, Paris, L’Harmattan, p. 56.

8 In France, Algérie et colonies, O. Reclus, 1883, Paris, Hachette, p. 680.

9 In Senegal, Niger, Mauritania, the Gold Coast, Gabon and Dahomey (now Benin).The Compagnie de Madagascar was created in 1863

10 It was made up of Cochin-China (a colony since 1863), Cambodia (a protectorate since 1863), and Annam and the Tonkin (protectorates in 1887). Laos also became a protectorate in 1893 and was added to the Federation.

11 It included Senegal, Mauritania, Sudan (now Mali), Haute-Volta (now Burkina-Faso), Guinea, Niger, the Ivory Coast and the Dahomey (now Benin). It ended in 1958.

12 It included Gabon, the French Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), Oubangui-Chari (now Central African Republic) and Tchad .


14 See J. Barrat & C. Moisel, in Géopolitique de la Francophonie. Un nouveau souffle ? 2004, paris, La documentation française, p. 33

15 « La métropole arrachée à sa torpeur, la colonie cessant d’être un désert, ou de terre barbare devenant terre humaine, l’éveil et le croisement des entreprises, le pavillon courant les mers, la langue de la patrie conquérant des foyers et ses chefs-d’œuvre des autels, c’est pour cela surtout qu’il faut essaimer au-delà des Océans ». pp. 709-710.

16 See Textes Historiques, 1871-1914, ed M Chaulanges, A-G Manry, R, Sève, coll. M. Chaulanges, Delagrave, Paris 1978, p. 140.

17 “Est-ce que la France, cet apôtre du droit, de la justice, du progrès, de la vérité, n’est pas tenue d’initier à ces grandes choses, non pas les peuples de race inférieure – il n’y a pas de race inférieure – mais de culture inférieure?” As above.

18 Quoted in P. Blanchard & S. Lemaire in Culture coloniale, la France conquise par son Empire, 1871-1931, Paris, édition Autrement, 2003, p. 28-29

19 Je regarde la propagation de l’instruction et de notre langue comme le moyen le plus efficace de faire faire des progrès à notre domination dans ce pays…Le vrai prodige à opérer serait de remplacer peu à peu l’arabe par le français’, quoted in Calvet, pp. 68-69.

20 Quoted in A. Valdman (ed), Le français hors de France, 1979. {Paris, Ed. Honoré Champion, , p. 314: « Je ne désespère pas d’avoir réuni sous les mêmes professeurs et aux mêmes heures Juifs, Maures, Italiens, et Espagnols. C’est dans le sein des écoles que doit se préparer une fusion qui est désirable »

21« 80p.100 gardés et maintenus dans les habitudes et les travaux traditionnels, 10p.100 associés à vous pour devenir des collaborateurs inférieurs, 6 à 7 p. 100 dans l’administration aux divers étages, 3 à 4 p.100 dans les sciences pures, la haute administration et la politique…Vous n’aurez pas créé de déclassés, car vous n’aurez aidé personne à sortir de sa classe….Enfin vous aurez été utile à vos colons, à qui vous aurez assuré la perspective d’une main-d’oeuvre toujours également nombreuse et disciplinée et à vous mêmes ; vous laisserez de grands souvenirs et la trace honorable de votre passage, et vous pourrez vous rendre cette justice d’avoir travaillé utilement et généreusement dans l’intérêt de la race conquise » quoted in Manessy, p. 23-24.

22 «Nous n’avons pas en ce moment de meilleur moyen de nous assimiler les Arabes de Tunisie, dans la mesure où cela est possible, que de leur apprendre notre langues ;[…] nous ne pouvons pas compter sur la religion pour effecteur cette assimilation, ils ne se convertiront jamais au christianisme ; mais à mesure qu’ils apprendront notre idiome, une foule d’idées européennes se révéleront à eux » quoted by Y.-G.Paillard, in L’expansion du français dans les Suds c. C. Dubois, J.-M. Kasbarian, A. Queffélic (eds), Aix-en-Provence, Publications de l’Université de Provence, 2000, p. 182.

23 For details, see A. Léon, Histoire de l’enseignement en France, 1967, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

24 « C’est donc au nom des principes républicains de l’égalité de tous devant le savoir que ses partisans plaident en faveur du « tout français », car c’était le seul moyen de parvenir à l’École unique », quoted in Une colonisation éducatrice ? L’expérience indochinoise (1860-1945), P. Bezançon, 2002, Paris, L’Harmattan, p. 60.

25 « …rien ne sépare un Musulman d’un Français si ce n’est l’ignorance ou le fanatisme qui est une des conséquences de l’ignorance », quoted in Valdman, p. 315.

26 See M. Girard & C. Morieux in Le français hors de France, 1979, ed A. Valdman, Paris, H Champion, pp. 314-315

27 See F. Aitsiselmi,in French in and out of France ,2002, ed K. Salhi, Bern, Peter Lang,, see p. 381

28 Quoted from M. Girard & C. Morieux, in Valdman, p. 315

29 A. Léon in Langue, école, identités, ed N. Marouf & C. Carpentier, 1997. Paris, L’Harmattan, p. 91.

30 (The figures given in Valdman for 1966 are somewhat different since Girard and Morieux state that by 1966 only about 25% of the population was literate, of which around 8.9% in French only, 10.6% in French and Arabic and 5.5.% in Arabic only. But these figures differ mainly because they deal with the Arab population as a whole)

31 See M.Benrabah in Nationalism and Ethnic Politicis,Volume 10, Number 1, Philadelphia, 2004, p. 63.

32 « Je tiens à ce que mes enfants apprennent la langue française, parce que de notre temps, on n’a pas le droit d’ignorer ce qui se passé dans les pays voisins, et principalement en Europe, et votre langue est naturellement celle que nous devons étudier […] Avant aux Musulmans de Tunisie, ils s’habituent à votre présence et ne voient plus d’un mauvais œil les progrès que fait votre influence. » In ‘Place et fonctions de la langue française en Tunisie’, N. Sraieb, in L’expansion du français dans les Suds, eds C. Dubois, J.-M.Kasbarian, & A. Queffélec, Publications de l’Univsrsité de Provence, 2000, p. 215

33 In Géopolitique de la Francophonie, Un nouveau souffle ?(2004) J. Barrat & C. Moisei, Paris, La documentation française, 2004, p.123

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