Colonialism, Race and Citizenship in French Algeria: A Reconsideration of the Senatus Consults of 1863 and 1865

By Osama Abi-Mershed
Submitted to Session P2549 (Colonial Powers and Identity Formation, 2010 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper examines the efforts by French colonial administrators to establish dual Franco-Arab institutions in Algeria between 1848 and 1870. It calls for a reassessment of the objectives of the landmark imperial legislation on French Algeria: the Senatus Consults of April 22, 1863 and July 14, 1865.

The Senatus Consults have been traditionally regarded as assimilationist instruments, enacted to regulate native Muslim society according to French codes concerning private property (SC1863) and civil status (SC1865). However, this paper argues that the Senatus Consults were in reality the culmination of reforms introduced after 1847 by Saint-Simonian policy-makers seeking to institute a regime of controlled association in the colony.

In principle, the Saint-Simonian policies of colonial association were designed to wean the Muslim natives from their "traditional" norms and values, while at the same time, precluding their foreseeable assimilation into the "modern" polity and culture of France. They aimed to dissolve the bonds between native societies and their Muslim heritage, customs, and beliefs, and to maintain the Muslims of Algeria in what may be described as a controlled intermediate stage between "Islamic tradition" and "French modernity."

These policies necessitated the creation of dual Franco-Arab institutions, as well as the enactment of transitional rules of exception, as enshrined in the Senatus Consults of 1863 and 1865. To illustrate my arguments, I will review briefly the history of the specialized political, cultural, and legal instruments of Saint-Simonian association in Algeria between 1848 and 1856, and demonstrate how their guiding principles culminated with the enactment of the Senatus Consults of 1863 and 1865.

Specifically, I will discuss, first, the establishment of French-Arab schools, conceived in 1850 as intermediary institutions of learning between Quranic madrasas and secular ?coles. Next, I will examine the land reforms of the early 1860s, which produced the legal category of "communal landholdings" as the intermediate stage between the sacred rights of usufruct and the civic rights of individual property. Lastly, I will review the personal status amendments of 1865, which endowed the Muslims of Algeria with a legal personality that occupied the divide between the categories of "subject" and "citizen."

The overarching aim of the paper is to illustrate with practical examples how the unfounded confidence on the part of scholars in the assimilationist fiber of French colonial policy-making has contributed to an incomplete understanding of some of the mainstays of colonial rule in Algeria before 1870.