“An Ever Delicate Issue”: The Debate over Granting/Recognizing French Citizenship in Colonial Senegal

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Larissa Kopytoff, New York University
When, in 1916, the French National Assembly passed a law stating that the “natives” of Senegal’s four communes – the coastal cities of Dakar, Gorée, Saint-Louis, and Rufisque – were French citizens, it appeared to settle a long-running debate about the complex nature of the political and civil status of the communes’ predominantly-Muslim inhabitants. Rather than resolving the issue of citizenship in the four communes, however, the law prompted renewed and vigorous deliberation about the rights and obligations of French colonial subjects and citizens, especially with respect to religious vs. civil law; about what it meant, in practice, for someone to be a French citizen rather than a colonial subject in Senegal; and about the ability of the colonial administration to effectively apply its own legal categories.

Foremost among the questions raised by the 1916 law was whether it had granted French citizenship to the communes’ inhabitants or merely recognizeda citizenship status already in existence. For Senegalese men and women in the communes, this was not a minor distinction: it carried weight for their long-standing claims to a political and cultural status unique among Africans in the French empire and raised questions about the perceived validity of their own interpretations of their history.

In this paper, I examine the responses to, and interpretations of, the citizenship law of 1916, arguing that even at a moment when the citizenship status of the communes’ inhabitants appeared to be settled, the meaning and historical implications of that status remained a source of contention, a space of negotiation, and a motive for political mobilization. This debate illuminates France’s efforts to maintain control over its citizens, its subjects, and the consequences of its own laws, as well as the ways that individual subjects and citizens navigated the meanings of citizenship in one colonial context.

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