Laws and Lives in the French Empire: Making Sense of Citizenship in Africa, the Antilles, Southeast Asia, and France

AHA Session 194
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Columbia Hall 4 (Washington Hilton)
Richard S. Fogarty, University at Albany (State University of New York)
Jennifer Anne Boittin, Pennsylvania State University

Session Abstract

These papers explore how citizenship was imagined and practiced in the French empire throughout the twentieth century, both by French lawmakers and administrators and by colonial subjects and French citizens in Africa, the Antilles, Southeast Asia, and France. The line between subject and citizen in the colonies was often unclear, though not for want of legislation seeking to clarify and codify such distinctions. Vigorous debate about the meaning and implications of citizenship had practical consequences for individuals and communities; similarly, those seeking to make sense of citizenship helped to shape the categories that made such a debate – and citizenship itself – meaningful.

This panel examines how race, gender, and religion intersected with notions of what it meant to be French throughout the empire. At its heart is the tension between efforts to define citizens and citizenship on paper and the practical realities of navigating complex colonial and postcolonial societies. Larissa Kopytoff explores the aftermath of a 1916 law declaring inhabitants of colonial Senegal’s “four communes” to be French citizens, revealing that even when long-standing debates about citizenship status appeared to be resolved, questions about the meaning and implications of that status remained a source of contention and a motive for political mobilization. Sophie Roberts calls attention to the fragility of citizenship for Jews in Algeria during the Vichy regime, tracing the fortunes of a community whose members had been made French citizens en masse in 1870 but lost that status with “the stroke of a pen” decades later, relegating them to a legal and institutional no-man’s-land. Lorelle Semley’s paper examines African and Antillean women who participated in the legislative bodies of France’s Fourth Republic, shedding light on how women’s citizenship and civil status was brought to bear on questions of education, health, and labor in the years before decolonization. Christina Firpo demonstrates that disputes about citizenship from the colonial era did not end with independence in Vietnam, as French ideas about race, family, and community continued to shape the lives of Franco-Vietnamese children who were taken from their homes in the postcolonial era. Richard Fogarty, who studies the history of the French colonial empire, race and racism, and World War I, will chair the session. Jennifer Anne Boittin, whose work explores race, class, gender in France and the French empire, will comment on the papers.

It is our hope that this panel will invite debate about the nature of French colonial administration and legislation; about how race, gender, and religion have shaped the possibilities, practicalities, and limitations of citizenship in France and its colonies; and about the ambiguities and opportunities that emerged from efforts to clarify political and civil status in the face of complex circumstances. These presentations should speak to a broad audience, including historians of France and the French empire; scholars of other imperial, colonial, or postcolonial contexts; and those interested in placing Jewish history, Southeast Asian history, legal history, or the history of Africa and the African Diaspora in dialogue with other fields.

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