October 25, 2020

Assimilation and Association in French West Africa – Questions and Answers

Reading Time: 8 minutes



QS 1. Describe the main features of assimilation in French West Africa.

OR: Describe the policy of assimilation as practised in Senegal before the Second World War



Assimilation was the policy adopted by the French in ruling their colonies before the Second World War. France regarded her overseas territories as an extension of metropolitan France hence her policy of direct rule coupled with cultural assimilation. The French, by this, sought to impose their culture on the colonized people and to transform the colonies into provinces of France.

Main features of Assimilation in French West Africa

1.Federation of French West Africa

The headquarters – Dakar, Senegal

The colonies/territories – Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso,

Benin, Niger.

2. There was a colonial minister

The colonial minister was responsible for broad policy decisions on the advice of the superior council for France overseas.

3. Governor-General and Governors.

The Governor-General was in charge of the whole federation while the Governor administered each of the colonies forming the federation.

4. Special administration for Senegal.

Senegal was divided into four (4) communes:

(ii) St. Louis
(iii) Rufisque
(iv) Goree

Each commune had an elected council headed by a mayor as obtained in France.

French law was applied

They elected representatives to the French National Assembly also known as the Chamber of Deputies (Parliament)

5. Separate administration for the other colonies.

Each of the colonies was divided into cercles headed by a Commandant du Cercle

The Cercles were divided into sub-divisions each headed by a chief du sub-division

The sub-divisions were divided into Cantons headed by traditional or warrant chiefs

Chiefs were appointed based on education, literacy in French, knowledge of French, administrative principles, loyalty etc

6. Division of Africans into citizens (educated privileged few who were mostly resident in the four communes of Senegal) and subjects (uneducated underprivileged masses and chiefs mostly found outside the four communes of Senegal).

Assimilation was abandoned in 1958 and replaced with a new policy of Association.

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QS 2 .Describe colonial administration in French West Africa between 1900 – 1960


INTRODUCTION: Colonial administration in French West Africa was characterized by the policy of Assimilation. However, by 1958, Assimilation was abandoned and replaced by the policy of Association principally as a result of criticisms against the former.

The following were the main features of colonial administration in French West Africa between 1900 and 1960.

1. Direct rule and centralized administration:

Under the policy of assimilation, the French government operated a highly centralized system of administration in West Africa. The territories were organized into a federation with its headquarters in Dakar, Senegal.

2. Colonial minister responsible for broad policy decisions:

There was a minister in charge of the colonies who resided in metropolitan France.

3. Governor General:
Coming directly under the colonial minister was a Governor – General for the entire federation.

He was based in Dakar.

4. Lieutenant-Governors:
There were eight lieutenant-governors individually responsible for each of the colonies.

5. Commandant du Cercle and other district officers:

Each colony was divided into many districts or cercles headed by these officials. To most Africans, the commandant du cercle was a symbol of colonial authority who wielded enormous powers including the feared indegenat and prestation at the local level.

In most instances, these powers were exercised arbitrarily.

6. Citizens and Subjects:
The policy of assimilation categorized the inhabitants of the federation into citizens and subjects. Citizenship was granted to those who were born in the four communes of Dakar, StLouis, Goree and Rufisque.

Persons born outside the four communes were regarded as subjects

7. Qualification for the granting of citizenship outside the four communes:
i) good working knowledge of the French language,

ii) adequate means of livelihood

iii) must be at least eighteen years of age.

8. Each of the four communes elected representatives to the French chamber of deputies (parliament) in metropolitan France.

9. Cultural Assimilation:
This policy of assimilation was largely borne out of the cardinal principles of the French Revolution (1789 – 1792) namely liberty, equality and fraternity.

Under this system of cultural assimilation, the French regarded their overseas territories as an extension of metropolitan France where they sought to transform the way of life of the colonized people to become French in everything except colour.

10. Indegenat:

This obnoxious policy was administered to intimidate and stifle dissent among subjects. Under it, Africans could be tried and sentenced on the spot by French officials.

11. Reforms:

Between 1944 and 1960 certain reforms were introduced:

i) A resolution passed at the Brazzaville conference in 1944 abolished the indigenat.

ii)It also sought to make the French recognize the importance of cultural diversity. It became clear that though all men were equal, what was good for the French man was not necessarily good for the African.

iii)Citizenship was granted to all without pre-conditions.

iv) All the colonies forming the federation were granted a representation in the French Chamber of Deputies.

v) The Loi Cadre Reforms of 1956 also speeded up more democratic reforms. This led to the granting of greater autonomy and eventually political independence to all the territories in 1960.


QS 3. Outline the privileges and responsibilities of citizens and subjects in French West Africa.



Under assimilation, Africans were divided into citizens and subjects.
A person born into any of the four communes of Senegal namely Dakar, St. Louis, Goree and

Rufisque or who satisfied certain requirements was given the special status of citizen.
All others were known as subjects.
This arrangement gave citizens wide-ranging privileges. Subjects, on the other hand, had few (if any) privileges and a lot of responsibilities.

II.Privileges of citizens in French West Africa

1. Representation in French parliament

2. Access to employment in France

3. Access to good education in schools modeled on those in France. E.g. Normale Ecole William Ponty in Dakar.

4. Marriage to a French citizen

5. Automatic citizenship for those born into any of the four communes of Dakar, St. Louis, Ruffisque and Goree

6. Exemption from indegenat (summary imprisonment without trial) and prestation (forced labour)

7.Individual assessment of income before taxation

8.Access to French courts and subject to French law

9. Appointment as a cabinet minister in France.

III. Condition and responsibilities of subjects in French West Africa

1.They were governed by “cercle” under the authoritative commandant du cercle.

2.They lived mostly outside the communes.

3.Subject to notorious indigenat

4.Compulsory conscription into the army

5.No political rights e.g. franchise and freedom of expression were denied.

6.Paid lump-sum taxes – irrespective of the level of income.

7.No access to top civil service positions

8. Traditional rulers outside the communes (in protectorates) were regarded and treated as subjects.


QS 4: What factors accounted for the failure of assimilation in French West Africa?

The French abandoned assimilation in 1958 replacing it with a new policy of Association meant to give greater autonomy to the colonies.

Thus, they edged closer to the British policy of indirect rule.

Factors responsible for the failure or abandonment of the colonial policy of assimilation

1.The wrong assumption that all men, regardless of culture and origin are the same.
The French tried to ignore such cultural practices as polygamy to which the Moslems in Senegal did not take kindly

2. African attachment to their culture.
It is impossible to turn a people from their culture in a short period of about 40 – 60 years.

3.The wrong method used to implement the policy of assimilation
The educational system meant to brainwash and indoctrinate Africans was weak and left in the hands of Catholic Missionaries.

The Africans, mostly Moslems were unwilling to send their children to Christian schools. Also, there were only a few institutions of higher learning in French West Africa at the time.

e.g. The Ecole Normale William Ponty served the whole of Senegal

4. The French realized that assimilation had the potential to defeat the very purpose of colonialism i.e. exploitation of Africans and their resources.
The French realized that if Africans were truly assimilated, they would take over the government and economy of metropolitan France.

5. Lack of resources and personnel.
The federation was too large to be ruled directly and solely by French officials and resources.

6. Opposition from French businessmen.
They called for economic assimilation and equality rather than cultural and political assimilation.

7. The spread of Pan – Africanism, Garveyism and Negritude movement.
Leaders like Marcus Garvey and Leopold Sedar Senghor called on Africans to show pride in their cultural heritage and reject the imposition of European culture.


QS 5. Highlight any six differences between the policies of assimilation and association

OR: Identify six features of the French colonial policy of association in West Africa.


1. The place of African culture under assimilation.
The French sought to impose their own culture and civilization on the inhabitants of their overseas territories. They wanted them to behave like Frenchmen in all aspect of life.

The policy of Assimilation was thus used to prosecute this civilizing agenda of the French.

After Second World War, however, the policy assimilation was abandoned in favour of a new policy known as Association.

Under the policy of association, the French allowed their subjects to develop in their own ways instead of trying to impose on them the French way of life.

2. The status of the colonized people was different under the two systems.
Under Assimilation, the French practiced a policy of divide and rule where the African population was divided into citizens and subjects.

Citizenship was limited to Africans within the four communes of Senegal – Dakar, St Louis, Goree and Rufisque.

People living outside the four communes were regarded as subjects and could become citizens if they satisfied certain requirements. As citizens, they were entitled to certain privileges.

E.g. They were governed by French law and not subject to the obnoxious indgenat.

Under the policy of Association, citizenship was granted to all French West African territories.

The distinction between citizens and subjects was thus abolished.

3. Status of Overseas Provinces:
Under the policy of Assimilation, the French regarded their West African territories as overseas extensions of metropolitan France with no room for independence.

This approach changed under the policy of Association where the French now accorded respect and recognition to the distinctive culture of Africa by granting the provinces a certain measure of autonomy to allow each colony to develop in a way it considered acceptable so long as it continued to maintain a fundamental relationship with France.

4. Election of Deputies to the French parliament/Territorial Assemblies:
Under the policy of Assimilation, only citizens were allowed to elect representatives to the French parliament in Paris, elect municipal councilors who among themselves elected mayors to the communes.

Under the policy of Association, however, France made concessions to her colonies by establishing a Territorial Assembly in each colony.

This body had the power to approve or reject the territory’s budget and also acted as an electoral college for the purpose of electing representatives to the Grand Council in Dakar and other French political institutions

5.Centralization and Decentralization:
Under assimilation, the French colonial administration was characterized by a high degree of centralization. All decisions originated from metropolitan France. The officials within the colonies had little room for independent action but must follow the directives of the minister of colonies in France.

The policy of Association on the other hand decentralized political administration through the establishment of Territorial Assemblies in the territories and a federal legislature for all the territories. Each territory was also given the power to set up and control its own civil service.

6. Personal liberties.
Under the policy of Assimilation, the people living outside the four communes were denied certain basic rights e.g. the right to organize and belong to political parties and other voluntary organizations.

Under the policy of Association, the colonial territories were now accorded freedom of assembly and association. Thus they could now form political associations or parties. This was unlike what obtained under Assimilation where political parties were allowed only in the four communes of Senegal.

7. Indegenat and Prestation.
Assimilation encouraged the twin obnoxious practices of detention without trial known as indigenat and forced labour known as prestation but under Association these hated policies were abolished.

Association, therefore, promoted a degree of freedom.

8. Franchise or Voting Rights.
Under the policy of assimilation, the franchise was limited to male adults who had been granted citizenship within the four communes of Senegal.

However, under Association, the franchise was extended to all adults. (universal adult suffrage)

9. Status of Traditional Rulers
Under Assimilation, chiefs were relegated to the background.They were not given any legal recognition.

Under Association, the status of chiefs was restored and their role in the social and political life of their people was officially recognized.

Photo by Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash

Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph has a passion for the teaching and learning of Language and Literature mainly because these two help him to understand and appreciate why people act the way they do. Over the past two decades, he has coached over 5000 students and adult learners to achieve their educational goals. Ralph is the founder and CEO of Cegast Academy.

View all posts by Ralph Nyadzi →

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