Algeria: Domination and colonization—outlines of a paradigm

The analysis that Tocqueville offered of the French presence in Algeria was geared towards conquest and the means by which to achieve it. Once more, then, the problem was how to increase France’s power. “I do not believe,” Tocqueville wrote, “that France can seriously think of leaving Algeria: that would be tantamount to unequivocally signalling France’s decline to the rest of the world” (Tocqueville [1841] 1962c, 213; my translation).

The lens through which he looked at the problem was that of the relation between domination and colonization. The objective to be pursued was that of total domination coupled with partial colonization. Indeed, domination without colonization would have been fruitless, while colonization without domination would certainly have been precarious. The objective of domination over Algeria was framed by Tocqueville on the basis of Western stereotypes, and with the ruthlessness that a Westerner had to be moved by in dealing with “barbarians.”

In his first letter on Algeria, Tocqueville identified what he considered to be the distinguishing traits of the Arab “race”: it is a “roving and untameable race, which loves physical pleasures, but which places liberty above all pleasures and will flee in the sands of the desert rather than vegetate under a master” (Tocqueville [1837] 1962b, 135; my translation). It is still a barbarian “race,”

Civilization and power 25 similar to all peoples who arc half-savage (à moitié sauvages), whose vices and virtues belong to “the period of civilization in which they find themselves.” Tocqueville further elaborates on these characteristics as follows: “Being that they do not value life much and look down on commerce and the arts, [...] they especially love war, overemphasis, and noise.” Thus they are “often excessive in their actions, and always more inclined to feel than to think” (ibid.).

In this summary snapshot of the Arab world, stereotypes and prejudices mix under the certainty of European superiority and the influence the European model of civilization is bound to exert on that semi-savage civilization. Indeed, Tocqueville comments that “the great works we have already done in Algeria, the examples of our arts and ideas, of our power, have powerfully shaped the spirit of the very populations who are fighting us” (Tocqueville [1841] 1962c, 216). So if in the future Algeria should fall back into the hands of the Muslims, it would do so as a different nation, for the people would be open to contacts with Christian nations and would be led by one of them—such was the Western civilization’s presumption of superiority! “Africa has now joined the movement of the civilized world and will not fall away from it” (ibid.), Tocqueville concludes with the sure-footed presumption of the inevitable Europeanization of the world.

The French colonial army was to crush the resistance of the emir Abd al-Qadir, who had managed to turn the Arab tribes against the French occupiers. It was religion, Tocqueville observed, that gave the different tribes the “common passion” by which they could be united. But these were “small barbarian tribes” whose fighting techniques were different from those of the Europeans, in that they shirked from clashing in an open battlefield. The Western armies, by contrast, had to protect the population, the cities, the capital, whereas the Arabs took everything with them, and so there was nothing that compelled them to fight.

Tocqueville, however, thinks it possible to divide them, insofar as “semicivilized men” (les hommes à moitié civilisés) can make decisions that run contrary to their habitual inclinations. Indeed, he comments, “the heart of the savages is like a constantly storm-tossed sea, but where the wind does not always blow in the same direction” (ibid., 225).

Tocqueville is looking for some categories through which to interpret the Arab ways: those that differ from the European ways he thus qualifies as “barbaric,” and the various manifestations of the Arabs’ behaviour he conceptualizes as earlier stages of Western civilization. This is what we see, for example, in his account of the manner in which Abd al-Qâdir formed his army. Even though the emir had no notion of what happened in France in the fifteenth century, Tocqueville thinks he dealt with the tribes in just the same manner that Charles VII tackled the problem of the feudal system, namely, by depriving the aristocracy of its power, thereby concentrating power into his own hands. Regardless of how Tocqueville may have explained the process, however, the consequences he draws are stark: against barbaric nomads (barbares nomades) or semicivilized peoples it is legitimate, he thinks, to wage a kind of war that Western armies do not engage in, for they make war against governments and not against peoples.

The unvarnished ruthlessness ofTocqueville’s analysis does not fully come out, however, until he points out the means by which he proposes to break the Arab resistance. It is necessary, he argues, to act on two fronts, on the one hand cutting off trade so as to deprive the Arabs of their livelihood, while on the other securing the territory by force: “I believe,” he counsels, “that the law of war authorizes us to lay waste to the country, and that we should do this by both destroying crops at harvest time and by engaging in a campaign of constant rapid incursions, or raids aimed at taking possession of men and matériel” (ibid., 228).

To be sure, French domination could not be an end in itself but needed to be functional to colonization. To this end, however, it was necessary to change the social conditions on the ground, so that French colonizers settling next to “part-barbaric, part-nomadic” tribes could do so in security. This issue became a concern because, according to the stereotypes that informed Tocqueville’s thinking, “the Arabs have been used to being ruled by foreigners for three centuries now,” but they cannot accept to see a new territorial settlement of new arrivals: this would be perceived by them as an act of expropriation, a conflict “between races.”

Colonial settlement would be achieved by conquest or by confiscating the lands of Arab tribes that might have put up resistance against the French army, or it could have been achieved by purchasing lands the local population would agree to sell and then selling that land to settlers at a discount. Indeed, only with the arrival of settlers from France would it be possible to make the conquest permanent by securing full control over the territory.

Finally, according to Tocqueville, the domination and colonization project would not be complete without a deep institutional reform.

Before the French conquest, the Ottoman Empire had left the social structure of Algeria intact. The country had been divided into three districts, each of which, governed by a bey, was home to several tribes. The Turks introduced a system of territorial control based on forming alliances with some Arab tribes against others: in exchange for this support, the allied tribes would be granted privileges, and in this way the Ottomans managed to govern the Arabs.

Not so under the strategy envisioned by Tocqueville, who thought it necessary to introduce a strongly centralized administration headed by a civil governor[1] or by an official who would answer directly to the governor but enjoyed a reasonable amount of leeway from Paris when it came to applying general rules, appointing subordinates, and so on. He further envisioned a specific ministry for Algeria. In short, Tocqueville held it necessary to centralize government in Paris and the administrative apparatus in Algiers. This marked the birth of the centralizing apparatus of the French administrative state imposed on a social and cultural reality to which it was completely extraneous, but which would serve as the blueprint for the nation-state the Arab states would later use upon gaining independence.

  • [1] A civil governor for Algeria was installed in 1879, at the time of the Third Republic. 2 Under the Third Republic, when Leon Gambetta was prime minister, an undersecretary for the colonies was appointed.
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