When the French expanded in Africa in the nineteenth century, they based their imperial policy on nationalism, in which the critical element was people. By including all under a nation-state, the idea of native cultures, traditions, and indigenous language groups would no longer be significant. The overarching culture, constitution, and language would be under French culture, language, and civilization. 25
After the French Revolution, the idea of humanism, equality, liberty and brotherhood, became prevalent and was the binding element in the newly emerged French civic nation. However, the competition between world powers for finding new markets, resources, cheap labor forced France and Great Britain to expand their empires in Africa and Asia. An excellent impasse for the French was the status that would grant to the newly acquired colonies and justify universalism and egalitarianism. Africa – especially Afrique Noir- was nonetheless a challenging task for France.26 As French nationals – would Africans have the same rights as French nationals or become French nationals? France needed to boost its military and build the infrastructure in the countries under its rule, such as Congo, Senegal, and others. The colonization process was founded on the principle that inequality between the human races exists regardless, and a powerful country must spread ideas of civilization and prosperity to inferior cultures. In 1885, Jules Ferry talked about "superior races" and "inferior races." His discourse and rhetoric did not go unnoticed. Essayist and Diplomat Arthur De Gobineau in his acclaimed research at the time "L'essai sur l'inegalité des races humaines" (1855) argues that - based on anthropological studies- a black person's brain is primitive. In addition, another argument embraced by French expansionism was the theory of evolution, which argued that "Africans" were in the first stages of civilization.27 These arguments served as means to justify the Republican colonization using the ideals of "Universal Humanism."
In other words, the theory of evolution, according to French ideologues of the 19th Century - legitimized the colonization of Africa. However, there is a fine line in using human rights to protect civil liberties – and deforming the same ideals to deprive or violate others' rights - in the name of universalism. In this context, the idea of universal rights prompted the colonization of Black Africa in the second half of the 19th Century – which marks the beginning of explorations deep into the African continent. It is worth mentioning that the indigenous African men partook in the conquest of Africa to conquer more territories in the name of the French Republic. In contrast with Spain's early settlements, mainly a private enterprise – partly financed by the Crown, France's colonialism was state-sponsored, state-controlled, and state institutionalized with a strong ideology. In the process, Republican expansionism ruled out the independence of these countries until the revolutionary wars.
Civilizing efforts included the development of colonial infrastructure, especially in railway transportation and healthcare provision. However, the cornerstone of Mission Civilisatrice was attempted social engineering through efforts at improving the natives’ quality of life, politics and education, but often in the promotion of French interests and ideological and governmental traditions; a recurring trend.28
France implemented a colonial system based partially on mercantilism and partly on culture and language. Hence the culture and its expression in the metropolis was the standard. This teaching method discourages the heritage culture and language of more than twenty-one African countries – especially in the West African region – Françafrique and the French-speaking countries of the Caribbean islands. The policy of diffusing the French language and culture has long been an objective of France reclaiming its place globally and perhaps through softer means more so than the traditional colonialism. The mentality of France being a hegemon in Africa has not faded, but it continues –as we see in the current state of France politics.
Seemingly, French colonialism based its ideology on the tenets of human rights. Yet, the French demanded that their colonial subjects learn the French language and culture as a prerequisite to becoming French- or precisely French black men. Of course, France sought in Africa more than diffusing human rights and egalitarianism on a global scale. The cheap labor, the rich land, the vast territories, and the future markets became profiting industries for the French economy in the metropolis. More importantly, France sought in African men, the future soldiers of the French Army, to fight in the upcoming conflicts or potential revolution uprising inside colonies. The newly French-African citizens were later enlisted in the military and fought in the French Army.29
An example of such inclusion were the famous 'Four Communes' in Senegal where inhabitants were granted the same rights as French Citizens.30 The French assimilation of the African colonies came as a result of dominating the indigenous culture. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the imperial policy consisted of subtracting or eliminating various African cultures and replacing them with French – as a culture and as vernacular. The French policy of expanding the nations beyond the French border and creating an extension of the French nation meant going in the same trajectory as building a modern nation. Therefore, France needed to create a civic framework to turn these colonies into sub-nations. By erasing their culture, tradition, history, and language – implementing a political and legal system – based on the metropolis, France had a "perfect" model to create an empire based on civic or institutional nationalism.
Unlike the early settlements of Imperial Spain that resulted in the physical extinction of the natives in the Caribbean Islands, France was cautious about the imperial policies in Africa. Hence, France went after the cultural identity construct, rather than physical extinction through force – yet it often practiced harsh physical labor. The colonized were also subject to an overarching political system. Thus, upon implementing imperial policies, natives in these colonies were considered French citizens as long as the French culture and customs were adopted. This also meant the indigenous would have the rights and duties of the French citizens. The purpose of the assimilation theory was to turn African natives into "French" men by educating them in the language and French culture to become French citizens or equals.
The imperial endeavor in the mid-1800s – adopted the ideology of the liberal left and precisely the politics of Jules Ferry. In contrast, conservatives, Catholics, and monarchist traditionalists in France were opposed to the idea of expanding French citizenship beyond France's borders. Such was the opposition of having representatives from Africa in Parliament.31