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Analysis of the Impact of Colonialism on French Society

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To address the subject, it is first important to outline the key terms which will be frequently addressed. Colonialism is the practice between one people or power exerting control over another people or territory, frequently by conquest. This was done through the French empire, however, colonialism is a lot more complex than it seems, different agencies are used to enforce colonialism, such as in the economy, religion and other cultural activities are all examples of cultural practices. Colonialism can also have a profound effect on the colonizers’ society in this case France. Therefore, the term society also needs to be outlined to understand how colonialism impacted it. A society is formed by a social group who share the same territory, in this case, France and by extension of the empire, the colonies. The group shares the same political authority and other norms and values perpetuated by a shared sense of culture. When examining the impact of colonialism, a period that will be discussed is the early twentieth century onwards, this period exposed multiple tensions and examples of the impact that colonialism had on French society, many of which are still evident today. There is a multitude of areas that can be affected by the topic, examples of which include religion, education, politics, and economic areas. The colonial culture so affected the areas colonized. These elements of society all have wider impacts created by the period’s context triggering long-term issues which influence national identity. In extreme cases, this can lead to an increase in racism, and xenophobia, all factors which directly impact French society.

Religious concepts and practices are an inseparable element of any culture; they play an important role in defining and enforcing values and establishing cultural standards. The dominant religion with significant links to the French state was Catholicism, whose position regarding government authority was altered radically following the French Revolution. The church’s dominance over the state, as well as its tax-exempt status, ran counter to republican ideas and was denounced by the leadership of the Republic. This was an attempt to deprive Catholicism of its status as the official religion and was also carried out by non-republican governments, such as those of Louis Philippe I and Napoleon III. The movement of anti-clericalism within political leadership was finally solidified in 1905 with the French law of Separation of the Churches and the State. The church had seen a decline in its level of influence over French society, but colonialism created a new way to spread Catholicism through missionary work, something they could not do within France. The republican concept of civilization was able to conceal and even ignore this effort and permitted Catholics to build schools and hospitals across the empire to propagate French social ideas. The method by which they had to conceal their true intentions reflected and amplified French national disputes concerning the role of Catholic clergy in French society. Missionary activity was supported in many parts of the empire, such as Algeria, Morocco, and Madagascar, as a means to transmit notions of French culture and extend its civilization. Many of these colonized countries retained some political independence, but they were not immune to the French leadership’s desire to transform their societies and impose notions of a French national character. An example of this is in Madagascar, the Merina monarchies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gradually opened the island up to western influences, including missionaries from France. The focus of their work was largely on education and the modernization of healthcare. Education was a method used to propagate French culture throughout the empire. Many educational principles were strongly ingrained in the Islamic religion before the colonialization of the countries that comprised the French empire. Most of these Muslim communities, an example being Morocco, supported a local msid, where a fqih (religious teacher) taught young boys to memorize the Quan. However, this did not align with the vision of pan-Arab nationalism with its emphasis on the arab language and education above religious or ethnic affiliation. Whilst seemingly at odds with their own approach to education Catholic missionaries were able to exploit this principle to their advantage in converting a region via education. Within French educational camps established to spread notions of French culture via education, tensions arose between clerical and secular republican visions of schooling and the role that Catholicism should play within them. However, Catholicism was able to solidify itself as a part of French culture abroad, therefore religion played a key role in the expansion and imposition of French society on colonial areas. Colonialism’s use of the catholic religion to promote French values and ideals abroad increased the profile and standing of the church which had an effect not only on French society in the colonies but also on French Catholics in France, allowing Catholicism to play a bigger part in French society and even to influence it overseas.

Colonization and the establishment of Catholic institutions had an influence not only on the religious aspects of French society but also on the extension of French society itself. The Catholic schools established in colonies were regarded as better intellectual institutions by elites of all beliefs, they also provided their students with the language and background to deal advantageously with the French. The crowning accomplishment of education in the empire was mastery of the complex rules of French grammar, perfect articulation of French speech, and knowledge of the masterpieces of French literature. Education introduced distinct French ideals, customs, and practices into society, allowing it to influence its colonies. Colonization led to the belief that natives needed education and guidance from a firm and loving hand. In doing so, the French brought a European system of education to Africa, Asia, and the islands. However, there were restrictions to this because these schools were not necessarily frequented by a representative group of the people, but rather were confined by class in the majority of situations. Schools instead created a new class, This label referred to a native of the colonies who adopted French societal values and therefore ‘evolved’. These individuals had learned the French language, had a loyalty to France, and stood apart through their manner of dress, food preferences, moral values, and elevated standard of living, which were all objectively identifiable as French. As a result of colonialism and assimilationist ideologies, this led to the establishment of a distinct society within the colonized states.

Colonialism had a direct influence on the French educational system. Curriculum changes tried to change students’ and society’s perceptions of what national identity entailed. It attempted to expand the physical boundaries of the country to include that of the empire. This was done through ‘colonial education’ of French youth, the Agence des Colonies was put in charge to encourage pupils to integrate the Empire into both their way of thinking and their daily life. As a result of ministerial regulation of 1923 and 1925, the history and geography of the Empire became, for the first time, a compulsory part of the school curriculum. In doing so it changed ideas of national identity and what it meant to be French within society. Other areas of education were likewise infiltrated by colonial ideals. Teachers were involved in the creation of games using pictures, for example, teachers in charge of children’s education took on the position of the game master, deploying ‘exemplary’ images, edifying representations, and memorable subtitles to avoid any potential ‘errors’ in interpretation. Each picture directly influenced the process of implanting images of colonial fiction in the social imaginary, so assisting the national community in strengthening the concept of shared heritage. This fostered a notion of national identity that was deeply entrenched in colonial concepts, therefore broadening conceptions of French society that were inaccessible through schooling in the nineteenth century.

The influence of Catholicism on politics has affected French society, however in the twentieth-century colonialization may have had an even deeper impact on politics. Even at the beginning of colonization in the seventeenth century, different political parties had alternative ideas about the treatment and the role of the colonies in French society. The first view of ‘Assimilationism’ ‘reflects the French Jacobin republicism: a pronounced faith in the ability of reason to prescribe to a universal civilized way of life’. The left-wing French republicans maintained that this was a civilizing mission based on the notion of a racial hierarchy and that colonial natives needed to be brought up to French standards. In contrast ‘Associationism’, ‘affirmed the differences between colonizer and colonized and advocated that the French dominate colonized societies in association with native strongmen’. This viewpoint was widely shared by supporters of right-wing politics, such as royalists and Catholics. Their hypothesis was underpinned by a biological racial conception that gave rise to the concept of racial supremacy. As a result, there was a widespread idea that you could never change your race by assimilating into another civilization. Both of these attitudes towards non-European cultures and ethnic groups formed the intellectual context which allowed conquest and colonialism. However, these perspectives on colonialism fail to recognize the richness of other cultures and therefore have fostered racist attitudes toward individuals of different ethnicities inside the colony as exclusion and racism were intrinsic to colonialism. These racist attitudes carried over into French society and deeply shaped how natives of the colonies were viewed. This had long-lasting effects on the citizens of the colonies. By the 1950s anticolonial views had become widespread and calls for independence for colonies were circulating politically. This was largely inspired by the utopian rhetoric of creation’ of clean slates and tabula rasa’ dominated the writings of anti-colonialist writers intent on analyzing the colonial situation and calling for its overthrow. Such movements of anti-colonialism were not isolated to the colonies, the Parti communiste fransais, (PCF) or the French communist party was created in opposition to colonialism. At its core, the party was anti-imperialist, views which were integral to Leninism. Other parties were created from the effects of colonization which didn’t exclude far-right organizations. The Front National (FN) was created in 1972 under the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The creation of the party stems from ingrained ideas of racial hierarchy left over from the time when France has colonies. Key to this was the brutal war with Algeria (1954-60) over the country’s push for independence in which over 1 million Algerians were killed. However, Algeria still managed to claim victory, this resulted in many French Algerians, pro-French Muslims, and others such as skilled workers migrating to France. The underlying bitterness and antipathy which arose from the war heavily influences the FN’s view of the immigrant. These political parties had a great influence on the shaping of French democracy, with their origins stemming from the empire and ideas of decolonization. These parties have also greatly added to the polarity of French politics which is still present today. Therefore, demonstrating a lasting and ever-present impact on modern French society.

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The empire also proved to have large economic consequences for French society. Following the crisis of the French food supply also led in 1917-18 to the first concerted campaign to source food from the colonies to sustain the population. In addition to supplying food resources the colonies, colonialists claimed, would liberate France from reliance on foreign imports and offer an infinite supply of raw resources for French industries. This created a naive belief that the resources of the Empire would free France from dependence on foreign suppliers and speed her post-war recovery. Nevertheless, the reality was rather different; the resources of the Empire took much longer to come than reparations, As a result, the Empire swiftly lost its newfound popularity as a result of the campaign. This strategy to sustain the population was not only economically draining for France but also had a devastating effect on the colonies because of the slow payments from France. In addition to the poor economic impact of the period following World War One, it led to plummeting enthusiasm for the ‘mise en valeur’ (development) of an Empire and like reparations, a way of taking refuge from the appalling economic realities of post-war France. Creating resentment towards the colonies, and labeling them as draining the economy, had a tremendous impact politically and contributed to the racism directed at the navies of the colonies.

Beyond the financial hardship of post world war I in France there was a drastic change in the relationship between colonialism and the economy. The major turnaround happened in the 1920s and was attributed to the height of the imperial heyday as a result that everything colonial began to sell. The economic boom of the 1920s saw an increase in wealth and coincided with an increase in consumerism. Advertisements started to draw on the exotism of the empire to sell products, it seemed, every advertisement or publication featured something colonial. As such the concept of colonial culture emerged, it was not just a way to spread propaganda or solidify a national agenda, ‘but rather a culture in the sense of a host of discursive materials, images, and practices, which, beginning in the 1920s, no longer had much to do with colonization properly speaking’. This is a rather rose-tinted view of colonialism in the 1920s, colonial culture still perpetuates ideas and stereotypes of the colonized natives but its extent was down to the economic importance and how fashionable the colonies were in popular culture.

As mentioned, advertisements used colonial culture to sell goods, an example of this is seen in 1928 when Nescao (Nestle©) put an elegant black silhouette holding two steaming cups of hot chocolate against a white background on its packaging. Though nothing stated that this was necessarily a black woman, the rise of colonial culture in advertisements allows for the assumption that it represents a black individual. However, in 1940 the young woman was transformed into a black maid, complete with a white apron. This stereotypical image of black women could be argued to be due to the context of the time with rising tensions of decolonization and changing views of colonial culture which caused its replacement.

French literature was also greatly influenced by the rise in colonial culture in the 1920s. The colonial’s ubiquity in the press, comics, children’s literature, novels, the theatre, and the cinema resulted in an unusual connection with the world: a ‘continuous conquest’ in the service of universalist principles. This impacted French society by reaffirming ideas of a racial hierarchy and shows that ideas of a non-inclusive view of civilization very much remained. As result, many vectors of public dissemination were put to use in the name of colonial education, notably staples of the media like the press or the radio, and also postcards and advertising vignettes. These ideas flourished within the literature. An example of this is in the children’s comic Tintin which had a particular focus on the themes of geopolitics and identity. The comic Tintin au Congo was released in 1929, it featured Tintin acting in the role of the colonialist teaching young colonial children about France. In addition to this a much darker image was represented, Tintin au congo is notorious for its depiction of animal slaughter and its caricatured representation of a black boy. This once again enforced ideals of French national identity., which were rooted in colonialism and called back to the empire’s perceived heyday and ideas of the need to civilize members of the Empire.

It can be judged that colonialism had a profound impact on French society, this was created through the context of the period, and it allowed for the creation of long-term issues still affecting French Society. The impact of colonialism also allowed other events or views to be triggered, which had varying impacts on French society, this led to other factors such as the formation of political parties which in some cases were able to harness and promote racist and xenophobic views to outline and create policies. Racist and xenophobic views towards the natives of the colonies widely impacted French society and influenced the national identity rooted in ideas of racial superiority, different aspects of society were able to engage colonialism to perpetuate a view. Each factor had an impact on the other, an example of this is how the economic context and the varying prosperity of the colonies over the period affected the adoption of colonial culture and political views. These agencies in turn impacted consumerism, education, and the State’s religious policies, all factors that impact French society and national identity. Therefore, it is fair to judge that these policies, often driven by economic factors affected by colonialism had the greatest impact on French society and drove ideals and views surrounding positive or negative ideas of the colonies, In addition to the most impactful it is also important to judge causes in which colonialism was least impactful on society. Although colonial culture was widely influential in French society it has to be seen that this was a consequence of wider economic and political views of the time, therefore the colonial culture would have not stood independently of other factors. It can be concluded that French society was widely affected by colonialism through the spread of French ideals. In turn, the holding of colonies meant that a wide range of factors influenced the wealth and even politics shaping French society to this day.

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Analysis of the Impact of Colonialism on French Society. (2023, July 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
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