2015 Virtual Edition: Andrea L. Smith

Postscript to Citizenship in the Colony: Naturalization Law and Legal Assimilation in 19th Century Algeria

In “Citizenship in the Colony,” I explored the French development of citizenship and naturalization codes for colonial Algeria. I argued that French officials developed this legislation to address two problems: the social and legal diversity of French Algeria, and the desire to expand the colonist faction in the face of near-constant threat of losing the colony. By comparing the development of codes for three distinct populations, I argued that the laws served to eliminate liminal populations and simplify the social field.[1] Despite regular French insistence that Algeria was an extension of French territory, these laws revealed that officials were managing Algeria’s residents in a decidedly “colonial” way. By selectively embracing assimilationist policies, officials offered, and then imposed, French citizenship to hundreds of thousands of anomalous people: nationals of other European countries and indigenous Jews – merging these “straying ethnicities” into the colonizer faction (Smith 1996:43). Had they also forcibly granted citizenship to Algeria’s Muslim population, the “Algeria is France” mantra could have held some credibility. They did not; instead, they constructed a naturalization process designed to fail, thus ensuring the domination of the mass of colonial subjects by a European minority.

This postscript updates this article by moving into the era of decolonization. I present results of my ethnographic research into the laws’ post-colonial aftermath and explore continuities and ruptures in the French management of the social field at the moment of Algerian independence.

Ethnography and Law’s Limits

In 1996, I had argued that legislation for settlers had an ultimate goal of rendering this ruling group homogenous. Was this actually achieved? French colleagues felt that it had. My ethnographic fieldwork with a group subject to such legislation, settlers of Maltese origin, exposed this mission as incomplete, however.[2] I found that settlers distinguished each other by ethnic origin well after the widely accepted World War I turning point marking their purported fusion (Smith 1998; 2006). I found a persistent ethnoclass hierarchy in colonial records, with French metropolitans as the elite, Spanish and Italians as lesser whites, and French naturalized Jews and the Maltese as liminal populations, situated uneasily between what in colonial studies language would be “colonist” and “colonized.”[3] Distinctions between settlers were indexed in everyday settler speech (Smith 2004, 2006): after living in contemporary France for over thirty years, the settlers I worked with identified each other in ethnic terms, distinguishing “Maltese” from “Italians” or “Spanish” and all of these groups from the “French French,” “metropolitan French,” the “pure French,” or the “real French,” in stark defiance of the logic of republican universalism. Finally, the very longevity of Maltese-origin settler clubs, composed of people who had been French citizens for generations, indicated that mass naturalization followed by the great assimilating institutions of the Third Republic did not erase markers of ethnicity that persisted in the colony and were brought back to France.

At the same time, the intra-settler distinctions were different in kind from the dramatic gulf in life chances during colonialism and at decolonization between Algerian Muslims and populations incorporated into the “French” faction, as I have argued elsewhere (Smith 2009).[4]  What we will see when we consider the waning years of the colony and the moment of its termination?

Too Little Too Late: Tracing Legislation into the Algerian War (1954-1962)

The first major legislative change was promulgated under Vichy occupation when Algerian Jews (but no other members of the French settler category) were stripped of their French citizenship in 1940 (Belmessous 2013:193); it was reinstated in 1943 (Shepard 2006:109). In the throws of World War II, officials made a dramatic shift in the opposite direction, however. The Provisional Government of the French Republic based in Algiers claimed that holding a separate statut personnel[5] was compatible with French Civil code, advancing what Shepard (2006:40) terms a “juridical revolution.” This dramatic shift in policy was motivated in part by the Free French Forces’ need for Muslim troops and the response by local activists with a Manifesto of the Algerian People. As Belmessous (2013:195) writes, “the occupation of France by the Nazis and Algeria by the Allies worked as a catalyst for the liberation of the Muslim world.” The postwar Constitution of the Fourth Republic in 1946 continued this revolution by creating a French Union citizenship that was extended to all French citizens and subjects. This grand gesture created confusion across the colonies and was rejected in Algeria by both nationalists and Algerian Europeans. Less than a year later, it was reduced in scope: Article 3 of a statute of Algeria on 20 September 1947 established that Muslims residing in metropolitan France enjoy rights of French citizenship there (but not in Algeria) (Shepard 2006:41).

During the Algerian War, in a final effort to win over Algerians, French policymakers continued to liberalize citizenship policies. Scholars have justifiably emphasized the violence of French policies during the Algeria revolution (Branche 2001); few have explored the parallel extension of political rights unparalleled in the history of Western overseas assimilation (Shepard 2006:45).  In the 1958 Constitution of the French Republic, all French nationals from Algeria who held onto their statut personnel were deemed full citizens in Algeria and the metropole, a gesture both grand and far too late, for Algerians by now had their own nation in sight. These reforms would become meaningless at the war’s end.

An Algeria Without France

Only towards the war’s end did a sea change occur in French thinking regarding Algeria, and the mantra “Algeria is France” was suddenly replaced by “Algeria is a colony that must be decolonized” (Shepard 2006:55).[6] With the “invention of decolonization” (Shepard 2006), French Algeria was suddenly viewed as an anachronistic political form, and many French began to imagine a France without Algeria. In the months leading up the Evian Accords of March 18, 1962, French officials were in secret negotiation with representatives of the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA),[7] and much of the discussion concerned the status of peoples at the war’s end (Shepard 2006:140). French officials especially wanted to preserve the rights of “minority” populations, namely settlers and those Muslims viewed as “loyal to France,” who, it was assumed, would stay on in the new independent state. Early reports outlined distinct components of this “minority” faction, such as “Europeans,” Israelites,” and “Arabs loyal of France” (Ibid:172), sometimes referencing subgroups of French citizens as distinct social categories.  Interestingly, commentators sometimes distinguished French from non-French Europeans.

Although “Israelite” also emerged as a category in these early reports, there were two opposing moves by the French regarding Algerian Jews. Officials like Bernard Tricot challenged any parallels made between Israelites and Muslims, and worked to protect the inclusion of Algerian Jews in the emerging “European” category. “Israelite” eventually disappeared in proposals except as part of the “European minority” population” (Shepard 2006:173). At the same time, due to concern that French Algerian Jews would leave the colony altogether for Israel, as had co-religionists in neighboring Tunisia and Morocco at independence, French officials endeavored to prevent such an exodus in the early 1960s and even denied access to Algerian territory not just to the Jewish Agency but any Jewish organization (Ibid:175).

By the end of the war, the “European” category began to encompass Algerian Jews and French of non-French European ancestry.  Not expecting the French settlers to migrate (and in some instance, hoping very much that they would not; see Shepard 2006:208), officials negotiating with the Algeria revolutionaries determined that guaranteeing them their French citizenship (and an enduring “repatriate” status) would help ensure that they would not all leave. As a result, while most settlers did leave, they returned to France with no shift in status: the French citizenship granted in the nineteenth century was never revoked. As “repatriates,” they benefited from generous policies designed to facilitate economic and social integration because officials hoped to prevent the creation of what they expected would be potentially divisive pied-noir ghettos (Ibid:221-224).

The grand gestures offered Algerian Muslims in 1944, 1946 and in the 1958 Constitution came to an abrupt end at the close of the Algerian War. The Ordinance of 21 July 1962 shattered a key element of the Evian Accord: the right of people from Algeria to keep French citizenship (Shepard 2006:236). Statut personnel was the primary issue at stake: the Ordinance stated that French with common law status will keep French nationality; those with local civil status who wanted to retain their French nationality could do so only though a series of exceptional procedures. Regarding Algerians working at the time in France, the government wanted them to stay as workers, “but only as Algerian citizens, not as French citizens” (Ibid:237).  What is most remarkable (and perhaps most telling) is the government’s denial of any special rights to the harkis, those “Muslims loyal to France” who first had been included in Tricot’s reports as one of the main “minorities” to protect. Their categorization as “refugees” rather than “repatriates” had severe consequences as thousands were massacred at the war’s end (see Crapanzano 2011).

The most revealing set of wartime policies followed nineteenth-century colonial logic into the present-day when the state naturalized another liminal population en masse. “Indigenous” Jews of the M’zab, living in the Territories of the South, continued to enjoy their statut personnel israélite. Starting in the late 1940s, French officials questioned whether or not to make them French citizens with French civil status, like other Algerian Jews. M’zab Jews were reluctant to abandon their customary law, however, as we saw with Muslim and Jewish communities facing naturalization in the past. This liminal situation could not continue. In part in response to local activists, the French law 61-805 of 28 July 1961 turned them into French citizens with French civil status. They migrated to France in May and June 1962 (Shepard 2006:244).

In sum, French citizenship and naturalization law at the end of the Algerian War shows considerable continuity with prior eras. Following a short-lived “juridical revolution,” French legislators carried out a bifurcated set of policies: they followed republican assimilatory logic for some populations, and a colonial logic for others.  At the war’s end, all populations were not seen as equal, and the French government recognized two mutually exclusive categories: “Europeans”/French and “Muslims”/Algerians, with lasting consequences that continue to shape life experiences today.[8]


Naturalization and citizenship law is a telling realm of institutional focus that can lead scholars directly to an official state stance towards colonial or metropolitan “Others.”  Yet analyzing legal texts in isolation is not enough. Napoleon III’s Sénatus-Consulte of 1865, for instance, appears breathtakingly liberal until we explore its effects over the long term.  Exploring the circumstance of one population in isolation is also incomplete. As I hope I have demonstrated here, patterns emerge when we explore the entire legal panorama, comparing across populations and across time. Not unlike the avunculate explored by Lévi-Strauss (1963), it is when we see a suite of legal codes as representative pieces of a whole that the fuller meanings of the distinct laws become clear.

At the same time, ethnographic research is essential if we wish to track the ultimate difference law makes, for law’s reach is limited. It is only through a fine-grained exposition of the application of the legislation that we can begin to observe what it means on the ground. The ethnographic research I conducted with former settlers, descendants of those naturalized by the 1889 codes, revealed the limits of the French state’s ability to completely control social identities, and the persistence of ethnic distinctions over a century after their official erasure.

Assimilation was applied selectively through these naturalization laws; as a result, in Algeria, democracy and republican universalism worked only for some. When populations are treated so differently, we can begin to call into question underlying legal rationales.  In this case, is it all about race? Regarding Algerian Muslims, we see continued concern not with ethnic or phenotypical difference, but religious distinction, with religious independence.

One might argue that it is unfair to ignore the French state’s relentless concern with religion that dates to the era of the French Revolution, during which time the French challenged the power of the Catholic Church, ultimately placing it (and, subsequently, French Jewish and Protestant rites) under state control.  Such a position would suggest that the main problem for Algerian Muslims was that their religion had not yet undergone a similar process of state discipline. But we could also argue that religion has served well to mask French imaginings of Muslim difference. Continued emphasis on a individualized route to citizenship that required denial of Muslim statut personnel, coupled with an imagined impossibility of creating a Consistory-type structure for Muslims in France or Algeria, helped hide a concern for both race and demography, of becoming a minority in the colony, and of sharing one’s political hegemony with others in the metropole at the colony’s end.

Sources Cited

Abrams, Philip. 1988. Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State. Journal of Historical Sociology 1(1):58-89.

Belmessous, Saliha. 2013. Assimilation and Empire. Uniformity in French and British Colonies, 1541-1954. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Branche, Raphaëlle. 2001. La torture et l’armée pendant la guerre d’Algérie. Paris.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 2011. The Harkis: The Wound that Never Heals. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Kateb, Kamel. 2001. Européens, “Indigènes” et Juifs en Algérie (1830-1962): Représentations et réalités des populations. Paris.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1963. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Boooks.

Shepard, Todd. 2006. The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Silverstein, Paul A. 2004. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smith, Andrea L. 2009. Coerced or Free? Considering Post-colonial Returns. Removing Peoples. Forced Removal in the Modern World. Richard Bessel and Claudia Haake, eds. Oxford University Press. Pp. 395-414.

Smith, Andrea L. 2006. Colonial Memory and Postcolonial Europe:  Maltese Settlers in Algeria and France. Bloomington:  Indiana University Press.

Smith, Andrea L. 2004. Heteroglossia, “Common Sense,” and Social Memory. American Ethnologist 1(2):251-269.

Weil, Patrick. 2005. Qu’est-ce qu’un français? Histoire de la nationalité française depuis la Révolution. Paris: Gallimard.

Andrea Smith is an associate professor of anthropology at Lafayette College and is author of Colonial Memory and Postcolonial Europe: Maltese Settlers in Algeria and France (2006), which received the William A. Douglass Prize in Europeanist Anthropology.


[1] Excellent newer scholarship covering similar ground includes Belmessous (2013), Kateb (2001), Shepard (2006), and Weil 2005.

[2] Research was conducted in southeastern France from 1995-1996, 1998, 2001, and several months through 2001. I am grateful to the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Social Science Research Council, the American Institute of Maghrebi Studies, the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Academic Research Committee, Lafayette College, for the funding that made this research possible.

[3] I employ language from colonial studies for clarity purposes; it should be noted that into the 1960s, there was little question in most French peoples’ minds that Algeria was part of France, and thus terms such as “settler” or “colonized” reflect a contemporary vantage point and not necessarily the French position before the late 1950s.

[4] For a cogent discussion of the gulf between citizen and subject in the colonies, see Saada (2012), chapter 4.

[5] Shepard refers to this as “local law”; others write about local “custom,” or “colonial jurists’ interpretations of local customary law” (Saada 2012:96). Here I continue to employ the French legal language to maintain continuity with Smith (1996).

[6] Of course, Algerians had imagined and worked towards decolonization since the first day of French rule.

[7] See Shepard (2006), 139-140, note 2.

[8] There has been so much published on life in Algeria and France that a list is impossible here. Scholars may want to start with Silverstein (2004).