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    French Algeria: What Was it Like for the Natives?

    French citizens and Algerian subjects

    Although the conquest began in 1830, in terms of its basic political and economic characteristics, l’Algérie française (French Algeria) proper emerged in 1870, when the growing number of European settlers, or colons insisted that civilian governance take over from the military. Immigration accelerated as the colons set about taking over most of Algeria’s prime farmland and building a society whose raison d’être was the exploitation of the native Muslim population and their descendants. 

    Integral Part of France

    In 1881, the government in Paris declared Algeria an integral part of sovereign French territory, in accordance with the constitution of the Third Republic. From that point, the colons in Algeria were “normal” French citizens who just happened to live in three départements (France’s basic administrative regions) that were located across the Mediterranean but legally identical to, say, Normandy or Provence. 

    Native Code

    Like their compatriots on the mainland, the Algerian French elected their local deputies to the National Assembly in Paris, where they formed an uncompromising, united bloc on settler-colonial issues. At the same time, however, the 1881 Code de l’indigénat (Native Code) relegated Algeria’s Muslims to an entirely separate and repressive legal framework that sharply curtailed personal freedoms, neglected due process for criminal matters, and placed domestic matters under the auspices of Islamic courts. 

    Subjects Not Citizens

    Subjects not citizens, most Muslim Algerians lived in the communes mixtes (mixed communities), areas whose administrators and judges (cadis) were appointed by the colonial authorities. Therefore, the defining division of colonial Algerian society was that between Muslim and non-Muslim — a truth made explicit in the 1870 Crémieux Decrees that extended French citizenship to Algeria’s 25,000 Jews (a community that boasted many centuries of history in that land) and stipulated that those very few Muslim évolués (literally, “evolved”) who were deemed worthy of French citizenship had to renounce Islam first. In social terms, some of the old elites did integrate into the colonial system, while a thin strata of middle- and working-class Arabs gradually emerged in the larger towns and cities in the twentieth century, but the vast majority of Algeria’s Muslims belonged to either the near-destitute peasantry or the pool of cheap labour that served colon farms and colon homes.

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