To realise its dreams of North African hegemony, France wielded ethnic and cultural diversity as a weapon and engineered sectarian discord to achieve its colonial goals.
For colonial strategists ‘divide and conquer’ was the tool of choice in exploiting its victims' soft spots. And nothing gave the French more leverage than frictions between identity and ethnicity in North Africa.
The experiment-turned-policy began in Algeria. France’s colonisation of the country endured for 132 years from 1830 to 1962, and saw the use of every means and resource to subjugate the Algerian people. In the process, Algeria lost nearly 10 percent of its population with more than five million killed.
France would wage a bloody war of subjugation with heavy weaponry, napalm, air strikes, razings, torture, and assassination. But it also waged a quieter, more insidious war at the time, that targeted the components of Algerian identity: Amazigh and Arab ethnicities.
“This led to a ferocious conflict between Arabs and Amazighs, especially following unjust laws adopted by successive governments that tried their best to obliterate the Algerian national identity,” says Abdulbasit Sharqi speaking to TRT World.
For France there were two options. The colonised could either fight each other, and thus fail to unite against their colonial overlords, or rise up against mother France. With enough instigated friction engineered by colonial power structures, some relations never went back to the way they were, giving rise to modern sectarian tensions that refuse to be resolved.
But it wasn't always that way. The Arabs and Berbers once shared common cause in standing against France, with countless tales of their 'glorious exploits' and last stands against crushing French forces. The Kabylie mountainous regions and their hardy Berber mountain folk would prove nearly impossible to conquer, necessitating a different approach.
This offered colonial powers unchecked hegemony fuelled by local opportunistic figures, who became their puppets. The fragmented resistance and a playground of clashing ideologies allowed the colonial masters to play their subjects like a fiddle.
North Africa saw heavy use of this technique under French colonial rule to strengthen its grip on countries, according to a broad range of historical and expert sources. France actively worked on creating distinct ethinc and linguistic divides within Maghreb societies. This was done with the express purpose of instigating internecine conflict and sowing division between peoples of the same country.
Nothing served France’s colonial mandate more than the Arab-Amazigh divide, especially in Algeria and Morocco. It was a divide driven between indigenous Amazigh Berbers and ethnic Arabs originating many centuries ago from the Arabian Peninsula.
This was a result of cold, calculated surveys and research conducted by colonial sociologists and scientists. Early French expeditionary missions devoted considerable energy and resources to identifying the most minute societal detail in addition to precisely mapping demographic and geographic boundaries.
The ultimate goal? Giving tensions a reason and medium to be expressed in the form of political in-fighting or outright conflict that would fragment societal fabric, and reducing opposition to colonisation.
Abdulbasit Sharqi, the Algerian modern history researcher, says that France wielded the Amazigh and Arab issue in whichever way served its interests.
“It used the Beber question with the goal of luring Kabylie groups found in predominantly Amazigh regions to the colonial side prior to the Kabylie revolution of 1871. It then withdrew its efforts and focused on building-up an opposing Arab identity against the revolutionary Kabylie inhabitants. It returned to the project after the end of World War II in 1945, after Arab nationalists in the region reached an agreement with the German Nazi Reich,” he says.
Charles-Robert Ageron, a French historian admits in his book ‘Muslim Algerians and France: 1871-1919’ that France conceived what came to be known as the ‘Kabylie legend’. The myth claimed distinct features of appearance and origin in the Amazigh, who were allegedly said to descend from European roots, while emphasising that Arabs and Berbers were predestined for incessant hate. The propaganda campaign that sought to spread the myth went into full steam as early as 1863 to counter Napoleon III’s ‘Arab Republic’ initiative.
The French colonial administration also granted Amazigh regions of Algeria judicial and administrative autonomy, specifically in universities, to incite ill-will among Arabs who perceived the partial autonomy as a result of cooperation with the French.
According to Sharqi Abdulbaset however, France “quickly reversed its stance on the origin-story ‘myth’, after determining that the Kabylie were actually aware of France’s racist policies”.
Hemal Abdelsalam clarified in his book ‘The colonial historiography of France in Algeria: 1830-1962’ that the idea behind fragmenting one nation into multiple ethnic rivals originated in Egypt. Napoleon wielded it to critical effect during his campaign, before it was adopted by French colonial leaders in Algeria. France resorted to using this method between demographic regions, then between ethnicities, and even within influential families.
What's in a name?
This meant breaking up the major tribes that served as axes of resistance to the French. Under the guise of French administration, registered surnames were made necessary for all transactions. In anecdotes, Algerians recall how they would return from travels to find that their own brothers and sisters were forced into carrying different surnames.
Having shut down most schools, only 10% of Algerians were literate at the time; allowing French administrators to give insulting, derogatory surnames to resisting tribe members that persist to the present-day.
While tribal loyalties initially resisted the changes, successive generations lost track of relatives; eventually seeing the fragmentation of the largest thorns to French resistance.
Racist policies in Morocco
France colonised Morocco in 1912, after signing a Protectorate treaty which saw the Sultan accede his authority. After seizing the central power, France took the same approach to its interests that it had perfected in Algeria.
This was with the express goal of extending its influence over Morocco’s entirety, particularly the Amazigh regions that were renowned for their resilience and opposition to France. To this end it deployed General Henri who had fought the Kabylie in Algeria, and launched a ‘Berber Protectorate Strategy’ which was executed by French soldiers.
The strategy’s execution fell to French generals, according to Moroccan historian Hassan Aurid, utilising “divisions that were primarily social more than linguistic”. In an interview with TRT World, he added: “After Henri’s arrival to Morocco, he travelled throughout Amazigh and Atlas regions in Morocco.”
Aurid goes on to add that the ‘Berber policy’ was first applied in late 1914, imposing special administrative and judicial zones on Amazigh regions given their unique traditions and practices rooted in norms and not law. This would lead to the election of Amazigh representatives and tribal leaders, in spite of a fragile if tenuous loyalty to French central authority.
“This step was a pivotal for the Berber policy,” reveals Aurid, clarifying that General Henri at the time was the primary advisor to French authorities on Amazigh matters, and would apply the experience earned fighting the Kabylie tribes in Algeria when he was deployed to Morocco.
French policies of division after World War I also had a second pillar that relied on the subversion of regional leaders with special privileges in exchange for service. Aurid notes that this strategy gave rise to “special military and administrative schools to raise a shape a new Berber elite that spoke French and Tamazight, with the express goal of generating discrimination”.
All against all, and none for none
“France enacted the all-against-all policy,” says Mu’ti Munjib. Marshal Hubert Lyautey, who led the French campaign in Morocco and Indochina sought to protect against a protracted war of attrition in Morocco and Algeria that would bleed France dry while it also fought in World War I.
To achieve this, French colonial authorities took every measure to “incite conflict between tribes with historical grievances, to distract their true enemy,” says Munjib. “France conscripted the sons of these tribes into French armies to fight against tribal enemies, while employing a number of regional chiefs to impose its hegemony, giving it breathing room to focus on fighting in a World War.”
Munjib believes that French colonial planners not only applied the policy of ‘divide and conquer’ when it came to ethnic and linguistic division, but also used it on religion. Not only did they shut down all Madrasa's (traditional religious schools of learning), but they also executed most scholars while later promoting a pacifist version of Sufism completely at odds with the historical legacy of the Murabitun; Sufi warrior priests and scholars who manned outposts and towers at the farthest reaches of Islamic territories, completely immersed in worship by night and battle by day.
Munjib adds: “They befriended Jewish Algerians by granting them citizenship, land ownership and commercial privileges. Cremieux, minister of justice in 1878, presented a plan to offer Jews express citizenship, while adopting a policy of appeasement and assimilation in Morocco.”
After some time, he adds, Muslims in North Africa came to see the Jews as indisputably French.
Was the French policy of assimilation and engineered division in Africa successful?
"It was, to a limited degree," says Munjib. French colonial administrations managed to achieve their intended goals, but it would backfire on them in time. The rise of national sentiments brought the need for decolonization and independence."
While France's colonial project may not have succeeded, the history behind Arab-Berber tensions is largely forgotten as strife persists. Ultimately, France may have had the last laugh.