Abandoning the Algerian Model

French MoroccoTunisia and Morocco came under French control much later than Algeria, in 1883 and 1912 respectively, as part of the great “scramble for Africa” at the end of the nineteenth century.*

From the French perspective, the imperial experience in Tunisia and Morocco was very different than that in Algeria.** In both states, French investors became concerned about the security of their investments under the rule of what they perceived as a weak Muslim government. In both states an internal crisis combined with imperial rivalries with Britain in Tunisia and Germany in Morocco triggered occupation by French troops and a “now what?” response by French administrators.

Fifty years of rule in Algeria had taught French politicians that direct rule by French administrators and colonization by European settlers was expensive. Instead of being integrated into French territory as colonies, first Tunisia and then Morocco were placed under protectorate status: a ambiguous term that suggests a stronger power protecting a weaker power. The reality was the stronger power protecting its own interests in the weaker power.*** In theory, the Bey of Tunisia and the Sultan of Morocco remained the rulers of their respective states with the support of a French civil service and the French military. In fact, both rulers were puppets under the control of their French advisers–a position that was soon made clear in Morocco. When Sultan Mulay Hafid refused to cooperate with French plans for administrative, legal, educational and military reforms, he was forced to abdicate and replaced by his brother.

The bottom line: Tunisia and Morocco were possessions, but they never became part of the French identity. François Mitterand once claimed “Algeria is France.” No one ever said “Morocco is France”. As a result, in the unraveling of European empires that followed the end of the Second World War, Tunisia and Morocco were relatively easy to let go. (The key word there is relative.)

Algeria? That was another story.

*If you’re interested in the big picture on this, I strongly recommend Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa: The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912: a Big Fat History Book that’s well worth the time.

**My guess is that the experience from the perspective of the colonized looked much the same.

***The phrase “protection racket” comes to mind. Or is that just me?

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