Day 14

The Ideal of the Civilizing Mission

Alice L. Conklin, AMission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 1-2


Civilization is a particularly French concept; the French invented the term in the eighteenth century and have celebrated the achievements of their own ever since. At no point in modern history, however, did the French make more claims for their civilization than during the new imperialism of the Third Republic. Of course all European powers at the end of the nineteenth century claimed to be carrying out the work of civilization in their overseas territories; but only in republican France was this claim elevated to the realm of official imperial doctrine. From about 1870, when France began to enlarge its holdings in Africa and Indochina, French publicists, and subsequently politicians, declared that their government alone among the Western states had a special mission to civilize the indigenous peoples now coming under its control -- what the French called their mission civilisatrice.

This idea of a secular mission civilisatrice did not originate under the Third Republic; it nevertheless acquired a particularly strong resonance after the return of democratic institutions in France, as the new regime struggled to reconcile its aggressive imperialism with its republican ideals. The notion of a civilizing mission rested upon certain fundamental assumptions about the superiority of French culture and the perfectibility of humankind.  It implied that France’s colonial subjects were to primitive to rule themselves, but were capable of being uplifted.  It intimated that the French were particularly suited, by temperament and by virtue of both their revolutionary past and the4ier current industrial strength, to carry out this task.  Last but not least, it assumed that the Third Republic had a duty and a right to remake “primitive” cultures along lines inspired by the cultural, political, and economic development of France.

The ideology of the civilizing mission could not but strike a responsive chord in a nation now publicly committed to institutionalizing the universal principles of 1789. At the end of the nineteenth century, few French citizens doubted that the French were materially and morally superior to -- and that they lived in greater freedom than-the rest of the earth's inhabitants. Many may have scoffed at the idea that the Republic's empire was actually bestowing these blessings upon those ostensibly still oppressed. But no one questioned the premise of French superiority upon which the empire rested, or even that the civilizing mission could in fact be accomplished. Such convictions were part of what it meant to be French and republican in this period, and had a profound impact on the way in which the French ran their colonies.  Administrators -- vastly outnumbered, and equipped with little more than their prejudices -- relied upon the familiar categories of "civilization" and its inevitable opposite, "barbarism," to justify and maintain their hegemony overseas.  These categories served to structure how officials thought about themselves as rulers and the people whom they ruled, with complex and often contradictory consequences for French colonial policy -- and French republican identity --in the twentieth century.