French Administration Through World War II

Mauritania Table of Contents

Mauritania, a long-time appendage of Senegal, was not considered worth the expense necessary to pacify and develop it until Coppolani succeeded in changing the attitude of the French government. In 1904 France recognized Mauritania as an entity separate from Senegal and organized it as a French protectorate under a delegate general in Saint Louis. With the success of the first pacification attempts, the status of Mauritania was upgraded to that of a civil territory administered by a commissioner of government (first Coppolani, later Gouraud). Although formally separate from French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française--AOF), which had been created in 1895, Mauritania was closely tied to its administrative structure and had its annual budget appended to that of the AOF. On December 4, 1920, by a decree of the Colonial Ministry in Paris, Mauritania was officially included in the AOF with the six other French West African territories--Senegal, the French Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast (present-day Côte d'Ivoire), Dahomey (present-day Benin), and Niger.

The AOF was organized pyramidally under a centralized federal structure in Dakar. Directly appointed by the president of the French Republic, the governor general of the AOF came to have a great deal of power because of the instability and short duration of Third Republic governments in Paris. The governor general was the head of a centralized administrative bureaucracy consisting of a lieutenant governor for each territory, the commandant of a cercle (a colonial administrative subdivision), and chiefs of subdivisions, cantons, and villages. The key figure in the system was the commandant in each cercle, who was almost always a European and who was closest to the indigenous population in his duties of collecting taxes, overseeing works projects, maintaining peace and security, and carrying out administrative decrees. Generally, the subdivisions subordinate to the commandant were manned by Africans. For these positions, the French relied to a great extent on the traditional hierarchy of chiefs or their sons. In keeping with their policy of direct, centralized rule, the French made it clear that these African chiefs exercised authority not by virtue of their traditional position but by virtue of their status as modern colonial administrators.

Before 1946 no legislative bodies existed in the AOF. The governor general was assisted by the Grand Council in Dakar, Senegal, which since 1925 had represented the federation's major interest groups (military personnel, civil servants, and businessmen). But the council had only consultative status, and its members were all appointed by the governor general. Similar administrative councils advised the lieutenant governors in all of the territories except Mauritania and Niger.

Mauritania's administrative structure conformed generally with that of the rest of the AOF territories. There were, however, some very important differences. Unlike the other territories (with the possible exception of Niger), most of the cercles still had military commandants because of the late date of the territory's pacification. The resultant conflicts between military and civilian authorities caused frequent administrative changes and reorganizations, including shifts in boundaries that tended to create confusion.

The importance of the role of the traditional Maure chiefs in the administration was the most significant difference between Mauritania and the other AOF territories and has probably had the greatest continuing impact. The extent to which administrative practice in Mauritania contradicted the French policy of direct rule and resembled British indirect rule is noteworthy. From the time of Coppolani, the administration had relied heavily on the marabouts for support and administration. In recognition of the support given by Shaykh Sidiya of Trarza, the French placed the school of Islamic studies at Boutilimit under his control. Traditional administrators of Islamic justice, the qadis, were put on the French payroll without supervision, and administrative appointments of chiefs were subject to the approval of the traditional jamaa.

In an effort to maintain order throughout the turbulent territory, the French co-opted the leaders of certain warrior groups to serve the administration. Notable among these were the amirs of Trarza, Brakna, and Adrar, the three most powerful men in the colony, who were aided by 50 heads of smaller groups and the more than 800 chiefs of factions and subfractions. Although there was extensive French interference in the operations of the traditional authorities, the traditional social structure of Mauritania was maintained and thrust into the modern world.

With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, France's African territories were called upon to supply troops and provisions for the war effort. After France fell in 1940, Vichy gained control of the AOF and replaced the official policy of assimilation with a policy of racial discrimination in shops, trains, and hotels. Existing democratic institutions were repressed, and the administrative councils were abolished. Elements of French colonial policy, such as the indigénat and forced labor, were abused. The chiefs, on whom the Vichy government in Dakar relied, were increasingly seen as collaborators by their people as war-related demands for agricultural production and forced labor besieged them. Sporadic resistance to these abuses was met with summary punishment.

In recognition of the suffering of the people of the AOF territories during the war and of the AOF's contribution to the war effort of the Free French (at one time more than half the Free French forces were Africans), Free French officials convened a conference in Brazzaville, Congo, in June 1944 to propose postwar reforms of the colonial administration. The conference favored greater administrative freedom in each colony, combined with the maintenance of unity through a federal constitution. It also recommended the abolition of the indigénat and forced labor, the establishment of trade unions, the rapid extension of education, and the granting of universal suffrage. The conference was firmly opposed, however, to any concept of evolution outside the French bloc and called for the full application of the assimilationist doctrine. The Brazzaville Conference was the beginning of great political and social change that was to sweep Mauritania and other French African states to independence in less than seventeen years.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress