Equality Divided. Race at the Core of the Legal Segregation between Citizens of Metropolitan France and Citizens of the “Old Colonies” after 1848

By Silyane Larcher

In keeping with the revolutionary principle of universal civil rights, the abolition of slavery by the Second French Republic in 1848 instituted full civil and legal equality for all (male) citizens of Metropolitan France and former slaves from the “Old Plantation Colonies”. However, civil equality did not entail the former slaves being fully included in the “community of citizens”. Indeed, full French citizenship in the French West Indies (as well as in French Guiana and on Reunion Island) came hand in hand with a special legislative regime. These “colonies of citizens” were governed by a legal system that kept them outside the laws applicable in Metropolitan France. What “conception of the State” enabled the unlikely reconciliation of civil equality and legal segregation, across several different political regimes ? Over the long term, the divided equality at the basis of a system whereby equals were excluded or the citizens of former slave colonies were regarded as separate or “other” was combined with a politisation of the historical and anthropological heritage of people from the sugar islands. By looking at the history of French citizenship from the standpoint of its colonial Caribbean margin, we thus note that it was not always unified or abstract : it was articulated around a specific fabrication of race. The rationale of racialisation whereby Metropolitan French citizens were cut off from the French of the former slave “Old Colonies” cannot be understood simply in terms of skin colour, but rather in terms of “civilisation” – or nowadays, we might say “culture”.

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