by Emmanuelle Saada. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 344pp. Paper $27.50. ISBN: 9780226733081.

Reviewed by Leila Kawar, Department of Political Science, Bowling Green State University. E-mail: lkawar [at] bgsu.edu


In his popular 2005 song, "Métis(se)," former professional tennis player turned pop star Yannick Noah sings of his Franco-Cameroonian background with pride, placing himself alongside famous biracial performers Sade and Bob Marley. "Mixing is easy," according to the song's opening lyrics, "so long as you keep it simple." In France at the beginning of the 21st century, it seems that multiculturalism has become fashionable.

The photograph of forlorn-looking Franco-Vietnamese children on the cover of Emmanuelle Saada's recently translated book, Empire's Children tells a different story about what it meant to be "métis" in France and its colonial territories during the first half of the twentieth century. In colonial Indochina, where the "métis question" attracted particular attention, the category was reserved for children who had not been formally recognized by their French fathers, meaning that they had no easy access to French citizenship – given by right to those whose fathers had formally recognized them – and were relegated to the inferior status of colonial subjects. The starting point for Saada's research was her discovery of a 1928 administrative decree that provided a path to French citizenship for those in this category, provided that they could legally establish that they were the child of a French father. As Saada emphasizes, in the colonial setting, "the métis" posed a limit case for French citizenship, creating tensions between the principled universalism of the Civil Code and the reality of France's racialized colonial regime.

Saada uses the métis question as an analytical window for a sophisticated and insightful discussion of French colonial law, its origins, and its effects. The efforts of judges, administrators, and social reformers to grapple with these hard cases reveal the contours of the colonial social hierarchy as well as the power of law. Empirically, the book is based on an impressively detailed historical record, culled from public and private archives in France and Vietnam, and supported by a close reading of primary and secondary sources from the Pacific islands and sub-Saharan and North Africa. At a theoretical level, the author engages with French colonial historiography and also draws extensively on post-structuralist social theory. Given the depth of the research, and the fact that no prior study of French colonialism has provided a sociolegal history of the métis question, one could say that Empire's Children is in fact two or three books combined into one, or as Saada puts it, "two histories told from three distinct points of view" (p.4).

In the three chapters that comprise the first section of the book, Saada focuses [*423] on showing the multiple ways in which "the métis question" in the colonies was socially constructed. Addressing those who might assume that the "métis question" simply reflected an objective or natural reality, she stresses instead that debates about how to solve the "problem" did not arise everywhere in the French colonial world: the subject was hardly discussed in French Algeria, was a matter of moderate concern in colonial Madagascar, New Caledonia and sub-Saharan Africa, and was a topic of intense discussion in colonial Indochina in the early twentieth century. Saada insightfully situates the discourse of the colonial philanthropists, administrators, and jurists who adopted the "métis question" as a problem to be solved, explaining how their practices articulated a neo-Lamarckian racial ideology that classified civilizations according to their level of development. In contrast to social Darwinists, these reformers placed great emphasis on the role of environmental factors in determining level of development, leading them to found institutions whose goal was to "reclassify" mixed-race children by taking them away from their mothers and providing a French environment for their upbringing. Thus provided with a European wardrobe, diet, names, and education, unrecognized sons of France's colonial soldiers would be made into "Frenchmen in soul and character" (p.79). These interventions were accompanied by efforts to acquire French nationality for their charges, through informal and formal petitions to administrators and courts.

Saada develops an elaborate analysis of these colonial social reform efforts, describing those most actively engaged in the "métis question" as elites motivated by a desire to preserve the "prestige of the colonizer and the dignity of French citizenship" (p.43). Infusing her analysis of these progressive reformers with a critical sensibility, she casts them as part of a colonial male establishment keen to maintain its status by keeping up the appearance of a rigidly stratified society (i.e. tidying up the traces of concubinage between low level soldiers and native women). Colonial elites were troubled by the sight of children living in squalor whose faces "glowed with Frenchness" and were particularly sensitive to the fact that natives were also aware of this "inversion of colonial domination" (p.59). She writes that, "In order to put an end to the scandal, it was necessary to 'reclassify the métis' as part of French society" (p.65). The archival records are thus interpreted by Saada through the lens of Durkheimian framework that emphasizes the symbolic politics of maintaining "social order," combined with a Foucauldian-inspired understanding of governance as operating through the regulation of intimate relations.

In Section II of the book, the focus shifts perceptibly and law becomes much more central to the historical narrative. The four chapters in this section offer an ideological, intellectual, and legal history of the administrative decree of 1928, which provided a mechanism for formal recognition of métis whose fathers had not undertaken this step on their behalf. According to Saada, the jurists who developed this legal mechanism were addressing a problem of legal incoherence: the 1889 revision to the law of nationality provided that any child born on French soil – [*424] including the unrecognized "bastard" child of a French father – had the right to French nationality, but the 1897 decree that had applied this liberal legislation to the colonies explicitly excluded natives from its provisions. In Chapter 4, Saada first excavates the history behind the democratization of citizenship in 1889 as well as the accompanying hardening of the division between colonizing citizen and colonized subject, paying particular attention to the debates among legal scholars who justified the colonial deviation from Jacobin universalism. Chapters 5 and 6 explore two legal debates – fraudulent paternity recognitions and paternity suits – that Saada presents as "pav[ing] the way for discussions of the status of the métis and the advent of citizenship based on race" (p.169). Finally, in Chapter 7, she turns to cases involving requests for citizenship for unrecognized métis, and shows how French administrators and judges grappled with the task of making an initial determination of whether the individual in question was a Frenchman or a native, culminating in the passage of the decree of 1928 that standardized the factors to be considered in determining race.

Section III continues the focus on law, turning to study the effects of the new legal regime, specifically the administrative decree of 1928, that introduced race as a criterion of citizenship. Looking beyond law on the books, Chapter 8 examines how the decree was implemented by administrators in the colonies, showing how its passage prompted colonial administrators to sponsor special schools and training programs for a group that was increasingly seen as pool for low level bureaucrats and translators, i.e. "the cadres of colonization" (p.211). The perspective of administrators shifts to that of the métis themselves in Chapter 9, as Saada draws on archived newsletters produced by associations of métis in Indochina as well as personal interviews conducted with "repatriated" métis children to explore the individual self-representations constructed by legal categories. Finally, Chapter 10 explores the extent to which the introduction of race into nationalization in the colonial context served as a model for citizenship categories in the metropole. After examining debates on the extension of citizenship to French women (which occurred only in 1944) and the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy regime, Saada concludes that there is no evidence of an intersection between the issue of nationality in the metropole and the issue of citizenship in the colonies, highlighting the importance of excavating the regime of racialization in the colonial era on its own terms. At the same time, she argues that the legalization of the métis question should be understood within the broader chronology of a growing state role in defining both filiation and the nation, a role that was considerably blunter and more visible in the colonies and where "racial" difference heightened the stakes.

The book thus offers a compelling argument that the question of the colonial métis is important because it "posed a problem for the practices associated with nationality and citizenship" (p.251). In its resolution, we can see the logic of the emerging interventionist state, asserting its control over recognitions of filiation previously left to the discretion of household patriarchs. In other words, the resolution of the métis question is a story of state [*425] development, which Saada frames using the conceptual vocabulary of Durkheim and Foucault.

The analysis of reformist colonial elites in the first section of the book is arguably less successful than the analysis in the two subsequent sections, in so far as it makes claims about the disciplining motivations of those who adopted the cause of turning métis into Frenchmen. Saada views colonial reformers as motivated by essentially conservative goals, i.e. "maintaining the colonial social order" by removing the sight of French blood in a native milieu. Her analysis draws strongly on the conceptual framing of immigration governance developed by critical social historian Gerard Noiriel (1996), of whom she was a student. American readers may be familiar with this type of analysis from Joseph Gusfield's classic analysis of the symbolic politics of the Temperance Movement (Gusfield 1963). In her analysis of social reform movements, Saada is particularly keen to emphasize how knowledge categories governing intimate relationships served to bolster colonial rule. This attachment to a critical positionality at times seems to obscure a more complex understanding of French colonial society. Saada is no doubt correct that the "métis question" had a symbolic dimension, given the attention it attracted and the relatively small number of children involved: "at most a few tens of thousands of métis" in colonial Indochina (p.40). Yet it seems significant that many of those most engaged with the "métis problem" were themselves the fathers of Franco-Annamite children to whom they had given French citizenship. Thus their interventions on behalf of unrecognized métis seem to have been motivated in part by sympathy. Moreover, it seems important that reform efforts were met with skepticism from a number of colonial administrators, who did not see assisting métis children as necessary for maintaining discipline among the natives and who believed it might instead create a cadre of adults resentful of their alterity and thus a resource for indigenous independence movements. An American reader will be struck by the expansive notion of French identity espoused by colonial reformers, especially noticeable when contrasted with the callousness demonstrated by white American southerners towards the mixed-race children that they fathered. Saada is correct to emphasize that reformers were embedded within a thoroughly racialized colonial discourse, but at least for this reader, it is the assimilationism and expansiveness of French citizenship which deserves more attention.

The analysis in Section II of law's handling of the métis question is likewise provocative for the comparativist reader. American courts in the early twentieth century also addressed the racial dimension of citizenship law, as discussed in Ian Haney-Lopez's fascinating book, White By Law (1996). The mechanisms by which French law took up the "métis question" are thus familiar but with a twist. First, the concept of "déclassement," which was central to French colonial governance (and which contrasts with both the American racial notions of "white, black, yellow, and red" races and the Spanish and Portuguese recognition of intermediate racial categories), was formally encoded in the law. Thus, for French jurists, the [*426] legal question was primarily one of evidencing Frenchness, rather than of elaborating distinctions among the non-French. Second, while American litigants and judges were the primary articulators of new legal concepts that reconciled race and citizenship, in the French legal system it was primarily legal scholars and administrators who created new legal mechanisms for handling métis cases. Indeed, it was because courts lacked legal guidance that colonial administrators resolved to issue an official decree that articulated the appropriate technique for identifying Frenchness.

Empire's Children holds substantial interest for scholars interested in thinking about the intersection of citizenship and race in comparative and historical terms. While the theoretical framing may be somewhat unfamiliar to American political scientists who have not been previously exposed to the uniquely French blend of Foucauldian and Durkheimian influences, the richly detailed archival material at the heart of the book is both impressive and beautifully presented. The book is a major contribution to scholarship on colonial law.


Gusfield, Joseph R. 1963. Symbolic Crusade:Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Haney-López, Ian. 1996.White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press.

Noiriel, Gerard. 1996. The French Melting Pot: Immigration, Citizenship,and National Identity. Geoffroy De Lafourcade (trans.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

© Copyright 2012 by the author, Leila Kawar.