Citizens in Principle, Natives in Practice? Compulsory Education and Its Dilemmas in Tahiti under the Third Republic

Special Report Title: The State and Overseas
By Marie Salaün

The French Establishments in Oceania are an interesting empirical case to understand the French State’s action in its overseas possessions. Under the terms of a very singular legal system which made half of the natives French citizens while the others remained “native subjects”, this remote possession falls outside the traditional divide between citizens and subjects. While the effectivity of political rights has already been partially analyzed, another important vehicle of citizenship has not been studied, namely, education. Whereas the interests of the “civilizing mission”, and in particular the linguistic requirement of francization, ordered the extension of compulsory education in Tahiti, it was not implemented locally before 1897, after two decades of debates that shed a new light on a fundamental imperial tension between the need to consider as “equal” those who were, and should to a certain extent remain, “different”. This article aims to review this tension in the light of the resistance to the Metropolitan law, both on the part of the colonizers and of the colonized, by showing on the one hand how the racialist logic, officially ineffective in this case, kept resurfacing in public and official writings, and on the other hand, how the Polynesians’ hidden transcript, challenged, in practice, the enforcement of the law.

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