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Limits of Empire: The French Colonial State and Local Patrimonialism in North Africa

Patrimonial Capitalism and Empire

ISBN: 978-1-78441-758-1, eISBN: 978-1-78441-757-4

ISSN: 0198-8719

Publication date: 31 March 2015


The article shows that the concept of patrimonialism is useful for the analysis not only of nation-states, but also of local and imperial power structures. Highlighting the limits of empires, we consider how local conditions shaped the strategies of colonial states in the process of empire building. We argue that the strength of local patrimonial networks before colonization, coupled with the sequencing of colonial conquests, either facilitated or hindered the French colonial and imperial project. Using a comparative-historical approach based on the analysis of two cases, Algeria and Tunisia, we find that the French colonial state employed markedly differing strategies of domination in each case. In Algeria, the French initially attempted and failed to destroy local patrimonial networks and the social practices associated with them through extensive military action. The failed attempt to destroy local practices resulted in over a century of resistance and bloodshed. When military rule became too costly, the French opted instead to rely on decentralized control that used the very structures they originally sought to eradicate. With constant reminders of the misguided colonial strategy in Algeria, the French used a different form of rule in Tunisia. They incorporated the existing Tunisian bureaucracy into their own political project, using it to limit the power of local patrimonial networks and transforming them instead through the development of capitalistic agriculture. The article illustrates the importance of paying close attention to local patrimonial networks in the analysis of colonial and imperial strategies.




We acknowledge Julia Adams, Michael Brenner, Randall Collins, John Hall, Laura Kilian Jaster, Richard Lachmann, Mary Freifeld, and members of the Comparative Historical Seminar at the University of Texas in Austin for exchange and feedback on various forms of the ideas and arguments presented in this article.


Charrad, M.M. and Jaster, D. (2015), "Limits of Empire: The French Colonial State and Local Patrimonialism in North Africa", Patrimonial Capitalism and Empire (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 28), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 63-89.



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