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The Empire of Law

Dignity, Prestige, and Domination in the “Colonial Situation”

Emmanuelle Saada

My contribution is an attempt to resolve one of those enigmas that the French colonial archives hold for assiduous readers. In the course of comparative research on the juridical status of métis children in the French Empire,1 I was struck by the frequency with which the terms “dignity” and “prestige” figured in a wide range of colonial preoccupations—whether on the part of local or central administrations, private individuals or institutions. These were not merely personal or social qualities, but terms that had precise legal meanings and that played a central role in colonial jurisprudence. In this context, the terms were predominantly used in the negative—referring to threats to prestige (atteintes au prestige) or to the obligation to maintain one’s dignity (garder sa dignité).