What was the indigénat? This article approaches this question via three arguments. First, a study of the indigénat (the regime of administrative sanctions applied to colonial subjects) challenges the idea that French West Africa formed part of an ‘empire of law’. Second, a dynamic spectrum of political statuses developed around the indigénat until its abolition in 1946. This spectrum is no less significant than one of its poles alone, that of colonial citizens. Third, the indigénat, its narrative of reform, and its relationship to law, bureaucracy, and authority illuminate the tensions between imperial rhetoric and colonial governance.