The French Colonial Empire

Charles de Gaulle, president of France, meets some Algerians in August 1959; photo credit.

In the mid-twentieth century, France had the second largest empire in the world, after Great Britain, with a presence on all continents. From explorations to the actual establishment of colonies, the history of French colonial ambitions is traditionally divided in two main phases: the first colonial empire (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries) and the second colonial empire (1830 to the 1960s).

The first colonial empire
A late comer in the discovery of the Americas, France tended to prefer piracy to the actual establishment of colonies and trading posts. French ambitions in the New World were first limited to the looting of the Spanish and Portuguese galleons laden with gold and spices.  French explorers like Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) did hoist the French flag in Canada, Florida, Brazil and India, but most of these expeditions were very limited in scope. Internal French dissensions, a modest naval fleet and a bourgeoisie lacking a spirit for colonial adventure are all reasons explaining such modest beginnings.

It was not until the seventeenth century that France developed a consistent colonial policy as a mean to sustain its economy and weaken the influence of its enemies (Great Britain, Spain and Portugal). The Cardinal de Richelieu (1545-1642) and Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) were the first to devise such policies through the promotion of charted companies. These trading companies would assume the cost of administering the colonies, guarantee the implantation of colons and advance conversion of indigenous populations. In return, the French government would give exclusive proprietary and trading rights to the companies.  French settlements soon sprouted in Canada (Montreal founded in 1642), in the Caribbean, in Guyana, in Western Africa (foundation of future St-Louis of Senegal) and in the Indian Ocean (Madagascar). Under Colbert, the French presence expanded in North America from Canada to Louisiana via the Mississippi basin (explorations by Joliet, Marquette and de la Salle), in the Caribbean (islands of La Martinique, La Guadeloupe and modern Haiti mainly) and in the Indian ocean with the establishment of trading posts in India (Pondichéry in 1677).

During the eighteenth century, the colonial settlements seemed to prosper as the French tried to make their presence more permanent by engaging in local politics. Economic interests were to be protected and advanced through diplomatic and military interventions. The rivalry with Great Britain would however lead to the destruction of the first French colonial empire. The wars in Europe reshuffled the repartition of the colonies starting with Canada handed over in 1763 to Britain.  Louisiana was sold to the United States of America in 1803 and the remaining French territories all became British colonies after Napoleon’s defeat in 1810.

The second colonial empire
The restoration of the French monarchy in 1815 saw the restitution of most of France’s former colonial possessions (Canada excluded).  In spite of the conquest of Algeria, started in 1830, France’s second phase of colonial expansion was mostly concentrated between 1880 and 1914.

The motivations for French imperialism were complex and a reflection of the volatile political and economical contexts of the time. However, nationalist convictions and international rivalry, whether political or economical, were two important elements of justification for imperialism. The lobbying action of organizations such as the “Comité de l’Afrique française” (The Committee for French Africa) and a taste for exoticism that manifested through the colonial exhibits and the popularity of explorers all contributed to the promotion of imperialism. Finally, a certain moral obligation, “une mission civilisatrice,” (a civilizing mission) justified imperialism as the duty of France toward a world perceived as primitive and obscurantist. The opposition to imperialism in those times was largely the role of socialists who perceived colonialism as a consequence of capitalism.

Between 1880 and 1914, France’s territory increased greatly in northern and tropical Africa as well as in Indochina (modern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos).  Madagascar was annexed in 1896, French West Africa was created in 1904 (modern Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Benin and Burkina Faso) and French Equatorial Africa in 1910 (modern Gabon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo and Chad). In North Africa, Algeria was fully conquered in the 1880s; Tunisia became a protectorate in 1883 and Morocco in 1912. In Asia, the French colony of Indochina formed in 1887 comprised of modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia to which Laos was added in 1897.

The twentieth century opened on a positive note for French imperialism with expanded French influence in North Africa (Protectorate of Morocco in 1912), in  tropical Africa (French mandate of Cameroon and Togo in 1918) and in the Middle East (French mandate of Syria and Lebanon in 1920). However, both world wars, nationalism and a growing anti-colonialist movement contributed to the demise of the French empire.

During World War I and World War II, the colonies proved especially valuable as they provided not only material but also human resources to support France’s war effort. North Africa even became the seat of Free French forces during the Second World War. Ideas such as the right of self-determination of the people or resistance to oppression did not benefit the indigenous populations of the empire in 1918 or 1945 but eventually made readily clear the hypocrisy of the French government.

Nationalist movements, such as the Dustur party in Tunisia or the Viet Minh in Indochina, thus sprouted in the African and Asian colonies in between the world wars. France’s heavy handed response to these movements resulted in open warfare in these regions. The French defeat at Diên Biên Phu in 1954 marked the end of French Indochina and strengthened the independence movements in Africa. Morocco and Tunisia were soon to become independent in 1955 and 1956 respectively. In Algeria, however, the unique status of the colony and the strong presence of Europeans compelled France to engage in an eight year long war ending in 1962.  This conflict also brought to light the complex nature of anti-colonialism.

The growing influence of the Soviet Union and the communist party did play an important role in the collapse of the French empire. They provided material and ideological support to the liberation movements in Africa or Asia. The reputation of the United States as a defender of the right to self-determination of the people also gave hope to such movements. The French government itself came to realize that it had to change its relationship with the different nations composing its empire. The speech of General Charles de Gaulle at Brazzaville in 1958 illustrates this new trend through the advocacy for the creation of a “communauté,” a sort of French commonwealth of nations. At first a success, the project could not stop the march to independence. In 1960, all of France’s African colonies acquired their independence pacifically.

In the twentieth century, an age of heightened political consciousness, the French colonial schools succeeded in creating an indigenous elite who understood very well the lessons of their French masters. After World War II, France could not pride itself as the motherland of human rights and not consider fairly the situation of its colonies.

We will eventually have some expanded information on our website devoted to the French Colonial Empire.

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