French Colonial Empire

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Flag of the French Colonial Empire
National Anthem of France and the French Colonial Empire
Colonial empire from 1542 to 1980 Dark Blue: Second colonial empire Light Blue: First colonial empire

The French Colonial Empire comprised the overseas colonies, protectorates and mandate territories that came under French rule from the 16th century onward. A distinction is generally made between the "First French Colonial Empire," that existed until 1814, by which time most of it had been lost or sold, and the "Second French Colonial Empire", which began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830. At its apex, the Second French colonial empire was one of the largest empires in history. Including metropolitan France, the total amount of land under French sovereignty reached 11,500,000 km2 (4,400,000 sq mi) in 1920, with a population of 110 million people in 1936.


  • Gentlemen, we must speak louder and truer! We must say openly that indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races.... I repeat, that the superior races have a right because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.
    • Jules Ferry, former prime minister of France, addressing Parliament in 1884.
  • Many of the first voyages landed French Protestant colonists in the midst of Spanish territorial claims in the Caribbean and Florida, which the Spanish dealt with by massacring men, women, and children. When the french government moved its focus farther north, to what it today Canada, it escaped Spanish retaliation but found no easy path to wealth and dwindling numbers of willing colonists. In part this was because of past debacles and in part because of new conditions in France. The Catholic-controlled government initiated a new program of banishing Protestant ministers, thus cutting of the spiritual heads of Protestant congregations, and sending the remaining devout either into exile, back into the Roman church, or opting out of organized religion altogether. With good economic conditions at home; there was also a lack of interest in leaving France. As a result, French colonies became small in size, Catholic in their religion, and based on good relations with Native American tribes. This development allowed the french to tap into the abundant fish and fur resources of North America, creating a transatlantic trade that brought them wealth in Europe without putting too much pressure on the Native Americans for land.
  • It has been noted with irony that the principal “industry” of many underdeveloped countries is administration. Not long ago, 60 per cent of the internal revenue of Dahomey went into paying salaries of civil servants and government leaders. The salaries given to the elected politicians are higher than those given to a British Member of Parliament, and the number of parliamentarians in the underdeveloped African countries is also relatively high. In Gabon, there is one parliamentary representative for every six thousand inhabitants, compared to one French parliamentary representative for every hundred thousand Frenchmen. Many more figures of that sort indicate that in describing a typical underdeveloped economy it is essential to point out the high disproportion of the locally distributed wealth that goes into the pockets of a privileged few.
  • After Suez, decolonization sped up, both because of further British and French weakness and because it had become increasingly clear that the future for the two countries lay in Europe and in the transatlantic alliance, not in Africa or Asia. France had been forced out of Indochina in 1954 and was fighting a colonial war in Algeria that was going badly and attracted unwelcome American criticism. Elsewhere the French withdrew reluctantly. The governments of the Fourth Republic were caught among competing priorities: Being anti-Communist (while also wanting to appear radical); resenting US domination (while also fearing US abandonment); and embracing European integration (while also fearing a drop in French independent power and prestige). The French governments wanted US support, and therefore reported on the threat of Communism in independence movements from Senegal to Madagascar to Tahiti. But they also feared that the United States was out to replace France in its former colonies. French intellectuals denounced US imperialism, while some of them found it hard to abandon France’s own colonialism, which—by strange twists of terminology—was supposed to be more moral, involved, committed, and “authentic” than any other. France knew Africa; the Americans did not, was an often underlined perception in French newspapers. But the subtext—that “knowledge” entitled continued exploitation—was as little said out loud in Paris as in London.
    • Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War: A Global History (2017)

French Algeria[edit]

The French conquest of Algeria
Arrival of Marshal Randon in Algiers in 1857 by Ernest Francis Vacherot
  • For my ancestors, the arrival of the French was an enormous progress. The door to culture, freedom and emancipation opened, they were no longer second-class citizens.

French Indochina[edit]

  • Similar points can be made about France, with the focus here being France’s enforced withdrawal from Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) in 1954 after defeat at the hands of a Communist nationalist movement supported by the Communist great powers. The Cold War there took on the character of the War of the French Succession. France, and to some extent Britain, tried to steer American policy toward intervention in Indochina from about 1948, at least in part for financial reasons. Within France, the Communists were kept from power, while their power in the trade unions was seen as a strategic, political and economic threat. The focus on the fate of Western empires approach is less valid for Eastern Europe and Latin America, both prior to World War Two and subsequently; although in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s the fate of the Belgian and, still more, Portuguese empires played a major role in the Cold War.

Second French intervention in Mexico[edit]

  • If the same successes had been obtained by the Mexican imperialist army without the help of our soldiers, the future of the new government could be considered as better assured, but as long as it will be to Marshal Bazaine and our brave army that will come back to us. The main honor of these victories, they will indicate rather the need that Mexico has of us than that which it feels to retain its current sovereign.

French concession in Tianjin[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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