French Empire Research Paper

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The French Empire, which began in the early 1600s, developed sporadically and in successive stages of gain and loss, establishing colonies in North America and the Caribbean, and in West Africa and Indochina, until it reached its heyday in the 1930s. By 1960, having lost its African colonies and Vietnam to independence, the French Empire ceased to exist.

The first French Empire was founded in the seventeenth century. Around 1600 the French had begun to travel to Asia, and in 1604 the French East India Company received a royal charter. This enterprise was not a success, however, and its activities were discontinued in 1609. In 1642 the Company of the East was founded, which never really got off the ground either. In the same period French colonization in North America (Canada, Louisiana) and in the Caribbean (Martinique, Guadaloupe, Saint Domingue) had also begun.

Under the monarchy, France built up a colonial empire of consequence, but by the end of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) most of it had been lost. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763), France’s Louis XV (1710–1774; reigned 1715–1774) relinquished to England all of France’s possessions in North America to the east of the Mississippi and ceded to Spain all French possessions to the west of the Mississippi (in 1803 Napoleon would recover the latter possessions from Spain and subsequently sell them to the United States, the so-called “Louisiana purchase”). France also gave up all political claims to India. This largely put an end to the first French colonial empire. What remained, however, was the French West Indies (French Antilles), which became very important in the eighteenth century. The pearl of the French West Indies was Saint Domingue—the French, western part of the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The basis of the French West Indies’ prosperity was sugar and coffee, grown on the islands, which only French companies were allowed to trade. The French West Indies, which produced half the world’s sugar and coffee, were the richest colonies in the world. In the second half of the eighteenth century Saint Domingue became the largest producer of sugar in the Caribbean. In the 1780s it also produced half the world’s coffee.

The French Revolution put an end to the economic foundation of the French colonial economy, namely, slavery. After the revolt in 1791 led by Toussaint Louverture (1743?–1803), Saint Domingue was lost to France. Napoleon reintroduced slavery, however, and tried to regain control of the island. This resulted in a war, which lasted until 1804, when Saint Domingue gained its independence and changed its name to Haiti. During the days of Napoleon (1769–1821; reigned as emperor 1804–1814, 1815), France itself became an important producer of beet sugar, and therefore the interests of the sugarcane planters overseas had to be weighed against those of the sugar beet farmers at home. During the same period, the English took possession of the remaining French colonies one by one, and only a few of them were eventually restored to France. By 1815, therefore, France had very few colonies. The only French possessions in the Indian Ocean were the island of Bourbon (called Reunion after the French Revolution) and a few trading posts on the coast of India, such as Pondicherry. On the western coast of Africa, the French held sway in a few cities in Senegal, such as Dakar, Saint-Louis, and Goree. France’s most important colonies were still those in the West Indies: Martinique, Guadaloupe, and several smaller islands and, on the mainland, French Guyana. But they were no longer as important as they had been.

A Colonial Interlude, 1815–1881

The Bourbon monarchs, who were restored to power after the defeat of Napoleon, were not very interested in colonial expansion or in military adventures. All the same, the final act of the last Bourbon king, Charles X (1757–1836; reigned 1824–1830), was to launch an expedition to Algiers. The reasons for this are to be found in French domestic politics. The regime was very unpopular and the only means of restoring its prestige—or so it was thought—was to launch a successful military expedition. Therefore on 31 January 1830 the decision was taken to send an expeditionary force to Algiers to punish its ruler (the dey) for an insult inflicted on the French consul.

On 14 June 1830 the French troops landed, and on 5 July the dey surrendered. It was too late, however, to save the Bourbons: Charles X fled the country after the July revolution, which brought a new king, Louis-Philippe of Orleans (1773–1850; reigned 1830– 1848), to the throne. The new king did not know what to do with Algeria. The aim of the expedition had been to punish the dey, not to turn Algeria into a French colony, although that happened all the same. The French decided to stay, and eventually Algeria became France’s most important overseas possession and its one and only colony of settlement. The surrender of the dey had been quick, but it was a long time before the country was under French control. Abdelkader (1808–1883) was the very capable leader of Algerian resistance, and he defeated the French on several occasions. The French marshal Thomas Robert Bugeaud (1784–1849), who knew about guerrilla warfare from his years in Spain during the Napoleonic era, finally prevailed, eliciting Abdelkader’s surrender in 1847.

A colonial administration was set up. Algeria was considered a part of France and administratively followed the French model. There were three departements (provinces) each with a prefect at its head, who was directly responsible to the minister of the interior in Paris. This so-called assimilation policy would later become the model for French colonial administration in general.

During the reign (1852–1870) of the emperor Napoleon III (1808–1873), France saw some colonial revival. An active policy was followed in West Africa whereby the old French possessions in Senegal formed the base for further colonial expansion. Under Napoleon III, France also became active in Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). The reasons for this were partly economic (colonial expansion was increasingly seen as a means of promoting economic growth, particularly in port cities and industrial cities such as Lyons, Bordeaux, and Marseilles) and partly political: the British and Americans had become active in East Asia, and if France was also to continue to play a role there, the feeling was that it had better hurry up.

In 1859 the French took Saigon, and in 1862 the Treaty of Hue, signed by the emperor of Annam (a kingdom in the eastern portion of present-day Vietnam) granted France sovereignty over Saigon and the neighboring area. In 1863 the King of Cambodia placed himself under French protection. But, like in Africa, true French expansion in Indochina did not gain momentum until the Third Republic.

The New French Empire, 1881–1962

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, there was only one urgent call: revanche! (revenge). Therefore in the beginning colonial expansion was out of the question. But by the 1880s, as revenge turned out to be an illusion, new ideas about French foreign policy developed. Propagandists of colonial expansion argued that it was possible to restore French grandeur by expansion overseas. The main advocate of this policy was Jules Ferry (1832–1893) who served as prime minister from 1880 to 1881 and again from 1883 to 1885. Ferry was not only the man behind two major interventions (in Tunisia in North Africa and in Annam and Tonkin in Indochina), he was also a colonial theorist. His motives were partly economic (he advocated the export of capital and goods, not of people), partly humanitarian (the higher races, he reasoned, had a duty to civilize the lower ones), but primarily political: he wanted France to recover her former glory and to take up her place in the sun.

North Africa

The first French expedition was to Tunisia. An incident on the Algerian-Tunisian border provided the pretext. A French expeditionary force crossed the border and marched for Tunis. On 12 May 1881 the bey (head of state) of Tunisia signed the Treaty of the Bardo, which placed Tunisia under French protection. The protectorate was a new concept, and implied that the bey would remain sovereign in name. In fact, however, the French representative (with the title of resident-general) was all-powerful. The protectorate formula was later also used in Indochina and Morocco. It was a break with the French tradition of assimilation and direct rule, though in actual practice the protectorates were almost as strictly controlled by the French as the colonies proper.

With the acquisition of Tunisia the eastern border of Algeria had been secured, but not the western border, with Morocco, and thus that country now became of compelling interest to France. The Sherefian Empire, as Morocco was known at the time, was in decline in the nineteenth century. European penetration took place in an informal way, by economic influence and special privileges for Europeans. Spain, Italy, Britain, and Germany were France’s competitors for influence in Morocco. France compensated Britain for giving up its claims in Morocco by permitting Britain a so-called free hand in Egypt; Italy was compensated in the same way with Libya. Spain was promised a part of Morocco, and after two major diplomatic crises, Germany was compensated elsewhere (in western Africa). After that it was possible for France to install its protectorate in Morocco in 1912. However, it took a long time before the whole of Morocco was effectively brought under French control. The name of Louis-Herbert-Gonzalve Lyautey (1854–1934), the first resident-general of Morocco, is inseparably connected with the subjugation of Morocco.

In 1911 Algeria’s population was 5 million, 715,000 of them Europeans, of whom 500,000 were French. The European population was concentrated mainly in the cities, the most important of which were the capitals of the three departements: Algiers, Oran, and Constantine. There were also colonists elsewhere who engaged in farming and winegrowing; the state put free land at their disposal. After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871, most of those who took advantage of this opportunity were Frenchmen emigrating from the regions of Alsace and Lorraine that had been transferred to Germany. Tunisia’s population was much smaller. In 1911, of a total population of just over a million, there were 148,000 Europeans (the great majority of them Italians, not Frenchmen). In Morocco, European immigration had also been concentrated in the port cities. In the three years between the establishment of the protectorate in 1911 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the European population grew from nearly 10,000 to nearly 50,000, of whom 25,000 were French.

Agriculture (grain, wine, tobacco, and olive oil) was important everywhere in North Africa. There was no industry to speak of, though phosphates were important in Tunisia. In Morocco their presence was known, but it was not until 1914 that the Service des Mines first started prospecting. France controlled foreign trade. Algeria was responsible for two-thirds of all trade from North Africa. Before 1914 Morocco’s economy was hardly developed, the value of its foreign trade being only one-sixth that of Algeria.

Algeria had been conquered in order to restore the prestige of the monarchy, Tunisia in order to restore the prestige of the nation. In neither case there had been a grand design. Morocco was a different matter. It was part of a geopolitical concept that had been developed in the 1890s by the parti colonial—the French colonial lobby. According to that vision, North Africa had to be turned into a new France on the other side of the Mediterranean, and French West Africa was to form the hinterland for that.

French West Africa

The French presence in West Africa goes back to 1659, when Saint-Louis was founded, on the mouth of the Senegal River. In the 1850s Senegal became the starting point for French territorial expansion into West Africa. French colonial policy in West Africa was dominated by the military, which often ignored the wishes of and orders from Paris. It aimed at penetrating Africa via the Senegal River, eventually reaching from the Upper Senegal to the Upper Niger. This policy led to a series of wars with local Islamic empires that lasted until the end of the 1890s. In February 1890, Segou, the capital of the Tukulor Empire, was taken by the French without much difficulty. This broke the power of its ruler and actually put an end to the Tukulor Empire. Meanwhile the French had become entangled in a much more protracted and difficult conflict with the man who would become their most formidable opponent in West Africa: Samory.

Samory (c. 1830–1900) was a born leader with great military and organizational skills, and he built a big empire in West Africa. French expansion brought them into conflict with him. This led to a number of campaigns and battles in the years 1881– 1885 that turned out badly for Samory because of the superiority of French firearms. Therefore on 28 March 1886 he concluded a peace and trade treaty, the terms of which included the demarcation of the borders between the French sphere of influence and that of Samory. In May 1891, however, Samory broke with France after a series of border incidents. This marked the beginning of the so-called Seven Years’ War against Samory. After a long interlude from 1894 to 1898, the French launched a new campaign in the spring and summer of 1898, and on 29 September Samory was captured. The French governor banished him to Gabon, where he died of pneumonia on 2 June 1900. In the meantime France had also acquired possessions on the Cote d’Ivoire and in Dahomey. After a delimitation of the French and British spheres of influence, the French became masters of the majority of West Africa.

The French territories in West Africa originally consisted of a number of separate colonies. These were later united to form one large federation, Afrique Occidentale Francaise (AOF), or French West Africa. The total area of the AOF eventually amounted to 4,674,000 square kilometers (in 1919). This made the AOF by far the largest colony in Africa, covering a territory more than eight times that of France itself. With a population of 12 million people, the AOF was the showpiece of French Africa. It was a federation consisting of the former colonies of Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Dahomey, Guinea, Upper Senegal– Niger (in present-day Mali), Mauritania, and Chad-Niger. The governor-general, who exercised total power over these territories, had his seat in Dakar. The governors of the various regions were subordinate to him. Although local rulers were kept on at first, they were gradually phased out. The kingdom of Abomey, for example, was abolished in 1900 simply on the orders of the governor of Dahomey. It took a long time, however, for the whole of the AOF to be brought under French control. The rain forest regions and the Sahel (semiarid edges of the Sahara) were particularly difficult to subdue. The decisive phase in this process took place between 1908 and 1912. In Mauritania pacification took even longer to accomplish.

Trade in French West Africa consisted mainly of bartering. The trading houses supplied European goods (textiles, hardware, trinkets, as well as weapons and liquor), and exchanged them for African agricultural products (peanuts, palm oil, rubber, and ivory). Trading houses from various European countries were active at first, but trade gradually became the near monopoly of a few large French enterprises. In the Sudan and Senegal these companies came mainly from Bordeaux, those active on the coast of Guinea chiefly from Marseilles. There was relatively largescale public investment in the AOF, in any case more than in the French Congo. In 1914 the total length of the railway network in use in the AOF was 2,494 kilometers. These lines had been funded primarily by subsidies from France or loans guaranteed by the colonial government. There was very little mining. French West Africa was therefore of limited economic importance.

French Central Africa: The AEF

After the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, in which European colonial powers negotiated the future course of central Africa, two Congos came into being: the French Congo and the Congo Free State of the Belgian King Leopold II (1835–1909; reigned 1865–1909). Initially the French Congo comprised various administrative units—Gabon, Congo, Shari, and Chad—which were governed in different ways. In 1906 a federation was established, and in 1908 a governor general was appointed for the territory that in 1910 would be renamed Afrique Equatoriale Francaise (AEF), or French Equatorial Africa. This federation consisted of three colonies: Gabon, Middle Congo, and Ubangi-Shari. Its total area—2,510,000 square kilometers—was slightly more than half that of the AOF. With only 3 million inhabitants, it was sparsely populated and of very limited economic importance.


The interest France took in Madagascar, most of which was ruled at the time by the local Merina kings, was prompted mainly by Catholic missionaries and by the French colonists on Reunion. After some incidents in which French inhabitants were killed, the decision was taken to send a French force to the great island. In December 1894 the navy occupied the harbor of Tamatave and several other ports. A large expeditionary force was raised. On 26 September it reached the capital, which surrendered a few days later. The next day the treaty was signed that made Madagascar a French protectorate. But the protectorate system did not work out well: revolt and anarchy were the result of it. On 20 June 1896, Madagascar was annexed, and in September a governor-general was appointed, in whom all military and civil authority was vested. This governor-general was Joseph Gallieni (1849– 1916); his second-in-command was Hubert Lyautey. Together they set about pacifying the island. By the time Gallieni left the island in 1905, it had largely been brought under French control.


The French presence in Indochina went back to Napoleon III’s Second Empire, when Cochin China (in present-day southern Vietnam; the region had been ruled by the emperor of Annam) was acquired and Cambodia came under French protection. This was the starting point for a further expansion of French power. During the Second Empire, expeditions had already been undertaken from Cochin China—via the Mekong and the Red River—to the north, in the direction of China. These were resumed after 1870. A fleet was brought together, the Gulf of Tonkin blockaded, and an army of four thousand men was raised. On 18 August 1883, Hue, the capital of Annam, was bombarded and occupied. On 25 August a treaty was concluded, whereby Tonkin was separated from Annam and brought under French rule. Annam itself became a French protectorate. Revolt broke out in Annam in 1885, but it was put down with the capture of the emperor of Annam in 1888. Rebellion in Tonkin was more protracted, lasting twelve years and falling into two phases. In the first phase (1885–1891), the French military presence was very limited, being confined to no more than a few posts and a number of mobile columns deployed to pursue the enemy. In 1892 a new phase began with the arrival of Gallieni. Pacification was now taken in hand systematically, reaching a successful conclusion in 1898. From 1892 to 1896, Gallieni held the reins, and from 1894 he was assisted by Lyautey. These two men are remembered as the greatest generals in French colonial history.

In 1891 the whole of Indochina was placed under the supervision of a governor-general. Subordinate to the governor-general were the lieutenant governor of Cochin China and the residents-superieurs in the remaining territories, who were charged with the day-to-day running of the government. The remaining power structure of the Annamite monarchy was dismantled. Tonkin was completely separated from Annam and was administered as a colony rather than as a protectorate.

The last—and largest—of the five territories of French Indochina to be brought under French rule was Laos. The various Laotion principalities had been subjected to the suzerainty of their neighbour countries, with Siam being the most important of them. In 1889 a treaty was signed by France and Siam which recognized French influence in Laos. This treaty however did not bring a definitive solution for the Franco-Siamese rivalry over Laos and in 1893 an armed conflict came into being. By the Treaty of Bangkok (3 October 1893) Siam accepted the French claims on Laos.

Economically and financially, Indochina presented a paradoxical picture. Although the government was rich and the levels of public investment were relatively high, the economic importance of the area was small and French private investment and trading activities remained limited. The reason for the government’s wealth was simple: The tax burden on the Indochinese population was high. The consequences of this were predictable: protests and resistance, which in turn, fueled the nationalist movement.

When pacification had been completed, Paul Doumer, who was governor-general from 1897 to 1902, set up a new fiscal system. In place of the old Annamite poll tax and forced labor, direct taxes were introduced, namely, a land tax and a personal tax. The most painful burdens, however, were the government monopolies of opium, liquor, and salt. The salt monopoly in particular encountered a lot of resistance. Administratively, the system was a success, however. There was a budgetary surplus, and the budget of Vietnam even exceeded that of Algeria. The surpluses made it possible to float colonial loans, creating a substantial public debt. Government revenues also made it possible to invest heavily in the infrastructure. Because private capital was not forthcoming, the government offered financial support and developed initiatives itself. The largest project was the construction of the railways.

From World War I to the End of the Empire

With the acquisition of Morocco the French Empire had almost reached its final form, although there was still somewhat more to come. After World War I the colonies of defeated Germany were divided between the victors. Thus France acquired half of Togo and almost all of Cameroon. The Ottoman Empire, also defeated in the war, lost its former territories too: Syria and Lebanon became French mandates.

In the 1920s the French Empire—and Algeria and Indochina in particular—became of increasing economic importance, but like all tropical colonies, the French possessions suffered heavily from the depression of the 1930s. In the same years the French finally acquired a colonial consciousness. They had had an empire for quite some time without being very much aware of it. Now this changed. The great colonial exhibition in Paris of 1931, which colorfully evoked the size and variety of the French Empire, strongly contributed to this awareness.

Thus the 1930s were the heyday of French colonialism. But even in that decade the end of the empire had already become visible. Nationalist movements in the colonies were growing in importance, particularly in Vietnam, where it had begun as early as 1904. The soldiers who returned to Africa from World War I’s Western front were also influenced by nationalist ideas. World War II was the shock from which the empire would never recover. During the Japanese occupation of Indochina, the nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) waged guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. After the war he wanted independence. Negotiations with France broke down, resulting in a war that went badly for France. After a military disaster at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French withdrew from Indochina. In 1956 Morocco and Tunisia, and in 1960 all French colonies in Sub- Saharan Africa became independent. The bitter war that had broken out in 1954 in Algeria ended in 1962, with Algeria’s independence. It had also brought about regime change in France itself, with the establishment in 1958 of the Fifth Republic. The French colonial empire was no more.


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