French colonial empire

The French colonial empire (French: Empire colonial français) 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 between the two world wars, the second French colonial empire was the second-largest colonial empire in the world behind the British Empire.[10]

French colonial empire
Empire colonial français (French)
Flag of
The First (light blue) and Second (dark blue) French Colonial Empire
The First (light blue) and Second (dark blue) French Colonial Empire
StatusColonial Empire
Catholicism, Islam, Judaism,[3] Louisiana Voodoo,[4] Haitian Vodou,[5] Buddhism,[6] Hinduism[7]
 Cartier claimed Gaspé Bay
 Independence of Vanuatu
CurrencyFrench franc and various other currencies
Succeeded by
Overseas departments and regions of France
Overseas territory (France)
French Union
French Community

France began to establish colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India in the 17th century but lost most of its possessions following its defeat in the Seven Years' War. The North American possessions were lost to Britain and Spain, but the latter returned Louisiana (New France) to France in 1800. The territory was then sold to the United States in 1803. France rebuilt a new empire mostly after 1850, concentrating chiefly in Africa as well as Indochina and the South Pacific. As it developed, the new French empire took on roles of trade with the metropole, supplying raw materials and purchasing manufactured items. Rebuilding an empire restored French prestige, especially regarding international power and spreading the French language and Catholicism. It also provided manpower in the world wars.[11]

A major goal was the Mission civilisatrice or "Civilizing Mission". 'Civilizing' the populations of Africa, through the spreading of the French language and Catholicism, were used as justifications for many of the practices that came with the French colonial project.[12][13] In 1884, the leading proponent of colonialism, Jules Ferry, declared: "The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races." Full citizenship rights – assimilation – were offered, although in reality "assimilation was always receding [and] the colonial populations treated like subjects not citizens."[14] France sent small numbers of settlers to its empire, with the notable exception of Algeria, where the French settlers took power while being a minority.

In World War II, Charles de Gaulle and the Free French took control of the overseas colonies one-by-one and used them as bases from which they prepared to liberate France. Historian Tony Chafer argues: "In an effort to restore its world-power status after the humiliation of defeat and occupation, France was eager to maintain its overseas empire at the end of the Second World War."[15] However, after 1945 anti-colonial movements began to challenge European authority. Major revolts in Indochina and Algeria proved very expensive and France lost both colonies. After these conflicts, a relatively peaceful decolonization took place elsewhere after 1960. The French Constitution of 27 October 1946 (Fourth Republic), established the French Union which endured until 1958. Newer remnants of the colonial empire were integrated into France as overseas departments and territories within the French Republic. These now total altogether 119,394 km2 (46,098 sq. miles), with 2.8 million people in 2021. By the 1960s, says Robert Aldrich, the last "vestiges of empire held little interest for the French." He argues, "Except for the traumatic decolonization of Algeria, however, what is remarkable is how few long-lasting effects on France the giving up of empire entailed."[16] Nevertheless, French colonization dramatically impacted its colonies through policies and systems that entrenched internal strife, lack of economic diversity, aid dependency, and loss of cultural treasures.[17][18] Links between France and its former colonies persist through La francophonie, the CFA franc and military operations such as Operation Serval.

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