The French Empire, second only to the British, was the product of France's long history of political and economic competition with other European powers, and like them, the French founded their empire on a curious mixture of exploitation, violence, and the desire to make the world a better place—that is, to remake it in their image. Unlike their contemporaries, French colonialism triggered in the seventeenth century a contradiction in French national identity that plagued France until the final collapse of its empire in the 1960s, and made its colonial policies ambiguous if not contradictory. While its Ancienne Colonies (the North American colonies founded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) tipped French political philosophy in the direction of democracy and contributed to the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century, French concerns about the country's prestige as a world power made the French reluctant to relinquish their later colonial empire, even when other nations did so and urged them to do likewise. Their conquest of parts of North America, the Caribbean, the Pacific Islands, Indochina, and Africa left a legacy of boundaries between colonized and colonizers made porous by commonalities of language, government, and identity.
The earliest French colonies provided the French people with examples of a free society at the same time that French presence eroded that freedom. France's earliest incursions into North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—part of the competition between France, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Portugal to find new trade routes to the Far East—were simply trading posts where fishers and traders interacted relatively peacefully with the Huron, Ottawa, Ojibwa, Iroquois, Mimac, and Montagnais-Neskapi Indians, among others. But competition between the French and the Dutch started a chain reaction in Native American relationships, exacerbating old animosities between Native Americans who wanted to capture the French fur trade, as was the case with the Iroquois and the Huron, for whom European guns had turned competition into wars of extermination by 1633.
As French missionaries settled in, they upset traditional social, political, and economic relationships, drawing Native American men into Christianity with promises of land. In exchange for missionary land, they had to become cultivators of crops—women's work—for the church and whatever market was available. Their redefinitions of manhood prompted many women to resist Christianity because they did not want to lose their gender monopoly on agriculture, generating conflict within Native American communities. Other Native American women welcomed Christianity for the space it provided them as they coped with transforming communities, as did Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), a Mohawk-Algonquin whom the Catholic Church beatified in 1980. By 1697 France had claimed dominion over portions of North America stretching all the way to the Caribbean, with much the same results.
The Caribbean was the site of intense competition between the Spanish, Danes, Dutch, English, and French, and their determination to extract wealth from their colonies was disastrous for the people they conquered. By the time France wrested possession of the western third of Hispaniola (Saint-Domingue, now Haiti) from Spain in 1697, most of its indigenous population had perished in the Spanish pursuit of gold. Like the other Europeans, the French turned their islands into profitable sugar (and in Saint-Domingue, coffee and spice) plantations, which by the mid-eighteenth century were almost completely dependent on slave labor. By the late eighteenth century slaves greatly outnumbered European colonists (in Saint-Domingue, eight to one).
France's presence in the New World thus greatly transformed the indigenous societies with whom the French interacted—or in the Caribbean, conquered—but it also drastically reconfigured France itself. That transformation began with France's loss of its continental North American colonies to Britain after a series of wars in North America that culminated in the French and Indian War (1754–1763). That war was in fact the North American theater of the Seven Years' War (1756 to 1763) in Europe, into which France had been dragged as an ally to Austria against Prussia and its ally, Britain. That defeat compounded a growing internal crisis in France born of a burgeoning population, famine, food shortages, Louis XIV's (1638–1715) creation of a bureaucracy made of nobles who had purchased their office and were exempt from taxation, and near bankruptcy.
Such crises had existed before, but France's Ancienne Colonies added a new ingredient: the example of Native American political autonomy. Europeans were captivated by the reports of early explorers and missionaries like Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), and Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix (1682–1761), who claimed that Native Americans lived in a state of innocence made spectacular by its lack of crime and warfare. Educated men like the philosopher and author Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) claimed that Native American societies embodied the characteristics Plato envisioned in his Republic, and the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) romanticized the "noble savage" into the basis for a social contract under which free citizens could live in harmony as equals. Those ideas encouraged members of the Third Estate (the group of delegates from the "common people" that constituted one of the three Estates that made up the French representative assembly, the Estates-General) to resist attempts by King Louis XVI (1754–1793) to levy new taxes by declaring themselves a National Assembly in 1789, and thus begin the French Revolution that turned France into a republic in 1792.
That transformation, built on the promise of liberty, equality, and fraternity, became the basis for a conundrum: In order to maintain that ideal, the French had to defend themselves against rulers of other nations who wanted to restore France's monarchy, neutralize opposition within France, and maintain its position as a world power by retaining its empire, all of which required repression and violence. Democracy could not easily coexist with hierarchical empires, and terror appeared to be a necessary tool in preserving liberty. Amidst intensifying internal conflict (exemplified most horrifically by the Reign of Terror from 1793 to 1795), continued war, and a revolution in Saint-Domingue that culminated in the colony's independence as Haiti (1804), Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) seized power (1799) and immediately returned France to the task of empire building.
But the seeds of democracy were now embedded in French identity, and as the mythos of the French Revolution grew, so did the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity that had nurtured it, requiring the French to serve two ideological masters: empire and liberty. The idea of empire did not fall with Napoléon I in 1815, and by 1830 King Charles X (1757–1836), who hoped to strengthen his own as well as reassert French national prestige, invaded northern Algeria, which marked the beginning of the scramble for empire that drove European nations in the second half of the nineteenth century. France subsequently invaded Tahiti (1843), New Caledonia (1853), Indochina (1858), Tunisia (1881), Equatorial Africa (1885), West Africa (1895), Madagascar (1896), and Morocco (1907), in general to counter other European nations' incursions into those territories, or to protect French interests, missionaries, or settlers. All of those invasions eventually led to French rule, but it was never uncontested. Conflict over French colonization arose from traditional sources—other nations opposing the French presence because they claimed a territory as their own, and colonized people struggling to resist or overthrow their conquerors—but also from the French themselves because of the contradictions embedded in their goals.
Other nations disputed French incursion continually. Both Britain and France claimed Tahiti from the late 1760s; the soldier and explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville's (1729–1811) praise of it as an "earthly paradise" exacerbated the problem by attracting adventurers from around the world. A large Italian settler presence in Tunisia, and repeated insurgencies in Algeria that the French believed were instigated in Tunisia, convinced the French to invade Tunisia. China and Britain challenged France's influence in Indochina. In West Africa, Britain and France competed for dominance until Britain conceded French control of a small portion of Cape Verde in 1815, but it was another eighty years before the French were able to declare their domination. France, Germany, and Spain competed for economic and political influence in Morocco until Abd al-Hafidh requested French assistance in restoring social order in 1912 after his brother's assassination, after which France controlled Morocco. Still, the French granted Spain its previous sphere of influence, and a council of European nations made Tangier, Morocco, an "international city" in 1923.
Colonized peoples presented a more formidable obstacle. Their hostility is not difficult to understand, especially given France's espousal of liberty, equality, and fraternity. After Napoléon I revoked the Constitutional Assembly's 1794 decree emancipating all slaves in Martinique and Guadeloupe, re-enslaved people were especially unwilling to return to their former status. Slave revolts tore those colonies apart between 1816 and 1830, and in 1831 erupted in an all-out civil war. In New Caledonia, Melanesians revolted in 1878 over the fact that even in the ever-shrinking "reserves" the French had granted them they had no rights to the land, an issue that festered in sporadic rebellions until 1917.
The people of Algeria raised a sustained resistance against French invasion from 1830 until 1847 when French forces defeated the nationalist leader Abd el-Kader (1808–1883), but that was followed by uprisings in 1864, 1871, 1876, 1879, from 1881 to 1884, and in the 1890s, inspired by loss of land; demand for civil, economic, and political rights; racial tensions; and sometimes a combination of those issues. The Annamites (in central Vietnam), Thais, Laotians, and Cambodians whom the French tried to control in Indochina resisted domination until 1900 (in part supported by the Chinese), and the French were still deposing emperors until 1917.
The struggle of the colonized peoples to overthrow their French conquerors grew more focused over time because French domination, and the brutality and exploitation that often accompanied it, forced the colonized to redefine themselves in relation to the French. Although France vacillated between policies of assimilation and association, for the most part the French did not think of the people they colonized as French, nor did the colonized consider themselves French. Instead, the native peoples of French colonies first defined themselves by region or ethnicity, or sometimes by religion, and finally in terms of their colonial grouping. That process was usually wrenching because it involved fighting for independence. Most colonized people never actually stopped fighting for independence, and especially after the turn of the twentieth century they began to demand greater participation in their governance, access to education, less destructive land policies, and more equitable taxation. Only after World War II (1939–1945) did they resort to sustained violence, and between 1945 and 1960, most colonies fought for—and gained—their independence.
To some extent the decline of the French empire amounted to a series of civil wars, a struggle between settlers (colons) perceiving themselves to be a new breed of French person (in Algeria, for example, a "neo-French race"); indigenous people declaring an ethnic identity (as "Arabs" did in the pan-Arab movement that swept North Africa, as "Vietnamese" did in the wake of the successful nationalist coalition, Vietnam Dop Lap Dong Minh, or as the Merina did in Madagascar); and colonized individuals struggling to locate their own identity in the constructs of "otherness" that differentiated "us" from "them," compatriot from enemy. When colonized people identified themselves regionally or ethnically, their self-identity became a weapon of race politics with which the French kept them divided, as was the case in Morocco where, by 1950, Sultan Mohammed V (1909–1961), who had aligned himself with the French in return for their support, found himself trapped between the French-supported Berbers and the Istiqlal Independence Party, formed in the 1920s by mostly bourgeois radicals determined to obtain self-government.
Controlling hostile indigenous populations or slaves and managing the colons who were often in conflict with them was expensive. France was often obliged to import indentured labor from other colonies when indigenous people refuse to work according to market demands or for colons, and most of the French colonies were a persistent economic drain. The cost in human life was greater. The French army estimated that approximately 89,000 people died in a rebellion in Madagascar (1947–1949); in the final fighting in Algeria (1959–1961), estimates of total dead—military, civilian, European, non-European, and indigenous—range around 300,000. Those external tragedies were matched by internal battles that resulted from, in Franz Fanon's words, "a double process: primarily economic; subsequently the internalization—or better, the epidermalization—of … inferiority" (1967, p.11).
The tragedies of colonialism were echoed—and often precipitated—by the internal struggle the French had with themselves over their colonial intentions: Did they mean to bring colonized peoples into fraternity, as full citizens with equality and liberty (a mission civilisatrice), or were they asserting their place as a world power with the right of conquest, subordination, and exploitation of less powerful peoples? For most of the nineteenth century, anticolonialism persisted as the dominant attitude toward what appeared to most French people as an unnecessary and almost accidental accumulation of colonies, the consequence of an ambitious military and desultory settlement. Most French people were preoccupied by the contest between republican government and the monarchy that generated three revolutions (1830, 1848, and 1870), as well as the three wars (the Crimean War, 1854–1856; the Austro-Italian War, 1859; and the Franco-Prussian War, 1870) and numerous skirmishes, alliances, and ententes made necessary by the empire that was supposed to secure France's place in the hierarchy of nations.
FRENCH EMPIRE, KEY DATES
- A French Huguenot colony is briefly established in the New World at Fort Caroline (now Jacksonville, FL)
- French settlement of Port Royal is established in Acacia (now Nova Scotia)
- Samuel de Champlain founds Quebec City, the future capital of New France
- French begin to settle French Guiana
- French East India Company is established
- France takes possession of Saint Domingue from Spain
- Explorer Robert Cavelier de La Salle names Louisiana in honor of French king
- Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville establishes a permanent settlement in Louisiana
- France opposes Great Britain in North America's French and Indian War
- The Seven Years' War between France and Great Britain begins
- The Treaty of Paris divides France's North American holdings between Britain and Spain
- The French Revolution begins
- Toussaint l'Ouverture leads a massive slave revolt on Saint Domingue
- Napoleon Bonaparte comes to power
- Napoleon sells the colony of Louisiana to the United States
- Saint Domingue gains independence as Haiti
- Napoleon abdicates and Louis XVIII becomes king of France
- Great Britain concedes portions of Cape Verde to the French
- Charles II abdicates the French throne and Louis-Philippe becomes king
- France invades Algeria and begins a 17-year-long conquest
- Civil wars erupt in the French colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe
- Tahiti becomes a French protectorate
- Revolution brings Napoleon III to power in Second Empire
- New Caledonia becomes a French protectorate
- France enters the two-year Crimean War as a part of the Western Alliance against Russia
- France enters the Austro-Italian War
- France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War sparks the Paris Commune and the Third Republic
- Melanesians revolt in New Caledonia over land rights issues
- France invades Tunisia and establishes a protectorate
- France takes over Tonkin and Annam (now Vietnam)
- France invades West Africa, followed by Madagascar
- French Indochina is formed from Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia, Cochin-China, and Laos
- France invades Morocco, which becomes a protectorate in 1912
- France gains control of former Turkish territories following World War I
- French colonies overrun during World War II are restored
- The Union Française is established to politically unite the former French colonies
- France withdraws from Indochina due to strength of the native independence movement and loss at Dies Bier Phu
- General Charles de Gaulle becomes president of France
- The Union Française is replaced by the Communauté Française
- Algeria gains independence from France
French colonial policy was dictated by French ambivalence and preoccupation. Throughout the nineteenth century, assimilation—the idea that the French could eventually make colonized peoples into French people (a policy similar to Spain's)—made empire palatable to the French. As social Darwinism, sociology, and psychology made their debut as philosophical and intellectual models for understanding human development, the idea that "primitive others" needed to evolve according to their own nature began to emerge as the policy of association, and by the end of the century it had replaced assimilation. Through association, a system much like Britain's approach in its colonies, France would establish economic and political administrative control over a colony, but leave civil and local affairs in the hands of local chiefs or rulers, and thereby guide French colonies to gradual democratic self-government.
Underlying both policies, however, was the contradiction that had impaled French colonialism from the seventeenth century: the French had to fight for empire to secure their position as a world power, but the quality that made them superior—their dedication to liberty, equality, and fraternity—necessitated that they make the people they colonized their equals. The irreconcilable nature of that contradiction created what Elizabeth Ezra (2000) has called a "colonial unconscious" in which the French desired to embrace their colonized peoples as equals but could not do so because they also wished to preserve the sense that they were superior, part of which was memorializing the "greater France" represented by empire. That paradox is apparent in nineteenth-century debates over imperialism, but it permeated French culture by the 1920s and continues to haunt it today. More poignant is the fact that many colonized people shared that colonial unconscious, simultaneously outraged by the degradation the French forced them to suffer, and drawn to the metropole as a site of economic and cultural empowerment.
Ballantyne, Tony, and Antoinette M. Burton. Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
Betts, Raymond F. France and Decolonisation, 1900–1960. New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Brunschwig, Henri. French Colonialism, 1871–1914: Myths and Realities. Translated by William Granville Brown. New York: Praeger, 1966.
Clayton, Anthony. The Wars of French Decolonization. Essex, U.K.: Longman, 1994.
Daughton, J. P. An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880–1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Duara, Prasenjit, ed. Decolonization: Perspectives from Then and Now. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Ezra, Elizabeth. The Colonial Unconscious: Race and Culture in Interwar France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.
Hargreaves, Alec G., ed. Memory, Empire, and Postcolonialism: Legacies of French Colonialism. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2005.
Hoepli, Nancy, ed. Aftermath of Colonialism. New York: Wilson, 1973.
Roberts, Stephen H. History of French Colonial Policy (1870–1925). London: King & Son, 1929.
"Empire, French." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 3, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/empire-french
"Empire, French." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Retrieved September 03, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/empire-french
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