French colonial expansion

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YLAN005 – An Introduction to France and the Francophone World

School of Modern Languages and Cultures, the University of Hong Kong

French colonial expansion
The colonial expansion of France began in early 17th century, following the initial explorations of Jacques Cartier in North America from 1534 to 1543. By the peak of the French Empire in the first part of the 20th century, its possessions amounted to nearly 10% of the world’s land area, only second to its arch-rival, the British Empire. Today, the legacy of the French Empire is still visible through its overseas territories, located in the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific, the North Pacific, the Antarctic Ocean, and in South America. These territories, known as the DOM and TOM, are considered full part of metropolitan France and are granted political representation at the national level, as well as varying degrees of legislative autonomy.

First phase : 1605-1815
France's colonial empire began in 1605, under the reign of Henri IV, with the foundation of Port Royal in the colony of Acadia in North America. In 1608, Samuel De Champlain founded Quebec, which was to become the capital of New France (Canada). Fur-trading was the main economic resource of the colony. French settlement were generally limited to the St. Lawrence River Valley and developed slowly, contrary to the British colonies in the area, as France was mostly preoccupied by European politics and internal divides. In 1699, the French expanded their claims in North America with the foundation of Louisiana in the basin of the Mississippi River. However, Acadia was lost to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
Meanwhile, the French also headed south to the West Indies. Settlement along the South American coast (French Guiana) began in 1624, The colonies in Guadeloupe and Martinique were founded in 1635. The lucrative plantations in the region were sustained through African slave trade. In 1664, Saint-Domingue (Haiti) was founded on the western side of the Spanish island of Hispaniola. Saint-Domingue was to become the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean in the 18th century.
In Africa, the French began settlements and trading posts on the coast of Senegal in 1624. Forty years later, the French East India Company was established to compete for trade further in the east. Subsequently, colonies were established in India in Chandernagore (1673), Pondicherry (1674), Yanam (1723), Mahe (1725), and Karikal (1739). Other colonies were founded in the Indian Ocean, on the Île de Bourbon (Réunion, 1664), Île de France (Mauritius, 1718), and the Seychelles (1756).
By the middle of the 18th century, France and Britain entered a series of conflicts that lasted until the end of the Napoleonic wars. As a result, France lost most of its major possessions, notably in America and India. Again, a certain lack of interest towards overseas colonies and pressing internal affairs may explain why the French registered defeats that cost them territories and influence. With the La Fayette’s campaigns, the French supported the Americans in their fight for independence from Great Britain but gained very little for their help. Scientific expeditions around the world led by French illustrious navigators Bougainville and La Pérouse in the second half of the 18th century led to more discoveries but did not change the configuration of the French territorial expansion. By 1815 however, France's colonies still counted Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, French Guiana on the coast of South America, various trading posts in Senegal, the Île Bourbon (Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, and France's tiny Indian possessions in Pondicherry.
Second phase : 1830-1939
The second phase of French colonialism started in 1830, with the invasion of Algeria, which was conquered over the next 17 years. During the Second Empire, Napoleon III established French control over Cochin-China (the southernmost part of modern Vietnam including Saigon), as well as a protectorate over Cambodia. In 1849, the French established a concession in Shanghai, which would last until 1946. It is under the Third Republic (1871-1940) however, that most of France's colonial possessions were acquired. From their base in Cochin-China, the French took over Tonkin and Annam (Vietnam) in 1884-1885. These territories, together with Cambodia and Cochin-China, formed French Indochina, to which Laos was added in 1887.
In North Africa, the French established a protectorate on Tunisia in 1881. Gradually, French control was established over much of Northern, Western, and Central Africa by the turn of the century (Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo), as well as the east African coastal enclave of Djibouti. In 1911, Morocco became a French protectorate.
Meanwhile, from 1840 onwards, the French established colonies on their protectorates in the South Pacific, including New Caledonia, the various island groups which make up French Polynesia (Society Islands, Tahiti, the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Wallis and Futuna), and established joint control of the New Hebrides with Britain.
The French made their last major colonial advances after the First World War, when they gained mandates over the former Turkish territories of the Ottoman Empire (now Syria and Lebanon), as well as most of the former German colonies of Togo and Cameroon.
Throughout the Third Republic (1871-1940), the core ideology of French colonialism rested on the concept of the “civilizing mission“ (mission civilisatrice), by which the country’s duty was to bring civilization and modernization to its backward peoples. As such, colonial officials undertook a policy of Franco-Europeanization in French colonies, most notably French West Africa. For instance, Africans who adopted French culture, including fluent use of the French language and conversion to Christianity, were granted equal French citizenship, including right of vote. Of course, the colonies were the source of important economic gains, providing much needed natural supplies and manpower to the metropolis and also serving as outlet markets for goods produced at home.
During the Second World War, as France was occupied by the Nazis, the various parts of the French Empire were also occupied by foreign powers: Japan in Indochina, Britain in Syria, Lebanon and Madagascar, the US and Britain in Morocco and Algeria, Germany in Tunisia. Even though France reestablished control after the war under the “French Union” enshrined in the new Constitution of 1946, the damage was done and the French empire was about to collapse.
In 1947, the French had to intervene to quell the Malagasy insurrection. Meanwhile, the Vietminh Chief Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam's independence, initiating the Franco-Vietnamese War, which would last until 1954, when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and withdrew. In Cameroun, the insurrection started in 1955 and was violently repressed.
Soon after the end of the Vietnam war, the French became involved in a new conflict with their oldest colony, Algeria. The Algerian War was harsh and difficult, aggravated by the presence of many European settlers (or pieds-noirs) who had been living in the country for several generations. The conflict spilled over metropolitan France, as Algerian independentists from the FLN carried out attacks in Paris and other French major cities. On the other hand, the ultra-nationalists OAS in favor of French Algeria organized acts of terrorism in both France and Algeria. After his accession to power in 1958, the general de Gaulle sought ways of solving the conflict, which effectively ended in 1962 with the Evian Accords, paving the way for the independence of Algeria.
France’s ultimate war with Algeria coincided with the total demise of the Empire. All African former colonies became independent in the early 60s through local referendums. Some few colonies chose instead to remain part of France, under the statuses of dependent overseas territories (DOM and TOM).

Jules Ferry (1832-1893):
On French Colonial Expansion

Ferry was twice prime minister of France, from [1880-1881, 1883-1885]. He is especially remembered for championing laws that removed Catholic influence from most education in France and for promoting a vast extension of the French colonial empire.

The policy of colonial expansion is a political and economic system ... that can be connected to three sets of ideas: economic ideas; the most far-reaching ideas of civilization; and ideas of a political and patriotic sort.

In the area of economics, I am placing before you, with the support of some statistics, the considerations that justify the policy of colonial expansion, as seen from the perspective of a need, felt more and more urgently by the industrialized population of Europe and especially the people of our rich and hardworking country of France: the need for outlets [for exports]. […] Yes, what our major industries [textiles, etc.], irrevocably steered by the treaties of 18601 into exports, lack more and more are outlets. Why? Because next door Germany is setting up trade barriers; because across the ocean the United States of America have become protectionists, and extreme protectionists at that; because not only are these great markets ... shrinking, becoming more and more difficult of access, but these great states are beginning to pour into our own markets products not seen there before. […]

Gentlemen, we must speak more loudly and more honestly! 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 .... In the history of earlier centuries these duties, gentlemen, have often been misunderstood; and certainly when the Spanish soldiers and explorers introduced slavery into Central America, they did not fulfill their duty as men of a higher race .... But, in our time, I maintain that European nations acquit themselves with generosity, with grandeur, and with sincerity of this superior civilizing duty. […]

Gentlemen, these are considerations that merit the full attention of patriots. The conditions of naval warfare have greatly changed .... At present, as you know, a warship, however perfect its design, cannot carry more than two weeks' supply of coal; and a vessel without coal is a wreck on the high seas, abandoned to the first occupier. Hence the need to have places of supply, shelters, ports for defense and provisioning.... And that is why we needed Tunisia; that is why we needed Saigon and Indochina; that is why we need Madagascar... and why we shall never leave them! ... Gentlemen, in Europe such as it is today, in this competition of the many rivals we see rising up around us, […] a policy of withdrawal or abstention is simply the high road to decadence! […] and, in less time than you may think, to sink from the first rank to the third and fourth.


From Jules François Camille Ferry, "Speech Before the French Chamber of Deputies, March 28, 1884," Discours et Opinions de Jules Ferry, ed. Paul Robiquet (Paris: Armand Colin & Cie., 1897), -1. 5, pp. 199-201, 210-11, 215-18. Translated by Ruth Kleinman in Brooklyn College Core Four Sourcebook. Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.

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