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Useful Notes / The French Colonial Empire

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Schoolbook cover circa 1900: "The French Colonies - Progress, Civilization, Commerce". Not exactly true.

France's colonial empire existed from the 1600s to the 1960s, roughly the same length of time as The British Empire lasted. Many historians like to speak of at least two French Empires, the first one being the one that France largely lost in the Seven Years' War and The Napoleonic Wars (centering on North America), the second one being the colonies France acquired after 1815, especially in North and West Africa, Indochina and the Pacific under the monarchy restorations, the Third Empire and the Third Republic. The French colonial empire's possessions included:

  • Canada: Much of it. Nowadays, the only French-speaking part is Quebec, although there are francophone populations in other provinces (with the largest being in New Brunswicknote  and Ontarionote ). Also kept the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon just off the coast of Newfoundland. France holds onto these islands even today, the only part of North America that is still a French territory.
  • United States of America: Parts of it (which explains patently French place names like Des Moines, Saint Louis, Louisiana, and Detroit). Almost all American territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River was claimed by France, and the French had active settlement in that region north of the Ohio River and in the lowermost parts of the Mississippi Valley and along the Gulf coastnote ) this land was given up to the British after the French and Indian War and to the United States in the Treaty of Paris that ended The American Revolution. The Mississippi-Missouri basin west of the Mississippi became Spanish from 1762 until Napoléon Bonaparte forced his then-ally King Charles IV to give it back to France. Barely three years later France sold it to the fledgling US government under Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon had bills to pay, since fighting "Perfidious Albion" and beating up the rest of Europe didn't come cheap, and it is not as if anyone in the French government had commercial interests or familial links to La Louisianenote . There is still a considerable population of French-speakers in the bayous of Louisiananote , and in New England near the Quebec border.
  • Much of The Caribbean, including: Anguilla, Dominica, Grenada, Haitinote  and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (which, incidentally, would be a good name for a jazz band).
    • As of today, France still holds onto several islands of that region, namely the overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and the overseas territories of Saint Barthélémy and Saint Martin. The latter is actually a single island split between France and the Netherlands.
  • South America: French Guiana (Guyane), a chunk of the Amazon located between Brazil and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). Best known in the past for its unhealthy penal colonies (Devil's Island) and hot spices (Cayenne). Still part of France today, it houses the Centre Spatial Guyanais (Guiana Space Center) from which the European Space Agency launches its rockets. Not to be confused with the country of Guyana (which was formerly known as British Guyana).
  • The Arabic-speaking Note  lands of North Africa, namely Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco, also known (along with Libya) as the Maghreb. As you might have guessed, these colonies (particularly Algeria) are mostly Sahara Desert, but the coastal areas provided lucrative and strategically-useful ports for France.
    • Tunisia and Morocco were technically protectorates, officially governed by traditional Arab monarchs (a Sultan in Morocco and a Bey or Lord in Tunisia; both upgraded themselves to King upon independence, although the Tunisian one didn't last very long), but that didn't really mean much. They were colonized relatively late (Tunisia in 1888, Morocco in 1912), and the French influence on them, while significant, did not do substantial damage to the native Arab-Berber culture. Morocco is rather interesting in that it was not entirely under French control; besides the Western Sahara/Rio de Oro (a whole 'nother can of worms), northern Morocco was a Spanish protectorate, with the exception of Tangier (right across from Gibraltar), which was an international free port (and den of espionage).
    • Algeria was colonized after a guerrilla war lasting two decades (1830-1850) and then governed as an integral part of France, divided up into departments, and colonized by ethnic Spaniards and Italians and Frenchmen (known at first as colons, later as pieds-noirs (lit. "black feet")). These immigrants had disproportionate clout in the National Assembly (their Deputies and Senators stayed in office for longer than usual, giving them incredible seniority), meaning that when the Arabs started to revolt against French rule in 1954, the Fourth Republic found it very difficult to compromise. The war that resulted was thus extremely bloody (Arabs still call the Algerian War of Independence the "War of a Million Martyrs", and demographic analysis tells us that up to 500,000 people really did die during the conflict) and lasted until 1962, when Charles de Gaulle finally granted Algeria its independence. To this day, Algeria is probably the most culturally messed-up country in North Africa; the French successfully played off Arabs and Berbers against each other, and Algerian Arabic has enough French that other Arabs find it even harder to understand than other forms of Western Arabic (which is notoriously difficult for Eastern Arabs already).
    • What of the pieds-noirs? The new Algeria gave everyone that was automatically eligible for French citizenship note  a choice: suitcase or coffin. Most of them went to France, where the mainland French were not thrilled to see all the "immigrants" looking for jobs and such. The pieds-noirs, meanwhile, were taken aback by their lukewarm reception in what they had always considered their own country. It was an ugly chapter in French history, and no one much likes talking about it.
  • French West Africa, consisting of modern-day Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo, Cote d'Ivoire, and Guinea. The northernmost colonies were mostly desert (the Sahara, specifically) and dry plains and Muslim, while the southern ones were wetter (often rainforest) and mostly followed traditional African religions (many converted to Christianity). Again, it was mostly coastal ports the French were after, although they were also searching for minerals. Being proper colonies, the fight for independence wasn't terribly bloody (if at all, in many places); World War II having drained France's resources, the case for losing these African colonies was painfully clear.
  • French Central Africa, from Chad down to what are now the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon, and much of modern Cameroon (the rest was ruled by Britain). Same old story: Chad and a fair bit of Cameroon were dry and Muslim, the rest were wet and traditional/Christian (Christianity had been spread in Congo by the Portuguese in the 16th century).
  • A few scattered colonies in East Africa, including the amusingly-named Djibouti (say it out loud)note  in the Horn of Africa (across the Strait of Aden from Yemen, making it deliciously strategic), which was then called French Somaliland; and Madagascar (which should be self-explanatory).
  • In the 18th century France competed for influence in India with the British East India Company, but came a distant second in the Seven Years War, although it still retained a few trading posts on the mainland (notably Pondicherry and Chandernagore, which were absorbed by India after independence) and some islands in the Indian Ocean. Of the two most important one, Mauritius (confusingly called the Île de France under French rule), was lost at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but French is still one of its official languages. The other, best known for producing vanilla, was first called Île Bourbon, then La Réunion, then Île Bonaparte, then Île Bourbon, and since 1848 La Réunion again; it is today an overseas département of France. France also retain the small island of Mayotte, part of the archipelago of the Comores between Madagascar and mainland Africa; first a "collectivity", the Mayotte population voted in 2009 to become a department, tightening its ties to mainland France.
  • Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, collectively known as French Indochina. The first Vietnam War was fought to try and retain the last of these (the others became independent peacefully).
  • French Polynesia and New Caledonia: colonized late in the 19th century. They are still part of France today but retain more autonomy as "overseas collectivity" rather than overseas "department".
  • Unofficially part of the Empire was Lebanon, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, but its Christian population (a majority at the time) was under French protection starting in the mid-19th century. The relationship between Lebanon and France remains strong, with much cultural exchange; the Lebanese have even developed a reputation of basically being the French of the Arab World with a lot of "cool" but highbrow culture, a casual attitude towards conventional morality, and fantastic gastronomy. After the end of World War I, France split the Middle East with Britain under a system of League of Nations "Mandates": Britain got Palestine (including the Transjordan) and Iraq, while Lebanon and Syria came under French rule. This lasted until shortly after World War II, but as far as the locals were concerned, it might as well have been a century. Much to their chagrin, the oil the French had hoped would be in Syria failed to turn up (it was all in British Iraq. D'oh!).

Many of these countries are part of the Francophonie, somewhat like the British Commonwealth. The French initially tried establishing a "French Union" by which the French state would be a federation of Metropolitan France and its former colonies, but this didn't sit well with either the colonized countries—who wanted nothing short of independence—and the bureaucrats of Paris (who were highly unfamiliar with the kind of decentralization this would require).

France has retained somewhat more minor colonies than Britain, but has directly integrated them into the core state rather than running them as separate dependencies. As a result, France is technically a transcontinental country that spans 12 timezones - the most of any country on Earth - and possesses the largest Exclusive Economical Zone. The largest of these overseas regions and/or territories are New Caledonia and French Guiana, the latter noted for being the site of the European Space Agency's launch site at Kourou (and for giving France its longest land border with Brazil of all places, surpassing Spain by a mere 3 kilometers). As of 2011 the French overseas departments have a combined population of 2,685,705 (in comparison the British Overseas Territories have a combined population of 260,000.).

Media about/featuring the French Colonial Empire:


  • De Gaulle recreates the famous Appeal of 18 June 1940 by Charles de Gaulle, including his attempt to rally the French empire as Nazi Germany has defeated the French army and occupies mainland France.



  • Indochine spans the years 1930-1954 in French Indochina, the country that would eventually become Vietnam.
  • The Lover is set in French Indochina in 1929.
  • The Vietnam War has a segment about the first Vietnam War, when French Indochina ended.

North America:

  • In On Guard (set in the late 17th/early 18th century), the wealth of the Duke of Nevers includes possessions in French Louisiana, which his cousin Gonzague is eager to inherit after murdering him so he can make them more profitable.
  • Assassin's Creed:

Pacific Ocean:

  • Gauguin: Voyage to Tahiti is set in late 19th century Tahiti under French colonial rule.
  • The Prince of the Pacific is set in late World War I on a fictional island of French Polynesia and concerns a French officer who's come to recruit locals to form a battalion, as well as a revolt of the local natives against the evil governor.