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French Colonization

Flag of St-Pierre and Miquelon

Territorial coat-of-arms for St-Pierre and Miquelon. Jacques Cartier took possession of these islands for the French Crown in 1535.
Note how the flag depicts the vessel on which the settlers arrived, as well as their Basque, Breton and Norman heritage.


From its beginnings in the early 1600s through the great expansion of the late 19th century, the French overseas empire was formed more by the agencies and stimulation of the state, church, and armed forces than by the initiation of the business community. Merchants, financiers, and manufacturers did engage in and profit from French imperial ventures, but generally they had to be prodded into participation by monarchical or republican officials. In this the French colonial empire differed from its chief rival, the British Empire.

Before the French Revolution, Henry IV, Louis XIV, and the latter's minister Jean Baptiste Colbert, who founded the French East India Company, and many missionaries, explorers, and merchants helped acquire Canada, Louisiana, several West Indian islands, and parts of India for France. In 1763, at the end of the Seven Years' War, the French lost Canada and India to the British, and in 1803, Napoleon I sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States. By 1815 only the West Indian sugar islands and some scattered African and Asian posts remained French.

Foundations of a second French colonial empire were laid between 1830 and 1870, when Louis Philippe's forces penetrated Algeria and Napoleon III's seized Cochin China in Southeast Asia. Along with other European powers, France rode the post-1870 wave of new imperialism. By 1914, France had amassed an empire incorporating over 10,000,000 km2 (4,000,000 mi2) and 60 million people. In Southeast Asia the French pieced together the colony of Indochina by 1893, adding Laos, Cambodia (now Kampuchea), Annam, and Tonkin to Cochin China. Tunisia and Morocco became protectorates. France's vast African empire also included French Equatorial Africa, French West Africa, French Somaliland (now Djibouti), and the islands of Madagascar and the Comoros.

Political motives for this overseas penetration varied from the search for markets, raw materials, investments, and cheap labor to the drive for glory, prestige, strategic advantage, and manpower. Prominent, too, was the mission civilisatrice, the urge to implant Roman Catholicism and French culture.

Governance of the empire followed two patterns, sometimes intertwined: assimilation and association. Where there prevailed long traditions of organized political life and a common culture, the French tended to rule indirectly through existing local authorities, as in Tunisia and Morocco. In less structured societies like those of West Africa, the French imposed direct rule and attempted to assimilate the populace. More than the British, the French intermixed with the indigenous population. The British, on the other hand, were more wont to prepare some colonies for autonomy or independence.

French colonial imperialism survived World War I, but World War II led to its reorganization as the French Union, and finally to its dissolution — primarily as the result of the wars in Indochina and Algeria.

Today, the remnants of France's control in lands beyond her border consist primarily of islands in the Atlantic and Pacific, as well as the former penal colony at Guiana (now used for France's space program). Collectively, these outer fringes of French civilization and government are referred to as "DOM-TOM" — for domaines d'outre-mer and territoires d'outre-mer. Several of these are considered to be official départements of France (Guadeloupe, Guiana, Martinique, and Réunion). In addition — alongside numerous other countries — France has "staked out" small sections of the Antarctic continent and its islands, for scientific research.

Donald J. Harvey, Professor of History, Hunter College, City University of New York, New York City.
Edited by Ian C. Mills, DiscoverFrance.net
Source: 2001 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, ©2000 Grolier Interactive Inc. — All Rights Reserved.
Bibliography: Anton Andreggen, France's Involvement with Subsaharan Africa (1994); Christopher M. Andrew and A. S. Kanya-Forstner, The Climax of French Imperial Expansion, 1914-24 (1981); Winfried Baumgart, Imperialism: The Idea and Reality in British and French Colonial Expansion (1982; out-of-print); Bert Joseph Chailley, The Colonization of Indo-China (1993); Henri Brunschwig, French Colonialism (1966; out-of-print); Sudipta Das, Myths and Realities of French Imperialism in India (1992); Christopher Harrison, France and Islam in West Africa (1988); G. Wesley Johnson, ed., Double Impact: France and Africa in the Age of Imperialism (1985); John R. McNeill, Atlantic Empires of France and Spain (1985); S. H. Roberts, The History of French Colonial Policy (1963); William I. Shorrock, French Imperialism in the Middle East (1975); Gloria Westfall, French Colonial Africa: A Guide to Official Sources (1992; out-of-print).
Images: Territorial coat-of-arms for St-Pierre and Miquelon from Flags of the World web site.


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