French Colonial Empire

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

French Colonial Empire


The first French colonial conquests date from the 16th century, the Age of Discovery. They were undertaken by individual entrepreneurs and companies at their own peril and risk without direct support from the royal government. Such expeditions to the Americas resulted in the seizure of areas in the St. Lawrence basin (1541–43, 1589–99), Florida (1562–68), and Brazil (1555–60, 1594–1615). However, the French were unable to consolidate their hold on the lands they had seized because of the rivalry of Spanish and Portuguese colonialists. In the 17th century the state became directly involved in colonial conquests. The navy was used for the acquisition of territory, and the government promoted the creation of colonial trading companies, granting them subsidies and privileges. The most famous of these companies were the West Indies and East Indies firms, founded by J. B. Colbert in 1664.

At the beginning of the 17th century the conquest of North American territory was resumed. The French established a large number of trading posts and settlements, including Quebec (1608) and Montreal (1642). The New France (Canada) Company acquired large holdings along the St. Lawrence River and in the Great Lakes region. In 1663, Canada was proclaimed a colony of the French crown. In 1682 the territory lying to the west of the Mississippi River was proclaimed the French possession of Louisiana. From the 1630’s Guadeloupe, Martinique, and other islands became colonies of France. The western part of the island of Haiti, called Saint-Domingue by the French, was seized in 1654, officially becoming a colony in 1697.

In Africa, active colonization began in the 17th century, when several fortified trading posts were established between the mouth of the Sénégal River and the Gulf of Guinea. The Senegal, Guinea, and other colonial trading companies forcibly sent Africans as slaves to the West Indies. In the mid-17th century the French took possession of Bourbon Island (now Réunion) in the Indian Ocean. In Asia the first colonial conquests were made in the 17th century in India. From the early 18th century Pondicherry was the main French stronghold in India.

As a consequence of the intense struggle for colonies France yielded to Great Britain the coast of Hudson Bay, Acadia, and Newfoundland (1713) in North America. After its defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), France lost its principal holdings in North America—New France, Cape Breton Island, and Louisiana, excluding New Orleans. In the West Indies it lost Dominica, Saint Vincent, and other islands; in Africa, most of Senegal; and in India, all but five settlements.

The first period of colonial expansion coincided with the emergence of capitalist relations in France. At the outset colonial activity was nothing more than outright plunder or predatory “trade.” From the mid-17th century plantations worked by Negro slaves imported from Africa were established in a number of colonies, chiefly in the West Indies. The Negro slaves constituted the bulk of the population of the West Indies colonies, and the exploitation of their labor brought huge profits to the planters. The crops produced on the plantations—cane sugar, indigo, tobacco, coffee, and spices—were destined for export not only to France but also to other countries.

The Great French Revolution gave impetus to the liberation movement in a number of French colonies. In 1794 the Convention issued a decree abolishing slavery in all the French colonies, but the decree was revoked in 1802. The liberation movement in Saint-Domingue culminated in the expulsion of the colonialists and the proclamation of Haiti’s independence in 1804.

In the course of wars with the anti-French coalitions (1792–1815) almost all of France’s colonial possessions were seized by Great Britain. Regaining the western part of Louisiana in 1800, France sold it to the USA in 1803. The Congress of Vienna (1814–15) returned to France a considerable portion of its colonial possessions: under the Treaty of Paris (1814) France kept the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and French Guiana in the western hemisphere, five small settlements in India, the island of Réunion, and small holdings in Senegal. At this time, France’s colonies occupied some 30,000 sq km. During the 1848 Revolution in France another decree was issued abolishing slavery in the colonies.

With the accelerated development of capitalist production, made possible by the industrial revolution, which reached its height in the 1850’s and 1860’s, the colonies ceased to be merely an object of plunder and a supplier of so-called colonial goods. They began to serve as sources of raw material for France’s growing industry and, in certain instances, as a market for its industrial commodities. The French colonialists formed military units composed of natives, using them in military operations as shock troops (seeZOUAVES).

In the 1830’s France again embarked on colonial expansion, primarily in North Africa. The conquest of Algeria, courageously resisted by the native population, began in 1830 and was not completed until the early 1880’s. In 1881, French troops occupied Tunisia, which was made a protectorate. In the late 1830’s the French resumed their push into West Africa. By force, deceit, bribery, and enslaving agreements with local tribal chiefs, the French colonialists seized Gabon (1839–70) and invaded the Ivory Coast (1842) and the interior regions of Senegal (1854).

The Far East and Southeast Asia also became objects of French colonial expansion from the early 19th century. In 1842, France seized the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean and established a protectorate over them; in 1844 it imposed an unequal treaty on China; and in 1853 it seized New Caledonia. With the establishment of a colonial administration in 1855, the islands of French Polynesia were united to form the French Colony of Oceania. As an ally of Great Britain in the Opium War (1856–60), France imposed new onerous treaties on China.

On behalf of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie France strove to acquire vast holdings in Southeast Asia. The colonial wars launched by France in the late 1850’s in Indochina ended with the seizure of southern Vietnam (Cochin China) in 1867 and the establishment of protectorates over Kampuchea (Cambodia) in 1863 and over central (Annam) and northern (Tonkin) Vietnam in 1885. To facilitate administration, these territories were merged into the Indochinese Union (1887), headed by a French governor-general. In 1898, Laos was annexed to the Indochinese Union as a protectorate. The boundaries of the Indochinese Union were finally established in 1907.

The rapid growth of finance capital in France during the last quarter of the 19th century gave new vigor to its colonial policy. The colonies became an outlet for French capital investments. Simultaneously, exploitation of the colonies made the economy of the mother country more parasitic.

France took an active part in the efforts of the major capitalist powers to carve up the world. In 1895, France took possession of Madagascar, proclaiming the island a colony the next year. Penetrating deep into Africa, the colonialists during the 1880’s and 1890’s seized vast areas in the Congo, Niger, Ubangi, and Shari river basins and around Lake Chad. They began to advance into the eastern Sudan, toward the upper reaches of the Nile River. French plans for further conquests in Africa were thwarted by British colonialists. Under the 1899 Anglo-French agreement on the division of tropical Africa, France obtained a number of regions lying to the west and northwest of the Congo and Nile watersheds. In this way France extended its colonial rule over vast territories in North Africa, the western Sudan, and the Congo basin.

In the course of sharp imperialist rivalry for possession of Morocco, France (by the Franco-German agreement of 1911) obtained Germany’s recognition of its “predominant rights” to Morocco, ceding to Germany in compensation 275,000 sq km in the French Congo. In 1912 France established a protectorate over Morocco, after transferring, by the Franco-Spanish agreement of 1912, the northern and extreme southern parts of Morocco to Spanish protection. Tangier was declared an international zone.

By the early 20th century the creation of the French Colonial Empire had essentially been completed. Established in 1894, the Ministry of Colonies was responsible for administering all the French possessions. The legal status of the colonial possessions was not the same: whereas Algeria was incorporated into metropolitan France, Tunisia, Morocco, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam were considered independent states under a French protectorate. In the protectorates, power nominally belonged to the native monarchs and tribal chiefs, but in reality they were governed by the French administration. At the head of the colonial administration stood governors-general, military or civilian governors, residents-general (in the protectorates), or vice-governors (in the territories). The local administrative apparatus relied on French officials. The boundaries between the colonies were established arbitrarily and were sometimes changed without taking into account the ethnic makeup of the native population. Between 1895 and 1904 the western African possessions, including Senegal, French Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Dahomey, and the French Sudan, were merged to form the Governor-Generalship of French West Africa. The vast territories of equatorial Africa—Gabon, Middle Congo, Ubangi-Shari, and Chad—were included in 1910 in the Governor-Generalship of French Equatorial Africa.

The enslaved peoples of the French colonies fought valiantly to liberate themselves. Among the strongest of the national liberation movements was the Algerian tribes’ war for independence under the leadership of Abd al-Kadir (1832–47). Subsequently, the French had to contend with the revolt of the Banu Snassen tribes in 1859 and the large Mukrani Uprising (1871–72) in Algeria. In the late 19th century the Malinke peoples living in the Niger basin fought the French under the leadership of Samory, and the Dahomeans resisted conquest under the leadership of Béhan-zin. The Malgasy also tried to drive out the French between 1895 and 1897. In Indochina the liberation struggle manifested itself in the can vuong movement (1885–96) and the simultaneous partisan struggle led by De Tham, which lasted until 1913.

At the outbreak of World War I the French Colonial Empire, exceeded in size only by the British Empire, covered an area of 10.6 million sq km, inhabited by 55.5 million people. (Metropolitan France had an area of 0.5 million sq km and a population of 39.6 million.) In Africa, the empire encompassed Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, Réunion, French Somaliland, French West Africa, and French Equatorial Africa; in Asia: Cochin China, Cambodia, Annam, Tonkin, Laos, and French India; in the Americas: Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, and the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon; and in Oceania: French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and the New Hebrides, ruled jointly with Great Britain.

As a result of the war French possessions were further enlarged. Of the territories taken from Germany by the Peace Treaty of Versailles (1919), France acquired most of Togo and Cameroon as mandated territories. France’s occupation of Syria and Lebanon, which had belonged to Turkey, was also sanctioned by a League of Nations mandate (1920).

The usurious nature of French imperialism resulted in limited capital investment in the economies of the colonial possessions, with their fledgling industries. In foreign trade, the colonies’ share of the commodity turnover rose from 12.5 percent in 1913 to 27 percent in 1937. The colonies supplied France with foodstuffs and raw materials. Colonialism contributed to the preservation of backward socioeconomic systems and communal-tribal and feudal-landowning relations.

The situation began to change during World War I, when the French colonies became important suppliers of strategic and industrial raw materials. The French were obliged to expand the railroad network and otherwise invest more money in the colonies. In North Africa, Indochina, and other colonies, the development of capitalist relations gave rise to a national bourgeoisie and a proletariat. The colonies began to play an increasingly important role in the economic life of the mother country.

Under the impact of the Great October Socialist Revolution the entire colonial system of imperialism, including the French Colonial Empire, was undermined. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the national liberation struggle, now more organized, gathered momentum in the socially and economically more developed French possessions in Indochina and in the Arab East, the site of the Syrian National Uprising (1925–27). From 1921 to 1926, Abd al-Karim led a liberation war in Morocco.

During World War II and especially after the military and political defeat of fascism, there began a new phase in the crisis of the colonial system of imperialism, leading to its disintegration. The collapse of the French Colonial Empire was an important part of this process. Syria and Lebanon had achieved their independence during the war (1943). The August Revolution of 1945 in Vietnam overthrew French colonial domination in Indochina and established a people’s democratic regime, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The ruling circles of France were compelled to seek new ways of administering the colonies based on autonomy in internal affairs. Accordingly, the French Constitution of 1946 provided for the creation of the French Union. While condemning colonialism, the Constitution nevertheless upheld the political foundations of the colonial system and French sovereignty over the overseas possessions.

In 1946 the French Union occupied an area of about 12 million sq km and had a population of more than 70 million. It was officially divided into overseas departments, overseas territories, and associated territories or states. The overseas departments included the three departments into which Algeria was divided, Réunion, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana. The overseas territories, nominally part of the French Republic, were French West Africa (Senegal, Mauritania, French Sudan, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta, Dahomey, Niger), French Equatorial Africa (Gabon, Middle Congo, Ubangi-Shari, Chad), Madagascar, French Somaliland, New Caledonia, the Comoros, French Polynesia, the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, and the French possessions in India. Associated status was given to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Morocco, Tunisia, the Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides, and the trust territories (from December 1946) of Togo and Cameroon.

The overseas departments were to have the same local governing bodies as existed in France itself. In the overseas territories local elected bodies—territorial assemblies with limited rights—were established. The Ministry of Colonies was reorganized in 1946 as the Ministry for Overseas Territories. The Union was governed by the French parliament and the Assembly of the French Union, a consultative body with limited rights. The president of the French Republic was also the president of the Union.

While somewhat broadening the colonies’ rights, the French imperialists embarked on the armed suppression of national liberation movements. In 1946 a full-scale colonial war was unleashed in Vietnam, and French domination was reestablished in Laos and Cambodia. After a prolonged struggle, however, the national liberation movement, supported by the Soviet Union and other progressive forces, gained a victory over French colonialism: France was obliged to sign the Geneva Agreements (1954) ending military operations in Indochina and stipulating respect for the sovereignty and independence of the three states in Indochina. Under a 1954 agreement with India, France relinquished its possessions on the Hindustan Peninsula.

The strongest blow to the French Colonial Empire was inflicted in Algeria, where an armed liberation struggle began in 1954. Two years later France was compelled to recognize the independence of Tunisia and Morocco. Meanwhile, the anticolonial movement was spreading throughout tropical Africa. By 1957, France’s possessions had been reduced to 10,590,000 sq km with a population of 48,848,000.

Faced with the incipient disintegration of the French Colonial Empire, the ruling circles of France attempted to maneuver. In 1956 a law was enacted providing for governmental reform in the colonies. Known as the “skeleton law,” it introduced universal suffrage in the overseas territories and extended the rights of territorial assemblies. Subsequent decrees of the French government (1956–57), however, emasculated the law. The deep crisis in the French Union and the prolonged colonial war in Algeria contributed to the fall of the Fourth Republic, whose colonial policy had shown the impossibility of preserving the previous forms and methods of colonial domination. The French Union collapsed.

The Constitution of the Fifth Republic, adopted in 1958, legally abolished the French Union, replacing it with the French Community, whose member states officially had the right to the “free and democratic management of their affairs.” Nevertheless, such basic governmental responsibilities as foreign policy, defense, the monetary system, justice, and transport and communications continued to be entrusted to metropolitan France.

In the 1958 referendum on the constitution, held in both France and the colonies, the people of Guinea refused to approve the constitution and chose independence. On Oct. 2, 1958, the National Assembly of Guinea proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Guinea, the first independent state among France’s possessions in tropical Africa.

The Community was composed of the French Republic, Senegal, Mauritania, the Ivory Coast, the Sudanese Republic (prior to October 1958, the French Sudan), Dahomey, Upper Volta, Niger, Gabon, Chad, the Central African Republic (prior to December 1958, Ubangi-Shari), the Middle Congo, and Madagascar. Between October and December 1958 all the African states in the Community were proclaimed republics. The remaining possessions retained their previous status. Progressive forces in the African countries used their internal autonomy to further the anticolonial struggle. French imperialism tried to adapt itself to the changed conditions and to preserve its colonial empire. A constitutional amendment passed in 1960 permitted states that proclaimed their independence to remain within the Community.

In 1960 the following countries proclaimed their independence: the Republic of Cameroon, the Republic of Togo, the Mali Federation (formed in 1959 by the merger of the Republic of Senegal and the Sudanese Republic; after independence the Federation split into the Republic of Senegal and the Republic of Mali), the Malagasy Republic (since December 1975, the Democratic Republic of Madagascar), the Dahomey Republic (since November 1975, the People’s Republic of Benin), Niger, Upper Volta, the Ivory Coast, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Congo (Brazzaville), renamed the People’s Republic of the Congo in 1970, Gabon, and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. France lost direct political control over these countries.

On Sept. 19, 1958, the revolutionary forces of the Algerian people proclaimed the formation of the Algerian Republic and established the Provisional Government. The futility of a long colonial war compelled France to recognize Algeria’s right to self-determination (1959). The Evian Accords, signed in March 1962, provided for a cease-fire and for self-determination by referendum. Algeria’s independence, proclaimed in July 1962, completed the disintegration of the French Colonial Empire. France has succeeded in maintaining extensive foreign policy, military, economic, and cultural ties with its former colonies, and it has concluded corresponding agreements with the African states. Concurrently, these countries have been striving to restructure their relations with France on the basis of equal rights.

In 1975 most of the Comoro Islands proclaimed their independence, and in 1977 the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas became the independent Republic of Djibouti. In July 1980 the New Hebrides Islands proclaimed their independence (until July 30, 1980, they were the joint possession of Great Britain and France), and the state of Vanuatu was formed on their territories. As of July 1980, French overseas possessions included the overseas departments of Guadeloupe, Guiana, Martinique, Réunion, and St. Pierre and Miquelon (from July 1976) and the overseas territories of New Caledonia, French Polynesia, the Wallis and Futuna Islands, as well as the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. Mayotte, one of the Comoro Islands, has the special status of a territorial unit.


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