French history (#3)
 A brief history of French colonies
  • Almost all European countries developed or tried to develop an empire by conquering and ruling colonies. First came Spain and Portugal, then England, the Netherlands, France, Germany. Even countries like Denmark, Sweden had (and sometimes still have) colonies and even the USA with Guam, Philippines, Puerto-Rico, Hawai, etc... !

  • The reasons for launching a colonial expedition were of course trade (all countries), the search for gold (Spain in America), a place to live for dissidents (English Puritans in America) or convicts (UK in Australia), neutralizing a pirate state (France in Algeria), building a prestigious image (Germany in Africa) to name a few.

  • France had two colonial empires :

    • the first one (XVIth-XVIIIth Century) was built largely by big Royal Trading Companies (such as Compagnie des Indes Occidentales) : it included most of Northern America, some of the richest Caribbean Islands and a large part of India ; most of it was transferred to England as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1763
    • the second one (late XIXth C.) was built largely to challenge the British empire and it lasted until the 1960s : it included Northern Africa, a large part of Western and Central Africa, Indochina and islands all over the world

At its apex, the French Colonial empire with 12,3 million (25 times the size of France) was the second in the world after UK (30 million The symbol of its prestige and glory is the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris (the Paris zoo, the Immigration Museum and the Pagoda, all in the Bois de Vincennes are what's left of it)..

Contrary to what one could think, colonization was rather unpopular in France and was largely considered a waste of money and military efforts. Jules Ferry, the promoter of the colonial expansion in the 1880s was a leader of the Left. In the 1920s-1930s, the Right Wing opposed it because it was too expensive and the Left Wing supported it because it would bring liberty and civilization to the world. At the end of the colonial empire, the Left Wing advocated for de-colonization while the Right Wing resisted (as far as almost reaching the point of a civil war in 1960-1961)

  • Among the most unacceptable elements of the French colonial policy was the Code Noir ("Black Code, 1685) or the Statut de l'Indigénat (special jurisdictions for natives) but one could say that some other colonial countries (guess who...) did not even care to establish a legal status for colonized people!

  • Algeria is a very particular case : it is the only French colony where the population of European origin was significant : almost 1 million in 1962 (see pieds noirs).

  • Unable to organize a smooth decolonization process in the 1950s, France went through a violent and traumatizing one, especially in Algeria where the independence war lasted from 1954 to 1962 and ended almost as a civil war in France. In the early 1960s, almost all former French colonies had become independent countries. A few overseas territories (see DOM and TOM) remained and still are part of France. Former colonies, and particularly Algeria, demanded for their citizens a privileged right to immigrate in France : this is the reason for the presence in French cities of a large population of immigrants from Algeria and Western Africa who often face social and cultural problems, racism and unemployment (see immigration).
  • The former French colonial empire was a matter of geopolitics and national pride : anybody over 60 has been raised with the idea that he/she was lucky to live in a country which was the second largest empire and which brought civilization and democracy to the peoples of 9% of the surface of the world. See a remarkable movie about the life of petty French civil-servants in an African village in the 1930s. However, the decolonization, organized under Charles de Gaulle, was widely accepted by French opinion, in spite of the huge trauma caused by the Algerian war (see pieds-noirs).

  • What's left from the old days in today's French culture ? It ranges from the worst to the best. The worst is (maybe) to maintain a too strong political and economic influence on some of these "newly" independent countries (but if it was not French, what would this strong influence be : American? Russian? Chinese?). The best is (maybe) to have a better understanding of their culture and to share the same language (readf about francophonie). Read about Islam and France and my editorial on colonialism.

  • A little bit of teasing for our American friends who love to lecture the French about colonization and how shameful France should feel about it : remember that YOU are not former "colonized" but former "colonizers". The former colonized people (by you...) are the native- Americans.

  • A majority of people who get French citizenship come from former colonies : see how and see detailed figures

DID YOU KNOW THAT.... ? Who said that : " we are bringing them civilization and democracy ", " we help them to get rid of the cruel tyrants who rule them ", " we open them to the global world ", " nobody else speaks their language : they'd better speak ours ". NO, it was not George W.Bush about Iraq. It is what was commonly said by all French politicians about French colonies in the 1900s, at the maximum of French imperialism.


DO YOU KNOW THAT…. ? What is « Françafrique » ? It the name of the political and economic system built between France and its former African colonies, which characterised their relation for several decades after their independence in the 1960s. The system is based on the the fact that several of the African leaders who brought their countries to independence had themselves been powerful French politicians in the days of colonization (Houphouet-Boigny in the Ivory Coast, Leopold Senghor in Senegal, Omar Bongo in Gabon, to name a few) and they knew everything about the rings of power in France. Most of them had been part of the Gaullist resistance during WW2. The deal between France and them was : on one side, African countries remain faithful to France (they support French international policy at the UN, are members of Francophonie countries, they sign no military treaty with another country like the US or Russia, they let no major foreign group challenge major French corporations) and on the other side, France will help them for stability and security (with military cooperation, permanent French troops in the country or nearby, diplomatic support against major world powers and no embarrassing questions about the integrity of African leaders). The tools of Françafrique were a few very powerful (and discreet) advisors (like Jacques Foccart, under De Gaulle or Robert Bourgi, later) and some transnational networks : the Socialists (as most African leaders from these countries belong to the International Socialist Organization where the French Socialist party is influential) or the Free-Masons (as African Free-Masonry is closely linked to French Free-Masonry). Nowadays, Françafrique has practically disappeared.


Americans and French colonies

(I'm sure my American readers will hate what follows : see Americans and criticism) ...

  • Most Americans pride themselves on being anti-colonialist (and they are right!) and they lecture the French on it (and they are wrong!). Why ? Just think : what is a "colony"? Answer: a country where people from another country come, control the government or create theirs, steal the land and dominate the native people. Sounds familiar? This is the very definition of the USA !!! Therefore, contrary to what most Americans learn at school : 1/ the USA was not a colonial country which became freed from a colonial power but was a country of colonialists who seceded from the motherland ; the native peoples existed and were wiped out, and 2/ the USA had and still have colonies like Puerto-Rico, or Guam, Am.Virgi Islands, Am.Samoa etc. or Hawaii and Alaska (turned into a state, as the French colonialists wanted to do with Algeria) and remember the Philippines, a colony for 4 decades. So please : no more moralizing. History is history. Like France, the USA are a former colonialist country. Period.
  • Noam Chomsky, the famous linguist and activist, gives us another excellent example of (sometimes) American ignorance and arrogance. After several conferences in Paris, answering a question about the French and colonization, he said : "It is highly surprising that colonial wars did not raise any protest (in France)". This is extraordinary! Did this illustrious lecturer (who, by the way, does not seem to speak any French since he gave his conferences and interviews in English) know that they certainly did exist and even that the Algerian war generated so much protest and turmoil that it almost led to a civil war, initiated a change of regime and the arrival of Charles de Gaulle to put an end to it? (Source : le Point June 24, 2010)

  • Read my little fable "Arizona becomes independent" : if you think it's funny, congratulations on your sense of humor!

  • More to come.....

To related pages : History 101 (#1), Franco-American history(#2), to more French history(#4) and revolutions (#5), etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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