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France itself grew by annexing neighboring areas. The first kings of France controlled directly only the Isle de France - the Paris region - (much as the president of Afghanistan controls only Kabul) and asserted their sovereignty gradually over the feudal states.

The area of France gradually grew until it reached its present borders. The French speaking Duke William of Normandy invaded England and caused the ruling group in England to be French speaking for the next three hundred years. Other Normans invaded Sicily.

Overseas influence
Like Britain and Portugal, France was part of the European expansion into the world outside Europe. French influence was dominant in the Crusader states of the Levant (Palestine and Lebanon) and there continued to be a French interest in the Christian minority of that area, exerted again in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hegemony in Europe
France was the dominant power in continental Europe during the 17th century and for most of the 18th. This was the main outcome of the Thirty Years War. The period of Louis the 14th saw France reduce Germany to powerless tiny states, each dependent on France, both politically and culturally. French became the main language of culture and diplomacy in Europe. What brought this hegemony to an end was the Seven Years War when France lost most of its overseas power, and then the Revolutionary wars conducted by Napoleon, which established the dominance of Britain and paved the way for the rise of Germany.

The Age of expansion
During the European age of exploration the French king ordered his mariners to follow the Portuguese.

In Europe the Portuguese were the first to contact non-European peoples by sea. They were followed by Spain. France did not begin until these nations had already explored much of the world.

French explorers followed the English into North America and became influential in what is now eastern Canada and the Mississippi valley of the United States where they developed a trading network in furs.

They also followed the Portuguese, Dutch and English into the east, with an East India Company operating in India, competing with the English East India Company, using the same methods - trading posts, and military operations with Indian allies.

The loss of Quebec in 1759 and defeats in India the same year during the Seven Years War meant that French lost its chance to be the main world language. French activities in India became confined to the small colony of Pondicherry, and in north America to a settlement in Quebec, ruled by the British. Only in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) did the French acquire colonies of exploitation like the British in India or the Dutch in Indonesia. The French language continued to be dominant within Europe, as the language of diplomacy and culture. Louis the 14th had been responsible for the weakened condition of Germany and in general for the balance of power in his peace of Westfalia 1648, making French the dominant language of European diplomacy until the mid 20th century.

In the 19th century they expanded into north Africa with the conquest of Algeria, Tunisia and part of Morocco. Later they acquired colonies in west and central Africa, and in Madagascar.

North America

French explorers travelled in what is now Canada. They developed a trade in furs with the Indians of the interior. Some farmers began to settle in the lower St Lawrence valley, an area they came to call first New France, then Quebec.

From this base in the St Lawrence valley French explorers descended the Mississippi valley and founded a city at New Orleans in a territory they called Louisiana. If they hadn't been dislodged from Quebec there was the possibility they might have walled in the British colonies on the seaboard with a French interior.

The last remnant of the North American colonies is the small colony of St Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.

At the same time as the north American colonies were being settled, French people settled in the Caribbean and developed slave-worked sugar plantations, especially in the western part of the island of Hispaniola - Haiti. This was a profitable sugar colony but was lost when the slaves revolted during the Revolution. Napoleon's attempts to restore French rule failed, mainly because his troops suffered disease.

France retains Guadeloupe and Martinique and part of St Martin but lost a number of other islands to the British.

Following the English East India Company, the French also chartered a company to trade with India and the Far East.

They tried to control India. They used the same techniques as the British - assisting local rulers to fight the rulers controlled by the English. However, their expansion was frustrated by the British mobilising more forces against them and they were eventually confined to the colony of Pondicherry near Madras (Chennai) which remained throughout the period of British India.

South East Asia
Indo-China (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam).

North Africa
France was involved with the north African coast and occupied Algeria and Tunisia, and after colonial wars the larger part of Morocco (the other part going to Spain).

Partly this was a reaction to the defeat by Germany in 1870 when France lost Alsace-Lorraine, and the hegemony they believed they still possessed in Europe from the time of Louis the 14th.

The empire in Africa started as slave trading depots in west Africa West African coast.

The Berlin Conference on Colonial matters carved up Africa and gave each of the European powers their own sections. Thus France ended with territories in West and Central Africa, and Madagascar and the island of Reunion. Mauritius had been held for a while but was lost to the British with the defeat of Napoleon. France also occupied the territory of Djibouti.

In most of these countries the territory had to be acquired by conquest. Madagascar in particular was only "subdued" after a long war. In Morocco wars of resistance continued well into the 20th century.

After the first world war those colonies awarded to Germany were mostly given to Britain but parts of Cameroon and Togo went to France.

West Asia (Levant)
After the first world war France insisted on resuming its contacts with Lebanon and Syria, dating to the time of the Crusades. France was awarded a Mandate of Syria and Lebanon.

The French occupied a number of islands in the Pacific, especially Tahiti to form French Polynesia.

How was the French Empire ruled?
In each territory there was a Governor, representing the Republic (the state). He was appointed by and answerable to the French chief of state.

In Paris there was a Colonial Ministry.

In the territory there was a civil service, modeled on that of France. In the provinces or districts there were local officials - Prefets or Commissioners.

In Africa there were local armies, known as the Tirailleurs (rifle men). Some of these troops were drafted to assist French forces in the European wars, just as the British used Indian troops in the first world war. The French army had a Foreign Legion, open to recruits from any other country than France, but with French officers. This was usually stationed in the Colonies.

How did the French Empire end?
European Empires grew originally because the Europeans had better weapons than the "natives". This was mainly because they had more advanced technology - Europe in general began to surpass the rest of the world from about the 17th century. It was also because the European states were better organised than those states where they were trading - and perhaps more ruthless.

By the beginning of the 20th century the European technological advantages were diminishing fast. Weapons for resistance were getting cheaper. Guerrilla war was becoming easier. The subjects were becoming educated (missionaries and government itself encouraged modern western schools). French policy was to admit the educated colonials to citizenship as "evolués" (civilised). For a while the evolués took part in the politics of metropolitan France as voters and members of the National Assembly. But gradually they began to press for the independence of the African colonies.

During the second world war France was occupied by the Germans, with a sattelite government in Vichy, controlled by French fascists. The colonies were divided into groups. At the time of the ceasefire most African colonies were nominally under the control of the Vichy government. Gradually, the Free French, headed by General Charles de Gaulle, gained control of most of them, beginning with St Pierre et Miquelon. By 1945 the home country itself was bankrupt from having fought the second world war and the consequences of the Occupation. The costs of the empire were rising, not least because of the threat of guerrilla wars.

In Indochina, following the occupation by Japanese forces, the colonised did not want the French to return after the second world war. Ho Chi Minh declared independence (using the words of the American Declaration). The French wished to restore the pre-war situation. The result was colonial wars of rebellion. These ended in 1954 with agreements that France would leave. Unfortunately for the people of the area the French were replaced by Americans, especially in Vietnam. France lost all influence in the area.

In 1945 the second world war ended with the rise of the Superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. By comparison France, like Britain, was a medium power.

In North Africa there were wars of rebellion. Tunisia became independent by agreement, and the withdrawal from Morocco was also by agreement but in Algeria there was a long war of independence. For many French people Algeria had become something like Ireland for the English: there was an emotional attachment to the notion that it was an integral part of France, despite the majority of the population being Muslim and Arabic or Berber speakers. As in South Africa there was a large settler population who had farms and businesses and were fanatically attached to remaining "part of France". By 1958 it was clear to outsiders that the war could not be won and governments in Paris began to show signs that they would concede defeat. However, the settlers then rebelled against the French government and took part of the army with them. There was a serious danger of civil war in France itself. It was this major crisis that brought General De Gaulle back to power when the last government of the Fourth Republic turned to him to solve the crisis.

De Gaulle gave the settlers the impression that he would support them. He restored order in the army, dismissing the rebel officers and began talks with the Arab rebels - National Liberation Front. (The rebel French soldiers formed an organisation called the Secret Army Organisation OAS.) Independence was agreed and the settlers had to leave, forming a discontented extreme rightwing minority in France, especially in Corsica.

In the rest of Africa General de Gaulle, when he came to power in 1958 declared that all African territories should have the right to self-rule. Most African states voted to become independent within a French Union (that is, France would retain certain powers over defence and foreign affairs). Guinea in West Africa voted for complete independence and the French administrators left at once.

Gradually, the colonies moved to full independence. But unlike in the former British colonies French troops and administrators continued to be present in most of these "independent" states - in certain African states they still are.

After the French Empire
is an organization of former French colonies but includes also the former Belgian Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, and Quebec. Its main institution is a regular meeting of heads of government. There is a Secretariat in Paris. They share the experience of having been colonized, the French language and law. But they do not all share democracy or human rights. Many are or have been dictatorships in which the colonial style of government is continued with suspensions of human rights and censorship.

Its main purpose seems to be to maintain the use of the French language, which is threatened with being replaced by English. Already the Indochinese former colonies have ceased to teach French as a second language and have turned to English. Some of the former African colonies may go the same way. Rwanda is an example of this. France has been accused recently of supporting the Hutu genocidalists, mainly because the Tutsi side had learned English when they were in exile in Uganda. The new government in Rwanda is apparently trying to change the state language to English and to join the Commonwealth.

French is also losing ground in Congo Kinshasa where the president does not speak French, having been brought up in Tanzania where his father was in exile. See this Guardian article.

French has been replaced by English as the main working language in European business and the European Union - to the annoyance of former president Chirac. Two other European countries use French: Belgium (part) and Switzerland (part). There is also Monaco.

The remaining territories have been renamed French Overseas Territories (like those of Britain). The people have representation in the French Parliament and full sovereignty.
These are:

 Still ruled by France
 French Polynesia Kerguelen New Caledonia
Guadeloupe Martinique Reunion
Guyane (French Guyana)  Mayotte St Pierre et Miquelon

 Formerly ruled by France
 Algeria  Djibouti  Madagascar  Senegal
 Benin (Dahomey)  Gabon  Mali  Syria
 Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)  Guadeloupe  Martinique  Togo
 Cambodia  Guinee  Mauretania  Tunisia
 Cameroon  Ivory Coast  Morocco  Vietnam
 CentralAfrican Republic (Oubangi-Chiari)  Laos  Niger  
 Congo(Brazzaville)  Lebanon  Quebec  

Last revised 23/09/08





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