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Second French Colonial Empire

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The Second French Colonial Empire consisted of the colonial territories seized byFrancefrom 1830 until the mid-20century. Having lost or ceded most of the colonial possessions of their First Colonial Empire, the French set about conquering new territories. But whereas Frances First Colonial Empire consisted mainly of colonies inNorth Americaand theCaribbean, Frances Second Colonial Empire would be based primarily inAfrica, with some new parts inAsia. By the early 20century, the Second French Colonial Empire reached its zenith, controlling 11.5 million sq. km of territory. After World War II, however, widespread unrest in the colonies forced France to grant them independence. The Second French Colonial Empire currently consists ofFrench Guianaand some small islands in the Caribbean,Indian Ocean, and SouthPacific.

End Of The First French Colonial Empire

A stamp was printed in 1953 to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. Editorial credit: AlexanderZam /

By the mid-18thcentury, France had established a vast empire known historically as the First French Colonial Empire. It consisted mainly of territories in North America and the Caribbean, with small territorial holdings inWest Africaand the coasts of present-dayIndia. By the mid-to-late 19thcentury, however, France had lost most of its colonial possessions. Many of them were lost in the conflict with theUnited Kingdom. After theSeven Years War(1756-1763), the French lost their North American colony ofNew France, most of thesugar islandsin the Caribbean, its colony of Saint-Louis in present-daySenegal, and its colonies in India. In 1791, a slave revolt broke out in Frances most prosperous and vital colony of St. Domingue, ultimately culminating in the independence ofHaitiin 1804. In 1803, France sold its extensive North American colony - the Louisiana territory to the United States in a transaction known as theLouisiana Purchase. Thus, most of the First French Colonial Empire ceased to exist by the early 19thcentury. After the Napoleonic Wars, however, France embarked on new colonial endeavors.

Rise Of The Second French Colonial Empire

An abandoned building in the historic town of Grand-Bassam, the former French colonial capital city of Ivory Coast, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Editorial credit: Anne Czichos / m

The beginning of the Second French Colonial Empire was marked by Frances invasion of present-dayAlgeriain 1830. It took the French 17 years to conquer theNorth Africanterritory. By the mid-19thcentury, France had established control over Algeria and a sizeable amount of territory in coastal West Africa. France also established new colonies in southernIndochinaandPolynesia. However, until the late 19thcentury, most of the Second French Colonial Empire colonies were not taken over by France. By the end of the 19thcentury, France had conquered all of what became French Indochina. They also controlled most of West Africa, including the territories of the present-day countries ofMauritania, Senegal,GuineaMaliCôte dIvoireBeninNigerChad, theCentral African Republic, and theRepublic of Congo. In addition, the French took control of present-dayTunisiaand established theofDjibouti. In 1911, France seized control ofMorocco. The last imperial gains for the Second French Colonial Empire were made in the aftermath ofWorld War I. France had taken control of formerOttomanterritory, which eventually became present-daySyriaandLebanon. The French also gained control of the former German colonies in Africa,Togo, andCameroon. Thus, after WWI, the Second French Colonial Empire was at its peak.

The Second French Colonial Empire was not ruled uniformly. In other words, governmental structures were different depending on the colonies in question. The commonality throughout the Second French Colonial Empire was that France was the ultimate authority regardless of what type of government was established in any given colony. France also directly ruled some French imperial possessions. Algeria, for example, was placed under direct French rule, primarily because of its proximity to France itself. Until Algeria achieved its independence in 1962, the French considered it an inseparable part of their country. Most of the Second French Colonial Empire was under direct rule by France until the end of World War II.

In some cases, however, the French did set up protectorates in their colonial possessions. In these cases, local, indigenous leaders and institutions were kept intact to give the appearance of sovereignty. In Morocco, for example, the countrys Sultan was allowed to keep his position and rule by decree. His decrees, however, had to be approved by the French administration. Generally speaking, the French did not want to interfere in local affairs. Thus, they preserved local laws, institutions, and traditions, mainly where religion was concerned. The French did, however, try to impose certain social and cultural norms.Slavery, for instance, was abolished throughout the French Empire in 1848, much to the chagrin of some French colonial subjects such as the local rulers ofCambodia, who were reluctant to abandon the practice as it was very lucrative. The French even debated the possibility of applying French law to all of the colonies and giving the residents of those colonies citizenship. As it turned out, though, very few people from the colonies were granted French citizenship. Indeed, the French generally viewed their colonial subjects as inferior and believed it was their job tocivilizethem.

Fall Of The Second French Colonial Empire

Martyrs Memorial for heroes killed during the Algerian War of Independence in the city of Algiers, Algeria.

After theSecond World War, the Second French Colonial Empire began to decline rapidly. By the late 1940s, much of French Africa possessed an indigenous educated and politicized class who resented not having any say in how they were governed. Pro-independence leaders and movements emerged, such as the African Democratic Rally in French West Africa. The French tried to appease their colonial subjects by giving them more power to govern themselves, but eventually, these efforts were for naught. Thus, by 1960, nearly all the French colonies in Africa effectively became independent states.

Meanwhile, France suffered violent resistance to its rule in Indochina. After the Japanese occupation of the region ended, France tried to restore its power there. They reoccupied Laos and Cambodia, but faced resistance inVietnamafter the communist Viet Minh, under the leadership ofHo Chi Minh, proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. However, France opposed Vietnams independence, and war broke out between French forces and the Viet Minh. In 1953, the French granted independence to Cambodia, then to Laos one year later. Finally, on May 7, 1954, the Viet Minh defeated the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, marking the end of French rule in Indochina. By the beginning of the 1960s, France had but one significant colony left, Algeria. As previously mentioned, the French were reluctant to grant Algeria independence since it was in such close proximity to France itself. Moreover, unlike most of Frances other colonies, Algeria had a large population of European settlers. In addition, Algerias largeJewishcommunity feared that if their country were granted independence, they would be subject to reprisals by theMuslimmajority, who viewed them as Frances allies. Ultimately, however, the French gave Algeria freedom in 1962.

After the loss of Algeria, Frances colonial empire was reduced to mostly a few islands in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and South Pacific. Today, France still maintains control over most of these islands. Its only remaining mainland territory is French Guiana, located onSouth Americas Caribbean coast. In most of these colonies, residents are full French citizens entitled to representation in Frances National Assembly, just as if they lived in France itself. Some people in Frances remaining colonies seek to follow in the footsteps of other former colonies and become fully independent, while others prefer to remain under French sovereignty.

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