France is Britain’s much-loved and much-hated neighbour - the first because of its fine cuisine and fashion, the second because of the many wars that pitted the French Empire vs. British Empire. But what exactly made France an imperial power? Scroll down and find out - or click here for other interesting facts about France.

The French Colonial Empire: Take One

France was, for much of its history, a kingdom ruled by a king. The first King of France is reputed to be Merovech, a Frankish living in the 5th century. But while it at times occupied much of central Europe (under Charlemagne, for example), it did not consider itself an Empire until Napoleon.

It was, however, an important colonial power. The first wave of colonisation took place primarily in the 17th century.

Nouvelle France (New France)

In the 16th century, riding on the hype generated by the Spanish after the discovery of the American continent, France made a few half-hearted attempts at starting colonies in the New World. The first true colony was not founded until Port Royal was built in the new land of Acadia in 1605, which would later be called Nova Scotia, Canada.

Three years later in 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded Québec. Québec became the capital of the colony of New France, which thrived mostly on the fur trade. French explorers expanded its territory west along the St. Lawrence river and then south via the Great Lakes and their network of rivers (Louisiana, covering a large swathe of land west of the Mississippi, was claimed in 1699) and founded new outposts along the rivers. However, the French focused more on creating a fur-trading network with the native tribes than agricultural settlements, so that its American colonies were never particularly densely populated.

South of the Equator

In the West Indies, the establishment of a colony on St. Kitts in 1625 (an island which France had to share with the British) was the first step. The Compagnie des Îndes d’Amérique was founded in 1635 by the Cardinal de Richelieu to replace the ineffectual Compagnie St. Christophe in order to take over Caribbean islands to establish tabacco plantations. These include St. Domingue (an island they shared with Spain, later called Haiti and the Dominican Republic respectively), Guadeloupe and Martinique. Whereas in North America the French worked with the natives, the plantations in the Caribbean, first of tobacco, then of sugarcane, were very much dependant on the enslavement of the local population and the slave trade with Africa. So much so, in fact, that there was a series of revolts leading to ethnic cleansings such as the Carib Expulsion of 1660 than almost wiped out the Carib population of Martinique.

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Richelieu had interests in the new colonies.
The Cardinal de Richelieu, advisor of King Louis XIII, founded the Compagnie des Îndes d’Amérique.

Starting 1676, after much fighting against local populations and other colonial powers, colonies were founded in what is now French Guyana, just north of Brazil.

First Forays into Africa

The establishment of trading posts along the coast of Senegal in 1664 marked the beginning of French colonialism in Africa. They traded primarily in slaves from the African states in the interior to be shipped to the Caribbean colonies.

The Compagnie des Indes Orientales managed to establish outposts on La Réunion and Mauritius in 1665 (though they had been claimed by France somewhat earlier). They were used as supply points for ships bound east. By 1719 France has a first foothold in India, and took advantage of the fall of the Mughal Empire by supporting local rulers in India against the British.

Ultimately defeated, the French retained only Pondicherry and Chantannagar, both integrated into independent India in 1954.

Decline of the First Colonial Empire

The Treaty of Utrecht, which had a profound impact on France’s American colonies, was primarily meant to regulate the Spanish succession after King Charles II of the Habsburg dynasty failed to designate an heir. The treaty established Louis XIV’s grandson on the throne of Spain, but shuffled around several of France’s colonies. For example, Newfoundland and Rupert’s Land around the Hudson Bay were ceded to Britain.

Over the next hundred years, France slowly lost most of her colonial possessions, mostly due to wars. The Austrian War of Succession (1744-1748), the Seven Year’s War - which the Americans call the French and Indian War - (1756-1763), then the French Revolution (173-1802) caused France to lose most of Canada and large parts of the Caribbean to the British Empire. Louisiana was ceded to Spain in the secret treaty of Fountainebleau in 1762 (but was repurchased by France in 1800 from the Spanish in the equally secret treaty of Ildefonso).

The First French Empire: Napoleon Bonaparte

After the French Revolution and the overthrow of the Ancien Regime, France cycled through several attempts at finding the right form of government. After the Reign of Terror, the Directory tried to balance things out, only for Napoleon Bonapart to overthrow it in the coup of the 18th of Brumaire (France had a different calendar for awhile, it was November 9th 1799). A Consulate was established with three Consuls, of which Napoleon was the First Consul. After the Peace of Amiens was signed with Great Britain in 1802, he was voted Consul for life.

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Napoleon Bonaparte is easily recognisable.
Napoleon I is mostly known for his conquests, but he is also responsible for introducing the metric system. Photo credit: Fæ on Visual Hunt

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean, an insurrection on Haiti led by ex-slave Toussaint Louverture forced Napoleon to sell the Louisiana territories to the United States in 1803, reducing the French colonies greatly.

In 1804 the parliament voted for a bill to make France an Empire, with Napoleon at its head. He was crowned on December 2nd.

The Height of the French Empire

Napoleon had started his conquests under the Directory, including:

  • much of Italy
  • Switzerland
  • Netherlands
  • the area from Belgium up to the west bank of the Rhine.

As First Consul, he continued his conquest of Italy, extended the territory of France beyond the Rhine and up to Hanover and Cuxhaven on the northwestern German coast.
After being crowned Emperor, he annexed much of southern Germany (the states of Bavaria, Baden, Württemburg and Saxony) as vassal states, and started on his conquest of Spain.

Difficulties and Downfall

The Emperor faced a growing opposition from the Spanish including guerilla rebels called the Junta. Over a period of several years, he was forced back by Britain’s General Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Meanwhile Prussia was secretly gathering allies. Though Napoleon at first triumphed at Austerlitz, Russia, previously an ally, soon announced that it was joining the coalition against Bonaparte. Napoleon started his Russian campaign in 1812 while many of his troops were still tied down with the Spanish revolt.

Despite some brilliant military actions, Napolean was continually pushed back until Paris surrendered in March 1814. Napoleon abdicated in April, thus ending the Napoleonic Wars.

He was exiled to the island of Ebla, from which he attempted a coup d’etat in 1815 against the newly-reinstated king of the “July monarchy”, Louis XVIII (a brother of Louis XVI). He ruled for about a hundred days before being defeated at Waterloo. He was exiled again, this time to the island of Saint-Helena, where he died in 1821.

The Second French Empire: Napoleon III

After the restoration of Louis XVIII, who died in 1824, his younger brother Charles X took the throne. He was deposed in 1830 and Louis-Philippe (a cousin of Louis XVI) was elected King of France in his stead.

After the revolution of 1848, Louis Philippe abdicated in favour of his grandson, but the French government decided to return to a republic instead. They elected Louis Napoléon Bonaparte, Napoleon I’s nephew, as France’s first President. The Constitution did not allow him to serve a second term and so in 1851 he staged a coup and celebrated his coronation as Emperor under the name Napoleon III on December 2nd in 1852 - the same day as his uncle.

 Napoleon III lived in a time of technological progress.
The era of Napoleon III is known for a flourishing of the arts, both architectural and decorative (including an Egyptian style). Photo credit: Boston Public Library on Visual Hunt

He reigned until 1870 when he capitulated to Germany after the Battle of Sedan, the final battle of the Franco-Prussian War.

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The French Colonial Empire: Take Two

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British restored to France much of its overseas territories, including:

  • French Guyana
  • the Senegal trading posts
  • the Indian colonies

- though it annexed the Seychelles and Mauritius.

Charles X tried to restore control over Haiti, but in the end accepted its independence though it forced Haiti to pay an indemnity to the French plantation owners.

In 1830, after an argument between the ruler of Algiers for the Ottoman Empire and the French consul, France invaded Algeria, though it wasn’t fully conquered until 1847.

Then, under the reign of Napoleon III, French expansionism returned - this time, not in Europe, but rather in the colonies. He established colonies in New Caledonia and Cochinchina (a region in southern Vietnam) and made parts of Cambodia into a protectorate. He furthered the colonisation of Africa, going inland from the Senegal trading posts and establishing colonies along western coast. Slavery was outlawed in 1848; instead, the new African colonies focused on gum arabic, peanut and Bambara groundnut plantations.

Napoleon III tried to expand in South America as well. When the provisional government of Mexico under Benito Juarez refused to pay the debts of the overthrown government, the main debt-holders France, Britain and Spain decided on military action. France went further, installing the Archduke Maximilian (brother of the Austrian Emperor and son-in-law to the King of Belgium) as King of Mexico. However, Mexican resistance soon flourished and Napoleon III withdrew his support in 1866. Maximilian I was executed one year later.

King Maximilian I and his wife
Maximilian I of Mexico and his wife Queen Carlota (Charlotte). Photo credit: Luisalvaz (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons


Growing dissent in the colonies after World War I for France’s failure to recognise their role in the war did not lead to any action on the part of the French government. It was not until after World War II that France started recognising their colonies’ right to self-rule. The creation of the Départements d’Outre-Mer (overseas administrative regions) in 1946 allowed certain of the colonies wanting to remain with France with equal rights to French citizens in the Hexagon. These include:

  • Guadeloupe
  • French Guyana
  • Martinique
  • La Réunion

Other colonies had a semi-independent status with local laws and limited self-government but less representation, called Territoires d’Outre-Mer. Over time, some of the TOMs achieved independence or became DOMs (Mayotte in 2011). In 2003 all of the TOMs but one (uninhabited holdings in the Indian Ocean and Antarctica) became semi-independent Collectivités d’Outre-Mer:

  • St- Pierre-et-Miquelon
  • Wallis-and-Fortuna
  • French Polynesia
  • Mayotte (until 2011 when it joined the French Republic)

French decolonisation did not go peacefully in all the colonies. In 1947, a rebellion in Madagascar raged for a year, and the impact of the conflict of the Algerian War (1954-1962) is still felt on both sides.

Read more about how impact of the French empire has made French the official language of 30 countries.

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.