Thursday, November 15, 2012
The French Colonial Empire
There were French efforts to claim areas of what is now Brazil and Argentina but problems at home and the already established powers of Spain and Portugal prevented these being successful. However, in 1608, Samuel De Champlain founded Quebec and, under the great King Louis XIV, the explorer La Salle claimed the Mississippi River valley for France, naming the area Louisiana after his King and Queen and also established a French fort on the coast of Texas (ensuring that the Fleur-de-lis still flies over the Lone Star State). The French colonial empire was obviously most extensive in North America and that is where most of the focus was along with some island holdings in the Caribbean which proved extremely lucrative though one in particular, Haiti, would prove extremely troublesome in the long run. When it comes to the French colonial presence in North America, one thing to keep in mind, is that real colonialism was extremely limited. Unlike the British, France did not send over large numbers of settlers to North America. Some came of course, but the French presence in North America was mostly identified with the rough and rugged frontier fur-trappers and the intrepid Catholic missionaries who worked to convert the natives to Christianity.
The French islands in the Caribbean were, unfortunately, a different story and life for the slaves on the sugar plantations there was usually horrible. However, while accepting that, one needs look no farther to see the value of the French presence even in this area than to compare the fate of Haiti after independence to those islands still under French administration today. The Kingdom of France established some outposts in west Africa but these were limited. More progress was made in India where, for a time, it was a real possibility that French influence would surpass that of Great Britain on the subcontinent. It was from their base in India that France made their first serious effort to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia by allying with the growing power of the Nguyen Dynasty. This was during the reign of King Louis XVI and, unfortunately, the outbreak of the Revolution meant that this original, greatly preferable relationship, would never have a chance to grow and subsequent Franco-Viet relations would not be so ideal. Likewise, the colonial empire of the old Kingdom of France was fairly well decimated in a series of clashes with Great Britain. British troops and their allies blocked the French in India during the Carnatic Wars and a British victory in the French and Indian War saw the end of French Canada. There were hopes of restoring Canada to French rule by intervention in the American War for Independence but this was thwarted when the fledgling United States signed a separate peace with Great Britain, leaving France with nothing but debts.
Under Napoleon III, the French presence in Algeria was furthered and strengthened, French influence in the Middle East increased and the first armed intervention in Indochina was accomplished which would eventually lead to French control over all of modern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was also, famously, Napoleon III who made an effort to create a new French sphere of influence in the Americas with his intervention in Mexico as well as plans for French footholds in Central America and on the Pacific coast of South America. The French Empire is usually criticized for this, and certainly there is much to criticize, however, such failings are not the whole story and many great and beneficial deeds were accomplished. Good government tended to follow in the footsteps of the French Foreign Legion from Mexico to Algeria to Djibouti. Many Mexican villages had never known such basic advances as a regular and reliable postal service and freedom from bandit extortion until the arrival of the French Imperial Army. Although few would want to admit it today, when the French Imperial Army first marched into Mexico City they were met by mobs of cheering citizens.
Unfortunately, when Napoleon III was tossed aside the French republic was, not surprisingly, far more anti-monarchy in their colonial policy. French rule in Africa was greatly expanded, Madagascar was brought into the empire but this time with the local monarchy being destroyed in the process. French rule expanded in Indochina but the republic planted the seeds of its own downfall by humiliating the Vietnamese emperor and by simply by their education of native peoples. Imagine a young Vietnamese boy like the future Ho Chi Minh going to a French school and being taught all about “liberty, equality and fraternity” and how the revolution against King Louis was a great and glorious thing only to then be expected to go home and kowtow to the emperor. Given these mixed signals, it is no wonder that so many of those who would become revolutionary leaders in the anti-colonial period, leading the fight against France, were themselves French educated. Future murderous dictators like Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot were both members of the French Communist Party in France before such a thing even existed in Indochina.
Much of the memory of French colonialism is colored by the wars in Vietnam and especially Algeria. This is unfair and overlooks the benevolent record of the Kingdom of France in North America and the fact that, under Napoleon III, French colonialism was usually based on treaties with local rulers. It is also rarely considered how former colonies fared after independence. French rule in Indochina was not always pretty, but it was paradise on earth compared to the millions who were slaughtered later by native communist dictators. Even in Algeria, as ugly as the war was, things did not improve after independence. Algeria almost immediately fell into civil war, there have been conflicts and accusations of human rights abuses made by the Berbers against the Arabs and most of the last two decades have been spent with Algeria in a perpetual state of emergency with the repression that goes with it. It is also worth pointing out that some areas, such as French Guiana in South America (most famous for being the home of Devil’s Island) have been offered independence by the French government but adamantly prefer to remain a part of France. Clearly the French colonial empire had a considerable beneficial impact on many parts of the world and certainly more so during the days when monarchs still held sway over France.