Thursday, November 15, 2012

The French Colonial Empire

Even most monarchists today prefer not to defend the colonial empires of old, though more monarchists are likely to than the mainstream which tends to totally condemn any and all colonialism even while they turn a blind eye to even worse but more subtle or indirect forms of colonialism today, usually carried out by republics. Yet, even more than that, even when it comes to monarchists, most will not respond favorably to any coupling of the words “French” and “empire”. I will not, today, be addressing the Napoleonic French Empire specifically (though each played a role and the second empire particularly had a lasting impact) but rather the wider, historical French colonial empire. It was the second largest colonial empire in the world, surpassed only by the British and although many monarchists dismiss it as a ‘republican empire’ the truth is that the roots of that massive colonial empire go back to the old Kingdom of France even if it reached its peak under the republics. As with all colonial empires, the French made their mistakes and there were examples of cruelty and injustice one could list. However, as with colonialism in general, these examples are often overblown or used to cast all colonialism in a negative light. In truth, the French “mission of civilization” was often just that and in the best sense of the term. Many parts of the world owe a great deal to La Belle France.

French colonialism could be traced back to the very beginnings of France or even before France was a united country. For the purposes of this article, we will not, but it should be remembered that it was French knights who made up much of the forces that fought in the Crusades and it was the Normans (originally Norsemen who settled in France) who fought and conquered from England to Ireland to Sicily and almost everywhere in between. There were, in the Middle Ages, Frankish kings (of the House of Anjou or the Angevins) on the thrones of England, Hungary and Croatia and Jerusalem. Earlier, of course, the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne covered most of central and western Europe. However, the colonial period of French history as most know it, began for the most part with the reign of King Francis I who, in 1523, encouraged the Italian explorer (who had already visited the North American coast on a French ship) Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore the area between Florida and Newfoundland in the hope of finding a passage to the Pacific. It was also King Francis I who, in 1534, commissioned the intrepid Jacques Cartier to undertake a similar mission and it was he who claimed the land he called “Canada” (which Verrazzano had dubbed “New France”) for King Francis I. This was the beginning of French Canada or Quebec as we know it today.

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.

Because of this, the French were careful to avoid conflict with the American Indians if at all possible. They were more likely to befriend them and early on forged alliances with them. France did not want to conquer and displace the natives, the fur traders wanted to do business with them and the priests wanted to convert them and teach them Latin -both of which requires their goodwill rather than their hostility. Nor did they tend to hold themselves apart from the natives as, by comparison, the British did and there was much more intermarriage between the French and the Native Americans which ultimately produced the mixed-race ethnic group called the Métis in modern Canada. Today, most are as “White” as any other European-Canadian but they still hold on to the special status that their original native ancestry gives them. The fact that, when war broke out between France and Britain in North America, that so many of the Indians sided with the French shows clearly that they considered their interests to be better served in the hands of the King of France than in those of the Hanoverian King of Great Britain and Ireland. This would surely not have been the case if the French had been systematically oppressing the natives or being terribly cruel to them. The French, for the most part, were not viewed as foreign conquerors but as the people who shared new knowledge with them and traded valuable goods to them which they had never had before.

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.

The Revolution, needless to say, was a disaster for the old French colonial empire and on the international front things were not improved by the creation of the actual “French Empire” under Napoleon who resigned himself to the loss of Haiti and sold the massive Louisiana Territory to the United States. He preferred to focus on expansion in Europe, though, for a brief period, he extended French influence over Egypt and the area of Palestine and Syria. Many view the sight of French Napoleonic troops tramping past the pyramids as an odd sight, but of course King St Louis IX had invaded Egypt with his French knights in the past and then as now the French language was not unknown in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was King Charles X who sent troops into Algeria, firmly bringing that area into the orbit of France for the first time. French power overseas and the “mission of civilization” was further expanded during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. In fact, most of the French colonial empire as it is remembered today was built on the foundations established under the second Napoleonic empire.

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.

Mexico, of course, did not work out due to the Union victory in the American Civil War, however, Napoleon III left a lasting French presence and influence in Africa and particularly the Far East. This included not only Indochina but also a sphere of influence in southern China after the Sino-French War and enclaves on the Chinese coast. There was also an expedition to Korea though that ended badly and was swiftly swept under the rug. When it comes to monarchy, while not perfect, the French Empire had a pretty good record. France sponsored the restoration of the monarchy in Mexico and, had that worked out, might have done the same in South America. The native monarchies of Indochina were maintained, even assisted in consolidating power in the case of Laos. Vietnam was a more unfortunate case but, even there, the real damage to the monarchy came after the fall of Napoleon III when the French Republic was running things. One reason this was possible was because of the degree to which colonial policy was the domain of the French navy and the French navy had a very strong Catholic and conservative officer corps, something seen all the way up to Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu after World War II who was one of the most adamant advocates of the restoration of the last Vietnamese emperor to lead a pro-French, non-communist Vietnamese state.

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.

Like other colonial powers, World War I saw the French empire in full flower with participants from Senegal to Saigon serving in France to contribute to the war effort. Likewise, World War II proved to be the beginning of the end of the French colonial empire. At first, France determined to fight to maintain it and in Indochina few people realize how effective the French forces were. They fought a longer and more aggressive war than the United States later did and France did it without ever resorting to conscription at home. The French forces were actually winning the war for the most part, despite sabotage on the home front, until all was lost in the desperate gamble at Dien Bien Phu. Even then, were it not for chaos and war weariness at home, France could have carried on even after that setback, but it was not to be. Other colonies fell away later until a serious effort was made to hold on to Algeria, which was even declared a part of metropolitan France. However, Algeria was eventually given up and the loss basically took the Fourth Republic with it.

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.


  1. In the end, it is better we gave up the colonies, especially Algeria. The two options were increasingly becoming 1. replacing the Empire with the Union - essentially considering more and more extra-European territory as part of metropolitan France, as Algeria had been for while, and as Guyana is today, or 2. give it up.

    The problem with the Union would have meant that millions of non-French would have then gone to European France to access the higher standards of living - how could one prevent movement amongst citizens? Ultimately we made the right choice, I think. De Gaulle understood these risks as well.

    1. Well, I can understand that I suppose. Wouldn't want France to be overrun with non-French people on the take now would we?

      Oh, damn...

    2. I can tell you a third option, seing it as a colony an nothing more with french governors a french ruling class, and promoting an full francification of the area, especialy argelia, and so on, like the XIX century policies. This sounds like something that Napoleon III would agree...

  2. Hey MadMonarchist check this out from Jordan:

    Some sad news. What do those shortsighted fools think? That the dreadful Salafists will fix the problem of higher gas prices? They'll make everything worse. They will destroy everything that King Abdullah has strived to build since 1999. That's their sole raison d' être. Jordan like other Monarchies in the region, I.e. Oman is one of the most stable nations in the Middle East because they are a Monarchy. This protest just goes to show what the mob really is. A bunch of shortsighted fools who are easily manipulated by populist figures who have in mind their welfare as much a Communist has in mind the prosperity of all.

    1. Were I being selfish, I would say bring on the higher gas prices, it's good for me so too bad for everyone else! But, seriously, I saw this story in the Wall Street Journal today and it only goes to show how right most traditional right-wingers were in being very skeptical of the "Arab Spring". So far the monarchies have weathered the storm but troubles continue in Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and even Oman to a lesser extent.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I like the idea, but it is a bit difficult to think in all the possible arguments agaisn't republicans, and by the way there is something like that but smaller in

    2. Every possible argument? And rebuttals? There is no way I would have enough time to do that. I may do something similar but such efforts are always troublesome because (A) republicans don't make sense and arguing with them gets you nowhere fast, because facts don't matter to some people and (B) because there are so many different kinds of monarchies (and republics) to compare and contrast to, defend or attack etc. Hopefully the blog as a whole has served to at least some extent in this regard.

    3. Perhaps some of the most basic arguments?

      'Hereditary monarchies don't work'
      'Doesn't it go against our democratic tradition?'
      'It's unfair'
      And other such common nonsense.

  4. One could argue that France gained and lost most of one Empire (in Americas) before revolution and gained another Empire (Africa) starting with Charles X but most of it during III Republic.

    My problem with it is Chsterton's: the peoples are not too pure to accept rule from us, but the ones of us who did rule either British Indias or French Africas tended to have some non-Christian habits of administration rub off on them.


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