Article published on 26 January 2024
last modification on 12 February 2024

In the course of four centuries, French colonial expansion has gone through two periods :

The first, known as "the race for spice" (and sugar, even slave) starts in 1534 under François I. It reaches its apogee at the end of the reign of Louis XIV. It ends under Louis XV with the loss of almost all the territories, after the defeat of 1763.

The second, known as "imperialist" starts in 1830 under Charles X and culminates under the Third Republic in the thirties. It declines as soon as the second World War ends and ceases with the advent of the Fifth republic.

The present French overseas territories, which have been granted a particular statute, are the last remaining witnesses of this long colonial History.


After the first great maritime discoveries, the world to be explored is shared, by the authority of a papal bull, between Spain, Portugal and France, the other rival nations being disqualified.

In 1534, at the request of François I, Jacques Cartier, a native of Saint Malo, sets out to look for a western sea route towards Cathay (China) and Cipangu (Japan). After having reached land for the first time in Newfoundland, he lands in Canada and names the river Saint Lawrence (Saint-Laurent).

In 1541, when the Spanish ambassador expresses the reactions of Emperor Charles V, François I replies: "The sun shines for me as for others and I would like to see the clause in Adam’s testament which excludes me from a share in the world".

A little while later, Samuel Champlain founds Quebec.


Towards the end of the reign of the Sun King, the first French colonial domain has reached its apogee. It must be mentioned that, in surface area, it is greater than the British possessions.

It is mainly American (the New continent) and consists of the following territories :

In America :

 Under the name of Canada (called Nouvelle-France), the Saint Lawrence Valley, the Lake District and, in the west, undefined territories as well as the territories of Hudson Bay, Acadia, Newfoundland.
 Under the name of Louisiana, the middle and southern regions of the Mississippi valley.
 Many West Indian Islands: Guadeloupe, Martinique…, one half of the island of Santo Domingo.

In Africa :

 Senegal, a trading Post in Ouidah (Benin), the archipelago of the Mascareignes (Bourbon Island and Ile de France) and bases in Madagascar (Fort-Dauphin).

In Asia :

 Establishments and Trading Posts in India, bases of operation in China and Bangkok.


Watercolor of an African statue

In 1713, the treaty of Utrecht grants England the territories of Hudson Bay and Acadia, except the islands situated at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence river, Newfoundland and a few West Indian islands.

In 1763, the disastrous treaty of Paris ends the Seven Years War. It endorses England’s victory on sea and land and its superiority over France and Spain.

France hands over almost all its possessions: Nouvelle-France (Canada), all the lands east of the Mississippi (Louisiana, New Orleans), several islands in the West Indies, Senegal (with the exception of the island of Gorée), its dependencies in India (except five Trading Posts). This spoliation is treated with complete indifference by the people of France.

The small portions left to France consist of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, the island of Gorée, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Sainte-Lucie, Guiana, half of the island of Santo Domingo and the Mascareignes.

In 1783, the treaty of Versailles restores Tobago and Senegal to France.

In 1794, the Convention abolishes slavery which Napoleon will re-establish in 1802.

In 1800, the First Consul recuperates Louisiana which France had ceded to Spain in 1763. In 1803, the Emperor sells it to the United States for fifteen million dollars. Its surface area is larger than that of the United States of the epoch. During the Napoleonic wars, the English occupy Senegal, the Indian Trading Posts, the West Indies, Santo Domingo.

In 1805, the Battle of Trafalgar completes the routing and, in 1811, France has hardly any colonies left.


As early as 1814, the treaty of Paris restores to France some of its ancient colonies : Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, the West Indies, Santo Domingo, Guiana, Senegal and the Indian Trading Posts.

In January 1830, the King of France, Charles X, decides to intervene militarily against the Bey of Algiers to settle a financial quarrel and with no intention of colonizing. The French army takes control of Algeria and obtains the capitulation or the support of the different local sovereigns.

In consequence, a new French colonial empire comes into being. Humanitarian, philosophical and religious preoccupations only strengthen the commercial and military interests of the west.

In 1848, the Second Empire abolishes slavery once again.

The Second Empire is particularly interested in the Far East: Obock, New Caledonia (1863), Cochin China and Cambodia (1863).

The interior of the Citadel (Hué 1928)

The Third Republic witnesses the great wave of French colonial expansion which was not of great importance at the time of the defeat of 1870 and was buoyed up by the treaty of Berlin in 1885 which leaves France and England free to share Africa between them.

The health service called "that of the colonies and the countries of the protectorate", followed by that of colonial troops, is in charge of health matters in the French colonies and possessions from 1890 to 1968, with the exception of the French territories around the Mediterranean, which are under the supervision of other administrative departments.


The actual colonies, the protectorates and the mandated territories, constitute this second colonial domain. It is more extensive than the first with territories very different from one another. In 1939, the population is about seventy million and is spread over twelve million square kilometres in five continents. The inhabitants are "French subjects" according to the terminology of the time, except in four districts in Senegal where the inhabitants are "French citizens". In 1937, a decree grants citizenship to all "subjects having attained a high degree of instruction and having rendered service to France". Finally, from 1946, the natives of overseas territories are "French citizens".

The French colonial domain is mostly African and Indochinese :

 In North Africa : Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia.

 Black Africa : West Africa and Equatorial Africa, Cameroon and Togo after 1920.

 East Africa and the Indian Ocean : French Coast of the Somalis, Madagascar, Reunion and the Comoros. Southern and Antarctic lands.

 In Asia : Trading Posts in India, Indochina (Cochin China, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, Laos).

 In the Near East : Syria and Lebanon between 1920 and 1941.

 In America : Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Bartholomew, two-thirds of Saint Martin, French Guiana, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

 In the Pacific Ocean : French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, Condominium of the New Hebrides.

The term "Colonial empire" designates specifically the period from 1870 to 1939 and does not refer to an institutionally homogeneous entity. The territories, according to their statutes, are dependant on different ministries: Interior, Foreign Affairs, Colonies.


"French Peace" goes through many vicissitudes. In all latitudes, besides the indisputably positive results, elements unfavourable to colonization accumulate in various degrees: frustration, " indigenous common law", cultural deterioration, dispossession of land, humiliations and brutalities inflicted by certain measures and certain individuals. In the twentieth century, the different European colonial powers have to contend with sometimes violent nationalist movements of disputation, resistance and revolt. From 1920 onwards, these movements exist in Morocco and Tunisia.

Later, particularly after the Second World War, repression giving rise to resentment and the desire for revenge, the different colonies obtain emancipation, by war or negotiation, from their respective colonists. Decolonisation is in place.

However, France tries several times to reform its colonial system :

 1944 : The Conference of Brazzaville, giving the natives greater participation in the running of their countries.
 1946 : The creation of the "French Union" by the Fourth republic. The appellation "France Overseas" ("France d’outre-mer") is substituted for Colonies.
 1956 : The blueprint law of Gaston Defferre increases the autonomy of the territories.
 1958 : The creation by the Fifth republic of the "French community" ("Communauté française") which is dissolved between 1960 and 1963 amidst general indifference. The ancient colonies obtain their Independence.


They consist of no more than ten zones or regions outside Metropolitan France :

 Four Overseas Departments ("départements d’outre-mer" - D.O.M.) : Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana, Reunion.
 Four Overseas Territories ("territoires d’outre-mer" - T.O.M.) : French Polynesia, New Caledonia and dependencies (whose statutes are being modified), Wallis and Futuna, Southern and Antarctic Lands.
 Two Territorial Communities ("collectivités territoriales"): Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, Mayotte.

The ties created during colonisation still survive within two aspects of France’s overseas politics :

 An international organization of French-speaking communities (La Francophonie) whose aims are cultural and socio-economic.
 Cooperation (La Coopération), by means of which Metropolitan France maintains privileged relationships with its former colonies, especially those in Africa.

For further information :

 Cornevin R. et M. : La France et les Français Outre-Mer. 1 vol. 514 p. 1990 Paris Tallandier édit.
 Mathieu J-L : Petite histoire de la grande France. Les origines de l’Outre-Mer français. 1 vol. 148 p. 1989 Paris, Éditions Caribéennes Édit.