In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section 20th-Century French Empire

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Comparative Works
  • World War I and Aftermath
  • Interwar
  • World War II
  • Colonial Soldiers
  • Empire and the French Fourth Republic
  • Colonialism and Culture in France
  • Attitudes to Race and Identity
  • Ideas of Governance and Administrative Practice
  • Colonial Ethnography and Knowledge Construction
  • Economic Dimensions
  • Labor and Policing
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Religion
  • Science, Medicine, and Health
  • Urbanism and Environment
  • Colonial Imagery and Film
  • Memorialization and Legacies

International Relations 20th-Century French Empire
Martin Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0160


The 20th century saw France’s colonial empire move rapidly through the classic cycle of imperial expansion, attempted consolidation, and ultimate (often violent) decline. The empire reached its greatest physical extent in World War I’s aftermath, with the addition of new mandate territories formerly governed by Ottoman Turkey and Germany increasing the global population living under French rule. By 1936, the year in which a left-liberal Popular Front government conceded the principle of national independence to the Syria and Lebanon mandates, the French tricolor flew over 4 percent of the world’s population: an estimated 86,110,000 people. Territorial expansion and demographic growth were poor indicators of the empire’s underlying condition, however. Many scholars suggest that the empire was in severe crisis. The global depression of the 1930s hit numerous colonies hard. The grand-sounding imperial federations—French West Africa (Afrique Occidentale Française [AOF]), French Equatorial Africa (Afrique Equatoriale Française [AEF]), and French Indochina (Indochine Française)—had limited administrative reach and economic capacity and still less basis in indigenous culture. Among the trio of French-governed territories in the North West African Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) Algeria stood out precisely because it was the sole colony with a European population numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The older island territories—former slave colonies, penal settlements, and trading stations—had proportionately higher populations of French speakers and imperial citizens. But they were mostly small and remote. The “Frenchness” of other colonial communities was measured less in terms of a settler presence than through visible signs of social change. Linguistic transformation, Catholic observance, urban design and the reordering of public space, the adoption of French property law, and the incidence of mixed-race relationships were more frequently cited as indicators of the imperial presence than the growth of settler societies. Indeed, the culture wars between competing metropolitan and indigenous ways of life, language usage, and religious practice were just as critical in the social history of colonized peoples as their armed resistance against the imperial power. Renewed World War split empire administrations, populations, and territories, nurturing myriad forms of organized opposition. This was the prelude to fiercely contested wars of decolonization in Indochina and Algeria, which left bitter legacies that still endure.

General Overviews

Perhaps because of the sheer breadth of the subject, there are few comprehensive treatments of modern French imperialism. Aldrich 1996 comes closest with a lively, accessible, and always incisive account. Conklin, et al. 2011 offers a particularly well-informed undergraduate textbook, which successfully integrates French colonialism within a broader analysis of modern French history. Thobie, et al. 1990 provides a substantial collection, heavier on factual details than interpretations, but still an excellent source of reference. Ageron 1986 remains one of the best among the many French edited collections to cover aspects of France’s colonial presence overseas on the eve of decolonization. The two-volume collection Thomas 2011 has a strong 20th-century focus with studies of colonial cultures, contestation, and violence ranging across French Africa and Indochina. Clayton 1994 is a straightforward, factually driven account of France’s principal late colonial conflicts. The richest theoretical study, which draws substantially (but by no means exclusively) on the French colonial experience, is Cooper 2005.

  • Ageron, Charles-Robert, ed. Le Chemins de la décolonisation de l’empire française 1936–1956. Paris: Editions CNRS, 1986.

    Essays by French and international scholars, mostly regional case studies of routes to decolonization.

  • Aldrich, Robert. Greater France: A History of French Overseas Expansion. London: Macmillan, 1996.

    Genuinely global in its approach, this is an excellent introduction for students new to the French Empire.

  • Clayton, Anthony. The Wars of French Decolonization. Harlow, UK: Longman, 1994.

    Written primarily from French military sources, this is a succinct treatment that covers conflicts other than Indochina and Algeria.

  • Conklin, Alice L., Sarah Fishman, and Robert Zaretsky. France and Its Empire since 1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    The only textbook that directly makes French and colonial history part of the same analytical field.

  • Cooper, Frederick. Colonialism in Question. Theory, Knowledge, History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

    The most thought-provoking study of what colonialism means in theory and in practice.

  • Thobie, Jacques, Gilbert Meynier, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, and Charles-Robert Ageron. Histoire de la France Coloniale, 1914–1990. Paris: Armand Colin, 1990.

    Largely narrative in style, this remains the most wide-ranging introductory work available in French.

  • Thomas, Martin, ed. The French Colonial Mind. 2 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

    Two volumes of essays are covered here: the first concentrates on cultural aspects of the colonial encounter and the second covers its violent manifestations.

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