In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Colonial Rule

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiography
  • Journals
  • Archives, Libraries, and Research Resources
  • Conquest, Resistance, and Accommodation
  • Mechanisms of Control: Institutions and Agents
  • Colonial Economies and Labor Regimes
  • Civilizing Missions
  • Colonial Categories and Forms of Knowledge
  • Religious Encounters
  • Colonial Identities
  • Women, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Colonial Armies and Colonial Troops
  • Environment
  • Critics of French Colonialism

African Studies French Colonial Rule
Ruth Ginio, Jennifer Sessions
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0029


The French presence in Africa dates to the 17th century, but the main period of colonial expansion came in the 19th century with the invasion of Ottoman Algiers in 1830, conquests in West and Equatorial Africa during the so-called scramble for Africa and the establishment of protectorates in Tunisia and Morocco in the decades before the First World War. To these were added parts of German Togo and Cameroon, assigned to France as League of Nations mandates after the war. By 1930, French colonial Africa encompassed the vast confederations of French West Africa (AOF, f. 1895) and French Equatorial Africa (AEF, f. 1905), the western Maghreb, the Indian Ocean islands of Madagascar, Réunion, and the Comoros, and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Within this African empire, territories in sub-Saharan Africa were treated primarily as colonies of exploitation, while a settler colonial model guided colonization efforts in the Maghreb, although only Algeria drew many European immigrants. Throughout Africa, French rule was characterized by sharp contradictions between a rhetorical commitment to the “civilization” of indigenous people through cultural, political, and economic reform, and the harsh realities of violent conquest, economic exploitation, legal inequality, and sociocultural disruption. At the same time, French domination was never as complete as the solid blue swathes on maps of “Greater France” would suggest. As in all empires, colonized people throughout French Africa developed strategies to resist or evade French authority, subvert or co-opt the so-called civilizing mission, and cope with the upheavals of occupation. After the First World War, new and more organized forms of contestation emerged, as Western-educated reformers, nationalists, and trade unions pressed by a variety of means for a more equitable distribution of political and administrative power. Frustrated in the interwar period, these demands for change spurred the process of decolonization after the Second World War. Efforts by French authorities and some African leaders to replace imperial rule with a federal organization failed, and following a 1958 constitutional referendum, almost all French territories in sub-Saharan Africa claimed their independence. In North Africa, Tunisian and Moroccan nationalists were able to force the French to negotiate independence in the 1950s, but decolonization in Algeria, with its million European settlers, came only after a protracted and brutal war (1954–1962) that left deep scars in both postcolonial states. Although formal French rule in Africa had ended by 1962, the ties it forged continue to shape relations between France and its former colonial territories throughout the continent.

General Overviews

General information on French colonial rule in Africa can be found in works dealing with French imperialism as a whole, in specific regional or national histories, as well as in general and comparative studies of European colonialism in Africa. The books in this section belong to the first two categories. Among histories of French imperialism, Aldrich 1996 is a concise, readable overview of French colonial empire in the 19th and 20th centuries, presented in thematic chapters. In French, the two-volume series Mayer, et al. 1991 and Thobie, et al. 1990 remains the standard, if largely narrative, reference for scholars. Manning 1988 is a good reference in English, focusing only on sub-Saharan Africa and extending into the postcolonial period, while Coquery-Vidrovitch and Goerg 1992 offers a more African perspective on the history of French colonial rule and examines each of the territories of the two federations in sub-Saharan Africa. The essays in Thomas 2011, many concerning Africa, represent more recent scholarly approaches to the mind-sets of those involved in the French colonial endeavor that take account of the tensions between the ideologies and practices of French imperialism, as well as the agency of colonized people in negotiating colonial relationships. Regional approaches to colonial North Africa emphasize environmental, historical, and cultural linkages that transcend colonial and state boundaries, as well as the shared features of French colonial domination across the Maghreb. Rivet 2002 is an excellent synthetic analysis of the consequences of French colonization for North African societies. Katan Bensamoun, et al. 2007 is a more succinct introduction intended for undergraduate students. There are also good histories of the individual French colonies and the nation-states that succeeded them. Bouchène, et al. 2012 presents brief essays by international experts on all aspects of Algeria’s colonial history, offering a useful and accessible overview of current scholarship in the field.

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

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-24729-5

    A readable survey of French empire in the modern period intended as a textbook for undergraduates. Thematic chapters draw on examples from across the French empire, including but not limited to Africa.

  • Bouchène, Abderrahmane, Jean-Pierre Peyroulou, Ouanassa Siari Tengour, and Sylvie Thénault, eds. Histoire de l’Algérie à la période coloniale, 1830–1962. Paris: La Découverte; Algiers: Barzakh, 2012.

    This collection of short essays intended for a general public offers an excellent introduction to the main themes in Algerian history during the colonial period.

  • Coquery-Vidrovitch, Catherine, and Odile Goerg, eds. L’Afrique occidentale au temps des Français: colonisateurs et colonisés, c. 1860–1960. Paris: La Découverte, 1992.

    A study of encounters between colonizer and colonized in French West Africa throughout the colonial period, focusing on “history from below.” Following a general analysis of French colonial rule in the AOF, a separate chapter is devoted to each colony.

  • Katan Bensamoun, Yvette, Rama Chalak, and Jacques-Robert Katan. Le Maghreb de l’empire ottoman à la fin de la colonisation française. Paris: Belin, 2007.

    A succinct, undergraduate-level textbook account of the histories of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco from the 18th century through decolonization, emphasizing economic and cultural history.

  • Manning, Patrick. Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa 1880–1985. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    A general survey of Francophone Africa from 1880 to 1985, focused on political, economic and cultural developments. Offers a brief discussion of several important subjects and basic concepts of this historical period. Useful coverage of the first twenty-five years of independence and thus the continuities and ruptures between the colonial and postcolonial periods.

  • Mayer, Jean, Jean Tarrade, Annie Rey-Goldzeiguer, and Jacques Thobie. Histoire de la France coloniale. Vol. 1, Des origines à 1914. Paris: Armand Colin, 1991.

    Functioning primarily as a reference work, the first volume of a two-part synthetic account of French colonial expansion and its impact on France by leading French scholars. The second part can be found in Thobie, et al. 1990. Both volumes devote significant attention to North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Volume 1 focuses on the processes of colonization and establishment of colonial administrations.

  • Rivet, Daniel. Le Maghreb à l’épreuve de la colonisation. Paris: Hachette, 2002.

    A synthetic analysis of the impact of French colonization across the Maghreb, with a useful comparative sensibility and attention to both transformations and continuities.

  • Thobie, Jacques, Gilbert Meynier, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, and Charles-Robert Ageron. Histoire de la France coloniale. Vol. 2, 1914–1990. Paris: Armand Colin, 1990.

    Continues where Mayer, et al. 1991 left off, examining French colonial rule from the First World War to the era of decolonization. Despite its title, this volume takes the historical narrative only to the demise of the Fourth Republic in 1958.

  • Thomas, Martin, ed. The French Colonial Mind: Mental Maps of Empire and Colonial Encounters. 2 vols. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 2011.

    This wide-ranging collection of essays by international scholars offers students and specialists alike an excellent cross-section of recent research on French colonialism, including in Africa. Volume 1 focuses on cultural encounters, and Volume 2 focuses on colonial violence.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.