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View series: Europe's colonial expansion, 1820-1939

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France and its Colonies

This map is part of a series of 19 animated maps showing the history of Europe's colonial expansion, 1820-1939.

In 1815, France was left with only a very small part of its first colonial empire, mostly a collection of islands and trading posts such as Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, Saint-Pierre & Miquelon, the Reunion, Saint-Louis in Senegal, 5 trading posts in India, and Guyana.

During the reign of Louis Philippe, the July monarchy, French colonization was revived by the long conquest of Algeria and the annexation of Mayotte, the Marquises Islands and Tahiti.

The Second Empire saw the colony of Senegal extended, New Caledonia transformed into a penal colony, the annexation of Cochin China and Cambodia, but France’s imperial ambitions came to a halt in Mexico.

To regain France’s position as world power after its defeat by Prussia, the Third Republic continued to develop the colonial empire.

The capture of Tonkin and Annam and the establishment of concessions in China gave France power status in Asia. Further extension, a protectorate for Tunisia, colonization of Madagascar, and the constitution of a vast French territory in Africa, all this came at a cost of greater rivalry with other European powers.

During the First World War, the colonies provided soldiers, workers, raw materials and revenues. Their contribution to the war effort offered proof, at last, of the usefulness of creating an empire. In 1920, France secured mandates by the League of Nations to administrate the former German colonies, Cameroon and Togo, as well as Lebanon and Syria former territories of the Ottoman Empire.

Just as the French colonial empire arrived at its peak, the authorities were confronted by the armed revolt of the Djebel Druze in Syria, the creation of the Republic of the Rif by the Emir Abd-el-Krim in Marocco, and later by political challenges from communist and nationalist groups in Indochina and Algeria, echoed by anti-colonialist minorities in mainland France.

During the war, migrants from the colonies began arriving in France, encouraged by the State to offset declining birth rates.

In 1931, France staged the Colonial Exhibition as a proud demonstration of its empire which covered more than 12 millions square kilometres and had a population of 65 million.

With a return to greater protectionism and rising tension among European countries, the ability to turn to the Empire for economic resources appeared to offer France guarantees for its power base and its future security.