France and its empire: a history tinged with suspicion

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We have to make an opposition between the first colonial domain of France and the second colonial empire. This distinction will serve to give us the elements of an answer to the question of what the colonial contribution to the experience of economic growth in metropolitan France is.

If we look at France's colonial experience, there is something that emerges that we did not have to observe in the British colonial experience because there was continuity in it. The centre of gravity of British colonization, which at one point moved from America to Asia, was marked by a certain continuity.

On the other hand, within the framework of France, between the first colonial domain constituted by France, which was also centred on America, and the second colonial edifice there is a rupture.

The discontinuity comes from the fact that the first French colonial domain disappeared with the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, and the beginning of the end of the first French colonial edifice is the rebellion of the slaves of Santo Domingo which became Haiti in 1804.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the colonial empire disappears and then comes the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with an era of relative stability that opens in Europe throughout the nineteenth century. However, for France to start building a new colonial edifice takes time.

The first step was the Algiers expedition of 1830, however, France's colonial conquest of Algeria lasted 40 years. In fact, the construction of the second French colonial edifice dates from 1860 - 1870.

These three main poles appear:

  • a pole in the Maghreb with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as a protectorate.
  • in Asia with Indochina, Vietnam, Laos and present-day Cambodia.
  • a pole in sub-Saharan Africa.

Between the end of the first domain and the real beginning of the second, there is a relatively long period of time between 70 and 80 years. After 1815, once peace was concluded between the belligerent forces in Europe, Great Britain will give the colonies back to France. From the middle of the XIXth century, the second empire is now centered on Asia and Africa and therefore more as a precedent in America and more particularly in the West Indies.

Source : D’après B. Etemad, La possession du monde. Poids et mesures de la colonisation (XVIIIe-XXe siècles), Complexe, Bruxelles, 2000, p. 175, 303 et 308.
Note: Les pourcentages étant arrondis, les totaux et sous-totaux ne correspondent pas toujours à la somme exacte de leurs éléments.
a) 13 colonies d'Amérique du Nord, Canada, Australie, Nouvelle-Zélande, Afrique du Sud.

Looking at Table 3, we can see that the weight of the first empire is much lower than that of the second. In order to measure the weight, we have so far used the surface area and the population, that is to say the land and the number of people under French colonial control.

If we make a comparison between the first and the second French colonial empire, in 1760 for the first empire and in 1913 for the second, the second empire in 1913 is 150 times larger and 80 times more populated than the one in 1760. The first empire appears to be more inconsistent than the second.

In the French Empire, there is a discontinuity and inconsistency that can also be illustrated by the very long period of time that elapses with the break between the two buildings. This poses a problem of periodization, because it has a character that is disordered.

Each colonizing country has a historiographical tradition, that is to say that since professional historians began to write on this register, they have taken it in a certain way and in their approach certain arguments appear.

In France, something that is very striking in making a singularity is that most of the authors who address the question of the colonial contribution to the economic growth of France fall into the Cartierism of the name of Cartier.

Raymond Cartier gave his name to a current that dominates French historiography. He was a journalist for Paris-Match in the 1970s, and in his articles he advocated very strong positions.

Cartierism is an attitude of disengagement, in other words, everything that this journalist wrote was to advocate that France disengage, because the colonies were a burden. This disengagement is selfish in the sense that, according to Cartier, losing the colonies was for the metropolis to become richer.

If the colonies cost, by getting rid of them one would get rich, especially the colonial burden that Cartier considered too heavy would allow metropolitan capital placed in the colonial domain to return to France and develop depressed and peripheral regions of the hexagon.

Raymond Cartier considered the colonies as a burden, costly and cumbersome, giving up the colonies and the possibility of bringing back capital placed abroad and misused: « it is time to devote to Lot-et-Garonne and the Lower Alps the tens of billions we waste in Senegal and Madagascar ».

Cartierism is an old idea, Voltaire makes an assessment of the colonial experience in Canada in the 1760s: « this country was inhabited by barbarians, bears and beavers, but above all it was an unproductive and expensive colony ».

It was a settlement colony and this territory had to be developed. When Voltaire wrote we are at the beginning of the development and it takes time. In the idea of colonization, there is that of a gain that can be expected in the short term and that suggests impatience. For Voltaire, « if the tenth part of the money swallowed up in these colonies had been used to clear the wastelands of France, a considerable gain would have been made ».

There is something of a selfish disengagement, however, there is an essential difference between Voltaire and Cartier in that Canada was a territory that had not yet shown its potential, but when Cartier in the 1950s says that empire is a burden, he forgets to mention that before being a burden, this second French colonial empire was a source of wealth and power.

In any case, in both cases, it should be noted that losing a colony is tantamount to deliverance and that the funds distributed overseas may be better spent on development in metropolitan France. It is a constant in the history of the exploitation of overseas empires as seen from the metropolises that whenever hopes of quick gains are disappointed or the colonies cease to be a source of profit, imperial enterprises are denounced as too costly.

After the 1960s, i.e. after colonisation, Cartierism became a corny idea, but Cartierism is still an idea that persists.

Most authors suspect colonization to be a rotten fruit. There is one opinion that takes the long view opting for the global perspective: « overall and in the long run the balance sheet of the empire is disastrous, colonial expansion is one of the factors that made France a backward, miserable, poor and pitiful country ».

In French historiography, as in all European colonial historiography, one current considers that colonization was a driving force for growth. In all the authors we have reviewed, colonization is a brake and a hindrance.

We must begin by periodizing by making choices. In the long colonial period for France, we must remember two moments:

  • the second half of the 18th century which is the apogee of the first French colonial edifice, at the same time there are the first tremors of growth, that is to say the beginning of the industrialization of France. These beginnings are timid, but there is something like an economic start at that time.
  • the second phase goes from the 1870s to the 1950s, i.e. about a century which is the second colonial empire during which France will experience alternating phases of growth and rapid growth followed by crises. It is interesting to look at the colonial contribution between the 1850s and 1970s to see how it behaves in periods of high and low growth.

First Empire: uncertain links between the colonial sector and industrialization[edit | edit source]

During the second half of the 18th century, there was an initial impetus for French growth; the question is, where did the impetus come from? The impetus came from foreign trade, whose pace was twice that of the French economy. The foreign trade boom that drove growth was based on overseas traffics, i.e. colonial trade and the slave trade.

The share of colonial trade in France's total trade tripled in the 18th century, there was an Americanization of France's foreign trade since the colonies were located in the New World. Guadeloupe, Martinique and especially Santo Domingo provide nearly 80% of colonial trade by the mid 1780s, feeding on the slave trade which is multiplied by nearly 20.

This great trade gave a boost to the French economy, what we must try to see is how. We find the functions that the colonies can fulfill:

  • Outlet function with an impulse given by the expansion of markets
  • impulse given by the accumulation of capital

Overseas trade can exert an industrializing effect either by boosting demand for manufactured products by opening up new external outlets and this same industrializing effect can be exerted through investment in products of commercial origin that would be invested in manufacturing production.

  • We have to weigh the colonial outlet, what did it imply and what did we see in the British state?

It means that we have to bring together a number of elements in order to measure the colonial outlet : we need to know the export rate of the French economy at the end of the 18th century, which was 10% to 12%, we need to determine the percentage of industrial production sold on external markets, i.e. 12% to 14%, which is the fraction of national production sold abroad.

The colonies captured some 23 per cent of France's total exports and nearly 38 per cent of its exports of manufactured goods. This enables us to calculate the fraction of France's industrial production absorbed by its colonies and the fraction of the gross national product that falls within the colonial outlet.

If we combine the above percentages, we obtain the situation that colonial markets absorb about 5 per cent of France's industrial production and 2.5 per cent of its gross product, in other words, around the 1750s, the colonial outlet weighs half as much in the French economy as that of Great Britain and almost three times less in the industrial sector.

What interests us is the possible industrializing effect. With these simple calculations, we realize that this effect is not as great as in the case of Great Britain.

In each case, there is one aspect that has been particularly studied and in others aspects are left in the dark. In the case of France, most authors who study the colonial contribution start from the national to the regional level.

France which is turned towards the Atlantic are only a few coastal ports which are Nantes, Bordeaux, Le Havre, Rouen and Marseille which concentrate nearly 90% of Atlantic trade on the eve of the French Revolution.

  • Does this part of France see more interaction between colonial outlet and industrialization appearing?

Nantes is a port concerned by trade of right, i.e. concerned by colonial trade to the West Indies, but Nantes is also the first port concerned by circulating trade, in other words, Nantes is the first slave port in France.

  • Is there any interaction between port trade and industry?

We are going to consider the textile industry because the interactions are very visible, the production of canvases destined for the West Indies and especially the manufacture of Indian women who are painted cotton fabrics make up the bulk of a slave ship's cargo.

The Atlantic outlet will allow the development of certain industrial activities in Nantes and its region, which are the following industries textiles and in particular the Indian factories which were founded at the beginning of the 18th century where a large factory was established.

A little later in the 1760s, a whole series of production units manufactured Indian women, i.e. a dozen or so workshops in Nantes on the initiative of Swiss traders, mainly from Basle and Neuchâtel specialising in the printing of milking cloth.

The only outlet for Nantes' industry is Africa. These Indian mills mass-produce large quantities of textiles, often with motifs designed to appeal to African customers. It is a mass production with market research that is very targeted.

In the second half of the 18th century, a whole series of events occurred outside France that cut the impetus for such activities, such as the Seven Years' War 1756 - 1763, the revolt of the slaves of Santo Domingo who were lost in 1792, and from 1792 to 1814 there were the maritime wars and the wars of the slave trade. Each time what is blown in from the outside cuts the momentum.

There is a revival at the time of the restoration after 1815, the slave trade spreads through clandestine activities, but from the beginning of the 19th century the Nantes Indians all leave.

Something is coming from the outside, but we cannot talk about an industrialization that is based on solid and lasting foundations, for the industry in Nantes we talk about industrial outbreaks.

Overseas trade generates profits and if these profits are repatriated and reinvested they can fuel the formation of industrial capital in France. The problem is that it is very difficult to assess the profits.

There are several areas of trade when we talk about large trade, there is a complementarity of the different areas of trade making it very difficult to calculate the profitability of one by opposing it to the other or to have an overall view.

First of all, there is the cargo of slaves on a slave ship that allows several ships to be loaded with foodstuffs from America. The West Indies provide sugar, cotton, cocoa, raw cotton and indigo partly re-exported by France to Europe; trade with the old continent provides part of the trade cargo.

The trading cargo comes from all parts of Europe. Trade with Spanish America provides the precious metals needed to lubricate those with East India, which supplies Indian women for the slave trade.

French colonial trade made an annual profit rate of 5% to 5.5% in the 18th century. This may seem like a low rate, but these same studies predict that these colonial profits would be 15% to 20% higher than the domestic activities of French activity. The second step, as in the British case, is to evaluate the contribution of colonial profits to capital formation in France.

This is valid for the mid 1780s, when profits from the great colonial trade represented 1/3 of France's total gross investments. Assuming a reinvestment rate of 30 %, this rate would be reduced to a 10 % share of France's gross fixed capital formation, i.e. what the profits from the great colonial trade represented, which would be sufficient to ensure the financing of the fixed capital mobilised in industry.

There is a concern to have a term of comparison with Great Britain, unfortunately, in the case of both France and Great Britain, this exercise does not tell us where the money of the traders who make their fortune in overseas trade goes. We know that traders are anxious to diversify their investments, so they invest part of their capital in industrial production, so the money from trade and commerce contributes to the development of certain branches of industry, shipbuilding, processing of colonial commodities, distilleries, tobacco factories, etc.

There is no perseverance among these investors, they participate in the setting up of processing industries, then in a second stage they show a disinterest and disengagement, leaving it to professional manufacturers and technicians to take care of it. In other words, in this case, the traders are second-hand industrialists, they do what they know how to do best, they focus on other activities such as seeking alliances with the elite, buying land and quality vineyards, buying noble properties such as urban mansions, castles or estates.

In France, market savings have not been directed towards industry, which is the difference with Great Britain, not towards dynamic industries.

However, contrary to what some authors have claimed, market savings are not useless and have the double advantage of constituting a good investment and contributing to consideration.

We will see what factors explain that the colonial contribution is less buoyant in France than it was for Great Britain during the industrial revolution.

In the 18th century, the two countries had comparable industrial growth and a colonial market, which absorbed an increasing fraction of industrial production and gross product.

At the end of the 1780s, the size of the colonial sector measured by its added value, that is to say the total profits and salaries that this sector generated, the size of the colonial sector was as important in France as in Great Britain. On the other hand, colonial trade was more favourable to industrialization in Great Britain than in France.

  • Why does France's colonial trade have a more limited driving power?

The first factor is that the influence of French colonial trade is concentrated in a few ports, this influence is only based on a narrow base which are the West Indies and which is a fragile base.

Moreover, the French domain is less vast and varied than that of the British Empire, which is made up, among other things, of North American colonies that are secure and dynamic markets for British industry.

Another factor is the French industrialization process which has weak points, its growth rate is comparable to that of Great Britain, but its starting level is lower, this level can be estimated by taking the industrial production per capita. The growth of industrial production is as high as in Great Britain, but does not change the traditional structures, we cannot speak in France of a revolution in the industrial production process.

There is something in the case of France, this relatively short first phase in the second half of the 18th century. The great trade could have, had it not been for the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, created a pole of industrialization capable of playing a role for France that the Liverpool - Manchester tandem played for Great Britain.

This Atlantic prosperity, these regions running along the Atlantic coastline and concerned with great trade, is only a pocket that will be destroyed during the wars of the revolution and the empire.

This annihilation means that the growth potential of this islet will never be known with any certainty, it is a momentum that is broken.

=The Second Empire: a "privileged field for the expansion of French capitalism" ? In Table 3, we can see how the gap in terms of area and population between a First Empire and a Second Empire is much more consistent than the first.

Table 3 shows that between 1780 and 1913, i.e., when the second French colonial edifice was established, the population of the territories conquered by France rose from 7 million to 48 million inhabitants, to exceed 70 million inhabitants in 1938. What the colonial market represents in terms of population, with the constitution of the second French empire, gains in power.

From the 1880s onwards, the colonial market will become important, which was not the case before, on the other hand, it is a market that is captive.

Contrary to what we had presented for Great Britain, for a long period of time, it operated with its empire within the framework of an open system, a free trade system, from the 1840s to the 1939s.

On the other hand, if we look at the case of France and its empire, the latter fulfills the functions assigned to it within a system that is closed, since the empire is united with the metropolis within a customs and protectionist system.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, from 1760 to 1890, the whole phase that interests us is marked first of all by the return of protectionism which takes place in the early 1890s and will continue until the end of the Second World War. France operates with its empire in a closed system, it is a market that France puts its hand on. The two entities function as a block in a closed system.

From 1879 onwards, the colonial market acquired an important dimension.

  • To what extent does the colonial market fulfil its role as an outlet for metropolitan industrial products and as a source of supply of raw materials for France's economic growth?

We must first consider the role of outlets, then the role of supply and finally the role of the empire as a place of investment of metropolitan capital.

A critical moment when we look at the issue at hand is a time when there is a great changeover: it is the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Before the 1930s, between the 1880s and the early 1830s, the empire fulfilled with satisfaction for the metropolis the functions that the latter had assigned to it; that is to say that the French colonial possessions represented a good outlet for dynamic manufacturing activities, the empire also fulfilled its role as a supplier of raw products.

From the 1930s onwards, France experienced great difficulties from a financial point of view, it will fall back on the empire, all the more so as the empire is a captive and easily accessible market. From then on, the empire was accused of hindering and slowing down.

In the background there are phases of economic growth in France that alternate, sometimes there is a good period of growth during which the colonies fulfill the functions assigned to them, when bad weather arrives, they withdraw into their markets, but they are accused of sclerosing the French economic structures.

In terms of outlets, it was in 1928 that the empire became France's leading trading partner because, from the 1880s onward, French exports to the empire grew at a higher rate than French exports outside the empire. In 1928 this is a position that the empire will not leave until the end of the colonial empire becoming the first trading partner of France.

From 1880 until 1930, the colonial outlet absorbed a large fraction of the exports of dynamic industrial branches. The real industrialisation of France took place a few decades later than that of Great Britain. France was one of the first countries to emulate Great Britain, however, with a time lag, which is why it was not until 1913 that the colonial outlet became important for the textile and steel industries.

It can therefore be considered that from the end of the 19th century the empire was a privileged outlet, for the textile industry, the colonial outlet absorbs 30% and for the steel industry it is 40%.

At that time, these were dynamic branches. The role of the colonies with the outlets is in phase with the decline of certain manufacturing branches which pull the growth upwards.

The colonies fulfil the function of a source of supply of raw products with the same dynamics. Already before the First World War, the empire was an essential source of supply for the fat industry, the sugar industry, but also the superphosphate fertilizer industry.

Finally, the empire as a place of metropolitan capital investment, until the middle of the 19th century the colonies did not appear in the statistics of foreign investments. It is considered that in the years 1870 - 1880 the colonies hosted around 5% of the total French foreign investments, increasing until they became the preferred place of investment on the eve of the First World War. Around 1913, 8% to 15% of the total capital invested abroad by France went to the empire, around 1929 from 30 to 40 and in 1939 up to 50%.

On the eve of the 1930 crisis, what we have just said clearly shows that the empire is France's leading trading partner and also its leading foreign financial asset. There is an interest for metropolitan capital to move towards the empire since colonial investment combines two major advantages: profitability and security.

Until the Great Depression, the return on colonial investments leaves one dreaming, in mines, plantations, trade, banking and transportation, profit rates range from 20% to more than 120% between the 1880s and the Great Depression.

By the end of the 18th century, colonial profit rates hovered around 5%.

From the 1930s onwards, there was a temptation to fall back on the empire because the crisis of the 1930s affected everyone, but some more than others, France suffered particularly.

The crisis is affecting its foreign trade, one of the engines of growth since the 1880s. We have figures that reveal a very critical situation for France, in 1938 neither industrial production nor national income returned to the 1929 level. In 1929, there was an interruption in growth between 1929 and 1938, and for the 19th and 20th centuries it was an interruption of unprecedented duration, which, moreover, is without equivalent in the industrial countries.

From the 1930s onwards, the international position of the French economy declined both in absolute and relative terms, and this led to a retreat into the colonial empire, which became increasingly accentuated. The empire acquires a growing importance from the 1930s. For many authors, the growing importance of the empire masks a whole series of limiting and above all perverse effects. Suspicion is focused on the three functions.

Each time and from the moment that the metropolis takes refuge in its empire and that it produces the role of outlet, we will find perverse effects.

The colonial outlet is easy to access because the empire and the metropolis operate in a closed system, making it a non-competitive system. They are being accused of being a structural refuge, a permanent refuge that spreads out over time for branches that used to be motorized, but are now in decline.

The empire would thus serve as a "lazy pillow" for the first-generation textile, food and steel industries, which it monopolizes to slow down their decline and delay their necessary conversion.

According to this argument, the empire and the colonial market ensure the survival of the "lame duck", in this sense it hinders the competitiveness of the entire French economy.

There is a distinction between the first industrial revolution where the dynamic branches are the textile and steel industries with the current consumer goods and one makes the difference with a second industrial revolution where there are rather branches like the machine industry, the chemical industries, the automobile industry, the electrical engineering which are presented as a second generation of industrial products.

The second industrial revolution dates from the years 1860 - 1880.

  • However there is a gap for France, is the empire a good outlet for new branches?

The empire constitutes like a refuge, but once the bad weather is over it returns to its usual outlets by regaining the competitive markets of industrial countries; there is therefore an alternation with a first moment when the industrial structures in place make of the colonial market something positive for growth there is a structural change in the industrial production apparatus which makes that for the new branches the colonial outlet is less buoyant, the colonial outlet does not make it possible not to support the growth by supporting the new branches as it did with the old ones.

Raymond Cartier forgot that before being a hindrance, the colonial market had been a source of wealth and power. We had also found for Great Britain this argument that discredited the colonial outlet. There is no evidence that in the absence or loss of the colonial market in the 1930s, a better allocation of labour and capital would have occurred to the benefit of competitive industries. If the empire did not exist, there would have been a new allocation of resources, i.e. labour and capital to the benefit of competitive branches.

It should be noted that the withdrawal of declining industries protected by international barriers through high tariffs to the empire limits the social cost of brutal restructuring. Restructuring is necessary, but it does not have to be brutal and entail a very high social cost. The empire makes it possible to spread out over time the restructuring that will eventually take place.

The empire is first of all a driving force behind the dynamic and then a brake on growth is due to several factors and not only to changes in the metropolitan productive apparatus, something that hardly appears in the specialized literature, i.e. the evolution of income disparities from the 19th century onwards.

The evolution of the purchasing power of the colonized populations must be taken into account, and from the middle of the 19th century onwards, the disparities in per capita income between France and its colonies widened. Between 1870 and 1950, these gaps in per capita income between metropolitan France and its overseas possessions ranged from 4 to 8.

If these gaps widened is that the colonized populations no longer had the capacity to absorb metropolitan production, the colonial market, from a certain point on, could not absorb a significant fraction of the industry resulting from the second industrial revolution because of the low purchasing power of the colonized populations.

This is the suspicion that many authors raise about the colonial outlet. France wanted the colonies to be a "beautiful marriage", but all the time.

From the 1880s onwards, the empire fulfilled the function of supplier, but this usefulness of the colonial reservoir is questioned because the colonies would be unable to supply the metropolis with sufficient quantities of textile fibres, ores, metals and mineral fuels at a good price. The colonial reservoir did not play the strategic role that would make it an essential asset for French economic growth.

The empire was accused of failing to supply the products that the metropolis needed at prices below market value. France buys in its empire by favouring some.

This is an unconvincing argument, because in many cases there is a surcharge, the sugar that the metropolis will buy from its colonies is at a higher price compared to if it bought Cuban sugar. These authors forget that France saves foreign currency while trade with the West Indies is a national currency. A suspicion hovers over the empire as a place of investment for capital, after the 1930s private capital began a movement of withdrawal with a fall in the rate of profit in colonial activities.

  • It is the public investment that compensates for the private disinvestment, but for all that the colonies do not weigh, as most authors claim, a tax burden on the back of the French taxpayers, why?

Once the colonies have been conquered and that they should be developed, they must be equipped by investing in infrastructures such as railways, canals, port facilities, financed either from the budgetary resources of the colonies or from loan funds that are entirely reimbursed by local revenues, in other words, the equipment facilities are the responsibility of the indigenous populations.

The second empire lasted longer than the first, it was larger, more varied, and its contribution to metropolitan growth was all the better assured. From the 1880s to the end of the 1920s, a sustained period for the French economy, the colonial market fully fulfilled the functions assigned to it: an outlet for driving industrial branches, a provider of resources and a place for safe and remunerative investments of French capital.

The empire does not play its role as well afterwards, taking into account the evolution of the gaps between France and its empire, between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century, the empire fully fulfils the role assigned to it if we take this evolution into account.

The limits of the colonial contribution to the metropolitan economy could have been spent and the perverse effects of the colonial contribution could have been avoided, but to do so France would have had to change its colonial strategy and pay the price for the development of its empire.

Metropolitan France would have had to make a greater effort to develop its colonies economically and to give the dominated populations substantial purchasing power. It is therefore not the colonial market, but the strategy of withdrawal from the empire imposed by certain branches of French industry that eventually sclerosed and isolated the metropolitan economy until the 1950s.

We can retain the share of French investments expressed as a percentage of the gross national product, i.e. what France devotes to the development of its empire out of all the wealth produced in the hexagon, during the inter-war period it was 10% of the French gross national product, behind all the other European colonizing powers, i.e. Great Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal; France got the empire it deserved.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]