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In 1871, the birth year of the Third French Republic, Paris ruled over a large colonial empire, composed mainly of the old colonial territories:the Senegal, Martinique, Guyana, Reunion Island, Mauritius (Ile de France) and the Seychelles. These territories had all been part of the old, 18thcentury, colonial empire. After 1830, France added new conquests to its empire:firstly, Algeria, the most important territory the French occupy between 1815 and 1870;secondly, the Horn of Africa (today’s Djibouti) and the Pacific region:Tahiti, New Caledonia and Indochina.

The problems risen from administering this large empire gave birth to an important debate in the French society regarding colonialism. Some French wondered whether all the colonial expenses were worth it, while others firmly believed in France’s duty to civilise those distant lands.

After 1871, some of the anti-colonialists focused on the Alsace-Lorraine, the important western region lost to Prussia in the war. They believed the state’s priority had to be the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine, thus the expenses needed for the colonial expansion were useless for they did not serve this purpose. For the anti-colonialists, it was more important that France regain her European prestige through military developments (and, implicitly, revenge against Germany) rather than a vast colonial empire. Their priority was defending France and catching up on Germany, whose economic development had given her the upper hand in Europe, and not conquering “uncivilised” territories. Moreover, according to some critics, France’s demographic status didn’t require a colonial expansion:with no growth in population, France didn’t have a demographic pressure that required acquiring new territories to encourage emigration.

An argument in favour of colonialism came from the adversaries of anticlerical republicans. The Third Republic was, par excellence, anticlerical:it dissolved monachal orders and congregations, as well as cultural institutions run by missionaries. With this official anticlerical stance, the government could no longer pledge to defend the numerous catholic missionaries in Africa or Asia. Because of this, France lost an important asset:its influence in countries with a large catholic population (such as China).

As such, the anti-colonialists argued that France would also have a lot to lose on a cultural level. In the past, the catholic missionaries had contributed greatly to the promotion of French language and culture all across the world, to such a large extend that, in most cases, the cultural-linguistic expansion preceded the political-economic one.

Prime Minister Jules Ferry (1880-1881, 1883-1885) was a partisan of colonial expansion and one of the many people who believed in France’s duty to bring civilisation to distant lands. In the summer of 1885, he gave a speech regarding the colonial matter, speaking in front of a Parliament dominated by an anti-colonial majority. Ferry argued that the colonial policy was a three-faceted system:political, economic and humanitarian.

Economically, the colonies could bring numerous benefits not only to the metropolis (as commercial outlets), but also to the population in poor countries, by creating jobs. Regarding the humanitarian side, Ferry talked about the “duty of the superior races towards the inferior races”, the duty to civilise the latter. According to Ferry, after the conquest of Algeria, the region had undergone a radical transformation:a more just and efficient judicial system, a better moral and material order, a better equality among citizens. Ferry also talked about how the people in equatorial Africa had had the “the great luck” of coming under the French protectorate.

After the year 1900, most French would join the colonialist side, for a very simple reason:at the time, France had already acquired an important number of colonies, building a large colonial empire that gave it a certain status on the international scene. Thanks to this colonial empire, France could once again see herself as a great power. The French ended up being so attached to this idea, of a colonial empire as a sine qua noncondition of an important global status, that after 1945 they found it extremely hard to let their colonies go without fighting back (like the English had done).