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French Colonies - Administration

The first minister of marine and colonies, Jean-Baptiste Colbert [1619-1683], was controller general of finance (from 1665) and secretary of state for the navy (from 1668). The interests of the colonies were under the charge of one of the greatest men that France ever produced. Colbert, as chief minister of the French monarch, had charge at once of the finances, the commerce, the agriculture, the marine, and the public works of his country. He was one of the most enlightened and far-sighted of all statesmen, one of the most inventive, sagacious, and capable of all administrators. The heart and mind of Colbert were, amidst his countless and incessant cares, largely devoted to colonial development, and proofs of this were given alike in East and West - in America and India, and on the African coasts.

Colbert's great maxim, "Commerce begets wealth, and wealth furnishes the sinews of war," was not yet forgotten, and in the late 19th Century there still lived in France men who looked to the day when the renewal of a European war would enable the hardy sailors of Dnnkerque and St. Malo to emulate the deeds of their corsair fathers.

Through out most of the 19th Century French colonial affairs were conducted by the Ministre Marine et Colonies [Minister of Marine and Colonies]. In 1881-1882 the Minister of Commerce was briefly in charge of the Colonies. François Felix Faure, later President of France, served as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies and Commerce and later as Under-Secretary for Marine and the Colonies. However, when in 1894 Faure obtained cabinet rank as Minister of Marine, a Minister Colonies was thereafter in charge of colonial affairs.

The colonies were divisible into two classes, (1) those possessing considerable powers of local self-government, (2) those in which the local government is autocratic. To this second class may be added the protectorates (and some colonies) where the native form of government is maintained under the supervision of French officials. Class 1, includes the American colonies, Réunion, French India, Senegal, Cochin-China and New Caledonia. In these colonies the system of assimilation was carried to great lengths. In Cochin-China, in place of a council general, there is a colonial council which fulfils the functions of a council general. In the second class of colonies the governor, sometimes assisted by a privy council, on which non-official members find seats, sometimes simply by a council of administration, is responsible only to the minister of the colonies. In Indo-China, West Africa, French Congo and Madagascar, the colonies and protectorates were grouped under governors-general, and to these high officials extensive powers have been granted by presidential decree.

Under the Third Republic the colonial minister was assisted by a number of organizations, of which the most important was the superior council of the colonies (created by decree in 1883), an advisory body which includes the senators and deputies elected by the colonies, and delegates elected by the universal suffrage of all citizens in the colonies and protectorates which did not return members to parliament. In all colonies Europeans preserved the political rights they held in France, and these rights had been extended, in whole or in part, to various classes of natives. Where these rights had not been conferred, native races are subjects and not citizens.

In France, the smaller colonies were garrisoned by detachments from the Infantry and Artillery of the Marine, subordinate to the Minister of the Marine and of the Colonies. The large colonies, on the other hand, were dependent upon the Minister of War, their garrisons being regiments and batteries of the Regular Army, or Native Corps raised on the spot, and officered partly by natives themselves, partly by officers who are willing to expatriate themselves for the additional pay offered for colonial service. There were also the Spain's and other Arab troops of the 19th Army Corps in Algeria, the Tirailleurs of Senegal, of Annam and Tonkin, and the Cipahi companies of the East Indian settlements. Besides these there were the Disciplinary Companies, composed of the scum of the whole French Army. The Minister of War was responsible for the efficiency of a large portion of the troops garrisoning the French colonies, and his colleague of the Admiralty responsible for the remainder.

The most important colonies were those on the north coast of Africa. There the power of France seemed so firmly established that, in all probability, under her influence a great and fertile district on the south shore of the Mediterranean would be developed and drawn into intimate relations with European civilization. The conquest of Algeria was completed in 1847. The climate of the country allowed Europeans to live and labor there with safety, and Algeria was regarded, not as a colony, but as a department of France. The French population was by 1890 about a quarter of a million, among a native population of three millions. The French steadily add to the foothold which they thus obtained in Algeria. In 1881 Tunis was declared to be under the protection of France ; from protection to annexation was but a step, and was the usual course of a strong and civilized power dealing with a weak and semi-barbarous nation.

Second only in importance to Algeria was the great province of Cochin China, which was a part of the French empire. Cochin China contained a population of over a million and a half, and the French extended their protectorate over Annam, Camboja, and the rest of Indo-China, until twenty millions of people become tributary to France. Indo-China would not, indeed, furnish an outlet for French emigration, but it is a fertile and populous country and capable of great development. At many times, it appears that it was only in certain small segments of Vietnamese society that the French found support - as the French Rear-Admiral Rieunier complained "We only have ruffians on our side". Nevertheless, French domination of Vietnam was complete by the end of the 19th Century, and exploitation of the country began in earnest.

It was the misfortune of the French that, while they have colonies and dependencies scattered over most of the world, in comparatively few of them can Europeans pursue their ordinary labors with safety. The French rule extended over considerable portions of the west coast of Africa, to some extent over Madagascar and ports of the Red Sea, over islands in Oceanica and the West Indies, over Guiana and Pondicherry, but in few of these scattered domains could white men live in health and comfort. From the most of them France can only hope for an increased commerce, by establishing herself as the protector or ruler of native races, by building up their trade and industries, and fostering their relations with French markets.

The French colonies were distinguished in one important respect from the English. The tendency among English colonists was to chafe at any dependent relations on the mother country. Even where they do not form a separate government, sooner or later they desire and obtain a practical autonomy. But for the French colonist the tie was much stronger that bound him to the home country. He desired to remain a Frenchman ; Paris is still for him the centre ; though his home may be at Senegal or Cochin China, his heart is in France.

The strength of this attachment may be a reason why the French were poor colonizers, if, indeed, what is so often asserted is really a fact. The emigration from France was less than from England, but many causes have contributed to this result, apart from any unfitness of the French people for settlement in new lands. Some mistakes in the administration tended to retard colonization, and the average condition of the French people, in a prosperous country, with a very slowly increasing population, does not furnish large bodies of men eager for a change in their fortunes, such as were found in most European countries.

In the extent and importance of her colonial dominion France was second only to Great Britain. The only countries in which there is a considerable white population are Algeria, Tunisia and New Caledonia. The principle underlying the administration of the French possessions overseas, from the earliest days until the close of the 19th century, was that of " domination " and " assimilation," notwithstanding that after the loss of Canada and the sale of Louisiana France ceased to hold any considerable colony in which Europeans could settle in large numbers.

The vast extension of the colonial empire in the vast extension of the colonial empire in tropical countries in the last quarter of the 19th century the evils of the system of assimilation, involving also intense centralization, became obvious. This, coupled with the realization of the fact that the value to France of her colonies was mainly commercial, led at length to the abandonment of the attempt to impose on a great number of diverse peoples, some possessing (as in Indo-China and parts of West Africa) ancient and highly complex civilizations, French laws, habits of mind, tastes and manners. For the policy of assimilation there was substituted the policy of " association," which had for aim the development of the colonies and protectorates upon natural, i.e. national, lines. Existing civilizations were respected, a considerable degree of autonomy was granted, and every effort made to raise the moral and economic status of the natives. The first step taken in this direction was in 1900 when a law was passed which laid down that the colonies were to provide for their own civil expenditure.

By 1900 the best argument for the retention of the colonies so long as possible is that if independent to-day they would become the property of Germany or some such nation to-morrow. Were England to renounce all ties, South Africa would become German South Africa, Canada part of the United States and Australia a portion of the Japanese Empire. What England would actually lose thereby is difficult to assess. She would certainly not lose financially, for the colonies represent no income while they do represent a loss in the expenses of their naval defence. On the other hand it is probable that trade outlets would be restricted thereby through tariff walls created by the new proprietors.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:19 ZULU