Wouldn't the French Empire have been a superpower?
Friday, February 28, 2003
by Henri-Paul Bolineau
Maybe this only interests me as something of an amateur student of World History who happens to also be of French descent but I notice that, in the list of Superpowers in World History Mr. Berg-Andersson put together for his Commentary entitled 'Turning Pro', he did not include France, with its fairly vast colonial possessions prior to the 1960s, as one of these superpowers.
I happened to be looking at an old World Atlas I have from the 1930s and France's colonies in Africa back then (French West Africa, French Equatorial Africa) seem to have been comparable in area to those of Great Britain on that continent. There was also French Indo-China not all that far east of British India and Burma (not to mention French Guiana and Caribbean islands [Guadeloupe, Martinique] which remain French colonies in the Western Hemisphere to this day!)
Wouldn't the French Empire (assuming that is actually the correct term here) have been as much a superpower as the British Empire was at around the same time in History?
Mr. Berg-Andersson responds:
You didn't mention St. Pierre et Miquelon (France's only remaining North American dependency)!
Seriously... I can best answer Mr. Bolineau's point by asking him (and, for that matter, anyone else reading this who might be at all interested) to do this little mental exercise (note: mental exercise-- unless you happen to like using blue and red ink [or even crayon!] and also have something like an hour or two to waste!!):
On a blank map of the World (in your own mind!)- one with at least the continents labeled (though, if you're really good at geography, try and add in the current political boundaries of the various and sundry countries on this planet), "color" in "blue" everything that France has ever possessed as a colonial or other dependency (you would have to include the Louisiana Territory pre-sale to the USofA, Nouvelle-France [the St. Lawrence Valley in what is now Canada] in addition to more recent French colonies [including those specifically mentioned by Mr. Bolineau above]-- and, if you really want to "take it out", treat the areas in Europe dominated by Napoleon just prior to his ill-fated Russian Campaign of 1812 as part of this assemblage of French colonies)... now, "color"- only this time in "red"- everything the British ever possessed as a colonial dependency (including the original United States of America- east of the Mississippi and north of Florida); there will be some overlap (as, for example, the aforementioned Nouvelle-France became British Canada)... yes, it does look rather impressive for France!...
only one problem, though: France didn't hold all these colonies at the same time!!... for instance, by the time France started accruing its African colonial dependencies and also began mucking about in Southeast Asia, Louisiana had not been French for a good three quarters of a century; Nouvelle-France had ceased to be a French colony more than a century earlier! (though, as Mr. Bolineau's own surname attests [he has previously described himself in earlier 'vox Populi' as a native of Canada], French cultural influence remained in the St. Lawrence Valley even after France's control was replaced by British rule [thanks to Carleton's Paradox... see my Commentary of 8 September 2002])
More to the point: there were regions of the globe in which Britain was predominant but in which France had comparatively little influence: there is not all that much France once held in Oceania (despite the possession of Tahiti and its surrounding islands) that can compare with British Australia and New Zealand (not to mention, say, Fiji) and France did not have anything approaching the influence Britain had in either South Asia or North America (that is, once the French had given up Louisiana)! Areas along the coast of North Africa which, yes, later did become French dependencies (Tunisia, say) were- just around the time French Louisiana had only just been sold to the United States in 1803- still the stomping grounds of the so-called "Barbary Pirates" with whom American sailors and marines would soon be engaged militarily.
In 1880, France had only one major possession in Africa- Algiers (the coastal portion of what is today independent Algeria)- and but two in Asia (Cambodia and Cochin China [the latter surrounding the city once known as Saigon]); at this time, Britain- besides being already predominant in India and Australasia- already held the Cape Colony (the core of what would soon become South Africa). By 1914, France's possessions in Africa had, indeed, become the impressive lot to be seen in Mr. Bolineau's old World Atlas-- but they still cannot really compare to Britain's "Cape-to-Cairo" group (divided in two only by German East Africa which, as a result of a global war about to begin, would- soon enough- become the British mandate of Tanganyika) in terms of overall effect on that continent; yes, by 1914, France finally has its Indo-China-- but this has been offset by the British having- as a protectorate- the nearby Malay States (the core of today's independent Malaysia).
There is also the matter of longevity to consider: France entered the European late 19th Century scramble for Africa less than a century before it only ended up granting its colonial possessions there independence (it held Indo-China about a decade shorter in time). Now, compare that to the British: there is an unbroken line from the British acquiring what had been Nouvelle-France as a result of the 1763 Peace of Paris that was among those treaties ending the French and Indian War [IV]/Seven Years' War and the later Dominion of Canada; there is an unbroken history from the settlement of New South Wales in 1788 and the later Commonwealth of Australia; the British are already mucking about in India by the late 18th Century and the British "Raj" has been firmly established by the date of the traditional fall of the Mughal Empire  to continue just one decade shy of a century more up to the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 (with Burma and what is now Sri Lanka the following year).
The French "Empire" (in quotes in order to distinguish France's colonial system from the First Empire [Napoleon's of 1804-1814] and the Second Empire [1852-1870], as compared to France's 5 Republics, in the course of the history of Metropolitan France), thus, is not at all a Superpower in comparison to its contemporary, the British Empire. France was certainly a so-called "Great Power", perhaps even a "protoSuperpower" (that is, a realm [again, the best translation of the German word reich] with, yes, the potential to become a Superpower- but a potential that was never, in the end, realized); if the French "Empire" of the early-to-mid 20th Century had existed to the same geographical extent back in the Ancient World (the world of Achaemenid Persia or what we generally call the Roman Empire), it would certainly have to have been classed one of the Superpowers in World History... but-alas!- it falls fairly short of the mark (even though, yes, it did provide something a counterweight to the British Empire in the Geopolitics of the time-- though this was much like the counterweight Persia in the form of Parthia [another "protoSuperpower" that fell short of Superpower status] had once provided against the Roman Empire at its height).
Portugal (itself once a "Great Power" counterweight to the Spanish Realm [a Superpower]) and the Netherlands (an early "Great Power" counterweight to the "Great Power" known as England which would eventually become the HQ of the British Empire) also once possessed fairly extensive colonial territories in the Americas, Africa and/or Asia. Perhaps late 19th Century-into-20th Century France- by, unlike these two just named, being a "protoSuperpower", as I suggest- is a good example of something in between a mere "Great Power" and a true Superpower, such as the British Empire at its peak or the United States of America to this day...
but, no, France was never a Superpower and, thus, does not make the list!