In various forms, France had colonial possessions since the beginning of the 17th century until the 1960s.
Currently, the only remnants of what was once a large empire are four overseas départements — the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Réunion in the Indian Ocean, and the small South American mainland possession of French Guiana; 3 overseas territories: French Polynesia, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, New Caledonia; and two territorial collectivities: Mayotte in the Indian Ocean and St. Pierre and Miquelon near Newfoundland. All of these enjoy full political representation at the national level, as well as varying degrees of legislative autonomy.
An anachronous map simultaneously showing the maximum extent of French colonial possessions at various times
The first French colonial empire
The early voyages of Giovanni da Verrazano and Jacques Cartier in the early 16th century, as well as the frequent voyages of French fishermen to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland throughout that century, were the precursors to the story of France's colonial expansion. But Spain's jealous protection of its American monopoly, and the disruptions caused in France itself by the Wars of Religion in the later 16th century, prevented any consistent efforts to establish colonies. Early French attempts to found colonies in Brazil, in 1555 at Rio de Janeiro (the so-called France Antarctique) and in 1612 at São Luís (the so-called France Équinoxiale), and in Florida were unsuccessful, due to Portuguese and Spanish vigilance.
The story of France's colonial empire truly began on July 27, 1605 with the foundation of Port Royal in the colony of Acadia in North America, in what is now Nova Scotia, Canada. A few years later, in 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec, which was to become the capital of the enormous, but sparsely settled, fur-trading colony of New France (also called Canada).
Although, through alliances with various Native American tribes, the French were able to exert a loose control over much of the North American continent, areas of French settlement were generally limited to the St. Lawrence River valley. Prior to the establishment of the 1663 Sovereign Council, the territories of New France was developped as mercantile colonies. It is only after the arrival of intendant Jean Talon that France gave its American colonies the proper means to develop population colonies comparable to that of the British. For most of the history of New France, even Canada was far behind the British North American colonies in both population and economic development. Acadia itself was lost to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713.
In 1699, French territorial claims in North America expanded still further with the foundation of Louisiana near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Although the colony claimed control over the whole watershed of the Mississippi, effective control was only exerted in a small coastal region, near the cities of Mobile and New Orleans (founded 1718).
As the French empire in North America expanded, the French also began to build a smaller, but more profitable empire in the West Indies. Settlement along the South American coast in what is today French Guiana began in 1624, and a colony was founded on Saint Kitts in 1627 (the island had to be shared with the English until the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, when it was ceded outright). The Compagnie des Îles de l'Amérique founded colonies in Guadeloupe and Martinique in 1635, and a colony was later founded on Saint Lucia (1650). The most important colonial possession, though, did not come until 1664, when the colony of Saint-Domingue (today's Haiti) was founded on the western half of the Spanish island of Hispaniola. In the 18th century, Saint-Domingue grew to be the richest sugar colony in the Caribbean. The eastern half of Hispaniola also came under French rule for a short period, after being given to France by Spain shortly after the loss of Saint-Domingue to France by the Haitian Revolution.
French colonial expansion was not limited to the New World, however. In Senegal in West Africa, the French began to establish trading posts along the coast in 1624. In 1664 the French East India Company was established to compete for trade in the east. Colonies were established in India in Chandernagore in Bengal (1673) and Pondicherry in the Southeast (1674), and later at Yanam (1723), Mahe (1725), and Karikal (1739) (see French India). Colonies were also founded in the Indian Ocean, on the Île de Bourbon (Réunion, 1664), Île Royale (Mauritius, 1718), and the Seychelles (1756). During Napolean's early career, Egypt was also conquered for a brief period, but French rule there only extended to the immediate area around the Nile.
In the mid-18th century, a series of colonial conflicts began between France and the Kingdom of Great Britain, which would ultimately result in the demise of most of the first French colonial empire. These wars were the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), the Seven Years War (1756–1763), the War of the American Revolution (1778–1783), and the French Revolutionary (1793–1802) and Napoleonic (1803-1815) Wars.
Although the War of the Austrian Succession was indecisive — despite French successes in India under the French Governor-General Joseph François Dupleix — the Seven Years War, after early French successes in North America, saw a catastrophic French defeat, with the British conquering not only New France, but most of France's West Indian colonies, and all of the French Indian outposts. While the peace treaty saw France's Indian outposts, and the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe restored to France, the competition for influence in India had been won by the British, and North America was entirely lost — most of New France was taken by Britain, except Louisiana which France ceded to Spain as payment for Spain's late entrance into the war (and as compensation for Britain's annexation of Spanish Florida). Also ceded to the British were Grenada and Saint Lucia in the West Indies.
Some recovery was made during the French intervention in the American Revolution, with Saint Lucia being returned to France by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, but not nearly as much as had been hoped for at the time of French intervention. True disaster came to what remained of France's colonial empire in 1791 when Saint Domingue, France's richest and most important colony, was riven by a massive slave revolt, caused partly by the divisions among the islands elite resulting from the French Revolution of 1789. The slaves, led eventually by Toussaint l'Ouverture and then, following his capture by the French in 1801, by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, held their own against French, Spanish, and British opponents, and ultimately achieved independence as Haiti in 1804. In the meanwhile, the newly resumed war with Britain resulted in British capture of practically all remaining French colonies. These were restored at the Peace of Amiens in 1802, but when war resumed in 1803, the British soon recaptured them. France's repurchase of Louisiana in 1800 came to nothing, as the final success of the Haitian revolt convinced Bonaparte that holding it would not be worth the cost, leading to its sale to the United States in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase). Nor was the French attempt to establish a colony in Egypt in 1798–1801 successful.
The second French colonial empire
At the close of the Napoleonic Wars, most of France's colonies were restored to it by Britain, notably Guadeloupe and Martinique in the West Indies, French Guiana on the coast of South America, various trading posts in Senegal, the Île de Bourbon (Réunion) in the Indian Ocean, and France's tiny Indian possessions. Britain finally annexed Saint Lucia, Tobago, the Seychelles, and the Île Royale (Mauritius), however.
The true beginnings of the second French colonial empire, however, were laid in 1830 with the French invasion of Algeria, which was conquered over the next 17 years (see French rule in Algeria). During the time of Napoleon III, an attempt was made to establish a colonial-type protectorate in Mexico, but this came to little, and the French were forced to abandon the experiment after the end of the American Civil War. Napoleon also established French control over Cochin-China (the southernmost part of modern Vietnam, including Saigon), as well as a protectorate over Cambodia.
It was only after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 that most of France's later colonial possessions were acquired. From their base in Cochin-China, the French took over Tonkin and Annam (in modern Vietnam) in 1883. These, together with Cambodia and Cochin-China, formed French Indochina (to which Laos was added in 1893 and Kwang-Chou-Wan in 1900). The French also expanded their influence in North Africa, establishing a protectorate on Tunisia in 1881. Gradually, French control was established over much of Northern, Western, and Central Africa by the turn of the century (including the modern nations of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo), as well as the east African coastal enclave of Djibouti (French Somaliland). In 1911, Morocco became a protectorate.
The French made their last major colonial gains after the First World War, when they gained mandates over the former Turkish territories that make up what is now Syria and Lebanon, as well as most of the former German colonies of Togo and Cameroon.
Collapse of the empire
The French colonial empire began to come apart during the Second World War, when various parts of their empire were occupied by foreign powers (Japan in Indochina, Britain in Syria and Lebanon, the US and Britain in Morocco and Algeria, Germany in Tunisia). Although France's colonies were restored in 1945, France had almost immediately to engage in suppressing a bitter independence struggle in Indochina. When this ended with French defeat and withdrawal in 1954, the French almost immediately became involved in a new, and even harsher conflict in their oldest major colony, Algeria (see Algerian War of Independence, Nationalism and resistance in Algeria). Algeria was particularly problematic due to the large number of European settlers (or pieds-noirs) who had settled there in the century and a quarter of French rule. Charles de Gaulle's accession to power in 1958 ultimately led to independence for Algeria in 1962. Most of the other French African colonies had already been granted independence in 1960.
After independence, some of France's former colonies continued to participate in the French Community, nurturing to varying extents political, economic and cultural ties with the former colonial power.
Remnants of the French colonial empire include overseas départements in the Caribbean and in the Indian Ocean, as well as sundry territories in the Pacific and in Antarctica. However, they are not considered colonies anymore, and there is no longer any political discrimination with respect to non-European people. While independentist parties do exist in many of those possessions, they generally get rather minor results in the polls, except in New Caledonia where they are somewhat stronger (though not a majority).