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Rethinking French imperialism in the nineteenth century |

Throughout the second age of imperialism which spanned the 19th century, Britain widened its imperial reach through settler colonialism and the acquisition of far-flung territories. The lands Britain already ruled in Canada, India and the West Indies were dramatically expanded in North America and the Indian subcontinent to which were added new territories in Australia, New Zealand and Africa.

France for its part, as pointed out by the author of a new book which breathes much needed life into classic questions about the politics and economics of globalisation, took cultural forms as seriously as gunboats. The result is to fundamentally recast our understanding of the 19th century while opening new directions in the study of modern imperial and European history.

France engaged in outright colonial conquest – as in Algeria, but in forging commercial relationships with elites in different parts of the world, proved very adept at “informal empire”. What David Todd in A Velvet Empire has shown for the first time is that France’s informal empire was also “more sophisticated than Britain’s, because it drew to a greater extent on ‘soft’ cultural power, and used this in combination with conventional ‘hard’ economic and military power “.

The French “repertoire of rules” or combination of various methods to assert their authority included a formal component which prevailed in Algeria and became the main form of French expansion after 1880.

“Yet by several political, economic and cultural measures,” writes Todd, ” [the] informal component may be considered to have had an even greater impact on the world and metropolitan France, at least until the colonial frenzy of the late nineteenth century.”

Let me explain. By the late 1860s, not least thanks to aggressive commercial diplomacy, the export of French commodities almost caught up with exports from Britain, despite the latter’s reputation as the workshop of the world.

In the same period, the government’s encouragement of savings “helped French foreign investment surpass British capital export, despite the famed supremacy of the City of London.

In the late eighteenth century, French was an international language only among Europe’s courtly aristocracies. But by the 1870s it had become the lingua franca of old and new elites in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

This can be explained, writes Todd, by the “enduring prevalence of the monarchical model” until the advent of the Third Republic in 1871.

In a fascinating chapter he calls ‘Champagne Capitalism’, Todd points out that “from a few hundred thousand bottles before the Revolution of 1789, the output of champagne rose to eighteen million bottles in 1869”,  88% of which were exported.

This global success spearheaded a commercial boom which saw France “become the world’s leading supplier of luxury and demi-luxe commodities between 1830 and 1870. This included silk textiles which made up a fifth of all French exports in the middle of the century.

This French empire of taste pursued profit, power and prestige. ‘Articles de mode’, fashionable clothes, perfumes explain why, contrary to received historical wisdom, “per capita incomes in France grew as fast as in Britain between 1814 and 1914, or perhaps even faster.”

The sophistication of French capitalism has long been recognised by cultural and social historians, “but it has been strangely overlooked by economic historians.” notes Todd.

Since Paris invented the grands magasins before London, it ended up by dictating the “colourful, varied and ever-changing fashion for women, but London set the increasingly sober and uniform standards for men”.

In Todd’s view “Britain’s economic achievements, primarily based on large-scale manufacturing, mineral extraction and shipping were more evidently connected to contemporary conceptions of masculinity and power”.

The French success in luxury goods had its roots in the Old Regime’s economy of guild production and courtly consumption, but liberal and Marxist historians alike have tended to denigrate the economic performance of the Bourbon regime. Champagne capitalism was strongly promoted by the rise of Paris, redesigned by Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III as the capital of sexual pleasure and fine eating. To this day France earns billions of dollars every year from the export of luxury goods, as does Paris from being the Ville Lumière.

But the French were also able to conquer the Ottoman empire by money – bank loans which were guaranteed by the state and directed to Egypt and Istanbul not to mention Russia. The author notes that “France’s model of economic development in the 19th century endowed it with an unusually large surplus of capital. Yet the remarkable alignment of France’s exports with its geopolitical goals was not only the product of macro – or micro-economic factors. It was also connected with the political aspiration to informal empire.”

David Todd’s “A Velvet Empire” cover. (Princeton University Press)
David Todd’s “A Velvet Empire” cover. (Princeton University Press)

Another chapter allows the reader to rethink the history of the colonisation of Algeria, a brutal period of French history which resonates to this day in French politics.

Called ‘Algeria, Informal empire manqué’, it points to the “foremost”  cause for the conquest: France could not, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, abandon Algeria “at a time such as our own, when she appears to be falling to the second rank and seems resigned to let the control of European Affairs pass into other hands.”

The enormous costs and brutality of territorial rule would however lead Napoleon III to explore “once again the informal dimension of the French imperial repertoire” but that failed.

The economic returns were mediocre, the French did not flock to the colony which attracted Spanish and Italian emigrants instead. It was a sui generis type of colonisation whose costs were enormous throughout and its economic returns mediocre.

Where the author is on much shakier historical ground is when he speaks of the reasons for the conquest of Algiers: it had little to do with the Ottoman Regency endorsing privateering and Christian slavery, which had all but disappeared in 1830 and much to do with the Tresor d’Alger which King Charles X wanted to lay his hands on as parliament refused to endorse his very reactionary policies and his budget. The king thought a victory abroad would help him win the elections of July 1830. The news of the taking of Algiers arrived too late, Charles X went into exile in Britain and its relations with Algeria continue to poison French politics nearly two centuries after the fall of Algiers.

The last chapter of this elegantly written book looks at the unravelling of France’s informal empire at the end of the 19th century which was due to global transformations rather than local decay.

The emergence of the United States as a great power in the wake of its Civil War and the reunification of Germany stand out. The close links between France and its former African colonies, built under General de Gaulle show how very effective France’s informal empire was until recently.

De Gaulle borrowed from French monarchical and Bonapartist traditions as his foreign policy of global grandeur had “distinct undertones of informal imperialism.” However the reassertion of German pre-eminence in Europe since the 1990s increasingly threaten such policies. History, as so often, explains the present and Todd who has family and academic roots on both sides of the Channel was very well equipped to write this necessary reappraisal of French imperialism, a velvet empire indeed.


David Todd. A Velvet Empire. Princeton University Press, 2021David Todd is senior lecturer in world history at King’s College London. His books include Free Trade and Its Enemies in France, 1814-1851.

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