Jules Ferry A defense of French imperialism

Jules Ferry A defense of French imperialism



Jules Ferry A defense of French imperialism


A Defense of French Imperialism


Jules Ferry (1832-1893) was a French politician who twice served as premier during the Third Republic, the name of the French government from 1871 until 1940. Ferry was an ardent imperialist, and during his premierships France annexed Tunisia and parts of Indochina and began exploring parts of Africa. In debates in the French National Assembly he frequently defended his policies against socialist and conservative critics, who for different reasons opposed French imperialism. The following selection from his speech on July 28, 1883, summaries his reasons for supporting French expansionism arid also sheds light on his opponents' views. 

Imperialism: The European Justification 

Western expansionism continued but at a slow pace lit the first half of the nineteenth century. The British added to their territories in India, the French strengthened their hold oil Algeria, and the Western powers pressured China and Japan to increase their trade with outsiders. Then in the closing decades of the 1800s the long history of Western expansion culminated in the Era of Imperialism and a land-grab unprecedented in human history. The following figures show how much land and how many people the major Western powers added to their empires between 1871 and 1900: Great Britain - 4.25 million square miles and 66 million people; France - 3.5 million square miles and 26 million people; Germany - 1 million square miles and 13 million people; Belgium 900,000 square miles and 13 million people.'1  Italy, the United States, and the Netherlands also made acquisitions. 

Late nineteenth-century imperialism resulted in part from the West's continuing technological development. The replacement of sailing vessels with metalhulled steamships reduced two-month oceanic voyages to two weeks; undersea telegraph lines enabled governments and businesses to communicate in seconds, not weeks or months; new drugs such as quinine protected Europeans from tropical diseases like malaria; and improved firearms increased the West's ability 10 subdue and control their new colonial subjects. 

But technology alone does not explain the expansionist fever that swept the Western nations in the late 1800s. As tile following documents reveal, political rivalries, anticipated economic gains, nationalism, and humanitarianism all contributed to the psychological atmosphere that led to this final chapter of Western expansion.
M. JULES FERRY Gentlemen, it embarrasses me to make such a prolonged demand upon the gracious attention of the Chamber, but I believe that the duty I am fulfilling upon this platform is not a useless one: It is as strenuous for me as for you, but I believe that there is some benefit in summarizing and condensing, in the form of arguments, the principles, the motives, and the various interests by which a policy of colonial expansion may be justified; it goes without saying that I will try to remain reasonable, moderate, and never lose sight of the major continental interests which are the primary concern of this country. What I wish to say, to support this proposition, is that in fact, just as in word, the policy of colonial expansion is political and economic system; I wish to say that one can relate this system to three orders of ideas: economic ideas, ideas of civilization in its highest sense, and ideas of politics and patriotism. 

In the area of economics, I allow myself to place before you, with the support of some figures, the considerations which justify a policy of colonial expansion from the point of view of that need, felt more and more strongly by the industrial populations of' Europe and particularly those of our own rich and hard working Country: the need for export markets. Is this some kind of chimera? Is this a view of the future or is it not rather a pressing need, and, we could say, the cry of our industrial population? I will formulate only In a general way what each of you, in the different parts of France, is in a position to confirm. Yes, what is lacking for our great industry, drawn irrevocably on to the path of exportation by the (free trade) treaties of 1860, what it lacks more and more is export markets. Why? Because next door to us Germany is surrounded by barriers, because beyond the ocean, the United States of America has become protectionist, protectionist in the most extreme sense, because not only have these great markets, I will not say closed but shrunk, and thus become more difficult of access for our industrial products, but also these great scares are beginning to pour products not seen heretofore into our own markets . . . . It is not necessary to pursue this demonstration any further. . . . 

. . . Gentlemen, there is a second point, a second order of ideas to which I have to give equal attention, but as quickly as possible, believe me; it is the humanitarian and civilizing side of the question. On this point the honorable M. Camille Pelletan2 has jeered in his own refined and clever manner; he jeers, he condemns, and he says "What is this civilization which you impose with cannon-balls? What is it but another form of barbarism? Don't these populations, these inferior races, have the same rights as you? Aren't they masters of their own houses? Have they called upon you? You come to them against their will, you offer them violence, but not civilization. "There, gentlemen, is the thesis I do not hesitate to say that this is not politics, nor is it history: it is political metaphysics. ("Ah, Ah" on far left.)3 

. . . Gentlemen, I must speak from a higher and more truthful plane. It must be stared openly that, in effect, Superior races have rights over inferior races. (Movement on many benches on the far left.) 

M. JULES MAIGNE Oh! You dare to say this in the country which has proclaimed the rights of man! 

M. DE GUILLOUTET This is a justification of slavery and the slave trade! 

M. JULES FERRY If M. Maigne is right, if the declaration of the rights of man was written for the blacks of equatorial Africa, then by what right do you impose regular commerce upon them? They have not called upon you. 

M. RAOUL DUVAL We do not want to impose anything upon them. It is you who wish to do so! 

M. JULES MAIGNE To propose and to impose are two different things! 

M. GEORGES PERIN4 In any case, you cannot bring about commerce by force. 

M. JULES FERRY I repeat that superior races have a right, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize inferior races. . . . (Approbation from the left. New interruptions the extreme left and from the right.) . . . .  

That is what I have to answer M. Pelletan in regard to the second point upon which he touched. 

He then touched upon a third, more delicate, more serious point, and upon which I ask your permission to express myself quite frankly. It is the political side of the question. The honorable M. Pelletan, who is a distinguished writer, always comes up with remarkably precise formulations. I will borrow from him the one which lie applied the other day to this aspect of colonial policy. 

.. It is a system," he says, "which consists of seeking out compensations in the Orient with a Circumspect and peaceful seclusion which is actually imposed upon us in Europe." 

I would like to explain myself in regard to this. I do not like this word "compensation," and, in effect, not here but elsewhere it has often been used in a treacherous way. If what is being said or insinuated is that a republican minister could possibly believe that there are in any part of the world compensations for the disasters which we have experienced,5 an injury is being inflicted . . . and an injury undeserved by that government. (Applause at the center and left.) I will ward off this injury with all the force of my patriotism! (New applause and bravos from the same benches.

Gentlemen, there are certain considerations which merit the attention of all patriots. The conditions of naval warfare have been profoundly altered. ("Very true, Very true"') 

At this time, as you know, a warship cannot carry more than fourteen days' worth of coal, no matter how perfectly it is organized, and a ship which is out of coal is a derelict on the surface of the sea, abandoned to the first person who comes along. Thence the necessity of having on the oceans provision stations, shelters, ports for defense arid revictualling. (Applause at the center and left. Various interruptions. ) And it is for this that we needed Tunisia, for this that we needed Saigon and the Mekong Delta, for this that we need Madagascar, that we are at Diego-Suarez and Vohemar6 and will never leave them! (Applause from a great number of benches.) Gentlemen, in Europe as it is today, in this competition of so many rivals which we see growing around us some by perfecting their military or maritime forces, others by the prodigious development of an ever growing population; in a Europe, or rather in a universe of this sort, a policy of peaceful seclusion or abstention is simply the highway to decadence! Nations are great in our times only by means of the activities which they develop; it is not simply by the peaceful shining forth of institutions" (Interruptions and laughter on the left and right) that they are great at this hour. . . .  

As for me, I am astounded to find the monarchist parties becoming indignant over the fact that the Republic of France is following a policy which does not confine itself to that ideal of modesty, of reserve, and, if you will allow me the expression, of bread and butter (Interruptions and laughter on the left) which the representatives of fallen monarchies wish to impose upon France. (Applause at the center.) . . . 

(The Republican Party) has shown that it is quite aware that one cannot impose upon France a political ideal conforming to that of nations like independent Belgium and the Swiss Republic; that something else is needed for France: that she cannot be merely a free country, that she must also be a great country, exercising all of her rightful influence over the destiny of Europe, that she ought to propagate this influence throughout the world and carry everywhere that she can her language, her customs, her flag, her arms, and her genius. (Applause at center and left.) 

1 The reference is to a trade treaty between Great Britain and France that lowered tariffs between the two nations.
2 Pelletan (1846-1915) was a patriotic, radical republican politician.
3 Going back to a tradition begun in the legislative assemblies of the French Revolution, democrats and republicans sat on the left, moderates in center, and conservatives and monarchists on the right. By the 1880s the "left" included socialists.
4 Maigne, Guilloutet, Duval, and Perin were all members of the assembly.
5 The reference is to France's defeat by Prussia and the German states in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871.
6 Madagascar port cities.


  • According to Ferry, what recent developments in world trade markets have made France's need for colonies more urgent? 
  • What ideological arguments against imperialism are proposed by Ferry's critics? How does Ferry counter them?
  • Aside from providing markets for French goods, what other economic advantages do colonies offer, according to Ferry?
  • How does Ferry's appeal for colonies reflect nineteenth-century nationalism? 


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Jules Ferry A defense of French imperialism


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Jules Ferry A defense of French imperialism



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Jules Ferry A defense of French imperialism