chapter  11
13 Pages

Power beyond the Hexagon : the Empire

The second French colonial empire, acquired in the century after Waterloo in replacement of that lost during the half-century before, was the conscious projection overseas of several remarkably consistent nationalist preoccupations. Most fundamental was a perception of weakness. Empire was intended to counteract decline in Europe by the discovery of a chimerical Trench India’; to secure a place in a new world order; to cure decadence at home by creating pride and a sense of purpose; and to express the cherished self-image of France as prophet and teacher of mankind. This primarily ideological motivation of French imperialism recalls the late-nineteenthcentury German Weltpolitik of acquiring a ‘place in the sun’, but in its desire for empire as a cloak for weakness it resembles the desperate expansionism of Italy and Russia. It is essentially different from the pragmatic British accumulation of territories, motivated by finance, trade, strategy, ideology and accident, which J.H. Seeley famously described as a ‘fit of absence of mind’: French colonialists always thought they knew what they were doing.