An Empire on the Cheap: The Economic and Political History of French Colonization

In the 19th century, France embarked on a process of colonisation across Africa and Asia. What were the motivations and methods that underlay this imperial project? How were the colonised societies affected, and what economic and social development did colonisation bring? Is decolonisation complete today? Un empire bon marché (An empire on the cheap) offers new answers to these controversial questions. Building on extensive archival work and statistical analysis, the book describes the French colonial states and their functioning – notably through taxation, military recruitment, capital flows and inequalities. It shows that the empire cost the metropolis little until the wars of independence, and that French capital did not flow to the colonies. The ‘civilising mission’ that the French Republic had set itself did not bring much development to the colonised countries, and the type of rule that emerged was both violent and contradictory in its aims. The Empire primarily benefited a small minority of French colonists and capitalists. The nationalist elites that came to govern after independence most often perpetuated the authoritarian and inegalitarian rule they had inherited. By focusing on the evolution of colonised societies and their future, the book sheds new light on imperialism, from the past to the present.