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Jules Ferry on French Colonial Expansion


When Jules Ferry was the Prime Minister of France, the state began colonial expansion. In a debate with the French Parliament, Ferry defended the decision to expand as a right and a moral duty of a higher race over lower races. Certain developments in the world trade made the imperial expansion an urgent task for France. The purpose of this paper is to explore these developments, analyse the arguments of Ferry’s critics against the colonial expansion, and non-economic arguments in favor of the imperialism.

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Developments in world trade as a reason for the colonial expansion

In his debate with a member of the French Parliament, Ferry divided the reasons for imperial expansion in three categories: economic, educational, and political. According to Ferry, the first and foremost reason for the imperial expansion of France was the need for exports (Ferry, 1897). The industrialization of Europe led to the development of numerous industries, but French trade was not ready for the appearance of the multitude of new products.

The export into other European countries reduced greatly while all states tried to exclude foreign goods from their markets. Germans cut the supplies of French wares willing to develop their industries and sell the results of their manufactures. In the meantime, “the United States of America have become protectionists, and extreme protectionists at that” (Ferry, 1897, p. 199). The development of North American industries endangered the position of French suppliers on the South American market. Therefore, the colonial expansion was crucial for France in search of new exports.

Arguments against imperialism raised by Ferry’s critics

The critics of Ferry accused him in imposing French trade upon the people of equatorial Africa. His proposition to civilize “inferior” races in the colonies violated the declaration of the rights of man. M. Camille Pelletan called the imposed civilization “another form of barbarism” (Ferry, 1897, p. 210). From the point of view of the Parliament, the colonial expansion would lead to the outspread of slavery and slave trade in Africa. Ferry answers to all critics by a proclamation that “superior races have rights over inferior races” (Ferry, 1897, p 210). Other insinuations included the notion that France was seeking compensations for the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Ferry claimed that like a true patriot he rejected such undeserved insinuations with disdain (Ferry, 1897, p 211).

Non-economic arguments in favor of imperialism

As it was mentioned earlier, the enhancement of French trade and the economy was not the sole pursuit of the colonial expansion outlined by Ferry. According to Nicholis (2016), “For politicians such as Jules Ferry and writers like Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, the establishment of an extensive empire and the dissemination of French ideas was not just a right, but a moral duty” (p. 2). The civilization of “inferior” races and the enhancement of French political influence in the world were main non-economic arguments for the colonial expansion. France needed new lands to build harbors and supply centers for warships.


The developments in the world trade were among the major reasons for the proposition of the French colonial expansion. The nation needed new exports to resolve the issues of the growing industrialization and trade limitations inflicted by other states. Among other reasons for the imperial expansion were the civilization of the “inferior” nations and the enhancement of French political influence in the world. New warships needed bigger supplies of coal and safe harbors to make a difference in naval warfare. Jules Ferry played a prominent role in the proposition of imperialism.


Ferry, J. F. C. (1897) Speech before the French chamber of deputies, March 28, 1884. In P. Robiquet (Ed.) Discours et Opinions de Jules Ferry (pp. 199-201, 210-11, 215-18). Paris, France: Armand Colin et Cie

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Nicholls, J. (2016). Empire and internationalism in French revolutionary socialist thought, 1871–1885. The Historical Journal, 1-24.

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