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Jules Ferry’s Defense of French Colonialism


Colonialism as a form of state-building emerged in the 18th-19th century and was a byproduct of intense industrialization and exploration, which opened new avenues for expanding the borders of existing countries by conquering and subjugating territories located in foreign countries, such as the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. All major empires of the world, including the British Empire, the French Empire, the German Empire, the Spanish Empire, and the Russian Empire were involved in the process of extensive territorial and economic expansion.

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One of the strong proponents of colonialism in France was Jules Ferry (Power, 2014). He was the Prime Minister of France during the existence of the Third Republic, who viewed colonialism as the only means to ensure France’s long-term political and economic dominance. His speech on the necessity of colonialism, delivered in the Chamber of Deputies in 1884, highlights the three classic arguments supporting colonialism that were popular and widespread at the end of the 19th century. The purpose of this paper is to identify the economic and non-economic arguments offered by Jules Ferry and outline the most prominent points provided by the critics of French colonialism.

Colonialism as a Response to Competition and Protectionism

Jules Ferry begins his speech by outlining the economic situation in the world markets. At the end of the 19th century, the world was in political turmoil, as every nation strived to claim an advantage in the domestic and foreign markets. Germany offered strong competition to the French manufacturers while the USA adopted protectionist policies to protect their markets and their industry from more industrialized nations (Power, 2014). As a result, the massive French industry had no outlets for economic growth. The country was faced with two options – either reduce its manufacturing output, close factories, and fire workers, which would contribute to social and economic instability, or create new markets in the colonies, where French products would reign supreme. Thus, Jules announced the emergence of an isolationist marketing policy, where colonial empires, instead of trading and competing with one another, would focus on their colonies as potential markets and outlets for economic growth.

Nationalist and Patriotic Rhetoric to Justify Colonialism

While the primary concerns of Jules Ferry were economical, as he saw the industry and the economy as primary ways to ensure the long-term dominance of the French state in the international arena, he also implemented nationalist and patriotic arguments to justify his stance on colonialism. His argument about superior and lesser races resonates with the popular concept of the exceptionality of the white race, which was a dominant philosophy at the time. He viewed other races, namely the Africans, the Asians, and various aboriginal peoples, as inferior to the French. As such, it was their duty to civilize these nations and eventually integrate them into the Empire. At the same time, the interests of these “inferior people” would be subjugated to the French state and the “master race” (Drayton, 2017)

These views were criticized and opposed by Julies and De Guillotte, who viewed the idea of colonialism as unacceptable in a country that stood for and upheld human rights. Some of the arguments offered by critics of Ferry’s colonialism state that his proposal validates and endorses slavery as well as the physical and economic exploitation of other nations (Drayton, 2017). Ferry responded to these arguments by stating that the grandeur, sincerity, and generosity of the French people would uplift and civilize the “less gifted” races from mediocrity. In his view, should France not commit to colonialism, these people would be subjugated by other nations, such as Spain, with less-than-noble intentions in mind (Power, 2014).


Ferry’s arguments for colonialism were fueled by fear of France losing its dominant position in the world, and he was willing to take morally questionable actions to ensure his country’s superiority. Despite the opposition from humanist thinkers, Ferry’s views were popular among the French patriotic wing, which earned him support and consideration among the existing ruling class.


Drayton, R. (2017). Federal utopias and the realities of imperial power. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 37(2), 401-406.

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Power, T. F. (2014). Jules Ferry and the renaissance of French imperialism. London, UK: King’s Crown Press.

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