Skip to main content Skip to navigation

France and its colonies

Key questions

  • How and why did France acquire its Empire?
  • What was the relationship between the Second World War and decolonization?
  • Why was French decolonization such a difficult and painful process?
  • Why is the conflict in Algeria known as the 'war without a name'?
  • What are the arguments for and against decolonization?
  • What legacies have these conflicts left in contemporary French politics and culture?


The lecture will give an overview of the development of the French empire overseas, with particular detail on Algeria, which became a legally constituted part of France. It will then describe the decolonization process in Indochina and Algeria after the Second World War, and explore some of the reasons why it has been so difficult to write the history of the Algerian war, and why there remain so many impossible memories of the events.


Download the lecture handout; lecture PowerPoint

Seminar structure and preparation

In this week's seminar, we will be exploring the controversy surrounding the Algerian War in French history and memory, and working in detail on two rival perspectives. In preparation, you should read at least one general account of the war - for example in Robert Gildea, France since 1945 or in Charles Sowerwine, France since 1870 and make sure you have your own timeline of events. Everyone is encouraged to read the following article (available electronically via JSTOR, one of the databases searchable via the library website):

  • Michèle Bacholle-Boskovíc, ‘La Guerre d’Algérie expliquée à nos enfants’, The French Review 76.5 (April 2003), 968–982.

Further reading is suggested in the bibliography.

We will also be learning more about commentary writing skills, and working on two sample extracts. These will be distributed in the seminar, but if you would like to study them in advance, please click here.

Further reading

The nature of decolonization is the subject of much recent discussion among French historians, with a trend towards emphasizing the complexity and reciprocity of relations between different ethnic groups during the period of colonization, and re-evaluating the understanding of decolonization as a linear and inevitable process. Have a look at the following review article and book:

  • Jennifer M Dueck, ‘The Middle East and North Africa in the Imperial and Post-Colonial Historiography of France’, Historical Journal 50.4 (2007), 935-49
  • Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (New York: Cornell University Press, 2006)