Province, Nation, Empire: France, 1871-1940

People Involved

Professor Robert Aldrich

Project overview

Gaul, Caesar famously said, was divided into three parts. For most of its modern history, France also has had three levels of identity: province, nation, empire. These are crucial components in the structure of France. Despite post-Revolutionary centralising tendencies, local areas (cities, regions, provinces) retained substantial economic, social and cultural particularities, and indeed new currents of regionalism emerged in nineteenth-century republican France. The very concept of ‘nation’ owed much to the French tradition, and France prided itself on being a unified and indivisible state, despite substantial pressures on this unity. From the early 1600s until the late 1900s, France was also an empire, ruling over colonies in Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.

The key aim of this project is to understand how local, national and international doctrines and forces interacted in the evolution of the modern state, analysing the relationships (and parallels) between regional and colonial policies and their import into the ideology of the nation. It explores the ways in which provinces, nation and overseas empire fitted together to make France, especially during the Third Republic and the period of decolonisation. To do so, the project investigates commercial, demographic and cultural links between selected French cities and regions, on the one hand, and the colonies, one the other – trade links between the Atlantic and Mediterranean sea-ports and the colonies, the emergence of a ‘colonial culture’ in cities such as Marseille, migration from certain regions to the empire, the place of Corsicans in the colonial bureaucracy and military, the role of cities such as Fréjus in the garrisoning of colonial troops, and the way that imperialism helped to reintegrate Alsace and Lorraine into France after the First World War. By disaggregating colonialism to look at specific regional aspects of the phenomenon, it seeks to understand how French identity was formed (and contested) in the colonial era.


  • ARC Discovery Grant, 2006-2008