The French colonial empire constituted the overseas colonies, protectorates and mandate territories that came under French rule from the 16th century onward. A distinction is generally made between the "first colonial empire", that existed until 1814, by which time most of it had been lost, and the "second colonial empire", which began with the conquest of Algiers in 1830. The second empire came to an end after the loss of bitter wars in Vietnam (1955) and Algeria (1962) and peaceful decolonization elsewhere after 1960.
Competing with Spain, Portugal, the Dutch United Provinces and later England, France began to establish colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India in the 17th century. A series of wars with Great Britain and other European major powers during the 18th century and early 19th century resulted in France losing nearly all of its conquests. France rebuilt a new empire mostly after 1850, concentrating chiefly in Africa as well as Indochina and the South Pacific. Republicans, at first hostile to empire, only became supportive when Germany started to build her own colonial empire. As it developed, the new empire took on roles of trade with France, especially supplying raw materials and purchasing manufactured items as well as lending prestige to the motherland and spreading French civilization and language and the Catholic religion. It also provided manpower in the World Wars.
It became a moral mission to lift the world up to French standards by bringing Christianity and French culture. In 1884, the leading proponent of colonialism, Jules Ferry, declared; "The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races." Full citizenship rights – assimilation – were offered, although in reality "assimilation was always receding [and] the colonial populations treated like subjects not citizens." France sent small numbers of settlers to its empire, contrary to Great Britain and previously Spain and Portugal, with the only notable exception of Algeria, where the French settlers nonetheless always remained a small minority.
At its apex, it was one of the largest empires in history. Including metropolitan France, the total amount of land under French sovereignty reached 11,500,000 km2 (4,400,000 sq mi) in 1920, with a population of 110 million people in 1939. In World War II, Charles de Gaulle and the Free French used the overseas colonies as bases from which they fought to liberate France. Historian Tony Chafer argues: "In an effort to restore its world-power status after the humiliation of defeat and occupation, France was eager to maintain its overseas empire at the end of the Second World War." However, after 1945 anti-colonial movements began to challenge European authority. The French constitution of October 27, 1946 (Fourth Republic), established the French Union which endured until 1958. Newer remnants of the colonial empire were integrated into France as overseas departments and territories within the French Republic. These now total altogether 119,394 km² (46,098 sq. miles), which amounts to only 1% of the pre-1939 French colonial empire's area, with 2.7 million people living in them in 2013. By the 1970s, says Robert Aldrich, the last "vestiges of empire held little interest for the French." He argues, "Except for the traumatic decolonization of Algeria, however, what is remarkable is how few long-lasting effects on France the giving up of empire entailed."

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