A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century

Author(s) : TODD David
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After the cataclysm of 1815, France was a diminished world player but it still managed to wield influence, so maintains David Todd, senior lecturer in World History at King’s College London. Not through settler colonialism or acquisition of territory, he claims, but rather through seduction, creating asymmetric, empire-like relations. Quite naturally Todd has placed an image of the Suez Canal on the cover of his book. If anything epitomises what Todd identifies as French “soft imperial power” it is that extraordinary feat of French civil engineering and international finance, gently underlining France’s role as a global player. (Peter Hicks, October 2021)

A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century

Publisher’s presentation:

After Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, France embraced a mostly informal style of empire, one that emphasized economic and cultural influence rather than military conquest. A Velvet Empire is a global history of French imperialism in the nineteenth century, providing new insights into the mechanisms of imperial collaboration that extended France’s power from the Middle East to Latin America and ushered in the modern age of globalization.

David Todd shows how French elites pursued a cunning strategy of imperial expansion in which conspicuous commodities such as champagne and silk textiles, together with loans to client states, contributed to a global campaign of seduction. French imperialism was no less brutal than that of the British. But while Britain widened its imperial reach through settler colonialism and the acquisition of far-flung territories, France built a “velvet” empire backed by frequent military interventions and a broadening extraterritorial jurisdiction. Todd demonstrates how France drew vast benefits from these asymmetric, imperial-like relations until a succession of setbacks around the world brought about their unravelling in the 1870s.

A Velvet Empire sheds light on France’s neglected contribution to the conservative reinvention of modernity and offers a new interpretation of the resurgence of French colonialism on a global scale after 1880. This panoramic book also highlights the crucial role of collaboration among European empires during this period—including archrivals Britain and France—and cooperation with indigenous elites in facilitating imperial expansion and the globalization of capitalism.

About the author:

David Todd is senior lecturer in world history at King’s College London. His books include Free Trade and Its Enemies in France, 1814–1851.

Table of Contents


website: A discussion with the author about this book with an introduction by Alexia Yates

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