DeNino on Todd (2021)

Todd, David. A Velvet Empire: French Informal Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton UP, 2021, pp. xi + 350, ISBN 9780691171838

“Les velours coupés ou frisés […] des taffetas, satins et gros de Naples; puis les crêpes, les peluches, les foulards, les façonnés, les brocarts, les étoffes d’église et de palais”: in the piles of luxurious Lyonnais silk fabrics on display at London’s 1855 Crystal Palace Exhibition, Auguste Blanqui saw a manifestation of France’s artistic genius, the nation’s “capital inépuisable” (137). Such silk textiles were France’s leading export item for much of the nineteenth century. In David Todd’s A Velvet Empire, a new history of nineteenth-century French colonialism seen through the lens of informal empire, they are an apt metaphor for the “soft” imperial strategies that Todd argues defined the nation’s global expansion. A Velvet Empire builds on Todd’s 2011 article, “A French Imperial Meridian, 1814–1870,” which bridges a historiographical gap between France’s first and second colonial empires. A Velvet Empire seeks to map out this terrain further, showing how the move away from territorial empire was a deliberate turn in French imperial policy toward informal strategies of influence, including collaboration, coercion, finance, and trade, particularly in luxury goods. 

The concept of informal imperialism has been well developed by historians of the British Empire but neglected in the French context. A Velvet Empire’s first chapter uncovers the intellectual roots of informal empire in France. Todd questions claims that French liberals such as Benjamin Constant (author of the 1814 De la liberté de la conquête) rejected empire in the post-Napoleonic period. In fact, Todd shows, while Constant condemned imperial expansion in Europe, his celebration of commerce pointed toward new forms of economic and cultural domination, subsequently theorized by lesser known (but widely read) political economists like Abbé Dominique de Pradt and Michel Chevalier. The book’s following four chapters lay out how these theories informed French imperial policies in the coming decades. The second chapter turns to Algeria, which Todd argues should be understood as an “informal empire manqué”—a paradigmatic example of formal colonization that was not planned but was rather contingent on a series of failures at informal domination. This is an important and provocative argument, since the 1830 conquest of Algiers is commonly viewed as the starting point of the second French territorial empire. Drawing on confidential reports as well as published writings, Todd instead emphasizes France’s original intent: limited coastal settlement and collaboration with indigenous elites. In this light, Napoleon III’s later attempt to turn the colony into a collaborative Royaume Arabe can be seen as a deliberate return to earlier imperial priorities.

Chapter three examines the role of what Todd calls “champagne capitalism” in France’s new “empire of taste,” exploring how French luxury goods stood at the heart of “a sophisticated model of global rayonnement” (125). Historians have hardly neglected Paris’s status as a capital of taste, and Todd builds on this scholarship to show how the “commodification of luxury and pleasure” (167), in the form of export commodities such as silk textiles, wines and liquors, articles de Paris, or prêt-à-porter fashion (as well as, to a lesser extent, literature and theater), was at the heart of a conservative, even counter-revolutionary, empire marked by neo-courtly cultural practices, collaboration with foreign elites, and the global projection of prestige.

The fourth and fifth chapters turn next to the economic and legal instruments that underpinned France’s global projection of power and influence. Framed by a reading of Zola’s L’Argent as a critique of informal empire, chapter four traces the “imperialization of finance” to arguments in favor of public credit in the 1820s, when Paris emerged alongside London “as an international market for government bonds” (190, 205). Todd shows how the public sale of foreign debt constituted a new kind of financial imperialism through three case studies: the 1825 Haitian loan, loans to the Ottoman Empire after 1850, and investment in Mexico’s public debt in the 1860s. Political economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu later theorized this as “investment colonization” (colonisation des capitaux), which Todd interprets as “an alternative rather than a prelude to formal conquest” (178)—though, as in the case of Haiti and Mexico, it was often backed by threats of military intervention. At the state level, the ultimate goal of capital export was influence over the domestic and foreign policies of client states. A key instance of this is examined in the fifth chapter, where Todd turns to Egypt, an Ottoman province, and “the combination of cultural, commercial and legal factors” that shored up France’s informal domination until the 1870s. The chapter highlights the role of the growing community of French expatriates and the legal regime of extraterritoriality that rendered them “agents of informal empire” (title of chapter five). This final chapter also argues, albeit briefly, that the eventual collapse of France’s informal domination in Egypt and elsewhere provides an explanation for the resurgence of territorial empire under the Third Republic.

A Velvet Empire makes a compelling case for informal empire as a core principle of French global expansion in the mid-nineteenth century, and it offers a model for future scholarship in the way it brings together, conceptually and historically, different periods and aspects of French society. It situates an understudied period, long seen as an outlier, within the imperial longue durée, and its deft analysis of the interrelationship between foreign policy, economic actors, and culture will offer a useful road map for scholars exploring similar questions from different perspectives. Notably, Todd’s approach complements recent interventions in French studies, such as Jennifer Yee’s 2016 The Colonial Comedy, that seek to recover the pervasive colonial connections in nineteenth-century French literature, often highlighting the same financial networks and consumer culture that play a central role in A Velvet Empire.