As one of the founding nations of colonial Canada, the French helped define the political and cultural character of the modern country. In the Canadian census of 2001, 4,710,580 Canadians—almost 16 percent of the total population—claimed French or Acadian origins (see Acadia), second only to those claiming English descent. The true number was undoubtedly considerably higher, however, as almost 12 million respondents claimed "Canadian” descent, and almost 100,000, "Quebecois.” In the U.S. census of 2000, 10,659,592 Americans claimed either French or French-Canadian descent. Although French Americans were largely assimilated, there were significant concentrations in the counties of Worcester and Middlesex, in Massachusetts, and in Providence, Rhode Island. Rural concentrations were highest in Louisiana parishes, among descendants of the Acadian refugees. French settlement in Canada was concentrated in the province of Quebec, where French culture was maintained and a large degree of autonomy preserved in the face of expanding British influence. Almost 90 percent of Canadians who mainly speak French live in Quebec.
France occupies 210,400 square mile in western Europe, between the Atlantic Ocean, and Mediterranean Sea. Spain lies to the southwest; Italy, Switzerland, and Germany to the east, Luxembourg and Belgium to the north. In 2002, the population was estimated at 59,551,227. During the Middle Ages a strong French national identity emerged from a variety of Celtic, Latin, Teutonic, and Slavic influences. As one of the great imperial powers from the 16th century, France gained control of colonial territories in North America, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. Although France failed to establish any substantial settlement colonies outside of North America, in the wake of decolonization after 1945, millions of inhabitants of former colonial territories became French citizens, changing the demographic character of the nation. By 2000, 82 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, and 7 percent, Muslim, the latter mostly from the former French colonies of Algeria and Morocco. France allied itself with the fledgling United States of America during the revolution against Britain and generally maintained cordial relations with the United States throughout the 20th century, though differences over relations with the Middle East increasingly strained Franco-American relations during the later 20th and early 21st century. Although traditionally hostile to Great Britain in foreign affairs during the 18th and 19th centuries, France and Britain were allies during the two world wars and partners in both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
French explorer Jacques Cartier claimed Acadia and the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1530s, but the bitter winters restricted French interest to fishing along coastal waters. Samuel de Champlain established the first permanent French settlement in North America at Quebec (1608), where only eight of the original 24 French settlers survived the first winter. In 1627, Champlain became head of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France, which was granted title to all French lands and a monopoly on all economic activity except fishing, in return for settling 4,000 French Catholics in Canada. Although the fur trade flourished, the French were little interested in farming settlements. Within New France, there were three areas of settlement: Acadia, the mainland and island areas along the Atlantic coast; Louisiana, the lands drained by the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio river valleys; and Canada, the lands on either side of the St. Lawrence Seaway and just north of the Great Lakes. Among these, only Canada, with the important settlements of Quebec and Montreal, developed a significant population.
A harsh climate and continual threats from the British and the Iroquois, made it difficult for private companies to attract settlers to Canada. In 1663, Louis XIV (r. 1648–1713) made New France a royal colony but was only moderately successful at enticing colonists. Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), which had provided freedom of worship, drove 15,000 Protestant French Huguenots to British North America, many of whom were wealthy or skilled artisans. Most settled in New York, though important settlements were also founded in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), 6,000 French speakers in present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were exiled to Britain’s southern colonies and to Louisiana, then still in the hands of France. There, they became the largest French-speaking enclave in the United States, the Cajuns. Canada’s remaining French population of some 70,000 was brought under control of the British Crown, which organized the most populous areas as the colony of Quebec. During the entire period of French control, only about 9,000 French settlers actually immigrated to New France.
In general, the French did not immigrate in great numbers compared with other Europeans. When they did immigrate, it tended to be to the United States and as individuals rather than as groups. During the French Revolution (1789–99) some 10,000 political refugees escaped to the United States, many by way of French colonies in the Caribbean. That number included some 3,000 African French Creoles who established themselves in Philadelphia. A record number of French immigrants came as a result of the California gold rush, including about 30,000 between 1849 and 1851.
French immigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was sporadic and often related to political events and economic crises. One peak period was 1871–80, when more than 72,000 arrived. Some were refugees from the failed Paris commune of 1870. Many immigrated from Alsace and Lorraine in the wake of the transfer of the region to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Many others came as France faced economic depression beginning in 1872. A second peak came in the first decade of the 20th century, when more than 73,000 arrived, many seeking economic opportunities. Still, given its size and population, France’s contribution to the greatest decade of immigration seems small, measuring only 0.8 percent of the 8.8 million immigrants to arrive in the United States between 1901 and 1910. During the 1930s, French immigration declined dramatically, with only about 1,200 coming per year. After World War II (1939–45), rates of immigration remained low and declined significantly after the initial years of hardship immediately following the war. Between 1941 and 1960, about 90,000 French citizens immigrated to the United States; between 1961 and 1980, about 70,000; and between 1981 and 2000 about 65,000. Between 1992 and 2002, French immigration averaged about 3,000 annually. On the whole, the French do not have a strong tradition of emigration; those who did immigrate to the United States tended to eschew ethnic identification and to assimilate relatively quickly.
Despite the fact that French immigration to Canada almost totally ceased after the Seven Years’ War, as late as the first census in 1871, the French composed 32 percent of the Canadian population, and 40 years later, in 1911, 26 percent. French immigrants were still favored throughout the 20th century, along with British and Americans, although it was difficult to get French citizens to come. In some cases, French Canadians were actually leaving. During the 1860s, the difficulty in acquiring land under the old French seigneurial land system led thousands of young French Canadians to migrate to New England, where they frequently worked in industry or the building trades, usually with the intention of returning. Most, however, ended up staying in the United States.
During the early 20th century, few French immigrated to Canada—only about 35,000 between 1900 and 1944. In 1921, the French-born population was about 19,000 and continued to decline until the late 1940s.
The Canadian Immigration Act of 1952 once again placed the French in the most-favored category for immigration, with all "citizens of France born in France or in Saint-Pierre and Miquelon Islands” eligible for admission so long as they had means of support or employment. This, coupled with two converging trends between 1945 and the mid-1970s, promoted an increase in immigration. The postwar slump during the late 1940s and early 1950s led thousands of French to apply for Canadian visas. Also, around 1960 political leaders in Quebec began to see French immigration as a means of reversing the decline of francophone citizens, as their birthrates fell and more Anglophones began to enter Quebec. As a result, a number of agreements reached with the Canadian federal government enabled them to launch initiatives to attract French immigrants. Almost 90,000 came to Canada—most to Quebec—between 1945 and 1970, but their numbers declined thereafter. Of some 70,000 French immigrants in Canada in 2001, about 44,000 came after 1970, and the French-Canadian percentage of the population continued to decline to 16 percent.