French India is a general name for the former French possessions in India. These included Pondichéry (now Puducherry), Karikal and Yanaon (now Yañam) on the Coromandel Coast, Mahé on the Malabar coast, and Chandannagar in Bengal. In addition there were lodges (loges) located at Machilipatnam, Kozhikode and Surat, but they were merely nominal remnants of French factories.
The total area amounted to 203 mi² (526 km²), of which 113 mi² (293 km²) belonged to the territory of Pondichéry. In 1901 the total population amounted to 273,185.
La Compagnie française des Indes orientales (French East India Company) was formed under the auspices of Cardinal Richelieu (1642) and reconstructed under Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1664), sending an expedition to Madagascar. In 1667 the French India Company sent out another expedition, under the command of François Caron (who was accompanied by a Persian named Marcara), which reached Surat in 1668 and established the first French factory in India. In 1669, Marcara succeeded in establishing another French factory at Masulipatam. In 1672, Saint Thomas was taken but the French were driven out by the Dutch. Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar) was established in 1673, with the permission of Nawab Shaista Khan, the Mughal governor of Bengal. In 1674, the French acquired Valikondapuram from the Sultan of Bijapur and thus the foundation of Pondichéry was laid. By 1720, the French lost their factories at Surat, Masulipatam and Bantam to the British.
On February 4, 1673, Bellanger, a French officer, took up residence in the Danish Lodge in Pondichéry and the French Period of Pondichéry began. In 1674 François Martin, the first Governor, started to build Pondichéry and transformed it from a small fishing village into a flourishing port-town. The French were in constant conflict, in India, with the Dutch and the English. In 1693 the Dutch took over and fortified Pondichéry considerably. The French regained the town in 1699 through the Treaty of Ryswick signed on September 20, 1697.
Between 1720 and 1741, the objectives of the French were purely commercial. The French occupied Yanam (about 840 km north-east of Pondichéry on Andhra Coast) in 1723, Mahe on Malabar Coast in 1725 and Karaikal (about 150 km south of Pondichéry) in 1739. After 1742 political motives began to overshadow the desire for commercial gain. All factories were fortified for the purpose of defence.
In the 18th century the town of Pondichéry was laid out on a grid pattern and grew considerably. Able Governors like Pierre Christoph Le Noir (1726-1735) and Pierre Benoît Dumas (1735-1741) expanded the Pondichéry area and made it a large and rich town. Soon after his arrival in 1741, the most famous French Governor of Pondichéry and all French India, Joseph François Dupleix began to cherish the ambition of a French Empire in India but his superiors had less interest. French ambition clashed with the British interests in India and a period of military skirmishes and political intrigues began. Under the command of the Marquis de Bussy-Castelnau, Dupleix's army successfully controlled the area between Hyderabad and Cape Comorin. But then Robert Clive arrived in India in 1744, a dare-devil British officer who dashed the hopes of Dupleix to create a French Colonial India.
After a defeat and failed peace talks, Dupleix was recalled to France in 1754. In spite of a treaty between the British and French not to interfere in local politics, the intrigues continued. For example, in this period the French were also expanding their influence at the court of the Nawab of Bengal, and expanding their trade volume in Bengal. In 1756, the French encouraged the Nawab (Siraj ud-Daulah) to attack and conquer the British Fort William in Calcutta. This led to the Battle of Plassey in 1757 where the British decisively defeated the Nawab and his French allies, and extended British power over the entire province of Bengal.
Subsequently France sent Lally-Tollendal to regain the French losses and chase the British out of India. Lally arrived in Pondichéry in 1758, had some initial success and razed Fort St. David in Cuddalore District to the ground in 1758, but strategic mistakes by Lally led to the loss of the Hyderabad region, the Battle of Wandiwash, and the siege of Pondichéry in 1760. In 1761 Pondichéry was razed to the ground in revenge and lay in ruins for 4 years. The French had lost their hold now in South India too.
In 1765 Pondichéry was returned to France after a peace treaty with Britain in Europe. Governor Jean Law de Lauriston set to rebuild the town on the old foundations and after five months 200 European and 2000 Tamil houses had been erected. During the next 50 years Pondichéry changed hands between France and Britain with the regularity of their wars and peace treaties.
In 1816, after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, the five establishments of Pondichéry, Chandranagore, Karaikal, Mahe and Yanam and the loges at Machilipattnam, Kozhikode and Surat were returned to France. Pondichéry had lost much of its former glory, and Chandernagore was eclipsed as a trading centre by the nearby British establishment of Calcutta (present-day Kolkata). Successive governors improved infrastructure, industry, law and education over the next 138 years.
By decree of the January 25, 1871, French India was provided with an elective general council (Conseil général) and elective local councils (Conseil local). The results of this measure were not very satisfactory, and the qualifications for and the classes of the franchise were modified. The governor resided at Pondichéry, and was assisted by a council. There were two Tribunals d'instance (Tribunals of first instance) (at Pondichéry and Karikal) one Cour d'appel (Court of Appeal) (at Pondichéry) and five Justices de paix (Justice of the Peace). The agricultural produce consisted of rice, earth-nuts, tobacco, betel nuts and vegetables.
The independence of India in August 1947 gave impetus to the union of France's Indian possessions with former British India. The lodges in Machilipatnam, Kozhikode and Surat were ceded to India in October 1947. An agreement between France and India in 1948 agreed to an election in France's remaining Indian possessions to choose their political future. Governance of Chandernagore was ceded to India on 2 May 1950, and was merged with West Bengal state on 2 October 1955. On November 1, 1954, after long years of freedom struggle the four enclaves of Pondichéry, Yanam, Mahe, and Karikal were de facto transferred to the Indian Union and became the Union Territory of Pondichéry. The de jure union of French India with India did not take place until 1963, when the French Parliament in Paris ratified the treaty with India.