Maritime ‘superpowers’ France and Britain were fierce colonial rivals in the South Pacific region during the 18th century. Motivated by scientific interest and trade, French explorers began arriving on Australian shores. The British, deeply suspicious about French intentions in the region, moved quickly to establish colonies in many parts of Australia.
Following the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, the first French settlers soon began to arrive, including officials, convicts and refugees
. Over the ensuing decades, many French settlers would go on to become land owners, merchants and wine-makers.
The Victorian gold rush of the 1850s saw many more French immigrants
join their countrymen. By 1857 over 1,000 French immigrants
lived in Victoria. However, the 1890s depression saw a rapid decrease in the French population. Nevertheless, the first foreign language newspaper in Australia, Le Courier Australien, was established in 1892, and in 1890 a Victorian branch of the Alliance Française was formed, promoting French language, culture and education.
After World War II an assisted passage scheme for French migrants saw the French population of Victoria increase by 83% between 1947 and 1954, to 1,497 people. The independence of French colonies in Asia and Africa in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a further increase. French trade with Australia continued to develop in the 1970s, and by the mid 1980s French radio and television programs, schools, exchange programs and restaurants had been established.
The French population in Victoria has continued to grow, with an 8% increase between 1981 and 1991. In 2006, 4,373 Victorians were born in France.
Despite the relatively small number of French migrants in Australia, the French community has had a significant influence on Australian life – in the arts, education, the wine-making industry, and lay and religious organisations.