This dissertation explores the debates waged over the meaning and value of “empire” in Second Empire and Third Republic France. More specifically, I examine the shifting role played by “Napoleonic” or “continental” imperial models in the contested construction of France’s expansive colonial empire. I argue that for much of this period, French writers and politicians saw continental and colonial empire as related political formations. I employ a range of sources, including government policies, newspapers, journals, pamphlets, treatises, textbooks, and novels, to show that the memory of these older continental imperial models in fact shaped republican understandings of and justifications for the colonial empire they were building. The relationship between “continental” and “colonial” empire, I contend, became particularly fraught in the wake of the Second Empire’s collapse during the Franco-Prussian War because popular publications came to associate the term “empire” with decadence, effeminacy, division, and defeat. In fact, the republican government that came to power in the shadow of the defeat defended its legitimacy by defining itself against the empire that preceded it. As a result, when republicans embarked on their own project of overseas expansion in the years that followed, they found “empire’s” negative associations troubling. Over the course of the next thirty years, they struggled to redefine empire, free it from its Napoleonic legacy, and justify their colonial ambitions. My work focuses on the cultural and political transitions during the early years of the Third Republic that made “empire” acceptable in new terms. Its analysis demonstrates the ways in which discourses of European racial superiority over colonial others intersected with older arguments about the organization of the French state, and reveals how the conversation about empire became entangled in the ongoing struggle over France’s politics and national identity.