The French colonization of America (“New France,” today Canada) began in the 1540s with a failed attempt at settlement by explorer Jacques Cartier. Another explorer, Samuel de Champlain, contributed to the settlement at Port-Royal in 1604 (the first French colony) and to the founding of Québec in 1608. French colonization, however, failed to thrive until Cardinal Richelieu founded his company of One Hundred Associates to populate New France in 1627.
So why did the French colonize America? First, France was getting crowded, and officials wanted to shift some of that excess population to its colonies. French settlers were often members of the lower classes who faced poverty, joblessness, landlessness, and overcrowding in their native country. They longed for greater opportunities to farm their own land, practice their professions, and earn money. To many, New France seemed like the perfect option.
Second, there was indeed money to be made, especially in the fur trade, and the French government was ready and willing to take full advantage of their colonies to reap the riches of nature. French settlers hunted fur animals and also traded with Native Americans for furs, and France made money. Even as late as 1720 to 1740, French Canada was exporting between 200,000 and 400,000 pelts per year.
Third, French Catholics sought to spread their Catholic faith through missionary activities among the Native Americans. As early as 1615, three priests of the Recollect order arrived in the colonies and set out to preach the Gospel. They suffered greatly and met with little success, so they called in the Jesuits to help in 1625. While the missionaries did make many converts among the Native Americans, they also met with much resistance, and many were martyred.
The British conquered New France in 1763 and while France owned land on the American continent until 1803, French colonization was essentially finished.