We analyse the social background of the administrative elite of the second French colonial empire. A new dataset of all individuals who held offices as colonial governors in Indochina, Madagascar, French Equatorial Africa, French West Africa, and Algeria between 1830 and 1960 shed new light on variations over time in the composition of this group. We compare our findings with the changing characteristics of other metropolitan administrative elites, notably the French préfets. The variations we observe can be explained by changes in the relationship between France and its colonies, in the relative attractiveness of a colonial career, and in the process of institutionalisation of the colonies. Between 1830 and 1960, colonial careers offered more opportunities for upward social mobility than administrative careers in the metropole. In particular, the creation of the French colonial administration at the turn of the twentieth century favoured individuals from modest social backgrounds or those who had pursued atypical career paths. The increased professionalization of colonial careers after the First World War led to a greater homogenization of occupational trajectories and social backgrounds of colonial governors. Nevertheless, the possibility of upward social mobility remained significant for colonial administrators, and eroded only with the upheavals of the Second World War.