Settled mainly by the Gauls and related Celtic peoples (apart from a shrinking area of Basque population in the south-west and Ligurian population on the southern coast), the area of modern France comprised the bulk of the region of Gaul (Latin Gallia) under Roman rule from the
1st century BC to the 5th century AD.
486, Clovis I, leader of the Salian Franks to the east, conquered the Roman territory between the Loire and the Somme, subsequently uniting most of northern and central France under his rule and adopting
(496) the Roman Catholic form of Christianity in preference to the Arianism preferred by rival Germanic rulers.
After Clovis's death (511) his realm underwent repeated division while his Merovingian dynasty eventually lost effective power to their successive mayors of the palace, the founders of what was to become the Carolingian dynasty. The assumption of the crown in
751 by Pepin the Short (son of Charles Martel) established Carolingian rule in name as well as in fact.
The new rulers' power reached its fullest extent under Pepin's son Charlemagne, (Charles the Great), who in
771 reunited the Frankish domains after a further period of division, subsequently conquering the Lombard kingdom in northern Italy
(774), incorporating Bavaria (788) into his realm, defeating the Avars of the Danubian plain
(796), advancing the frontier with Muslim Spain as south as Barcelona
(801), and subjugating Lower Saxony (804) after prolonged campaigning.
In recognition of his successes and his political support for the Papacy, Charlemagne was in
800 crowned Emperor of the Romans, or Roman Emperor in the West, by Pope Leo III: on the death of his son Louis I (emperor
814-840), however, the empire was divided among Louis's three sons (Treaty of Verdun,
843). After a last brief reunification (884-887), the imperial title ceased to be held in the western part which was to form the basis of the future French kingdom.
During the latter years of the elderly Charlemagne's rule, the Vikings made advances along the northern and western perimeters of his kingdom. After Charlemagne's death in
814 his heirs were incapable of maintaining any kind of political unity and the once great Empire began to crumble. Viking advances were allowed to escalate, their dreaded longboats sailing up the Loire and Seine Rivers and other inland waterways, wreaking havoc and spreading terror.
843 the Viking invaders murdered the Bishop of Nantes and a few years after that, they burned the Church of Saint-Martin at Tours. Emboldened by their successes, in
845 the Vikings ransacked Paris. Charles the Simple
(898-922), whose territory comprised much of the France of today, was forced during his reign to concede to the Vikings a large area on either side of the Seine River, downstream from Paris, that was to become Normandy.
The Carolingians were subsequently to share the fate of their predecessors: after an intermittent power struggle between the two families, the accession
(987) of Hugh Capet, duke of France and count of Paris, established on the throne the Capetian dynasty which with its Valois and Bourbon offshoots was to rule France for more than 800 years.
The Carolingian era had seen the gradual emergence of institutions which were to condition France's development for centuries to come: the acknowledgement by the crown of the administrative authority of the realm's nobles within their territories in return for their (sometimes tenuous) loyalty and military support, a phenomenon readily visible in the rise of the Capetians and foreshadowed to some extent by the Carolingians' own rise to power.
The new order left the new dynasty in immediate control of little beyond the middle Seine and adjacent territories, while powerful territorial lords such as the
10th and 11th century counts of Blois accumulated large domains of their own through marriage and through private arrangements with lesser nobles for protection and support.
The area around the lower Seine, ceded to Scandinavian invaders as the duchy of Normandy in
911, became a source of particular concern when duke William took possession of the kingdom of England in
1066, making himself and his heirs the king's equal outside France (where he was still nominally subject to the crown).
Worse was to follow, with the succession in 1154 to the disputed English throne of Henry II, already count of Anjou and duke of Normandy before his marriage
(1152) to France's newly-divorced ex-queen Eleanor of Aquitaine brought him control also of much of south-west France. A century of intermittent warfare brought Normandy once more under French control in
1204 and English control of French territory ended with the French victory at Bouvines in
The 13th century was to bring the crown important gains also in the south, where a papal-royal crusade against the region's Albigensian or Cathar heretics
(1209) led to the incorporation into the royal domain of Lower
(1229) and Upper (1271) Languedoc. Philippe IV's seizure of Flanders
(1300) was less successful, ending two years later in the rout of her knights by the forces of the Flemish cities at the Battle of the Golden Spurs in
1302 near Kortrijk (Courtais in French).
The extinction of the main Capetian line
(1328) brought to the throne the related house of
Valois, but as Philippe IV's grandson, Edward III of England claimed the French crown for himself, inaugurating the succession of conflicts known collectively as the Hundred Years' War. The following century was to see devastating warfare, peasant revolts in both England
(Wat Tyler's revolt of 1381) and France (the Jacquerie of
1358) and the growth of nationhood in both countries.
French losses in the first phase of the conflict (1337-1360) were partly reversed in the second
(1369-1396); but Henry V of England's shattering victory at the battle of Agincourt in
1415 against a France now bitterly divided between rival Armagnac and Burgundian factions of the royal house was to lead to his son Henry VI's recognition as king in Paris seven years later under the
1420 Treaty of Troyes, reducing Valois rule to the lands south of the Loire River.
France's humiliation was abruptly reversed in 1429 by the appearance of a restorationist movement symbolised by the Lorraine peasant maid Joan of Arc, who claimed the guidance of divine voices for the campaign which rapidly ended the English siege of Orléans and ended in Charles VII's coronation in the historic city of
Reims. Subsequently captured by the Burgundians and sold to their English allies, her execution for heresy in
1431 redoubled her value as the embodiment of France's cause.
Reconciliation between the king and Philippe of Burgundy (1435) removed the greatest obstacle to French recovery, leading to the recapture of Paris
(1436), Normandy (1450) and Guienne (1453), reducing England's foothold to a small area around Calais (lost also in
1558). After the war, France's emergence as a powerful national monarchy was crowned by the incorporation of the duchy of Burgundy
(1477) and Brittany (1491).
The losses of the century of war were enormous, particularly owing to the plague (the Black Death, usually considered an outbreak of bubonic plague), which arrived from Italy in
1348, spreading rapidly up the Rhone valley and thence across most of the country: it is estimated that a population of some 18-20 million in modern-day France at the time of the
1328 hearth-tax returns had been reduced 150 years later by 40% or more.
Despite the beginnings of rapid demographic and economic recovery, the gains of the previous half-century were to be jeopardised by a further protracted series of conflicts, this time in Italy
(1494-1559), where French efforts to gain dominance ended in the increased power of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors of Germany.
Barely were the Italian Wars over than France was plunged into a domestic crisis with far-reaching consequences. Despite the conclusion of a Concordat between France and the Papacy
(1516), granting the crown unrivalled power in senior ecclesiastical appointments, France was deeply affected by the Protestant Reformation's attempt to break the unity of Roman Catholic Europe.
A growing urban-based Protestant minority (later dubbed Huguenots) faced ever harsher repression under the rule of King Henri II. Renewed Catholic reaction headed by the powerful dukes of Guise culminated in a massacre of Huguenots
(1562), starting the first of the French Wars of Religion during which English, (Scottish?), German and Spanish forces intervened on the side of rival Protestant and Catholic forces.
The conflict was ended by the assassination of both Henry of Guise
(1588) and king Henri III (1589), the accession of the Protestant king of Navarre as Henri IV (first king of the Bourbon dynasty) and his subsequent abandonment of Protestantism
(1593), his acceptance by most of the Catholic establishment
(1594) and by the Pope (1595), and his issue of the toleration decree known as the Edict of Nantes
(1598), which guaranteed freedom of private worship and civil equality.
France's pacification under Henri laid much of the ground for the beginnings after his assassination
(1610) of France's rise to European hegemony under Louis XIII and his minister
(1624-1642) Cardinal Richelieu, architect of France's policy against Spain and the German emperor during the Thirty Years' War
(1618-1648) which had broken out among the lands of Germany's Holy Roman Empire.
An English-backed Huguenot rebellion (1625-1628) defeated, France intervened directly
(1635) in the wider European conflict following her ally (Protestant) Sweden's failure to build upon initial success. After the death of both king and cardinal, the Peace of Westphalia
(1648) secured universal acceptance of Germany's political and religious fragmentation, and the Treaty of the Pyrenees
(1659) formalised France's seizure (1642) of the Spanish territory of Roussillon after the crushing of the efemerous Catalan Republic.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in Europe, aided by the diplomacy of Richelieu's successor
(1642-1661) Cardinal Mazarin and the economic policies (1661-1683) of Colbert. Renewed war
(1667-1668 and 1672-1678) brought further territorial gains
(Artois and western Flanders and the free county of Burgundy, left to the Empire in
1482), but at the cost of the increasingly concerted opposition of rival powers.
Following the seizure of the (then separate) English, Irish and Scottish thrones by the Dutch prince William of Orange in
1688, the anti-French "Grand Alliance" of 1689 inaugurated more than a century of intermittent European conflict in which Britain would play an ever more important role, seeking in particular to keep France out of the Netherlands (the Dutch provinces and the future Belgium, then under Spanish rule).
After the war of 1689-1697 gained France only Haiti (lost to a slave revolt a century later), the War of the Spanish Succession
(1701-1713) ended with the undoing of Louis's dreams of a Franco-Spanish Bourbon empire: the two conflicts strained French resources already weakened by disastrous harvests in the
1690s and in 1709, as well as by the revocation
(1685) of the Edict of Nantes and the consequent loss of Huguenot support and manpower.
The reign (1715-1774) of Louis XV saw an initial return to peace and prosperity under the regency
(1715-1723) of Philippe II, duke of Orléans, whose policies were largely continued
(1726-1743) by Cardinal Fleury, prime minister in all but name, renewed war with the Empire
(1733-1735 and 1740-1748) being fought largely in the East. But alliance with the traditional Habsburg enemy (the "Diplomatic Revolution" of
1756 against the rising power of Britain and Prussia led to costly failure in the Seven Years' War
On the eve of the French Revolution of 1789, France was a predominantly rural country ruled by an absolute monarch and the aristocracy under the now-called ancien régime, very backwards in many ways (for instance, torture was considered an appropriate means of extracting confessions in criminal trials; there was no freedom of religion, except that Protestantism was tolerated...). The ideas of the Enlightenment had however begun to permeate the educated classes of society.
Louis XVI's reign
(1774-1792) saw a temporary revival of French fortunes through intervention
(1778-1783) in support of Britain's rebel American colonies. But the over-ambitious projects and military campaigns the past century had produced chronic financial problems. Deteriorating economic conditions, popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics, and a lack of alternate avenues for change were among the principal causes of the French Revolution. This led to the formation of the First Republic on September 21,
Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government,
France subsequently reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times:
- the First Empire of
- the Restoration of Louis
- the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe (often treated as a continuation of the Restoration), and
- the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
After the Franco-Prussian War of
1870, the Third Republic was established and lasted until the military defeat of
The midpoint of the Third Republic was known as the belle epoque in France, a golden time of beauty, innovation, and peace with its European neighbors. New inventions made life easier at all social levels, the cultural scene thrived, cabaret, cancan, and the cinema were born, and art took new forms with Impressionism and Art Nouveau. The glory of this turn-of-the-century period came to an end with the outbreak of World War I.
World War I (1914-1918) brought great losses of troops and resources. In its aftermath, in the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defences (the Maginot Line) and alliances (see Little Entente) to offset resurgent German strength.
France surrendered to Nazi Germany early in World War II (June 24,
1940). Nazi Germany occupied three fifth of France's territory leaving the rest to the new Vichy collaboration government established on July 10, 1940 under Henri Philippe Pétain. Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as the sending of French forced labor to Nazi Germany; in doing so, they claimed they hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty. The Nazi German occupation proved costly, however, as Nazi Germany appropriated a full one-half of France's public sector revenue.
On the other hand, those who refused defeat and collaboration with Nazi Germany, the Free French, organised resistance movements in occupied and Vichy France and the Free French Forces. The Free French Forces started in exile in and with the support of the UK.
After four years of occupation and strife, Allied forces, including Free France, liberated France in
1944. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944. On September 10, 1944, De Gaulle installed hi provisional government in Paris. This time he remained in Paris until the end of the war, refusing to abandon even when Paris was temporarily threatened by German troops during the Battle of the Ardennes in December 1944.
France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by General Charles de Gaulle, a new constitution (October 13,
1946) established the Fourth Republic under a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures for dealing with colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government. The war in Indochina ended with French withdrawal in
The May 1958 seizure of power in Algiers by French army units and French settlers opposed to concessions in the face of Arab nationalist insurrection led to the fall of the French government and a presidential invitation to de Gaulle to form an emergency government to forestall the threat of civil war. Swiftly replacing the existing constitution with one strengthening the powers of the presidency, he became the elected president in December of that year, inaugurating France's Fifth Republic.
Seven years later, in an occasion marking the first time in the 20th century that the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by direct ballot, de Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote, defeating François
However, French society experienced growing tiredness at the heavy-handed, patriarcal Gaullist approach. This lead to the events of May
1968, when students revolted, with a variety of revendications ranging from more sexual freedom to the end of the Vietnam War. At the same time, mass strikes erupted. The situation got nearly out-of-hand, with, at one point, de Gaulle going to see troops in Baden-Baden, possibly to secure the help of the army should he need it to maintain public order. However, the June 1968 legislative elections saw a majority of Gaullists in parliament. Still, May 1968 was a turning point in French social relations, in the direction of more personal freedoms and less social control, be it in work relations or in sexual life.
In April 1969, de Gaulle resigned following the defeat in a national referendum of government proposals for the creation of 21 regions with limited political powers. Succeeding him as president of France have been:
While France continues to revere its rich history and independence, French leaders increasingly tie the future of France to the continued development of the European Union
(EU). During President Mitterrand's tenure, he stressed the importance of European integration and advocated the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European economic and political union, which France's electorate narrowly approved in September
Jacques Chirac assumed office May 17,
1995, after a campaign focused on the need to combat France's stubbornly high unemployment rate. The center of domestic attention soon shifted, however, to the economic reform and belt-tightening measures required for France to meet the criteria for Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) laid out by the Maastricht Treaty. In late 1995, France experienced its worst labor unrest in at least a decade, as employees protested government cutbacks.
On the foreign and security policy front, Chirac took a more assertive approach to protecting French peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia and helped promote the Dayton Agreement negotiated in Dayton, Ohio and signed in Paris in December 1995. The French have stood among the strongest supporters of NATO and EU policy in the Balkans.