History of France

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The first written records for the history of France appear in the Iron Age. What is now France made up the bulk of the region known to the Romans as Gaul. Roman writers noted the presence of three main ethno-linguistic groups in the area: the Gauls, the Aquitani, and the Belgae. The Gauls, the largest and best attested group, were Celtic people speaking what is known as the Gaulish language.

Over the course of the 1st millennium BC the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians established colonies on the Mediterranean coast and the offshore islands. The Roman Republic annexed southern Gaul as the province of Gallia Narbonensis in the late 2nd century BC, and Roman forces under Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul in the Gallic Wars of 58–51 BC. Afterwards a Gallo-Roman culture emerged and Gaul was increasingly integrated into the Roman Empire.

In the later stages of the Roman Empire, Gaul was subject to barbarian raids and migration, most importantly by the Germanic Franks. The Frankish king Clovis I united most of Gaul under his rule in the late 5th century, setting the stage for Frankish dominance in the region for hundreds of years. Frankish power reached its fullest extent under Charlemagne. The medieval Kingdom of France emerged from the western part of Charlemagne's Carolingian Empire, known as West Francia, and achieved increasing prominence under the rule of the House of Capet, founded by Hugh Capet in 987.

A succession crisis following the death of the last direct Capetian monarch in 1328 led to the series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years' War between the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet. The war formally began in 1337 following Philip VI's attempt to seize the Duchy of Aquitaine from its hereditary holder, Edward III of England, the Plantagenet claimant to the French throne. Despite early Plantagenet victories, including the capture and ransom of John II of France, fortunes turned in favor of the Valois later in the war. Among the notable figures of the war was Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl who led French forces against the English, establishing herself as a national heroine. The war ended with a Valois victory in 1453.

Victory in the Hundred Years' War had the effect of strengthening French nationalism and vastly increasing the power and reach of the French monarchy. During the period known as the Ancien Régime, France transformed into a centralized absolute monarchy. During the next centuries, France experienced the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation. At the height of the French Wars of Religion, France became embroiled in another succession crisis, as the last Valois king, Henry III, fought against rival factions the House of Bourbon and the House of Guise. Henry, King of Navarre, scion of the Bourbon family, would be victorious in the conflict and establish the French Bourbon dynasty. A burgeoning worldwide colonial empire was established in the 16th century. French political power reached a zenith under the rule of Louis XIV, "The Sun King", builder of Versailles Palace.

In the late 18th century the monarchy and associated institutions were overthrown in the French Revolution. The country was governed for a period as a Republic, until the French Empire was declared by Napoleon Bonaparte. Following Napoleon's defeat in the Napoleonic Wars, France went through several further regime changes, being ruled as a monarchy, then briefly as a Second Republic, and then as a Second Empire, until a more lasting French Third Republic was established in 1870.

France was one of the Triple Entente powers in World War I, fighting alongside the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, Japan, the United States and smaller allies against Germany and the Central Powers.

France was one of the Allied Powers in World War II, but was conquered by Nazi Germany in 1940. The Third Republic was dismantled, and most of the country was controlled directly by Germany while the south was controlled until 1942 by the collaborationist Vichy government. Living conditions were harsh as Germany drained away food and manpower, and many Jews were killed. Charles de Gaulle led the Free France movement that one-by-one took over the colonial empire, and coordinated the wartime Resistance. Following liberation in summer 1944, a Fourth Republic was established. France slowly recovered economically, but did enjoy a Baby boom that reversed its very low fertility rate. Long wars in Indochina and Algeria drained French resources and ended in political defeat. In the wake of the Algerian Crisis of 1958, Charles de Gaulle set up the French Fifth Republic. Into the 1960s decolonization saw most of the French colonial empire become independent, while smaller parts were incorporated into the French state as overseas departments and collectivities. Since World War II France has been a permanent member in the UN Security Council and NATO. It played a central role in the unification process after 1945 that led to the European Union. Despite slow economic growth in recent years and issues with Muslim minorities, it remains a strong economic, cultural, military and political factor in the 21st century.


Main article: Prehistory of France
Cave painting in Lascaux

Stone tools discovered at Chilhac (1968) and Lézignan-la-Cèbe in 2009 indicate that early humans were present in France at least 1.6 million years ago.[1]

Neanderthals were present in Europe from about 400,000 BC,[2] but died out about 30,000 years ago, possibly out-competed by the modern humans during a period of cold weather. The earliest modern humans – Homo sapiensentered Europe by 43,000 years ago (the Upper Palaeolithic).[3] The cave paintings of Lascaux and Gargas (Gargas in the Hautes-Pyrénées) as well as the Carnac stones are remains of the local prehistoric activity. The first written records for the history of France appear in the Iron Age. What is now France made up the bulk of the region known to the Romans as Gaul. Roman writers noted the presence of three main ethno-linguistic groups in the area: the Gauls, the Aquitani, and the Belgae. The Gauls, the largest and best attested group, were Celtic people speaking what is known as the Gaulish language.

Over the course of the 1st millennium BC the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians established colonies on the Mediterranean coast and the offshore islands. The Roman Republic annexed southern Gaul as the province of Gallia Narbonensis in the late 2nd century BC, and Roman forces under Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul in the Gallic Wars of 58–51 BC. Afterwards a Gallo-Roman culture emerged and Gaul was increasingly integrated into the Roman empire.

Ancient history

Greek colonies

Massalia (modern Marseille) silver coin with Greek legend, a testimony to Greeks in pre-Roman Gaul, 5th–1st century BC.

In 600 BC Ionian Greeks from Phocaea founded the colony of Massalia (present-day Marseille) on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, making it the oldest city of France.[4][5] At the same time, some Celtic tribes penetrated the eastern parts (Germania superior) of the current territory of France, but this occupation spread in the rest of France only between the 5th and 3rd century BC.[6]


Main article: Gaul

Covering large parts of modern-day France, Belgium, northwest Germany and northern Italy, Gaul was inhabited by many Celtic and Belgae tribes whom the Romans referred to as Gauls and who spoke the Gaulish language roughly between the Seine and the Garonne (Gallia Celtica), according to Julius Caesar. On the lower Garonne the people spoke Aquitanian, a Pre-Indo-European language related to (or a direct ancestor of) Basque whereas a Belgian language was spoken north of Lutecia but north of the Loire according to other authors like Strabo. The Celts founded cities such as Lutetia Parisiorum (Paris) and Burdigala (Bordeaux) while the Aquitanians founded Tolosa (Toulouse).

Long before any Roman settlements, Greek navigators settled in what would become Provence. The Phoceans founded important cities such as Massalia (Marseille) and Nikaia (Nice), bringing them in to conflict with the neighboring Celts and Ligurians. Some Phocean great navigators, such as Pytheas, were born in Marseille. The Celts themselves often fought with Aquitanians and Germans, and a Gaulish war band led by Brennus invaded Rome c. 393 or 388 BC following the Battle of the Allia.

However, the tribal society of the Gauls did not change fast enough for the centralized Roman state, who would learn to counter them. The Gaulish tribal confederacies were then defeated by the Romans in battles such as Sentinum and Telamon during the 3rd century BC. In the early 3rd century BC, some Belgae (Germani cisrhenani) conquered the surrounding territories of the Somme in northern Gaul after battles supposedly against the Armoricani (Gauls) near Ribemont-sur-Ancre and Gournay-sur-Aronde, where sanctuaries were found.

When Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca fought the Romans, he recruited several Gaulish mercenaries who fought on his side at Cannae. It was this Gaulish participation that caused Provence to be annexed in 122 BC by the Roman Republic. Later, the Consul of Gaul — Julius Caesar — conquered all of Gaul. Despite Gaulish opposition led by Vercingetorix, the Gauls succumbed to the Roman onslaught. The Gauls had some success at first at Gergovia, but were ultimately defeated at Alesia in 52 BC. The Romans founded cities such as Lugdunum (Lyon), Narbonensis (Narbonne) and allow in a correspondence between Lucius Munatius Plancus and Cicero to formalize the existence of Cularo (Grenoble).[7]

Roman Gaul

Main article: Roman Gaul
Vercingetorix surrenders to Julius Caesar after Alesia. Painting by Lionel-Noël Royer, 1899.

Gaul was divided into several different provinces. The Romans displaced populations to prevent local identities from becoming a threat to Roman control. Thus, many Celts were displaced in Aquitania or were enslaved and moved out of Gaul. There was a strong cultural evolution in Gaul under the Roman Empire, the most obvious one being the replacement of the Gaulish language by Vulgar Latin. It has been argued the similarities between the Gaulish and Latin languages favoured the transition. Gaul remained under Roman control for centuries and Celtic culture was then gradually replaced by Gallo-Roman culture.

The Gauls became better integrated with the Empire with the passage of time. For instance, generals Marcus Antonius Primus and Gnaeus Julius Agricola were both born in Gaul, as were emperors Claudius and Caracalla. Emperor Antoninus Pius also came from a Gaulish family. In the decade following Valerian's capture by the Persians in 260, Postumus established a short-lived Gallic Empire, which included the Iberian Peninsula and Britannia, in addition to Gaul itself. Germanic tribes, the Franks and the Alamanni, entered Gaul at this time. The Gallic Empire ended with Emperor Aurelian's victory at Châlons in 274.

A migration of Celts appeared in the 4th century in Armorica. They were led by the legendary king Conan Meriadoc and came from Britain. They spoke the now extinct British language, which evolved into the Breton, Cornish, and Welsh languages.

In 418 the Aquitanian province was given to the Goths in exchange for their support against the Vandals. Those same Goths had sacked Rome in 410 and established a capital in Toulouse.

Gaulish soldiers

The Roman Empire had difficulty responding to all the barbarian raids, and Flavius Aëtius had to use these tribes against each other in order to maintain some Roman control. He first used the Huns against the Burgundians, and these mercenaries destroyed Worms, killed king Gunther, and pushed the Burgundians westward. The Burgundians were resettled by Aëtius near Lugdunum in 443. The Huns, united by Attila, became a greater threat, and Aëtius used the Visigoths against the Huns. The conflict climaxed in 451 at the Battle of Châlons, in which the Romans and Goths defeated Attila.

The Roman Empire was on the verge of collapsing. Aquitania was definitely abandoned to the Visigoths, who would soon conquer a significant part of southern Gaul as well as most of the Iberian Peninsula. The Burgundians claimed their own kingdom, and northern Gaul was practically abandoned to the Franks. Aside from the Germanic peoples, the Vascones entered Wasconia from the Pyrenees and the Bretons formed three kingdoms in Armorica: Domnonia, Cornouaille and Broërec.[8]

Frankish kingdoms (486–987)

Main article: Francia
Victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Tours (732) marked the furthest Muslim advance and enabled Frankish domination of Europe for the next century.

In 486, Clovis I, leader of the Salian Franks, defeated Syagrius at Soissons and subsequently united most of northern and central Gaul under his rule. Clovis then recorded a succession of victories against other Germanic tribes such as the Alamanni at Tolbiac. In 496, pagan Clovis adopted Catholicism. This gave him greater legitimacy and power over his Christian subjects and granted him clerical support against the Arian Visigoths. He defeated Alaric II at Vouillé in 507 and annexed Aquitaine, and thus Toulouse, into his Frankish kingdom.[9]

The Goths retired to Toledo in what would become Spain. Clovis made Paris his capital and established the Merovingian Dynasty but his kingdom would not survive his death in 511. Under Frankish inheritance traditions, all sons inherit part of the land, so four kingdoms emerged: centered on Paris, Orléans, Soissons, and Rheims. Over time, the borders and numbers of Frankish kingdoms were fluid and changed frequently. Also during this time, the Mayors of the Palace, originally the chief advisor to the kings, would become the real power in the Frankish lands; the Merovingian kings themselves would be reduced to little more than figureheads.[9]

By this time Muslim invaders had conquered Hispania and were threatening the Frankish kingdoms. Duke Odo the Great defeated a major invading force at Toulouse in 721 but failed to repel a raiding party in 732. The mayor of the palace, Charles Martel, defeated that raiding party at the Battle of Tours and earned respect and power within the Frankish Kingdom. The assumption of the crown in 751 by Pepin the Short (son of Charles Martel) established the Carolingian dynasty as the Kings of the Franks.

The coronation of Charlemagne

Carolingian power reached its fullest extent under Pepin's son, Charlemagne. In 771, Charlemagne reunited the Frankish domains after a further period of division, subsequently conquering the Lombards under Desiderius in what is now northern Italy (774), incorporating Bavaria (788) into his realm, defeating the Avars of the Danubian plain (796), advancing the frontier with Islamic Spain as far south as Barcelona (801), and subjugating Lower Saxony after a prolonged campaign (804).

In recognition of his successes and his political support for the Papacy, Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans, or Roman Emperor in the West, by Pope Leo III in 800. Charlemagne's son Louis the Pious (emperor 814–840) kept the empire united; however, this Carolingian Empire would not survive Louis I's death. Two of his sons – Charles the Bald and Louis the German – swore allegiance to each other against their brother – Lothair I – in the Oaths of Strasbourg, and 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 realm, which was to form the basis of the future French kingdom. The eastern realm, which would become Germany, elected the Saxon dynasty of Henry the Fowler.[10]

Under the Carolingians, the kingdom was ravaged by Viking raiders. In this struggle some important figures such as Count Odo of Paris and his brother King Robert rose to fame and became kings. This emerging dynasty, whose members were called the Robertines, were the predecessors of the Capetian Dynasty. Led by Rollo, some Vikings had settled in Normandy and were granted the land, first as counts and then as dukes, by King Charles the Simple, in order to protect the land from other raiders. The people that emerged from the interactions between the new Viking aristocracy and the already mixed Franks and Gallo-Romans became known as the Normans.[11]

State building into the Kingdom of France (987–1453)

Kings during this period

Strong princes

France was a very decentralised state during the Middle Ages. The authority of the king was more religious than administrative. The 11th century in France marked the apogee of princely power at the expense of the king when states like Normandy, Flanders or Languedoc enjoyed a local authority comparable to kingdoms in all but name. The Capetians, as they were descended from the Robertians, were formerly powerful princes themselves who had successfully unseated the weak and unfortunate Carolingian kings.[12]

The Carolingian kings had nothing more than a royal title when the Capetian kings added their principality to that title. The Capetians, in a way, held a dual status of King and Prince; as king they held the Crown of Charlemagne and as Count of Paris they held their personal fiefdom, best known as Île-de-France.[12]

The fact that the Capetians held lands as both Prince and King gave them a complicated status. They were involved in the struggle for power within France as princes, but they also had a religious authority over Roman Catholicism in France as King. The Capetian kings treated other princes more as enemies and allies than as subordinates: their royal title was recognised yet frequently disrespected. Capetian authority was so weak in some remote places that bandits were the effective power.[12]

Some of the king's vassals would grow sufficiently powerful that they would become some of the strongest rulers of western Europe. The Normans, the Plantagenets, the Lusignans, the Hautevilles, the Ramnulfids, and the House of Toulouse successfully carved lands outside France for themselves. The most important of these conquests for French history was the Norman Conquest of England by William the Conqueror, following the Battle of Hastings and immortalised in the Bayeux Tapestry, because it linked England to France through Normandy. Although the Normans were now both vassals of the French kings and their equals as kings of England, their zone of political activity remained centered in France.[13]

An important part of the French aristocracy also involved itself in the crusades, and French knights founded and ruled the Crusader states. An example of the legacy left in the Middle East by these nobles is the Krak des Chevaliers' enlargement by the Counts of Tripoli and Toulouse.

Rise of the monarchy

The monarchy overcame the powerful barons over ensuing centuries, and established absolute sovereignty over France in the 16th century. A number of factors contributed to the rise of the French monarchy. The dynasty established by Hugh Capet continued uninterrupted until 1328, and the laws of primogeniture ensured orderly successions of power. Secondly, the successors of Capet came to be recognised as members of an illustrious and ancient royal house and therefore socially superior to their politically and economically superior rivals. Thirdly, the Capetians had the support of the Church, which favoured a strong central government in France. This alliance with the Church was one of the great enduring legacies of the Capetians. The First Crusade was composed almost entirely of Frankish Princes. As time went on the power of the King was expanded by conquests, seizures and successful feudal political battles.[14]

The history of France starts with the election of Hugh Capet (940-996) by an assembly summoned in Reims in 987. Capet had been "Duke of the Franks" and then became "King of the Franks" (Rex Francorum). Hugh's lands extended little beyond the Paris basin; his political unimportance weighed against the powerful barons who elected him. Many of the king's vassals (who included for a long time the kings of England) ruled over territories far greater than his own.[14] He was recorded to be recognised king by the Gauls, Bretons, Danes, Aquitanians, Goths, Spanish and Gascons.[15]

Count Borell of Barcelona called for Hugh's help against Islamic raids, but even if Hugh intended to help Borell, he was otherwise occupied in fighting Charles of Lorraine. The loss of other Spanish principalities then followed, as the Spanish marches grew more and more independent.[15] Hugh Capet, the first Capetian king, is not a well documented figure, his greatest achievement being certainly to survive as king and defeating the Carolingian claimant, thus allowing him to establish what would become one of Europe's most powerful house of kings.[15]

A view of the remains of the Abbey of Cluny, a Benedictine monastery, was the centre of monastic life revival in the Middle Ages and marked an important step in the cultural rebirth following the Dark Ages.

Hugh's son – Robert the Pious – was crowned King of the Franks before Capet's demise. Hugh Capet decided so in order to have his succession secured. Robert II, as King of the Franks, met Emperor Henry II in 1023 on the borderline. They agreed to end all claims over each other's realm, setting a new stage of Capetian and Ottonian relationships. Although a king weak in power, Robert II's efforts were considerable. His surviving charters imply he relied heavily on the Church to rule France, much like his father did. Although he lived with a mistress — Bertha of Burgundy — and was excommunicated because of this, he was regarded as a model of piety for monks (hence his nickname, Robert the Pious).[15] The reign of Robert II was quite important because it involved the Peace and Truce of God (beginning in 989) and the Cluniac Reforms.[15]

Godefroy de Bouillon, a French knight, leader of the First Crusade and founder of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Under King Philip I, the kingdom enjoyed a modest recovery during his extraordinarily long reign (1060–1108). His reign also saw the launch of the First Crusade to regain the Holy Land, which heavily involved his family although he personally did not support the expedition.

It is from Louis VI (reigned 1108–37) onward that royal authority became more accepted. Louis VI was more a soldier and warmongering king than a scholar. The way the king raised money from his vassals made him quite unpopular; he was described as greedy and ambitious and that is corroborated by records of the time. His regular attacks on his vassals, although damaging the royal image, reinforced the royal power. From 1127 onward Louis had the assistance of a skilled religious statesman, Abbot Suger. The abbot was the son of a minor family of knights, but his political advice was extremely valuable to the king. Louis VI successfully defeated, both military and politically, many of the robber barons. Louis VI frequently summoned his vassals to the court, and those who did not show up often had their land possessions confiscated and military campaigns mounted against them. This drastic policy clearly imposed some royal authority on Paris and its surrounding areas. When Louis VI died in 1137, much progress had been made towards strengthening Capetian authority.[15]

Thanks to Abbot Suger's political advice, King Louis VII (junior king 1131–37, senior king 1137–80) enjoyed greater moral authority over France than his predecessors. Powerful vassals paid homage to the French king.[16] Abbot Suger arranged the 1137 marriage between Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine in Bordeaux, which made Louis VII Duke of Aquitaine and gave him considerable power. However, the couple disagreed over the burning of more than a thousand people in Vitry during the conflict against the Count of Champagne.[17]

King Louis VII was deeply horrified by the event and sought penitence by going to the Holy Land. He later involved the Kingdom of France in the Second Crusade but his relationship with Eleanor did not improve. The marriage was ultimately annulled by the pope and Eleanor soon married the Duke of Normandy – Henry Fitzempress, who would become King of England as Henry II two years later.[17] Louis VII was once a very powerful monarch and was now facing a much stronger vassal, who was his equal as King of England and his strongest prince as Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine.

Abbot Suger's vision of construction became what is now known as Gothic architecture. This style became standard for most European cathedrals built in the late Middle Ages.[17]

The late Capetians (1165–1328)

The late direct Capetian kings were considerably more powerful and influential than the earliest ones. While Philip I could hardly control his Parisian barons, Philip IV could dictate popes and emperors. The late Capetians, although they often ruled for a shorter time than their earlier peers, were often much more influential. This period also saw the rise of a complex system of international alliances and conflicts opposing, through dynasties, Kings of France and England and Holy Roman Emperor.

Philip II Augustus

The reign of Philip II Augustus (junior king 1179–80, senior king 1180–1223) marked an important step in the history of French monarchy. His reign saw the French royal domain and influence greatly expanded. He set the context for the rise of power to much more powerful monarchs like Saint Louis and Philip the Fair.

Philip II victorious at Bouvines thus annexing Normandy and Anjou into his royal domains. This battle involved a complex set of alliances from three important states, the Kingdoms of France and England and the Holy Roman Empire.

Philip II spent an important part of his reign fighting the so-called Angevin Empire, which was probably the greatest threat to the King of France since the rise of the Capetian dynasty. During the first part of his reign Philip II tried using Henry II of England's son against him. He allied himself with the Duke of Aquitaine and son of Henry II — Richard Lionheart — and together they launched a decisive attack on Henry's castle and home of Chinon and removed him from power.

Richard replaced his father as King of England afterward. The two kings then went crusading during the Third Crusade; however, their alliance and friendship broke down during the crusade. The two men were once again at odds and fought each other in France until Richard was on the verge of totally defeating Philip II.

Adding to their battles in France, the Kings of France and England were trying to install their respective allies at the head of the Holy Roman Empire. If Philip II Augustus supported Philip of Swabia, member of the House of Hohenstaufen, then Richard Lionheart supported Otto IV, member of the House of Welf. Otto IV had the upper hand and became the Holy Roman Emperor at the expense of Philip of Swabia. The crown of France was saved by Richard's demise after a wound he received fighting his own vassals in Limousin.

John Lackland, Richard's successor, refused to come to the French court for a trial against the Lusignans and, as Louis VI had done often to his rebellious vassals, Philip II confiscated John's possessions in France. John's defeat was swift and his attempts to reconquer his French possession at the decisive Battle of Bouvines (1214) resulted in complete failure. Philip II had annexed Normandy and Anjou, plus capturing the Counts of Boulogne and Flanders, although Aquitaine and Gascony remained loyal to the Plantagenet King. In an additional aftermath of the Battle of Bouvines, John's ally Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV was overthrown by Frederick II, member of the House of Hohenstaufen and ally of Philip. Philip II of France was crucial in ordering Western European politics in both England and France.

Philip Augustus founded the Sorbonne and made Paris a city for scholars.

Prince Louis (the future Louis VIII, reigned 1223–26) was involved in the subsequent English civil war as French and English (or rather Anglo-Norman) aristocracies were once one and were now split between allegiances. While the French kings were struggling against the Plantagenets, the Church called for the Albigensian Crusade. Southern France was then largely absorbed in the royal domains.

Saint Louis (1226–70)

France became a truly centralised kingdom under Louis IX (reigned 1226–70). Saint Louis has often been portrayed as a one-dimensional character, a flawless representant of the faith and an administrative reformer who cared for the governed ones. However, his reign was far from perfect for everyone: he made unsuccessful crusades, his expanding administrations raised opposition, and he burned Jewish books at the Pope's urging.[18] His judgments were not often practical, although they seemed fair by the standards of the time. It appears Louis had a strong sense of justice and always wanted to judge people himself before applying any sentence. This was said about Louis and French clergy asking for excommunications of Louis' vassals:[19]

Saint Louis. He saw France's cultural expansion in the Western Christian world.
For it would be against God and contrary to right and justice if he compelled any man to seek absolution when the clergy were doing him wrong.

Louis IX was only twelve years old when he became King of France. His mother — Blanche of Castile — was the effective power as regent (although she did not formally use the title). Blanche's authority was strongly opposed by the French barons yet she maintained her position until Louis was old enough to rule by himself.

In 1229 the King had to struggle with a long lasting strike at the University of Paris. The Quartier Latin was strongly hit by these strikes.

The kingdom was vulnerable: war was still going on in the County of Toulouse, and the royal army was occupied fighting resistance in Languedoc. Count Raymond VII of Toulouse finally signed the Treaty of Paris in 1229, in which he retained much of his lands for life, but his daughter, married to Count Alfonso of Poitou, produced him no heir and so the County of Toulouse went to the King of France.

King Henry III of England had not yet recognized the Capetian overlordship over Aquitaine and still hoped to recover Normandy and Anjou and reform the Angevin Empire. He landed in 1230 at Saint-Malo with a massive force. Henry III's allies in Brittany and Normandy fell down because they did not dare fight their king, who led the counterstrike himself. This evolved into the Saintonge War (1242).

Ultimately, Henry III was defeated and had to recognise Louis IX's overlordship, although the King of France did not seize Aquitaine from Henry III. Louis IX was now the most important landowner of France, adding to his royal title. There were some opposition to his rule in Normandy, yet it proved remarkably easy to rule, especially compared to the County of Toulouse which had been brutally conquered. The Conseil du Roi, which would evolve into the Parlement, was founded in these times. After his conflict with King Henry III of England, Louis established a cordial relation with the Plantagenet King.[20]

Saint Louis also supported new forms of art such as Gothic architecture; his Sainte-Chapelle became a very famous gothic building, and he is also credited for the Morgan Bible. The Kingdom was involved in two crusades under Saint Louis: the Seventh Crusade and the Eighth Crusade. Both proved to be complete failures for the French King.

Philip III and Philip IV (1270–1314)

Philip III became king when Saint Louis died in 1270 during the Eighth Crusade. Philip III was called "the Bold" on the basis of his abilities in combat and on horseback, and not because of his character or ruling abilities. Philip III took part in another crusading disaster: the Aragonese Crusade, which cost him his life in 1285.

More administrative reforms were made by Philip IV, also called Philip the Fair (reigned 1285–1314). This king was responsible for the end of the Knights Templar, signed the Auld Alliance, and established the Parlement of Paris. Philip IV was so powerful that he could name popes and emperors, unlike the early Capetians. The papacy was moved to Avignon and all the contemporary popes were French, such as Philip IV's puppet Bertrand de Goth, Pope Clement V.

The early Valois Kings and the Hundred Years' War (1328–1453)

The capture of the French king John II at Poitiers in 1356.

The tensions between the Houses of Plantagenet and Capet climaxed during the so-called Hundred Years' War (actually several distinct wars over the period 1337 to 1453) when the Plantagenets claimed the throne of France from the Valois. This was also the time of the Black Death, as well as several civil wars. The French population suffered much from these wars. In 1420 by the Treaty of Troyes Henry V was made heir to Charles VI. Henry V failed to outlive Charles so it was Henry VI of England and France who consolidated the Dual-Monarchy of England and France.

It has been argued that the difficult conditions the French population suffered during the Hundred Years' War awakened French nationalism, a nationalism represented by Joan of Arc (1412–1431). Although this is debatable, the Hundred Years' War is remembered more as a Franco-English war than as a succession of feudal struggles. During this war, France evolved politically and militarily.

Although a Franco-Scottish army was successful at the Battle of Baugé (1421), the humiliating defeats of Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) forced the French nobility to realise they could not stand just as armoured knights without an organised army. Charles VII (reigned 1422–61) established the first French standing army, the Compagnies d'ordonnance, and defeated the Plantagenets once at Patay (1429) and again, using cannons, at Formigny (1450). The Battle of Castillon (1453) was regarded as the last engagement of this "war", yet Calais and the Channel Islands remained ruled by the Plantagenets.

Early Modern France (1453–1789)

France in the late 15th century: a mosaic of feudal territories
Main article: Early Modern France

Kings during this period

The Early Modern period in French history spans the following reigns, from 1461 to the Revolution, breaking in 1789:

Life in the Early Modern period

Main article: Ancien Régime

French identity

France in the Ancien Régime covered a territory of around 520,000 square kilometres (200,000 sq mi). This land supported 13 million people in 1484 and 20 million people in 1700. France had the second largest population in Europe around 1700. Britain had 5 or 6 million, Spain had 8 million, and the Austrian Habsburgs had around 8 million. Russia was the most populated European country at the time. France's lead slowly faded after 1700, as other countries grew faster.[21]

The sense of "being French" was uncommon in 1500, as people clung to their local identities. By 1600, however, people were starting to call themselves "bon françois."[22]

Estates and power

Political power was widely dispersed. The law courts ("Parlements") were powerful, especially that of France. However, the king had only about 10,000 officials in royal service — very few indeed for such a large country, and with very slow internal communications over an inadequate road system. Travel was usually faster by ocean ship or river boat.[22] The different estates of the realm – the clergy, the nobility, and commoners – occasionally met together in the "Estates General", but in practice the Estates General had no power, for it could petition the king but could not pass laws.

The Catholic Church controlled about 40% of the wealth, tied up in long-term endowments that could be added to but not reduced. The king (not the pope) nominated bishops, but typically had to negotiate with noble families that had close ties to local monasteries and church establishments.

The nobility came second in terms of wealth, but there was no unity. Each noble had his own lands, his own network of regional connections, and his own military force.[22]

The cities had a quasi-independent status, and were largely controlled by the leading merchants and guilds. Paris was by far the largest city with 220,000 people in 1547 and a history of steady growth. Lyon and Rouen each had about 40,000 population, but Lyon had a powerful banking community and a vibrant culture. Bordeaux was next with only 20,000 population in 1500.[22]

Peasants made up the vast majority of population, who in many cases had well-established rights that the authorities had to respect. In 1484, about 97% of France's 13 million people lived in rural villages; in 1700, at least 80% of the 20 million people population were peasants.

In the 17th century peasants had ties to the market economy, provided much of the capital investment necessary for agricultural growth, and frequently moved from village to village (or town). Geographic mobility, directly tied to the market and the need for investment capital, was the main path to social mobility. The "stable" core of French society, town guildspeople and village labourers, included cases of staggering social and geographic continuity, but even this core required regular renewal.[23]

Accepting the existence of these two societies, the constant tension between them, and extensive geographic and social mobility tied to a market economy holds the key to a clearer understanding of the evolution of the social structure, economy, and even political system of early modern France. Collins (1991) argues that the Annales School paradigm underestimated the role of the market economy; failed to explain the nature of capital investment in the rural economy; and grossly exaggerated social stability.[24]


Main article: History of French

Although most peasants in France spoke local dialects, an official language emerged in Paris and the French language became the preferred language of Europe's aristocracy. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (born in 1500) quipped, "I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse."[25]

Because of its international status, there was a desire to regulate the French language. Several reforms of the French language worked to make it more uniform. The Renaissance writer François Rabelais (born 1494) helped to shape French as a literary language, Rabelais' French is characterised by the re-introduction of Greek and Latin words. Jacques Peletier du Mans (born 1517) was one of the scholars who reformed the French language. He improved Nicolas Chuquet's long scale system by adding names for intermediate numbers ("milliards" instead of "thousand million", etc.).

Consolidation (15th and 16th centuries)

Charles the Bold, the last Valois Duke of Burgundy. His death at the Battle of Nancy (1477) marked the division of his lands between the Kings of France and Habsburg Dynasty.

With the death in 1477 of Charles the Bold, France and the Habsburgs began a long process of dividing his rich Burgundian lands, leading to numerous wars. In 1532, Brittany was incorporated into the Kingdom of France.

France engaged in the long Italian Wars (1494–1559), which marked the beginning of early modern France. Francis I faced powerful foes, and he was captured at Pavia. The French monarchy then sought for allies and found one in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Admiral Barbarossa captured Nice in 1543 and handed it down to Francis I.

During the 16th century, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs were the dominant power in Europe. The many domains of Charles V encircled France. The Spanish Tercio was used with great success against French knights. Finally, on 7 January 1558, the Duke of Guise seized Calais from the English.

"Beautiful 16th century"

Economic historians call the era from about 1475 to 1630 the "beautiful 16th century" because of the return of peace, prosperity and optimism across the nation, and the steady growth of population. Paris, for example, flourished as never before, as its population rose to 200,000 by 1550. In Toulouse the Renaissance of the 16th century brought wealth that transformed the architecture of the town, such as building of the great aristocratic houses.[26]

French Wars of Religion (1562–98)

Henry IV of France was the first French Bourbon king.

The Protestant Reformation, inspired in France mainly by John Calvin, began to challenge the legitimacy and rituals of the Catholic Church. It reached an elite audience.[27] After 1630, came new wars and deep pessimism, because of the Protestant challenge, heresy persecutions by Catholic bishops, and civil war.[28]

The two Calvinist main strongholds were southwest France and Normandy, but even in these districts the Catholics were a majority. Renewed Catholic reaction – headed by the powerful Francis, Duke of Guise – led to a massacre of Huguenots at Vassy in 1562, starting the first of the French Wars of Religion, during which English, German, and Spanish forces intervened on the side of rival Protestant and Catholic forces.

King Henry II had died in 1559 in a jousting tournament, he was succeeded in turn by his three sons, each of which assumed the throne as minors or were weak, ineffectual rulers. In the power vacuum entered Henry's widow, Catherine de' Medici, who became a central figure in the early years of the Wars of Religion. At her instigation, thousands of Huguenots were murdered in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572.

The Wars of Religion culminated in the War of the Three Henrys (1584–98), at the height of which bodyguards of the King Henry III assassinated Henry de Guise, leader of the Spanish-backed Catholic league. In revenge, a priest assassinated Henry III. This led to the ascension of the Huguenot Henry IV; in order to bring peace to a country beset by religious and succession wars, he converted to Catholicism. He issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed religious liberties to the Protestants, thereby effectively ending the civil war.[29] The main provisions of the Edict of Nantes were as follows: a) Huguenots were allowed to hold religious services in certain towns in each province, b) They were allowed to control and fortify eight cities (including La Rochelle and Montauban), c) Special courts were established to try Huguenot offenders, d) Huguenots were to have equal civil rights with the Catholics.[30]

When in 1620 the Huguenots proclaimed a constitution for the 'Republic of the Reformed Churches of France', the chief minister Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642) invoked the entire powers of the state to stop it. Religious conflicts therefore resumed under Louis XIII when Richelieu forced Protestants to disarm their army and fortresses. This conflict ended in the Siege of La Rochelle (1627–28), in which Protestants and their English supporters were defeated. The following Peace of Alais (1629) confirmed religious freedom yet dismantled the Protestant military defences.[31]

In the face of persecution, Huguenots dispersed widely throughout Protestant kingdoms in Europe and America.[32]

Thirty Years' War (1618–48)

Main article: Thirty Years' War

The religious conflicts that plagued France also ravaged the Habsburg-led Holy Roman Empire. The Thirty Years' War eroded the power of the Catholic Habsburgs. Although Cardinal Richelieu, the powerful chief minister of France, had mauled the Protestants, he joined this war on their side in 1636 because it was in the raison d'État (national interest). Imperial Habsburg forces invaded France, ravaged Champagne, and nearly threatened Paris.[33]

Richelieu died in 1642 and was succeeded by Cardinal Mazarin, while Louis XIII died one year later and was succeeded by Louis XIV. France was served by some very efficient commanders such as Louis II de Bourbon (Condé) and Henry de la Tour d'Auvergne (Turenne). The French forces won a decisive victory at Rocroi (1643), and the Spanish army was decimated; the Tercio was broken. The Truce of Ulm (1647) and the Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought an end to the war.[33]

Some challenges remained. France was hit by civil unrest known as the Fronde which in turn evolved into the Franco-Spanish War in 1653. Louis II de Bourbon joined the Spanish army this time, but suffered a severe defeat at Dunkirk (1658) by Henry de la Tour d'Auvergne. The terms for the peace inflicted upon the Spanish kingdoms in the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) were harsh, as France annexed Northern Catalonia.[33]

Amidst this turmoil, René Descartes sought answers to philosophical questions through the use of logic and reason and formulated what would be called Cartesian Dualism in 1641.

Colonies (16th and 17th centuries)

During the 16th century, the king began to claim North American territories and established several colonies.[34] Jacques Cartier was one of the great explorers who ventured deep into American territories during the 16th century.

The early 17th century saw the first successful French settlements in the New World with the voyages of Samuel de Champlain.[35] The largest settlement was New France, with the towns of Quebec City (1608) and Montreal (fur trading post in 1611, Roman Catholic mission established in 1639, and colony founded in 1642).

Louis XIV (1643–1715)

Main article: Louis XIV of France
Louis XIV of France, the "Sun King".

Louis XIV, known as the "Sun King", reigned over France from 1643 until 1715 although his strongest period of personal rule did not begin until 1661 after the death of his Italian chief minister Cardinal Mazarin. Louis believed in the divine right of kings, which asserts that a monarch is above everyone except God, and is therefore not answerable to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or the Church. Louis continued his predecessors' work of creating a centralized state governed from Paris, sought to eliminate remnants of feudalism in France, and subjugated and weakened the aristocracy. By these means he consolidated a system of absolute monarchical rule in France that endured until the French Revolution. However, Louis XIV's long reign saw France involved in many wars that drained its treasury.[36]

His reign began during the Thirty Years' War and during the Franco-Spanish war. His military architect, Vauban, became famous for his pentagonal fortresses, and Jean-Baptiste Colbert supported the royal spending as much as possible. French dominated League of the Rhine fought against the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Saint Gotthard in 1664. The battle was won by the Christians, chiefly through the brave attack of 6,000 French troops led by La Feuillade and Coligny.[36]

France fought the War of Devolution against Spain in 1667. France's defeat of Spain and invasion of the Spanish Netherlands alarmed England and Sweden. With the Dutch Republic they formed the Triple Alliance to check Louis XIV's expansion. Louis II de Bourbon had captured Franche-Comté, but in face of an indefensible position, Louis XIV agreed to a peace at Aachen. Under its terms, Louis XIV did not annex Franche-Comté but did gain Lille.[37]

Peace was fragile, and war broke out again between France and the Dutch Republic in the Franco-Dutch War (1672–78). Louis XIV asked for the Dutch Republic to resume war against the Spanish Netherlands, but the republic refused. France attacked the Dutch Republic and was joined by England in this conflict. Through targeted inundations of polders by breaking dykes, the French invasion of the Dutch Republic was brought to a halt.[38] The Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter inflicted a few strategic defeats on the Anglo-French naval alliance and forced England to retire from the war in 1674. Because the Netherlands could not resist indefinitely, it agreed to peace in the Treaties of Nijmegen, according to which France would annex France-Comté and acquire further concessions in the Spanish Netherlands.

On 6 May 1682, the royal court moved to the lavish Palace of Versailles, which Louis XIV had greatly expanded. Over time, Louis XIV compelled many members of the nobility, especially the noble elite, to inhabit Versailles. He controlled the nobility with an elaborate system of pensions and privileges, and replaced their power with himself.

Peace did not last, and war between France and Spain again resumed.[38] The War of the Reunions broke out (1683–84), and again Spain, with its ally the Holy Roman Empire, was easily defeated. Meanwhile, in October 1685 Louis signed the Edict of Fontainebleau ordering the destruction of all Protestant churches and schools in France. Its immediate consequence was a large Protestant exodus from France. Over two million people died in two famines in 1693 and 1710.[38]

France would soon be involved in another war, the War of the Grand Alliance. This time the theatre was not only in Europe but also in North America. Although the war was long and difficult (it was also called the Nine Years' War), its results were inconclusive. The Treaty of Ryswick in 1697 confirmed French sovereignty over Alsace, yet rejected its claims to Luxembourg. Louis also had to evacuate Catalonia and the Palatinate. This peace was considered a truce by all sides, thus war was to start again.[39]

In 1701 the War of the Spanish Succession began. The Bourbon Philip of Anjou was designated heir to the throne of Spain as Philip V. The Habsburg Emperor Leopold opposed a Bourbon succession, because the power that such a succession would bring to the Bourbon rulers of France would disturb the delicate balance of power in Europe. Therefore, he claimed the Spanish thrones for himself.[39] England and the Dutch Republic joined Leopold against Louis XIV and Philip of Anjou. The allied forces were led by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, and by Prince Eugene of Savoy. They inflicted a few resounding defeats on the French army; the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 was the first major land battle lost by France since its victory at Rocroi in 1643. Yet, the extremely bloody battles of Ramillies (1706) and Malplaquet (1709) proved to be Pyrrhic victories for the allies, as they had lost too many men to continue the war.[39] Led by Villars, French forces recovered much of the lost ground in battles such as Denain (1712). Finally, a compromise was achieved with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Philip of Anjou was confirmed as Philip V, king of Spain; Emperor Leopold did not get the throne, but Philip V was barred from inheriting France.[39]

Louis XIV wanted to be remembered as a patron of the arts, like his ancestor Louis IX. He invited Jean-Baptiste Lully to establish the French opera, and a tumultuous friendship was established between Lully and playwright and actor Molière. Jules Hardouin Mansart became France's most important architect of the period, bringing the pinnacle of French Baroque architecture.

Major changes in France, Europe, and North America (1718–83)

Main article: Seven Years' War
The Battle of Fontenoy, 11 May 1745.

Louis XIV died in 1715 and was succeeded by his five-year-old great grandson who reigned as Louis XV until his death in 1774. In 1718, France was once again at war, as Philip II of Orléans's regency joined the War of the Quadruple Alliance against Spain. King Philip V of Spain had to withdraw from the conflict, confronted with the reality that Spain was no longer a great power of Europe. Under Cardinal Fleury's administration, peace was maintained as long as possible.[40]

However, in 1733 another war broke in central Europe, this time about the Polish succession, and France joined the war against the Austrian Empire. This time there was no invasion of the Netherlands, and Britain remained neutral. As a consequence, Austria was left alone against a Franco-Spanish alliance and faced a military disaster. Peace was settled in the Treaty of Vienna (1738), according to which France would annex, through inheritance, the Duchy of Lorraine.[40]

Two years later, in 1740, war broke out over the Austrian succession, and France seized the opportunity to join the conflict. The war played out in North America and India as well as Europe, and inconclusive terms were agreed to in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748). Once again, no one regarded this as a peace, but rather as a mere truce. Prussia was then becoming a new threat, as it had gained substantial territory from Austria. This led to the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756, in which the alliances seen during the previous war were mostly inverted. France was now allied to Austria and Russia, while Britain was now allied to Prussia.[41]

In the North American theatre, France was allied with various Native American peoples during the Seven Years' War and, despite a temporary success at the battles of the Great Meadows and Monongahela, French forces were defeated at the disastrous Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. In Europe, repeated French attempts to overwhelm Hanover failed. In 1762 Russia, France, and Austria were on the verge of crushing Prussia, when the Anglo-Prussian Alliance was saved by the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg. At sea, naval defeats against British fleets at Lagos and Quiberon Bay in 1759 and a crippling blockade forced France to keep its ships in port. Finally peace was concluded in the Treaty of Paris (1763), and France lost its North American empire.[41]

Britain's success in the Seven Years' War had allowed them to eclipse France as the leading colonial power. France sought revenge for this defeat, and under Choiseul France started to rebuild. In 1766 the French Kingdom annexed Lorraine and the following year bought Corsica from Genoa.

Lord Cornwallis surrenders at Yorktown to American and French allies.

Having lost its colonial empire, France saw a good opportunity for revenge against Britain in signing an alliance with the Americans in 1778, and sending an army and navy that turned the American Revolution into a world war. Spain, allied to France by the Family Compact, and the Dutch Republic also joined the war on the French side. Admiral de Grasse defeated a British fleet at Chesapeake Bay while Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau and Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette joined American forces in defeating the British at Yorktown. The war was concluded by the Treaty of Paris (1783); the United States became independent. The British Royal Navy scored a major victory over France in 1782 at the Battle of the Saintes and France finished the war with huge debts and the minor gain of the island of Tobago.[42]

While the state expanded, new Enlightenment ideas flourished. Montesquieu proposed the separation of powers. Many other French philosophes (intellectuals) exerted philosophical influence on a continental scale, including Voltaire, Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose essay The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right was a catalyst for governmental and societal reform throughout Europe. Diderot's great Encyclopédie reshaped the European world view.[43]

Astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and technology flourished. French scientists such as Antoine Lavoisier worked to replace the archaic units of weights and measures by a coherent scientific system. Lavoisier also formulated the law of Conservation of mass and discovered oxygen and hydrogen.[43]

The Enlightenment

Main article: Age of Enlightenment
Cover of the Encyclopédie

The "Philosophes" were 18th-century French intellectuals who dominated the French Enlightenment and were influential across Europe. Their interests were diverse, with experts in scientific, literary, philosophical and sociological matters. The ultimate goal of the philosophers was human progress; by concentrating on social and material sciences, they believed that a rational society was the only logical outcome of a freethinking and reasoned populace. They also advocated Deism and religious tolerance. Many believed religion had been used as a source of conflict since time eternal, and that logical, rational thought was the way forward for mankind.[44]

The philosopher Denis Diderot was editor in chief of the famous Enlightenment accomplishment, the 72,000-article Encyclopédie (1751–72). It sparked a revolution in learning throughout the enlightened world.[45]

In the early part of the 18th century the movement was dominated by Voltaire and Montesquieu, but the movement grew in momentum as the century moved on. Overall the philosophers were inspired by the thoughts of René Descartes, the skepticism of the Libertins and the popularization of science by Bernard de Fontenelle. Sectarian dissensions within the church, the gradual weakening of the absolute monarch and the numerous wars of Louis XIV allowed their influence to spread. Between 1748 and 1751 the Philosophes reached their most influential period, as Montesquieu published Spirit of Laws (1748) and Jean Jacques Rousseau published Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences (1750).

The leader of the French Enlightenment and a writer of enormous influence across Europe, was Voltaire (1694–1778). His many books included poems and plays; works of satire (Candide [1759]); books on history, science, and philosophy, including numerous (anonymous) contributions to the Encyclopédie; and an extensive correspondence. A witty, tireless antagonist to the alliance between the French state and the church, he was exiled from France on a number of occasions. In exile in England he came to appreciate British thought and he popularized Isaac Newton in Europe.[46]

Revolutionary France (1789–1799)

The French Revolution

Main article: French Revolution
The Tennis Court Oath of 20 June 1789 was a pivotal event during the first days of the Revolution. It signified the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI.
The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789.

The immediate trigger for the Revolution was Louis XVI's attempts to solve the government's worsening financial situation. When Louis XV died in 1774 he left his grandson Louis XVI, "A heavy legacy, with ruined finances, unhappy subjects, and a faulty and incompetent government." Regardless, "the people, meanwhile, still had confidence in royalty, and the accession of Louis XVI was welcomed with enthusiasm."[47]

Recent wars, especially the Seven Years' War (1756–63) and the American Revolutionary War (1775–83) had effectively bankrupted the state. The taxation system was highly inefficient. Several years of bad harvests and an inadequate transportation system had caused rising food prices, hunger, and malnutrition; the country was further destabilized by the lower classes' increased feeling that the royal court was isolated from, and indifferent to, their hardships.

In February 1787 his finance minister, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, convened an Assembly of Notables, a group of nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and bureaucrats selected in order to bypass the local parliaments. This group was asked to approve a new land tax that would, for the first time, include a tax on the property of nobles and clergy. The assembly did not approve the tax, instead demanding that Louis XVI call the Estates-General.

In August 1788 the King agreed to convene the Estates-General in May 1789. While the Third Estate demanded and was granted "double representation" so as to balance the First and Second Estate, voting was to occur "by orders" – votes of the Third Estate were to be weighted – effectively canceling double representation. This eventually led to the Third Estate breaking away from the Estates-General and, joined by members of the other estates, proclaiming the creation of the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People."

In an attempt to keep control of the process and prevent the Assembly from convening, Louis XVI ordered the closure of the Salle des États where the Assembly met. After finding the door to their chamber locked and guarded, the Assembly met nearby on a tennis court and pledged the Tennis Court Oath on 20 June 1789, binding them "never to separate, and to meet wherever circumstances demand, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations." They were joined by some sympathetic members of the Second and First estates. After the king fired his finance minister, Jacques Necker, for giving his support and guidance to the Third Estate, worries surfaced that the legitimacy of the newly formed National Assembly might be threatened by royalists.

Paris was soon in a state of anarchy. It was consumed with riots and widespread looting. Because the royal leadership essentially abandoned the city, the mobs soon had the support of the French Guard, including arms and trained soldiers. On 14 July 1789, the insurgents set their eyes on the large weapons and ammunition cache inside the Bastille fortress, which also served as a symbol of royal tyranny. Insurgents seized the Bastille prison, killing the governor and several of his guards.

The French now celebrate 14 July each year as a symbol of the shift away from the Ancien Régime to a more modern, democratic state. Gilbert du Motier, a hero of the War of American Independence, took command of the National Guard, and the king was forced to recognize the Tricolour Cockade. Although peace was made, several nobles did not regard the new order as acceptable and emigrated in order to push the neighboring, aristocratic kingdoms to war against the new democratic regime. Because of this new period of instability, the state was struck for several weeks in July and August 1789 by the Great Fear, a period of violent class conflict.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen was adopted by the National Assembly in August 1789 as a first step in their effort to write a constitution. Considered to be a precursor to modern international rights instruments and using the U.S. Declaration of Independence as a model, it defined a set of individual rights and collective rights of all of the estates as one. Influenced by the doctrine of natural rights, these rights were deemed universal and valid in all times and places, pertaining to human nature itself. The Assembly also replaced France's historic provinces with eighty-three departments, uniformly administered and approximately equal to one another in extent and population.

Abolition of feudalism

On 4 August 1789, the Assembly abolished feudalism, in what became known as the August Decrees, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate (nobility) and the tithes gathered by the First Estate (clergy). In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges. The Assembly abolished the symbolic paraphernalia of the Ancien Régime – armorial bearings, liveries, etc. – which alienated the more conservative nobles. Amidst these intrigues, the Assembly continued to work on developing a constitution.

A new judicial organization made all magistracies temporary and independent of the throne. The legislators abolished hereditary offices, except for the monarchy itself. Jury trials started for criminal cases. The King would have the unique power to propose war, with the legislature then deciding whether to declare war. The Assembly abolished all internal trade barriers and suppressed guilds, masterships, and workers' organizations. Consequently, an individual could only gain the right to practice a trade through the purchase of a license, and worker strikes became illegal.

The Revolution brought about a massive shifting of powers from the Roman Catholic Church to the state. Under the Ancien Régime, the Church had been the largest landowner in the country. Legislation enacted in 1790 abolished the Church's authority to levy a tax on crops, cancelled special privileges for the clergy, and confiscated Church property. The Assembly essentially addressed the financial crisis in part by having the nation take over the property of the Church.

The republican government also enforced the Système International d'Unités (International System of Units), commissioned by Louis XVI, which became known as the Metric System. Charles-Augustin de Coulomb and André-Marie Ampère's works on electricity and electromagnetism were also recognised, and their units are integrated into the Metric System.

Royal family captured

An illustration of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789.

When a mob from Paris attacked the royal palace at Versailles in October 1789 seeking redress for their severe poverty, the royal family was forced to move to the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Later in June 1791, the royal family secretly fled Paris in disguise for Varennes near France's northeastern border in order to seek royalist support the king believed he could trust, but they were soon discovered en route. They were brought back to Paris, after which they were essentially kept under house-arrest at the Tuileries.

Factions within the Assembly began to clarify. The opposition to revolution sat on the right-hand side of the Assembly. The "Royalist democrats" or monarchiens inclined toward organizing France along lines similar to the British constitutional model. The "National Party", representing the centre or centre-left of the assembly, represented somewhat more extreme views. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under Lafayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right.

With most of the Assembly still favoring a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, the various groupings reached a compromise. Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy with Louis XVI as little more than a figurehead. The King had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly, although he still retained his royal veto and the ability to select ministers. He had perforce to swear an oath to the constitution, and a decree declared that retracting the oath, heading an army for the purpose of making war upon the nation, or permitting anyone to do so in his name would amount to de facto abdication.

The Legislative Assembly first met on 1 October 1791 and degenerated into chaos less than a year later. The Legislative Assembly consisted of about 165 Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) on the right, about 330 Girondists (liberal republicans) in the center, a vocal group of Jacobins (radical revolutionaries) on the left, and about 250 deputies unaffiliated with any of those factions. Early on, the King vetoed legislation that threatened the émigrés with death and that decreed that every non-juring clergyman must take within eight days the civic oath mandated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Over the course of a year, disagreements like this would result in a constitutional crisis, leading the Revolution to higher levels.

On the foreign affairs front, in the Declaration of Pillnitz of August 1791, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Count Charles of Artois, and King Frederick William II of Prussia made Louis XVI's cause their own. These noblemen also required the Assembly to be dissolved through threats of war, but, instead of cowing the French, it infuriated them. The borders were militarised as a consequence. Under the Constitution of 1791, the solution of a constitutional monarchy was adopted, and the king supported a war against Austria in order to increase his popularity, starting the long French Revolutionary Wars. On the night of the 10 August, the Jacobins, who had mainly opposed the war, suspended the monarchy. With the Prussian army entering France, more doubts were raised against the aristocracy, and these tensions climaxed during the September Massacres.

After the first great victory of the French revolutionary troops at the Battle of Valmy on 20 September 1792, the French First Republic was proclaimed the next day, on 21 September 1792. The new French Republican Calendar was then legally enforced.

Factionalism amongst revolutionaries

The National Convention was fractured into factions, the most dangerous of which became the Montagnards. The Montagnards and the Girondins were both originally Jacobins, a political club which was founded according to republican beliefs and whose members wanted a French democratic republic.[48] The Jacobin Club, however, encountered political tension beginning in 1791 due to conflicting viewpoints in response to several revolutionary events and how to best achieve a democratic republic.[49] Members of "The Mountain" (French: La Montagne) sided with the Parisian militants, also known as the sans-culottes, who aimed for a more repressive form of government that would institute a price maximum on essential consumer goods and would punish all traitors and enemies of the Republic.[50]

Additionally, between war and political differences, the Montagnards believed these crises required emergency solutions.[51] The Montagnards considered themselves the true patriots of the French Revolution.[52] The Mountain had 302 members during its reign in 1793 and 1794, including committee members and deputies who voted with the faction.[53] Most of its members came from the middle class and tended to represent the Parisian population.[54] Its leaders included Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, and Georges Danton.[55] This party eventually gained overwhelming power in the Convention and governed France during the Reign of Terror.

Mass shootings at Nantes, War in the Vendée, 1793.

Possibly the two most significant factors in the quarrel and consequential split between the Montagnards and the Girondins include the September Massacres and the trial of Louis XVI, both in 1792. The official fall of the monarchy came on 10 August 1792 after Louis XVI refused to rescind his veto of the National Assembly's constitution. The Mountain argued for immediate execution of the king by military court-martial, insisting that he was undermining the Revolution. Because a trial would require the "presumption of innocence," such a proceeding would contradict the mission of the National Convention. The Girondins, in contrast, agreed that the king was guilty of treason but argued for his clemency and favored the option of exile or popular referendum as his sentence.[56] However, the trial progressed and Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793.

The second key factor in the split between the Montagnards and the Girondins was the September Massacres of 1792. Radical Parisians, members of the National Guard, and fédérés were angry with the poor progress in the war against Austria and Prussia and the forced enlistment of 30,000 volunteers. On 10 August, radicals went on a killing spree, slaughtering roughly 1,300 inmates in various Paris prisons, many of whom were simply common criminals, not the treasonous counterrevolutionaries condemned by the Mountain.[57] The Girondins did not tolerate the massacres, but neither the Montagnards of the Legislative Assembly nor the Paris Commune took any action to stop or condemn the killings. Members of the Girondins later accused Marat, Robespierre, and Danton as inciters of the massacres in an attempt to further their dictatorial power.[58]

Execution of Louis XVI

The Execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793 in what is now the Place de la Concorde, facing the empty pedestal where the statue of his grandfather, Louis XV, had stood.

When the Brunswick Manifesto of July 1792 once more threatened the French population with Austrian (Imperial) and Prussian attacks, Louis XVI was suspected of treason and taken along with his family from the Tuileries Palace in August 1792 by insurgents supported by a new revolutionary Paris Commune. The King and Queen ended up prisoners, and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy. Little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins. The King was later tried and convicted and, on 21 January 1793, was executed by the guillotine. Marie Antoinette, would follow him to the guillotine on 16 October.

What remained of a national government depended on the support of the insurrectionary Commune. When the Commune sent gangs into prisons to arbitrarily adjudicate and butcher 1400 victims, and then addressed a circular letter to the other cities of France, inviting them to follow this example, the Assembly could offer only feeble resistance. This situation persisted until a National Convention, charged with writing a new constitution, met on 20 September 1792 and became the new de facto government of France. The next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic.

Members of the Mountain went on to establish the Committee of Public Safety in April 1793 under Robespierre, which would be responsible for The Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794), the bloodiest and one of the most controversial phases of the French Revolution. The time between 1792 and 1794 was dominated by the ideology of the Mountain until the execution of Robespierre on 28 July 1794.

The war went badly. Prices rose, the sans-culottes (poor labourers and radical Jacobins) rioted, and counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup, backed up by force effected by mobilising public support against the Girondist faction, and by utilising the mob power of the Parisian sans-culottes. An alliance of Jacobin and sans-culottes elements thus became the effective centre of the new government. Policy became considerably more radical.

The Reign of Terror

Starting in September 1793, a period known as the Reign of Terror ensued for approximately 12 months, the bloodiest and one of the most controversial phases of the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety, set up by the National Convention on 6 April 1793, formed the twelve-member de facto executive government of France. Under war conditions and with national survival seemingly at stake, the Montagnard Jacobins under Maximilien Robespierre centralized denunciations, trials, and executions. At least 18,000 people met their deaths under the guillotine or otherwise, after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities.

The execution of Robespierre, July 1794.

In 1794, Robespierre had ultra-radicals and moderate Jacobins executed. As a consequence of these actions, however, Robespierre's own popular support eroded markedly. On 27 July 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction led to the arrest and execution of Robespierre. The new government was predominantly made up of Girondists who had survived the Terror and, after taking power, they took revenge as well by banning the Jacobin Club and executing many of its former members – including Robespierre – in what was known as the White Terror.

After the stated aim of the National Convention to export revolution, the guillotining of Louis XVI of France, and the French opening of the Scheldt, a European military coalition was formed against France. Spain, Naples, Great Britain, and the Netherlands joined Austria and Prussia in The First Coalition (1792–97), the first major concerted effort of multiple European powers to contain Revolutionary France. It took shape after the wars had already begun.

The Republican government in Paris was radicalised after a diplomatic coup from the Jacobins said it would be the Guerre Totale ("total war") and called for a Levée en masse (mass conscription of troops). Royalist invasion forces were defeated at Toulon in 1793, leaving the French republican forces in an offensive position and granting a young officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, a certain fame. Following their victory at Fleurus, the Republicans occupied Belgium and the Rhineland. An invasion of the Netherlands established the puppet Batavian Republic. Finally, a peace agreement was concluded between France, Spain, and Prussia in 1795 at Basel.


The Convention approved a new "Constitution of the Year III" on 17 August 1795; it was ratified by a national plebiscite and took effect on 26 September 1795.[59] The new constitution created the Directory and the first bicameral legislature in French history. The parliament consisted of 500 representatives – le Conseil des Cinq-Cents (the Council of the Five Hundred) – and 250 senators – le Conseil des Anciens (the Council of Elders). Executive power went to five "directors", named annually by the Conseil des Anciens from a list submitted by le Conseil des Cinq-Cents. The nation desired rest and the healing of its many wounds. Those who wished to restore Louis XVIII and the Ancien Régime and those who would have renewed the Reign of Terror were insignificant in number. The possibility of foreign interference had vanished with the failure of the First Coalition.

The four years of the Directory was a time of arbitrary government and chronic disquiet. The late atrocities had made confidence or goodwill between the parties impossible. As the majority of French people wanted to be rid of them, they could achieve their purpose only by extraordinary means. The Convention habitually disregarded the terms of the constitution, and, when the elections went against them, resorted to the sword. They resolved to prolong the war as the best expedient for prolonging their power. They were thus driven to rely upon the armies, which also desired war and were becoming increasingly less civic in temper.

The Directory lasted until 1799 when Napoleon staged a coup and installed The Consulate. The Consulate still operated within the First Republic. The Consulate was replaced by the First Empire, established by Napoleon in 1804.[60]

Napoleonic France (1799—1815)

Napoleonic Era

See also: Napoleonic wars
Napoleon on his Imperial throne, by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

During the War of the First Coalition (1792–97), the Directoire had replaced the National Convention. Five directors then ruled France. As Great Britain was still at war with France, a plan was made to take Egypt from the Ottoman Empire, a British ally. This was Napoleon's idea and the Directoire agreed to the plan in order to send the popular general away from the mainland. Napoleon defeated the Ottoman forces during the Battle of the Pyramids (21 July 1798) and sent hundreds of scientists and linguists out to thoroughly explore modern and ancient Egypt. Only a few weeks later the British fleet under Admiral Horatio Nelson unexpectedly destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1–3 August 1798). Napoleon planned to move into Syria but was defeated and he returned to France without his army, which surrendered.[61]

The Directoire was threatened by the Second Coalition (1798–1802). Royalists and their allies still dreamed of restoring the monarchy to power, while the Prussian and Austrian crowns did not accept their territorial losses during the previous war. In 1799 the Russian army expelled the French from Italy in battles such as Cassano, while the Austrian army defeated the French in Switzerland at Stockach and Zurich. Napoleon then seized power through a coup and established the Consulate in 1799. The Austrian army was defeated at the Battle of Marengo (1800) and again at the Battle of Hohenlinden (1800).[62]

While at sea the French had some success at Boulogne but Nelson's Royal Navy destroyed an anchored Danish and Norwegian fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen (1801) because the Scandinavian kingdoms were against the British blockade of France. The Second Coalition was beaten and peace was settled in two distinct treaties: the Treaty of Lunéville and the Treaty of Amiens. A brief interlude of peace ensued in 1802-3, during which Napoleon sold French Louisiana to the United States because it was indefensible.[62]

In 1801 Napoleon concluded a "Concordat" with Pope Pius VII that opened peaceful relations between church and state in France. The policies of the Revolution were reversed, except the Church did not get its lands back. Bishops and clergy were to receive state salaries, and the government would pay for the building and maintenance of churches.[63] Napoleon reorganized higher learning by dividing the Institut National into four (later five) academies.

In 1804 Napoleon was titled Emperor by the senate, thus founding the First French Empire. Napoleon's rule was constitutional, and although autocratic, it was much more advanced than traditional European monarchies of the time. The proclamation of the French Empire was met by the Third Coalition. The French army was renamed La Grande Armée in 1805 and Napoleon used propaganda and nationalism to control the French population. The French army achieved a resounding victory at Ulm (16–19 October 1805), where an entire Austrian army was captured.[64]

A Franco-Spanish fleet was defeated at Trafalgar (21 October 1805) and all plans to invade Britain were then made impossible. Despite this naval defeat, it was on the ground that this war would be won; Napoleon inflicted on the Austrian and Russian Empires one of their greatest defeats at Austerlitz (also known as the "Battle of the Three Emperors" on 2 December 1805), destroying the Third Coalition. Peace was settled in the Treaty of Pressburg; the Austrian Empire lost the title of Holy Roman Emperor and the Confederation of the Rhine was created by Napoleon over former Austrian territories.[64]

Pan-European efforts to contain Napoleon

Prussia joined Britain and Russia, thus forming the Fourth Coalition. Although the Coalition was joined by other allies, the French Empire was also not alone since it now had a complex network of allies and subject states. The largely outnumbered French army crushed the Prussian army at Jena-Auerstedt in 1806; Napoleon captured Berlin and went as far as Eastern Prussia. There the Russian Empire was defeated at the Battle of Friedland (14 June 1807). Peace was dictated in the Treaties of Tilsit, in which Russia had to join the Continental System, and Prussia handed half of its territories to France. The Duchy of Warsaw was formed over these territorial losses, and Polish troops entered the Grande Armée in significant numbers.[65]

In order to ruin the British economy, Napoleon set up the Continental System in 1807, and tried to prevent merchants across Europe from trading with British. The large amount of smuggling frustrated Napoleon, and did more harm to his economy than to his enemies.[66]

The height of the First Empire

Freed from his obligation in the east, Napoleon then went back to the west, as the French Empire was still at war with Britain. Only two countries remained neutral in the war: Sweden and Portugal, and Napoleon then looked toward the latter. In the Treaty of Fontainebleau (1807), a Franco-Spanish alliance against Portugal was sealed as Spain eyed Portuguese territories. French armies entered Spain in order to attack Portugal, but then seized Spanish fortresses and took over the kingdom by surprise. Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, was made King of Spain after Charles IV abdicated.[67]

This occupation of the Iberian peninsula fueled local nationalism, and soon the Spanish and Portuguese fought the French using guerilla tactics, defeating the French forces at the Battle of Bailén (June and July 1808). Britain sent a short-lived ground support force to Portugal, and French forces evacuated Portugal as defined in the Convention of Sintra following the Allied victory at Vimeiro (21 August 1808). France only controlled Catalonia and Navarre and could have been definitely expelled from the Iberian peninsula had the Spanish armies attacked again, but the Spanish did not.[68]

Another French attack was launched on Spain, led by Napoleon himself, and was described as "an avalanche of fire and steel." However, the French Empire was no longer regarded as invincible by European powers. In 1808 Austria formed the War of the Fifth Coalition in order to break down the French Empire. The Austrian Empire defeated the French at Aspern-Essling, yet was beaten at Wagram while the Polish allies defeated the Austrian Empire at Raszyn (April 1809). Although not as decisive as the previous Austrian defeats, the peace treaty in October 1809 stripped Austria of a large amount of territories, reducing it even more.

Napoleon Bonaparte retreating from Moscow, by Adolf Northern.

In 1812 war broke out with Russia, engaging Napoleon in the disastrous French invasion of Russia (1812). Napoleon assembled the largest army Europe had ever seen, including troops from all subject states, to invade Russia, which had just left the continental system and was gathering an army on the Polish frontier. Following an exhausting march and the bloody but inconclusive Battle of Borodino, near Moscow, the Grande Armée entered and captured Moscow, only to find it burning as part of the Russian scorched earth tactics. Although there still were battles, the Napoleonic army left Russia in late 1812 annihilated, most of all by the Russian winter, exhaustion, and scorched earth warfare. On the Spanish front the French troops were defeated at Vitoria (June 1813) and then at the Battle of the Pyrenees (July–August 1813). Since the Spanish guerrillas seemed to be uncontrollable, the French troops eventually evacuated Spain.[69]

Since France had been defeated on these two fronts, states that had been conquered and controlled by Napoleon saw a good opportunity to strike back. The Sixth Coalition was formed under British leadership.[70] The German states of the Confederation of the Rhine switched sides, finally opposing Napoleon. Napoleon was largely defeated in the Battle of the Nations outside Leipzig in October 1813, his forces heavily outnumbered by the Allied coalition armies and was overwhelmed by much larger armies during the Six Days Campaign (February 1814), although, the Six Days Campaign is often considered a tactical masterpiece because the allies suffered much higher casualties. Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814, and was exiled to Elba.[71]

The conservative Congress of Vienna reversed the political changes that had occurred during the wars. Napoleon suddenly returned, seized control of France, raised an army, and marched on his enemies in the Hundred Days. It ended with his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and his exile to a remote island.[72]

The monarchy was subsequently restored and Louis XVIII, Younger brother of Louis XVI became king, and the exiles returned. However many of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic reforms were kept in place.[73]

Napoleon's impact on France

Napoleon centralized power in Paris, with all the provinces governed by all-powerful prefects whom he selected. They were more powerful than royal intendants of the ancien régime and had a long-term impact in unifying the nation, minimizing regional differences, and shifting all decisions to Paris.[74]

Religion had been a major issue during the Revolution, and Napoleon resolved most of the outstanding problems. Thereby he moved the clergy and large numbers of devout Catholics from hostility to the government to support for him. The Catholic system was reestablished by the Concordat of 1801 (signed with Pope Pius VII), so that church life returned to normal; the church lands were not restored, but the Jesuits were allowed back in and the bitter fights between the government and Church ended. Protestant, Jews and atheists were tolerated.[75]

The French taxation system had collapsed in the 1780s. In the 1790s the government seized and sold church lands and lands of exiles aristocrats. Napoleon instituted a modern, efficient tax system that guaranteed a steady flow of revenues and made long-term financing possible.[76]

Napoleon kept the system of conscription that had been created in the 1790s, so that every young man served in the army, which could be rapidly expanded even as it was based on a core of careerists and talented officers. Before the Revolution the aristocracy formed the officer corps. Now promotion was by merit and achievement—every private carried a marshal's baton, it was said.[77]

The modern era of French education began in the 1790s. The Revolution in the 1790s abolished the traditional universities.[78] Napoleon sought to replace them with new institutions, the École Polytechnique, focused on technology.[79] The elementary schools received little attention.

The Napoleonic Code

Of permanent importance was the Napoleonic Code created by eminent jurists under Napoleon's supervision. Praised for its Gallic clarity, it spread rapidly throughout Europe and the world in general, and marked the end of feudalism and the liberation of serfs where it took effect.[80] The Code recognized the principles of civil liberty, equality before the law, and the secular character of the state. It discarded the old right of primogeniture (where only the eldest son inherited) and required that inheritances be divided equally among all the children. The court system was standardized; all judges were appointed by the national government in Paris.[81]

Long 19th century, 1815–1914

The century after the fall of Napoleon I was politically unstable. As Tombs points out:

Every head of state from 1814 to 1873 spent part of his life in exile. Every regime was the target of assassination attempts of a frequency that put Spanish and Russian politics in the shade. Even in peaceful times governments changed every few months. In less peaceful times, political deaths, imprisonments and deportations are literally incalculable.[82]

France was no longer the dominant power it had been before 1814, but it played a major role in European economics, culture, diplomacy and military affairs. The Bourbons were restored, but left a weak record and one branch was overthrown in 1830 and the other branch in 1848 as Napoleon's nephew was elected president. He made himself emperor as Napoleon III, but was overthrown when he was defeated and captured by Prussians in 1870 a war that humiliated France and made the new nation of Germany dominant in the continent. The Third Republic was established, but the possibility of a return to monarchy remained a possibility into the 1880s. The French built up an empire, especially in Africa and Indochina. The economy was strong, with a good railway system. The arrival of the Rothschild banking family of France in 1812 guaranteed the role of Paris alongside London as a major center of international finance.

Permanent changes in French society

The French Revolution and Napoleonic eras brought a series of major changes to France which the Bourbon restoration did not reverse. First of all, France became highly centralized, with all decisions made in Paris. The political geography was completely reorganized and made uniform. France was divided into 80+ departments, which have endured into the 21st century. Each department had the identical administrative structure, and was tightly controlled by a prefect appointed by Paris. The complex multiple overlapping legal jurisdictions of the old regime had all been abolished, and there was now one standardized legal code, administered by judges appointed by Paris, and supported by police under national control. Education was centralized, with the Grande Master of the University of France controlling every element of the entire educational system from Paris. Newly technical universities were opened in Paris which to this day have a critical role in training the elite.

The old aristocracy had returned, and recovered much of the land they owned directly. However they completely lost all their old seigneurial rights to the rest of the farmland, and the peasants no longer were under their control. The old aristocracy had dallied with the ideas of the Enlightenment and rationalism. Now the aristocracy was much more conservative, and much more supportive of the Catholic Church. For the best jobs meritocracy was the new policy, and aristocrats had to compete directly with the growing business and professional class. Anti-clerical sentiment became much stronger than ever before, but was now based in certain elements of the middle class and indeed the peasantry as well.

The great masses of the French people were peasants in the countryside, or impoverished workers in the cities. They gained new rights, and a new sense of possibilities. Although relieved of many of the old burdens, controls, and taxes, the peasantry was still highly traditional in its social and economic behavior. Many eagerly took on mortgages to buy as much land as possible for their children, so debt was an important factor in their calculations. The working class in the cities was a small element, and had been freed of many restrictions imposed by medieval guilds. However France was very slow to industrialize, and much of the work remained drudgery without machinery or technology to help. France was still localized, especially in terms of language, but now there was an emerging French nationalism that showed its national pride in the Army, and foreign affairs.[83][84]


The Catholic Church lost all its lands and buildings during the Revolution, and these were sold off or came under the control of local governments. The bishop still ruled his diocese (which was aligned with the new department boundaries), but could only communicate with the pope through the government in Paris. Bishops, priests, nuns and other religious people were paid salaries by the state. All the old religious rites and ceremonies were retained, and the government maintained the religious buildings. The Church was allowed to operate its own seminaries and to some extent local schools as well, although this became a central political issue into the 20th century. Bishops were much less powerful than before, and had no political voice. However, the Catholic Church reinvented itself and put a new emphasis on personal religiosity that gave it a hold on the psychology of the faithful.[85]

France remained basically Catholic. The 1872 census counted 36 million people, of whom 35.4 million were listed as Catholics, 600,000 as Protestants, 50,000 as Jews and 80,000 as freethinkers. The Revolution failed to destroy the Catholic Church, and Napoleon's concordat of 1801 restored its status. The return of the Bourbons in 1814 brought back many rich nobles and landowners who supported the Church, seeing it as a bastion of conservatism and monarchism. However the monasteries with their vast land holdings and political power were gone; much of the land had been sold to urban entrepreneurs who lacked historic connections to the land and the peasants.[86]

Few new priests were trained in the 1790–1814 period, and many left the church. The result was that the number of parish clergy plunged from 60,000 in 1790 to 25,000 in 1815, many of them elderly. Entire regions, especially around Paris, were left with few priests. On the other hand, some traditional regions held fast to the faith, led by local nobles and historic families.[86]

The comeback was very slow in the larger cities and industrial areas. With systematic missionary work and a new emphasis on liturgy and devotions to the Virgin Mary, plus support from Napoleon III, there was a comeback. In 1870 there were 56,500 priests, representing a much younger and more dynamic force in the villages and towns, with a thick network of schools, charities and lay organizations.[87] Conservative Catholics held control of the national government, 1820–30, but most often played secondary political roles or had to fight the assault from republicans, liberals, socialists and seculars.[88][89]

The Bourbon restoration: (1814–30)

Louis XVIII makes a return at the Hôtel de Ville de Paris on August 29th, 1814.

This period of time is called the Bourbon Restoration and was marked by conflicts between reactionary Ultra-royalists, who wanted to restore the pre-1789 system of absolute monarchy, and liberals, who wanted to strengthen constitutional monarchy. Louis XVIII was the younger brother of Louis XVI, and reigned from 1814 to 1824. On becoming king, Louis issued a constitution known as the Charter which preserved many of the liberties won during the French Revolution and provided for a parliament composed of an elected Chamber of Deputies and a Chamber of Peers that was nominated by the king.[90]

The right to vote in elections to the Chamber of Deputies was restricted to only the wealthiest men. Louis was succeeded in turn by a younger brother, Charles X, who reigned from 1824 to 1830. On 12 June 1830 Polignac, King Charles X's minister, exploited the weakness of the Algerian Dey by invading Algeria and establishing French rule in Algeria.[90] The news of the fall of Algiers had barely reached Paris when a new revolution broke out and quickly resulted in a change of regime.

July Monarchy (1830–48)

The taking of the Hôtel de Ville - the seat of Paris's government - during the July Revolution of 1830.

Protest against the absolute monarchy was in the air. The elections of deputies to 16 May 1830 had gone very badly for King Charles X.[91] In response, he tried repression but that only aggravated the crisis as suppressed deputies, gagged journalists, students from the University and many working men of Paris poured into the streets and erected barricades during the "three glorious days" (French Les Trois Glorieuses) of 26–29 July 1830. Charles X was deposed and replaced by King Louis-Philippe in the July Revolution. It is traditionally regarded as a rising of the bourgeoisie against the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons. Participants in the July Revolution included Marie Joseph Paul Ives Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette. Working behind the scenes on behalf of the bourgeois propertied interests was Louis Adolphe Thiers.[92]

Louis-Philippe's "July Monarchy" (1830–48) was dominated by the haute bourgeoisie (high bourgeoisie) of bankers, financiers, industrialists and merchants.[93]

During the reign of the July Monarchy, the Romantic Era was starting to bloom.[94] Driven by the Romantic Era, an atmosphere of protest and revolt was all around in France. On 22 November 1831 in Lyon (the second largest city in France) the silk workers revolted and took over the town hall in protest of recent salary reductions and working conditions. This was one of the first instances of a workers revolt in the entire world.[95]

Because of the constant threats to the throne, the July Monarchy began to rule with a stronger and stronger hand. Soon political meetings were outlawed. However, "banquets" were still legal and all through 1847, there was a nationwide campaign of republican banquets demanding more democracy. The climaxing banquet was scheduled for 22 February 1848 in Paris but the government banned it. In response citizens of all classes poured out onto the streets of Paris in a revolt against the July Monarchy. Demands were made for abdication of "Citizen King" Louis-Philippe and for establishment of a representative democracy in France.[96] The king abdicated, and the French Second Republic was proclaimed. Alphonse Marie Louis de Lamartine, who had been a leader of the moderate republicans in France during the 1840s, became the Minister of Foreign Affairs and in effect the premier in the new Provisional government. In reality Lamartine was the virtual head of government in 1848.[97][98]

Second Republic (1848–52)

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French.

Frustration among the laboring classes arose when the Constituent Assembly did not address the concerns of the workers. Strikes and worker demonstrations became more common as the workers gave vent to these frustrations. These demonstrations reached a climax when on 15 May 1848, workers from the secret societies broke out in armed uprising against the anti-labor and anti-democratic policies being pursued by the Constituent Assembly and the Provisional Government. Fearful of a total breakdown of law and order, the Provisional Government invited General Louis Eugene Cavaignac back from Algeria, in June 1848, to put down the worker's armed revolt. From June 1848 until December 1848 General Cavaignac became head of the executive of the Provisional Government.[99]

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president on 10 December 1848 by a landslide. His support came from a wide section of the French public. Various classes of French society voted for Louis Napoleon for very different and often contradictory reasons.[100] Louis Napoleon, himself encouraged this contradiction by "being all things to all people." One of his major promises to the peasantry and other groups was that there would be no new taxes.[101]

The new National Constituent Assembly was heavily composed of royalist sympathizers of both the Legitimist (Bourbon) wing and the Orleanist (Citizen King Louis Philippe) wing. Because of the ambiguity surrounding Louis Napoleon's political positions, his agenda as president was very much in doubt. For prime minister, he selected Odilon Barrot, an unobjectionable middle-road parliamentarian, who had led the "loyal opposition" under Louis Philippe. Other appointees represented various royalist factions.[101]

The Pope had been forced out of Rome as part of the Revolutions of 1848, and Louis Napoleon sent a 14,000 man expeditionary force of troops to the Papal State under General Nicolas Charles Victor Oudinot to restore him. In late April 1849, it was defeated and pushed back from Rome by Giuseppi Garibaldi's volunteer corps, then recovered and recaptured Rome.[102]

In June 1849, demonstrations against the government broke out and were suppressed. Leaders were arrested, including prominent politicians. The government banned several democratic and socialist newspapers in France; the editors were arrested. Karl Marx was at risk so he moved to London in August.[103]

The government sought ways to balance its budget and reduce its debts. Toward this end, Hippolyte Passy was appointed Finance Minister. When the Legislative Assembly met at the beginning of October 1849, Passy proposed an income tax to help balance the finances of France. The bourgeoisie, who would pay most of the tax, protested. The furor over the income tax caused the resignation of Barrot as prime minister, but a new wine tax also caused protests.[104]

The 1850 elections resulted in a conservative body. It passed the Falloux Laws, putting education into the hands of the Catholic clergy. It opened an era of cooperation between Church and state that lasted until the Jules Ferry laws reversed course in 1879. The Falloux Laws provided universal primary schooling in France and expanded opportunities for secondary schooling. In practice, the curricula were similar in Catholic and state schools. Catholic schools were especially useful in schooling for girls, which had long been neglected.[105] Although a new electoral law was passed that respected the principle of universal (male) suffrage, the stricter residential requirement of the new law actually had the effect of disenfranchising 3,000,000 of 10,000,000 voters.[106]

Second Empire, 1852–71

As 1851 opened, Louis Napoleon was not allowed by the Constitution of 1848 to seek re-election as President of France.[107] Instead he proclaimed himself President for Life following a coup in December that was confirmed and accepted in a dubious referendum.

Napoleon III of France took the imperial title in 1852 and held it until his downfall in 1870. The era saw great industrialization, urbanization (including the massive rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussmann) and economic growth.

Despite his promises in 1852 of a peaceful reign, the Emperor could not resist the temptations of glory in foreign affairs. He was visionary, mysterious and secretive; he had a poor staff, and kept running afoul of his domestic supporters. In the end he was incompetent as a diplomat.[108] Napoleon did have some successes: he strengthened French control over Algeria, established bases in Africa, began the takeover of Indochina, and opened trade with China. He facilitated a French company building the Suez Canal, which Britain could not stop. In Europe, however, Napoleon failed again and again. The Crimean war of 1854–56 produced no gains. Napoleon had long been an admirer of Italy and wanted to see it unified, although that might create a rival power. He plotted with Cavour of the Italian kingdom of Piedmont to expel Austria and set up an Italian confederation of four new states headed by the pope. Events in 1859 ran out of his control. Austria was quickly defeated, but instead of four new states a popular uprising united all of Italy under Piedmont. The pope held onto Rome only because Napoleon sent troops to protect him. His reward was the County of Nice (which included the city of Nice and the rugged Alpine territory to its north and east) and the Duchy of Savoy. He angered Catholics when the pope lost most of his domains. Napoleon then reversed himself and angered both the anticlerical liberals at home and his erstwhile Italian allies when he protected the pope in Rome.

The British grew annoyed at Napoleon's humanitarian intervention in Syria in 1860–61. Napoleon lowered the tariffs, which helped in the long run but in the short run angered owners of large estates and the textile and iron industrialists, while leading worried workers to organize. Matters grew worse in the 1860s as Napoleon nearly blundered into war with the United States in 1862, while his takeover of Mexico in 1861–67 was a total disaster. The puppet emperor he put on the Mexican throne was overthrown and executed. Finally in the end he went to war with the Germans in 1870 when it was too late to stop German unification. Napoleon had alienated everyone; after failing to obtain an alliance with Austria and Italy, France had no allies and was bitterly divided at home. It was disastrously defeated on the battlefield, losing Alsace and Lorraine. A. J. P. Taylor is blunt: "he ruined France as a great power."[109][110][111]

Foreign wars

In 1854, The Second Empire joined the Crimean War, which saw France and Britain opposed to the Russian Empire, which was decisively defeated at Sevastopol in 1854–55 and at Inkerman in 1854. In 1856 France joined the Second Opium War on the British side against China; a missionary's murder was used as a pretext to take interests in southwest Asia in the Treaty of Tientsin.

When France was negotiating with the Netherlands about purchasing Luxembourg in 1867, the Prussian Kingdom threatened the French government with war. This "Luxembourg Crisis" came as a shock to French diplomats as there had been an agreement between the Prussian and French governments about Luxembourg. Napoleon III suffered stronger and stronger criticism from Republicans like Jules Favre, and his position seemed more fragile with the passage of time.

France was looking for more interests in Asia. When French imperial ambitions revived, Africa and Indochina would be the main targets, and commercial incentives, which had driven the creation of the pre-revolutionary empire, were secondary.[112] The country interfered in Korea in 1866 taking, once again, missionaries' murders as a pretext. The French finally withdrew from the war with little gain but war's booty. The next year a French expedition to Japan was formed to help the Tokugawa shogunate to modernize its army. However, Tokugawa was defeated during the Boshin War at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi by large Imperial armies.

Franco-Prussian War (1870–71)

Shaded areas: Occupied France after the Franco-Prussian War until war reparations were paid.

Rising tensions in 1869 about the possible candidacy of Prince Leopold von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen to the throne of Spain caused a rise in the scale of animosity between France and Germany.[113] Prince Leopold was a part of the Prussian royal family. He had been asked by the Spanish Cortes to accept the vacant throne of Spain.[113]

Such an event was more than France could possibly accept. Relations between France and Germany deteriorated, and finally the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) broke out. German nationalism united the German states, with the exception of Austria, against Napoleon III. The French Empire was defeated decisively at Metz and Sedan. Emperor Louis Napoleon III surrendered himself and 100,000 French troops to the German troops at Sedan on 1–2 September 1870.[114]

Two days later, on 4 September 1870, Léon Gambetta proclaimed a new republic in France.[115] Later, when Paris was encircled by German troops, Gambetta fled Paris by means of a hot air balloon and he became the virtual dictator of the war effort which was carried on from the rural provinces.[116] Metz remained under siege until 27 October 1870, when 173,000 French troops there finally surrendered.[116] Surrounded, Paris was forced to surrender on 28 January 1871.[116] The Treaty of Frankfurt allowed the newly formed German Empire to annex the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.[117]

Modernisation and railways (1870 to 1914)

The seemingly timeless world of the French peasantry swiftly changed from 1870 to 1914. French peasants had been poor and locked into old traditions until railroads, republican schools, and universal military conscription modernized rural France. The centralized government in Paris had the goal of creating a unified nation-state, so it required all students be taught standardized French. In the process, a new national identity was forged.[118]

Railways became a national medium for the modernization of traditionalistic regions, and a leading advocate of this approach was the poet-politician Alphonse de Lamartine. In 1857 an army colonel hoped that railways might improve the lot of "populations two or three centuries behind their fellows" and eliminate "the savage instincts born of isolation and misery."[119] Consequently, France built a centralized system that radiated from Paris (plus in the south some lines that cut east to west). This design was intended to achieve political and cultural goals rather than maximize efficiency. After some consolidation, six companies controlled monopolies of their regions, subject to close control by the government in terms of fares, finances, and even minute technical details.

The central government department of Ponts et Chaussées (bridges and roads) brought in British engineers, handled much of the construction work, provided engineering expertise and planning, land acquisition, and construction of permanent infrastructure such as the track bed, bridges and tunnels. It also subsidized militarily necessary lines along the German border. Private operating companies provided management, hired labor, laid the tracks, and built and operated stations. They purchased and maintained the rolling stock—6,000 locomotives were in operation in 1880, which averaged 51,600 passengers a year or 21,200 tons of freight. Much of the equipment was imported from Britain and therefore did not stimulate machinery makers.

Although starting the whole system at once was politically expedient, it delayed completion, and forced even more reliance on temporary experts brought in from Britain. Financing was also a problem. The solution was a narrow base of funding through the Rothschilds and the closed circles of the Paris Bourse, so France did not develop the same kind of national stock exchange that flourished in London and New York. The system did help modernize the parts of rural France it reached, but it did not help create local industrial centers. Critics such as Émile Zola complained that it never overcame the corruption of the political system, but rather contributed to it.

The railways probably helped the industrial revolution in France by facilitating a national market for raw materials, wines, cheeses, and imported manufactured products. Yet the goals set by the French for their railway system were moralistic, political, and military rather than economic. As a result, the freight trains were shorter and less heavily loaded than those in such rapidly industrializing nations such as Britain, Belgium or Germany. Other infrastructure needs in rural France, such as better roads and canals, were neglected because of the expense of the railways, so it seems likely that there were net negative effects in areas not served by the trains.[120]

The Third Republic and the Belle Epoque: 1871–1914

Main article: French Third Republic

Third Republic and the Paris Commune

Following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck proposed harsh terms for peace — including the German occupation of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.[117] A new French National Assembly was elected to consider the German terms for peace. Elected on 8 February 1871, this new National Assembly was composed of 650 deputies.[117]

Sitting in Bourdeaux, the French National Assembly established the Third Republic. However, 400 members of the new Assembly were monarchists.[121] (Léon Gambetta was one of the "non-monarchist" Republicans that were elected to the new National Assembly from Paris.[122]) On 16 February 1871, Adolphe Thiers was elected as the chief executive of the new Republic. Because of the revolutionary unrest in Paris, the centre of the Thiers government was located at Versailles.

A barricade in the Paris Commune, 18 March 1871.

In late 1870 to early 1871, the workers of Paris rose up in premature and unsuccessful small-scale uprisings. The National Guard within Paris had become increasingly restive and defiant of the police, the army chief of staff, and even their own National Guard commanders. Thiers immediately recognized a revolutionary situation and, on 18 March 1871, sent regular army units to take control of artillery that belonged to the National Guard of Paris. Some soldiers of the regular army units fraternized with the rebels and the revolt escalated.[123]

The barricades went up just as in 1830 and 1848. The Paris Commune was born. Once again the Hôtel de Ville, or Town Hall, became the center of attention for the people in revolt; this time the Hôtel de Ville became the seat of the revolutionary government. Other cities in France followed the example of the Paris Commune, as in Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse. All of the Communes outside Paris were promptly crushed by the Thiers government.[123]

An election on 26 March 1871 in Paris produced a government based on the working class. Louis Auguste Blanqui was in prison but a majority of delegates were his followers, called "Blanquists." The minority comprised anarchists and followers of Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809–1855); as anarchists, the "Proudhonists" were supporters of limited or no government and wanted the revolution to follow an ad hoc course with little or no planning. Analysis of arrests records indicate the typical communard was opposed to the military, the clerics, the rural aristocrats. He saw the bourgeoisie as the enemy.

After two months the French army moved in to retake Paris, with pitched battles fought in working-class neighbourhoods. Hundreds were executed in front of the Communards' Wall, while thousands of others were marched to Versailles for trials. The number killed during La Semaine Sanglante ("The Bloody Week" of 21–28 May 1871) was perhaps 30,000, with as many as 50,000 later executed or imprisoned; 7,000 were exiled to New Caledonia; thousands more escaped to exile. The government won approval for its actions in a national referendum with 321,000 in favor and only 54,000 opposed.[124]

Political battles

The Republican government next had to confront counterrevolutionaries who rejected the legacy of the 1789 Revolution. Both the Legitimists (embodied in the person of Henri, Count of Chambord, grandson of Charles X) and the Orleanist royalists rejected republicanism, which they saw as an extension of modernity and atheism, breaking with France's traditions. This conflict became increasingly sharp in 1873, when Thiers himself was censured by the National Assembly as not being "sufficiently conservative" and resigned to make way for Marshal Patrice MacMahon as the new president.[125] Amidst the rumors of right-wing intrigue and/or coups by the Bonapartists or Bourbons in 1874, the National Assembly set about drawing up a new constitution that would be acceptable to all parties.

The new constitution provided for universal male suffrage and called for a bi-cameral legislature, consisting of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. The initial republic was in effect led by pro-royalists, but republicans (the "Radicals") and Bonapartists scrambled for power. The first election under this new constitution – held in early 1876 – resulted in a republican victory, with 363 republicans elected as opposed to 180 monarchists. However, 75 of the monarchists elected to the new Chamber of Deputies were Bonapartists.[126]

The possibility of a coup d'état was an ever-present factor. Léon Gambetta chose moderate Armand Dufaure as premier but he failed to form a government.[126] MacMahon next chose conservative Jules Simon. He too failed, setting the stage for the 16 May 1877 crisis, which led to the resignation of MacMahon.[127] A restoration of the king now seemed likely, and royalists agreed on Henri, comte de Chambord, the grandson of Charles X. He insisted on an impossible demand and ruined the royalist cause. Its turn never came again as the Orleanist faction rallied themselves to the Republic, behind Adolphe Thiers. The new President of the Republic in 1879 was Jules Grevy. In January 1886, Georges Boulanger became Minister of War. Georges Clemanceau was instrumental in obtaining this appointment for Boulanger. This was the start of the Boulanger era and another time of threats of a coup.[128]

The Legitimist (Bourbon) faction mostly left politics but one segment founded L'Action Française in 1898, during the Dreyfus Affair; it became an influential movement throughout the 1930s, in particular among the conservative Catholic intellectuals.[129]

The period from 1879 to 1899 saw power in the hands of moderate republicans and former "radicals" (around Léon Gambetta); these were called the "Opportunists".

Foreign policy

French foreign policy from 1871 to 1914 showed a dramatic transformation from a humiliated power with no friends and not much of an empire in 1871, to the centerpiece of the European alliance system in 1914, with a flourishing empire that was second in size only to Great Britain. Although religion was a hotly contested matter and domestic politics, the Catholic Church made missionary work and church building a specialty in the colonies. Most Frenchman ignored foreign policy; its issues were a low priority in politics. [130]

French foreign policy was based on a fear of Germany—whose larger size and fast-growing economy could not be matched—combined with a revanchism that demanded the return of Alsace and Lorraine. At the same time, in the midst of the Scramble for Africa, French and British interest in Africa came into conflict. The most dangerous episode was the Fashoda Incident of 1898 when French troops tried to claim an area in the Southern Sudan, and a British force purporting to be acting in the interests of the Khedive of Egypt arrived. Under heavy pressure the French withdrew securing Anglo-Egyptian control over the area. The status quo was recognised by an agreement between the two states acknowledging British control over Egypt, while France became the dominant power in Morocco, but France suffered a humiliating defeat overall.[131]

The Suez Canal, initially built by the French, became a joint British-French project in 1875, as both saw it as vital to maintaining their influence and empires in Asia. In 1882, ongoing civil disturbances in Egypt prompted Britain to intervene, extending a hand to France. France's leading expansionist Jules Ferry was out of office, and the government allowed Britain to take effective control of Egypt.[132]

France had colonies in Asia and looked for alliances and found in Japan a possible ally. During his visit to France, Iwakura Tomomi asked for French assistance in reforming Japan. French military missions were sent to Japan in 1872–80, in 1884–89 and the last one much later in 1918–19 to help modernize the Japanese army. Conflicts between the Chinese Emperor and the French Republic over Indochina climaxed during the Sino-French War (1884–85). Admiral Courbet destroyed the Chinese fleet anchored at Foochow. The treaty ending the war, put France in a protectorate over northern and central Vietnam, which it divided into Tonkin and Annam.[133]

In an effort to isolate Germany, France went to great pains to woo Russia and Great Britain, first by means of the Franco-Russian Alliance of 1894, then the 1904 Entente Cordiale with Great Britain, and finally the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907, which became the Triple Entente. This alliance with Britain and Russia against Germany and Austria eventually led Russia and Britain to enter World War I as France's Allies.[134]

Dreyfus Affair

Distrust of Germany, faith in the army, and native French anti-semitism combined to make the Dreyfus Affair (the unjust trial and condemnation of a Jewish military officer for "treason" in 1894) a political scandal of the utmost gravity. For a decade, the nation was divided between "dreyfusards" and "anti-dreyfusards", and far-right Catholic agitators inflamed the situation even when proofs of Dreyfus's innocence came to light. The writer Émile Zola published an impassioned editorial on the injustice (J'accuse) and was himself condemned by the government for libel. Dreyfus was finally pardoned in 1906. The upshot was a weakening of the conservative element in politics. Moderates were deeply divided over the Dreyfus Affair, and this allowed the Radicals to hold power from 1899 until World War I. During this period, crises like the threatened "Boulangist" coup d'état (1889) showed the fragility of the republic.[135]

The Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.

Religion 1870–1940

Throughout the lifetime of the Third Republic there were battles over the status of the Catholic Church. The French clergy and bishops were closely associated with the Monarchists and many of its hierarchy were from noble families. Republicans were based in the anticlerical middle class who saw the Church's alliance with the monarchists as a political threat to republicanism, and a threat to the modern spirit of progress. The Republicans detested the church for its political and class affiliations; for them, the church represented outmoded traditions, superstition and monarchism. The Republicans were strengthened by Protestant and Jewish support. Numerous laws were passed to weaken the Catholic Church. In 1879, priests were excluded from the administrative committees of hospitals and of boards of charity. In 1880, new measures were directed against the religious congregations. From 1880 to 1890 came the substitution of lay women for nuns in many hospitals. Napoleon's 1801 Concordat continued in operation but in 1881, the government cut off salaries to priests it disliked.[136]

The 1882 school laws of Republican Jules Ferry set up a national system of public schools that taught strict puritanical morality but no religion.[137] For a while privately funded Catholic schools were tolerated. Civil marriage became compulsory, divorce was introduced and chaplains were removed from the army.[138]

When Leo XIII became pope in 1878 he tried to calm Church-State relations. In 1884 he told French bishops not to act in a hostile manner to the State. In 1892 he issued an encyclical advising French Catholics to rally to the Republic and defend the Church by participating in Republican politics. This attempt at improving the relationship failed.[139]

Deep-rooted suspicions remained on both sides and were inflamed by the Dreyfus Affair. Catholics were for the most part anti-dreyfusard. The Assumptionists published anti-Semitic and anti-republican articles in their journal La Croix. This infuriated Republican politicians, who were eager to take revenge. Often they worked in alliance with Masonic lodges. The Waldeck-Rousseau Ministry (1899–1902) and the Combes Ministry (1902–05) fought with the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. Chaplains were removed from naval and military hospitals (1903–04), and soldiers were ordered not to frequent Catholic clubs (1904). Combes as Prime Minister in 1902, was determined to thoroughly defeat Catholicism. He closed down all parochial schools in France. Then he had parliament reject authorisation of all religious orders. This meant that all fifty four orders were dissolved and about 20,000 members immediately left France, many for Spain.[140]

In 1905 the 1801 Concordat was abrogated; Church and State were separated. All Church property was confiscated. Public worship was given over to associations of Catholic laymen who controlled access to churches. In practise, Masses and rituals continued. The Church was badly hurt and lost half its priests. In the long run, however, it gained autonomy—for the State no longer had a voice in choosing bishops and Gallicanism was dead.[141]

The belle époque

The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was the Belle Époque because of peace, prosperity and the cultural innovations of Monet, Bernhardt, and Debussy, and popular amusements – cabaret, can-can, the cinema,[142] new art forms such as Impressionism and Art Nouveau.[143]

In 1889 the Exposition Universelle showed off newly modernised Paris to the world, which could look over it all from atop the new Eiffel Tower. Meant to last only a few decades, the tower was never removed and became France's most iconic landmark.[144]

France was nevertheless a nation divided internally on notions of ideology, religion, class, regionalisms, and money. On the international front, France came repeatedly to the brink of war with the other imperial powers, such as the 1898 Fashoda Incident with Great Britain over East Africa.

Since 1914

The population held steady from 40.7 million in 1911, to 41.5 million in 1936. The sense that the population was too small, especially in regard to the rapid growth of more powerful Germany, was a common theme in the early twentieth century.[145] Natalist policies were proposed in the 1930s, and implemented in the 1940s.[146][147]

France experienced a baby boom after 1945; it reversed a long-term record of low birth rates.[148] In addition, there was a steady immigration, especially from former French colonies in North Africa. The population grew from 41 million in 1946, to 50 million in 1966, and 60 million by 1990. The farm population decline sharply, from 35% of the workforce in 1945 to under 5% by 2000. By 2004, France had the second highest birthrate in Europe, behind only Ireland.[149][150]

World War I

A French bayonet charge in World War I
The 114th infantry in Paris, 14 July 1917.

Preoccupied with internal problems, France paid little attention to foreign policy in the 1911-14 period, although it did extend military service to three years from two over strong Socialist objections in 1913. The rapidly escalating Balkan crisis of 1914 caught France unawares, and it played only a small role in the coming of World War I. The Serbian crisis triggered a complex set of formal and secret military alliances between European states, causing most of the continent, including France, to be drawn into war within a few short weeks. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia in late July, triggering Russian mobilization. On 1 August both Germany and France ordered mobilization. Germany was much better prepared militarily than any of the other countries involved, including France. The German Empire, as an ally of Austria, declared war on Russia. France was allied with Russia and so was ready to commit to war against the German Empire. On 3 August Germany declared war on France, and sent its armies through neutral Belgium. Britain entered the war on 4 August, and started sending in troops on 7 August.

Germany's plan was to quickly defeat the French. They captured Brussels by 20 August and soon had captured a large portion of northern France. The original plan was to continue southwest and attack Paris from the west. By early September they were within 65 kilometres (40 mi) of Paris, and the French government had relocated to Bordeaux. The Allies finally stopped the advance northeast of Paris at the Marne River (5–12 September 1914).[151]

The war now became a stalemate — the famous "Western Front" was fought largely in France and was characterized by very little movement despite extremely large and violent battles, often with new and more destructive military technology. On the Western Front the small improvised trenches of the first few months rapidly grew deeper and more complex, gradually becoming vast areas of interlocking defensive works. The land war quickly became dominated by the muddy, bloody stalemate of Trench warfare, a form of war in which both opposing armies had static lines of defense. The war of movement quickly turned into a war of position. Neither side advanced much, but both sides suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties. German and Allied armies produced essentially a matched pair of trench lines from the Swiss border in the south to the North Sea coast of Belgium. Meanwhile, large swaths of northeastern France came under the brutal control of German occupiers.[152]

Trench warfare prevailed on the Western Front from September 1914 until March 1918. Famous battles in France include Battle of Verdun (spanning 10 months from 21 February to 18 December 1916), Battle of the Somme (1 July to 18 November 1916), and five separate conflicts called the Battle of Ypres (from 1914 to 1918).

After Socialist leader Jean Jaurès. a pacifist, was assassinated at the start of the war, the French socialist movement abandoned its antimilitarist positions and joined the national war effort. Prime Minister Rene Viviani called for unity—for a "Union sacrée" ("Sacred Union")--Which was a wartime truce between the right and left factions that had been fighting bitterly. France had few dissenters. However, war-weariness was a major factor by 1917, even reaching the army. The soldiers were reluctant to attack; Mutiny was a factor as soldiers said it was best to wait for the arrival of millions of Americans. The soldiers were protesting not just the futility of frontal assaults in the face of German machine guns but also degraded conditions at the front lines and at home, especially infrequent leaves, poor food, the use of African and Asian colonials on the home front, and concerns about the welfare of their wives and children.[153]

After defeating Russia in 1917, Germany now could concentrate on the Western Front, and planned an all-out assault in the spring of 1918, but had to do it before the very rapidly growing American army played a role. In March 1918 Germany launched its offensive and by May had reached the Marne and was again close to Paris. However, in the Second Battle of the Marne (15 July to 6 August 1918), the Allied line held. The Allies then shifted to the offensive.[154] The Germans, out of reinforcements, were overwhelmed day after day and the high command saw it was hopeless. Austria and Turkey collapsed, and the Kaiser's government fell. Germany signed "The Armistice" that ended the fighting effective 11 November 1918, "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month."[155]

Wartime losses

The war was fought in large part on French soil, with 1.4 million French dead including civilians, and four times as many military casualties. The economy was hurt by the German invasion of major industrial areas in the northeast. While the occupied area in 1913 contained only 14% of France's industrial workers, it produced 58% of the steel, and 40% of the coal.[156][157] In 1914 the government implemented a war economy with controls and rationing. By 1915 the war economy went into high gear, as millions of French women and colonial men replaced the civilian roles of many of the 3 million soldiers. Considerable assistance came with the influx of American food, money and raw materials in 1917. This war economy would have important reverberations after the war, as it would be a first breach of liberal theories of non-interventionism.[158] The damages caused by the war amounted to about 113% of the GDP of 1913, chiefly the destruction of productive capital and housing. The national debt rose from 66% of GDP in 1913 to 170% in 1919, reflecting the heavy use of bond issues to pay for the war. Inflation was severe, with the franc losing over half its value against the British pound.[159]

Postwar settlement

The Council of Four (from left to right): David Lloyd George, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Georges Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson in Versailles

Peace terms were imposed by the Big Four, meeting in Paris in 1919: David Lloyd George of Britain, Vittorio Orlando of Italy, Georges Clemenceau of France, and Woodrow Wilson of the United States. Clemenceau demanded the harshest terms and won most of them in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Germany was forced to admit its guilt for starting the war, and was permanently weakened militarily. Germany had to pay huge sums in war reparations to the Allies (who in turn had large loans from the U.S. to pay off).[160]

France regained Alsace-Lorraine and occupied the German industrial Saar Basin, a coal and steel region. The German African colonies were put under League of Nations mandates, and were administered by France and other victors. From the remains of the Ottoman Empire, France acquired the Mandate of Syria and the Mandate of Lebanon.[160] French Marshal Ferdinand Foch wanted a peace that would never allow Germany to be a threat to France again, but after the Treaty of Versailles was signed he said, "This is not a peace. It is an armistice for 20 years."[161]

Interwar years

French cavalry entering Essen during the Occupation of the Ruhr.

France was part of the Allied force that occupied the Rhineland following the Armistice. Foch supported Poland in the Greater Poland Uprising and in the Polish–Soviet War and France also joined Spain during the Rif War. From 1925 until his death in 1932, Aristide Briand, as prime minister during five short intervals, directed French foreign policy, using his diplomatic skills and sense of timing to forge friendly relations with Weimar Germany as the basis of a genuine peace within the framework of the League of Nations. He realized France could neither contain the much larger Germany by itself nor secure effective support from Britain or the League.[162]

As a response to the failure of the Weimar Republic to pay reparations in the aftermath of World War I, France occupied the industrial region of the Ruhr as a means of ensuring repayments from Germany. The intervention was a failure, and France accepted the American solution to the reparations issues, as expressed in the Dawes Plan and the Young Plan.

In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defences called the Maginot Line, designed to fight off any German attack. (Unfortunately, the Maginot Line did not extend into Belgium, where Germany attacked in 1940.) Military alliances were signed with weak powers in 1920–21, called the "Little Entente".

Great Depression

The crisis affected France a bit later than other countries, hitting around 1931.[163] While the GDP in the 1920s grew at the very strong rate of 4.43% per year, the 1930s rate fell to only 0.63%.[164] The depression was relatively mild: unemployment peaked under 5%, the fall in production was at most 20% below the 1929 output; there was no banking crisis.[165]

By contrast to the mild economic upheaval, the political upheaval was enormous. Socialist Leon Blum, leading the Popular Front, brought together Socialists and Radicals to become Prime Minister from 1936 to 1937; he was the first Jew and the first Socialist to lead France.[166] The Communists in the Chamber of Deputies (parliament) voted to keep the government in power, and generally supported the government's economic policies, but rejected its foreign policies. The Popular Front passed numerous labor reforms, which increased wages, cut working hours to 40 hours with overtime illegal, And provided many lesser benefits to the working class, such as mandatory two-week paid vacations. However, renewed inflation canceled the gains in wage rates, unemployment did not fall, and economic recovery was very slow. Historians agree that the Popular Front was a failure in terms of economics, foreign policy, and long-term stability. "Disappointment and failure," says Jackson, "was the legacy of the Popular Front."[167][168][169] There is general agreement that at first the Popular Front created enormous excitement and expectations on the left—including very large scale sitdown strikes—but in the end it failed to live up to its promise. In the long run, however, later Socialists took some inspiration from the attempts of the Popular Front to set up a welfare state.[170]

Foreign policy

The government joined Britain in establishing an arms embargo during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Blum rejected support for the Spanish Republicans because of his fear that civil war might spread to deeply divided France. Financial support in military cooperation with Poland was also a policy. The government nationalized arms suppliers, and dramatically increased its program of rearming the French military in a last-minute catch up with the Germans.[171]

Appeasement of Germany, in cooperation with Britain, was the policy after 1936, as France sought peace even in the face of Hitler's escalating demands. Édouard Daladier refused to go to war against Germany and Italy without British support as Neville Chamberlain wanted to save peace at Munich in 1938.[172][173]

World War II

German soldiers on parade marching past the Arc de Triomphe

Germany's Invasion of Poland in 1939 finally caused France and Britain to declare war against Germany. But the Allies did not launch massive assaults and instead kept a defensive stance: this was called the Phoney War in Britain or Drôle de guerre – the funny sort of war – in France. It did not prevent the German army from conquering Poland in a matter of weeks with its innovative Blitzkrieg tactics, also helped by the Soviet Union's attack on Poland.

When Germany had its hands free for an attack in the west, the Battle of France began in May 1940, and the same Blitzkrieg tactics proved just as devastating there. The Wehrmacht bypassed the Maginot Line by marching through the Ardennes forest. A second German force was sent into Belgium and the Netherlands to act as a diversion to this main thrust. In six weeks of savage fighting the French lost 90,000 men.[174][175]

Many civilians sought refuge by taking to the roads of France: some 2 million refugees from Belgium and the Netherlands were joined by between 8 and 10 million French civilians, representing a quarter of the French population, all heading south and west. This movement may well have been the largest single movement of civilians in history prior to 1947.

Paris fell to the Germans on 14 June 1940, but not before the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk, along with many French soldiers.

Vichy France was established on 10 July 1940 to govern the unoccupied part of France and its colonies. It was led by Philippe Pétain, the aging war hero of the First World War. Petain's representatives signed a harsh Armistice on 22 June 1940 whereby Germany kept most of the French army in camps in Germany, France had to pay out large sums in gold and food supplies. Germany occupied three-fifths of France's territory, leaving the rest in the southeast to the new Vichy government. However, in practice, most local government was handled by the traditional French officialdom. In November 1942 all of Vichy France was finally occupied by German forces. Vichy continued in existence but it was closely supervised by the Germans.[176][177]

The Vichy regime sought to collaborate with Germany, keeping peace in France to avoid further occupation although at the expense of personal freedom and individual safety. Some 76,000 Jews were deported during the German occupation, often with the help of the Vichy authorities, and murdered in the Nazis' extermination camps.[178]


General Charles de Gaulle in London declared himself on BBC radio to be the head of a rival government in exile, and gathered the Free French Forces around him, finding support in some French colonies and recognition from Britain but not the United States. After the Attack on Mers-el-Kébir in 1940, where the British fleet destroyed a large part of the French navy, still under command of Vichy France, that killed about 1,100 sailors, there was nationwide indignation and a feeling of distrust in the French forces, leading to the events of the Battle of Dakar. Eventually, several important French ships joined the Free French Forces.[179] The United States maintained diplomatic relations with Vichy and avoided recognition of de Gaulle's claim to be the one and only government of France. Churchill, caught between the U.S. and de Gaulle, tried to find a compromise.[180][181]

Within France proper, the organized underground grew as the Vichy regime resorted to more strident policies in order to fulfill the enormous demands of the Nazis and the eventual decline of Nazi Germany became more obvious. They formed the Resistance.[182] The most famous figure of the French resistance was Jean Moulin, sent in France by de Gaulle in order to link all resistance movements; he was captured and tortured by Klaus Barbie (the "butcher of Lyon"). Increasing repression culminated in the complete destruction and extermination of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, at the height of the Battle of Normandy (June 1944).

On 6 June 1944 the Allies landed in Normandy (without a French component); on 15 August Allied forces landing in Provence, this time they included 260,000 men of the French First Army. The German lines finally broke, and they fled back to Germany while keeping control of the major ports. Allied forces liberated France and the Free French were given the honor of liberating Paris in late August 1944. The French army recruited French Forces of the Interior (de Gaulle's formal name for resistance fighters) to continue the war until the final defeat of Germany; this army numbered 300,000 men by September 1944 and 370,000 by spring 1945.[183]

The Vichy regime disintegrated. An interim Provisional Government of the French Republic was quickly put into place by de Gaulle. The gouvernement provisoire de la République française, or GPRF, operated under a tripartisme alliance of communists, socialists, and democratic republicans. The GPRF governed France from 1944 to 1946, when it was replaced by the French Fourth Republic. Tens of thousands of collaborators were executed without trial. The new government declared the Vichy laws unconstitutional and illegal, and elected new local governments. Women gained the right to vote.

Women in Vichy France

The 2 million French soldiers held as POWs and forced laborers in Germany throughout the war were not at risk of death in combat, but the anxieties of separation for their 800,000 wives were high. The government provided a modest allowance, but one in ten became prostitutes to support their families. Women in the French Resistance The Révolution Nationale official ideology fostered the patriarchal family, headed by a man with a subservient wife who was devoted to her many children. It gave women a key symbolic role to carry out the national regeneration. It used propaganda, women's organizations, and legislation to promote maternity, patriotic duty, and female submission to marriage, home, and children's education.[184] Conditions were very difficult for housewives, as food was short as well as most necessities. Divorce laws were made much more stringent, and restrictions were placed on the employment of married women. Family allowances that had begun in the 1930s were continued, and became a vital lifeline for many families; it was a monthly cash bonus for having more children. In 1942 the birth rate started to rise, and by 1945 it was higher than it had been for a century.[185]


The political scene in 1944-45 was controlled by the Resistance, but it had numerous factions. Charles de Gaulle and the Free France element had been based outside France, but now came to dominate, in alliance with the Socialists, the Christian Democrats (MRP), and what remained of the Radical party. The Communists had largely dominated the Resistance inside France, but cooperated closely with the government in 1944-45, on orders from the Kremlin. There was a general consensus that important powers that had been an open collaboration with the Germans should be nationalized, such as Renault automobiles and the major newspapers. A new Social Security system was called for, as well as important new concessions to the labor unions. Unions themselves were divided among communist, Socialist, and Christian Democrat factions.[186] Frustrated by his inability to control all the dominant forces, de Gaulle resigned early in 1946.[187] On 13 October 1946, a new constitution established the Fourth Republic. The Fourth Republic consisted of a parliamentary government controlled by a series of coalitions. France attempted to regain control of French Indochina but was defeated by the Viet Minh in 1954. Only months later, France faced another anti-colonialist conflict in Algeria and the debate over whether or not to keep control of Algeria, then home to over one million European settlers,[188] wracked the country and nearly led to a coup and civil war.[189] Charles de Gaulle managed to keep the country together while taking steps to end the war. The Algerian War was concluded with the Évian Accords in 1962 that led to Algerian independence.

Vietnam and Tunisia

Pierre Mendès France, was a Radical party leader who was Prime Minister for eight months in 1954-55, working with the support of the Socialist and Communist parties. His top priority was ending the war in Indochina, which had already cost 92,000 dead 114,000 wounded and 28,000 captured in the wake of the humiliating defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.[190] The United States had paid most of the costs of the war, but its support inside France had collapsed. Public opinion polls showed that in February 1954, only 7% of the French people wanted to continue the fight to keep Indochina out of the hands of the Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh movement.[191] At the Geneva Conference in July 1954 Mendès France made a deal that gave the Viet Minh control of Vietnam north of the seventeenth parallel, and allowed France to pull out all its forces.[192] That left South Vietnam standing alone. However, the United States moved in and provided large scale financial military and economic support for South Vietnam.[193] Mendès-France next came to an agreement with Habib Bourguiba, the nationalist leader in Tunisia, for the independence of that colony by 1956, and began discussions with the nationalist leaders in Morocco for a French withdrawal.[194]

Algeria was no mere colony. With over a million European residents in Algeria (the Pied-Noir), France refused to grant independence until a bloody colonial war (the Algerian War of Independence) had turned into a French political and civil crisis; Algeria was given its independence in 1962, unleashing a massive wave of immigration from the former colony back to France.[195]

Suez crisis (1956)

Main article: Suez crisis

In 1956 another crisis struck French colonies, this time in Egypt. The Suez Canal, having been built by the French government, belonged to the French Republic and was operated by the Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez. Great Britain had bought the Egyptian share from Isma'il Pasha and was the second largest owner of the canal before the crisis.

The Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal despite French and British opposition; he determined that a European response was unlikely. Great Britain and France attacked Egypt and built an alliance with Israel against Nasser. Israel attacked from the east, Britain from Cyprus and France from Algeria. Egypt, the most powerful Arab state of the time, was defeated in a mere few days.

The Suez crisis caused an outcry of indignation in the entire Arab world and Saudi Arabia set an embargo on oil on France and Britain. The US President Dwight D. Eisenhower forced a ceasefire when he threatened to sell all American Sterling Bond holdings and to crash the British economy. British forces retired from the conflict and Israel, having seized interests in the Sinai region, soon withdrew, leaving France alone in Egypt. Under strong international pressures, the French government ultimately evacuated its troops from Suez and largely disengaged from the Middle East.[196]

President de Gaulle, 1958–69

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 ripped apart the unstable Fourth Republic. The National Assembly brought De Gaulle back to power during the May 1958 crisis. He founded the Fifth Republic with a strengthened presidency, and he was elected in the latter role. He managed to keep France together while taking steps to end the war, much to the anger of the Pieds-Noirs (Frenchmen settled in Algeria) and the military; both had supported his return to power to maintain colonial rule. He granted independence to Algeria in 1962 and progressively to other French colonies.[197]

Proclaiming that grandeur was the essential to the nature of France, de Gaulle initiated his "Politics of Grandeur."[198][199] He demanded complete autonomy for France in world affairs, which meant that major decisions could not be forced upon it by NATO, the European Community or anyone else. De Gaulle pursued a policy of "national independence." He vetoed Britain's entry into the Common Market, fearing it might gain too great a voice on French affairs.[200] While not officially abandoning NATO, he withdraw from its military integrated command, fearing that the United States had too much control over NATO.[201] He launched an independent nuclear development program that made France the fourth nuclear power.France then adopted the dissuasion du faible au fort doctrine which meant a Soviet attack on France would only bring total destruction to both sides.[202]

De Gaulle and Germany's Konrad Adenauer in 1961.

He restored cordial Franco-German relations in order to create a European counterweight between the "Anglo-Saxon" (American and British) and Soviet spheres of influence. De Gaulle openly criticised the U.S. intervention in Vietnam.[203] He was angry at American economic power, especially what his Finance minister called the "exorbitant privilege" of the U.S. dollar.[204] He went to Canada and proclaimed "Vive le Québec libre", The catchphrase for an independent Quebec.[205]

In May 1968, he appeared likely to lose power amidst widespread protests by students and workers, but survived the crisis with backing from the army. His party, denouncing radicalism, won the 1968 election with an increased majority in the Assembly.[206] Nonetheless, de Gaulle resigned in 1969 after losing a referendum in which he proposed more decentralization. His War Memoirs became a classic of modern French literature and many French political parties and figures claim the gaullist heritage.

Late twentieth century

After the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War potential menaces to mainland France appeared considerably reduced. France began reducing its nuclear capacities and conscription was abolished in 2001. In 1990 France, led by François Mitterrand, joined the short successful Gulf War against Iraq; the French participation to this war was called the Opération Daguet.[207]

Terrorism grew worse. In 1994 Air France Flight 8969 was hijacked by Islamic terrorists; they were captured.

Conservative Jacques Chirac assumed office as president on 17 May 1995, after a campaign focused on the need to combat France's stubbornly high unemployment rate. 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. In 1992 France ratified the Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union. In 1999, the Euro was introduced to replace the French franc. Beyond membership in the European Union, France is also involved in many joint European projects such as Airbus, the Galileo positioning system and the Eurocorps.

The French have stood among the strongest supporters of NATO and EU policy in the Balkans to prevent genocide in Yugoslavia. French troops joined the 1999 NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. France has also been actively involved against international terrorism. In 2002 Alliance Base, an international Counterterrorist Intelligence Center, was secretly established in Paris. The same year France contributed to the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but it strongly rejected the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even threatening to veto in central coners in the US proposed resolution.

Jacques Chirac was reelected in 2002, mainly because his socialist rival Lionel Jospin was removed from the runoff by the right wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy was elected and took office on 16 May 2007. The problem of high unemployment has yet to be resolved. In 2008, France was one of the first states to recognise Kosovo as an independent nation.

In 2012, Sarkozy ran for re-election but was defeated by Socialist François Hollande who advocated a growth policy in contrast to the austerity policy advocated by Germany's Angela Merkel as a way of tackling the European sovereign debt crisis. In 2014 Hollande stood with Merkel and US President Obama in imposing sanctions on Russia for its actions against Ukraine.

Muslim tensions

At the close of the Algerian war, hundreds of thousands of Muslims, including some who had supported France (Harkis), settled permanently to France, especially to the larger cities where they lived in subsidized public housing, and suffered very high unemployment rates.[208] In October 2005, the predominantly Arab-immigrant suburbs of Paris, Lyons, Lille, and other French cities erupted in riots by socially alienated teenagers, many of them second- or third-generation immigrants.[209][210]

Schneider says:

For the next three convulsive weeks, riots spread from suburb to suburb, affecting more than three hundred towns....Nine thousand vehicles were torched, hundreds of public and commercial buildings destroyed, four thousand rioters arrested, and 125 police officers wounded.[211]

Traditional interpretations say these race riots were spurred by radical Muslims or unemployed youth. Another view states that the riots reflected broader problem of racism and police violence in France.[211]

On 11 January 2015, over 1 million demonstrators, plus dozens of foreign leaders, gather at the Place de la Republique to pledge solidarity to liberal French values, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting

In March 2012, a Muslim radical named Mohammed Merah shot three French soldiers and four Jewish citizens, including children in Toulouse and Montauban.

In January 2015, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that had ridiculed the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, and a neighborhood Jewish grocery store came under attack from radicalized Muslims who had been born and raised in the Paris region. World leaders rally to Paris to show their support for free speech. Analysts agree that the episode had a profound impact on France. The New York Times summarized the ongoing debate:

So as France grieves, it is also faced with profound questions about its future: How large is the radicalized part of the country's Muslim population, the largest in Europe? How deep is the rift between France's values of secularism, of individual, sexual and religious freedom, of freedom of the press and the freedom to shock, and a growing Muslim conservatism that rejects many of these values in the name of religion?[212]

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  204. Barry Eichengreen (2011). Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System. Oxford UP. p. 4.
  205. See Wayne C. Thompson, Canada 2014 (2013)
  206. Stephen Seidman, The Imaginary Revolution: Parisian Students and Workers in 1968 (Berghahn, 2004)
  207. Philip Short, A Taste for Intrigue: The Multiple Lives of François Mitterrand (2014)
  208. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Michael J. Balz, "The October Riots in France: A Failed Immigration Policy or the Empire Strikes Back?" International Migration (2006) 44#2 pp 23-34.
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  210. Laurent Mucchielli, "Autumn 2005: A review of the most important riot in the history of French contemporary society." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2009) 35#5 pp. 731-751.
  211. 1 2 Cathy Lisa Schneider, "Police Power and Race Riots in Paris," Politics & Society (2008) 36#1 pp 133-159 on p. 136
  212. Steven Erlangerjan, "Days of Sirens, Fear and Blood: ‘France Is Turned Upside Down’", New York Times Jan 9, 2015

Further reading

Surveys and reference

Social, economic and cultural history

See also: Annales School

Middle Ages

Early Modern

Old Regime



Long-term impact


Restoration: 1815–70

Third Republic: 1871–1940

World War I

Vichy (1940–44)

Fourth and Fifth Republics (1944 to present)


Primary sources

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