|Archeological excavations indicate that France has been
continuously settled since Paleolithic times. The Celts, who
were later called Gauls by the Romans, migrated from the
Rhine valley into what is now France. In about 600
B.C. Greeks and Phoenicians
established settlements along the Mediterranean, most notably at
Marseille. Julius Caesar conquered part of Gaul in 57–52
B.C., and it remained Roman until
Franks invaded in the 5th century A.D.
The Treaty of Verdun (843) divided the territories corresponding
roughly to France, Germany, and Italy among the three grandsons
of Charlemagne. Charles the Bald inherited Francia
Occidentalis, which became an increasingly feudalized
kingdom. By 987, the crown passed to Hugh Capet, a princeling
who controlled only the Ile-de-France, the region surrounding
Paris. For 350 years, an unbroken Capetian line added to its
domain and consolidated royal authority until the accession in
1328 of Philip VI, first of the Valois line. France was then the
most powerful nation in Europe, with a population of 15 million.
The missing pieces in Philip Valois's domain were the French
provinces still held by the Plantagenet kings of England, who
also claimed the French crown. Beginning in 1338, the Hundred
Years' War eventually settled the contest. After France's
victory in the final battle, Castillon (1453), the Valois were
the ruling family, and the English had no French possessions
left except Calais. Once Burgundy and Brittany were added, the
Valois dynasty's holdings resembled modern France. Protestantism
spread throughout France in the 16th century and led to civil
wars. Henry IV, of the Bourbon dynasty, issued the Edict of
Nantes (1598), granting religious tolerance to the Huguenots
(French Protestants). Absolute monarchy reached its apogee in
the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715), the Sun King, whose
brilliant court was the center of the Western world.
After a series of costly foreign wars that weakened the
government, the French Revolution plunged France into a
bloodbath beginning in 1789 with the establishment of the First
Republic and ending with a new authoritarianism under Napoléon
Bonaparte, who had successfully defended the infant republic
from foreign attack and then made himself first consul in 1799
and emperor in 1804. The Congress of Vienna (1815) sought to
restore the pre-Napoléonic order in the person of Louis XVIII,
but industrialization and the middle class, both fostered under
Napoléon, built pressure for change, and a revolution in 1848
drove Louis Philippe, last of the Bourbons, into exile. Prince
Louis Napoléon, a nephew of Napoléon I, declared the Second
Empire in 1852 and took the throne as Napoléon III. His
opposition to the rising power of Prussia ignited the
Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), which ended in his defeat, his
abdication, and the creation of the Third Republic.
A new France emerged from World War I as the continent's
dominant power. But four years of hostile occupation had reduced
northeast France to ruins. Beginning in 1919, French foreign
policy aimed at keeping Germany weak through a system of
alliances, but it failed to halt the rise of Adolf Hitler and
the Nazi war machine. On May 10, 1940, Nazi troops attacked,
and, as they approached Paris, Italy joined with Germany. The
Germans marched into an undefended Paris and Marshal Henri
Philippe Pétain signed an armistice on June 22. France was split
into an occupied north and an unoccupied south, Vichy France,
which became a totalitarian German puppet state with Pétain as
its chief. Allied armies liberated France in Aug. 1944, and a
provisional government in Paris headed by Gen. Charles de Gaulle
was established. The Fourth Republic was born on Dec. 24, 1946.
The empire became the French Union; the national assembly was
strengthened and the presidency weakened; and France joined
NATO. A war against Communist insurgents in French Indochina,
now Vietnam, was abandoned after the defeat of French forces at
Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A new rebellion in Algeria threatened a
military coup, and on June 1, 1958, the assembly invited de
Gaulle to return as premier with extraordinary powers. He
drafted a new constitution for a Fifth Republic, adopted on
September 28, which strengthened the presidency and reduced
legislative power. He was elected president on Dec. 21, 1958.
France next turned its attention to decolonialization in
Africa; the French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia had
received independence in 1956. French West Africa was
partitioned and the new nations were granted independence in
1960. Algeria, after a long civil war, finally became
independent in 1962. Relations with most of the former colonies
remained amicable. De Gaulle took France out of the NATO
military command in 1967 and expelled all foreign-controlled
troops from the country. De Gaulle's government was weakened by
massive protests in May 1968 when student rallies became violent
and millions of factory workers engaged in wildcat strikes
across France. After normalcy was reestablished in 1969, de
Gaulle's successor, Georges Pompidou, modified Gaullist policies
to include a classical laissez-faire attitude toward domestic
economic affairs. The conservative, pro-business climate
contributed to the election of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing as
president in 1974.
Socialist François Mitterrand attained a stunning victory in
the May 10, 1981, presidential election. The victors immediately
moved to carry out campaign pledges to nationalize major
industries, halt nuclear testing, suspend nuclear power-plant
construction, and impose new taxes on the rich. The Socialists'
policies during Mitterrand's first two years created a 12%
inflation rate, a huge trade deficit, and devaluations of the
franc. In March 1986, a center-right coalition led by Jacques
Chirac won a slim majority in legislative elections. Chirac
became prime minister, initiating a period of “cohabitation”
between him and the Socialist president, Mitterrand.
Mitterrand's decisive reelection in 1988 led to Chirac being
replaced as prime minister by Michel Rocard, a Socialist.
Relations, however, cooled with Rocard, and in May 1991 Edith
Cresson—also a Socialist—became France's first female prime
minister. But Cresson's unpopularity forced Mitterrand to
replace Cresson with a more well-liked Socialist, Pierre
Bérégovoy, who eventually was embroiled in a scandal and
committed suicide. Mitterrand did succeed in helping to draft
the Maastricht Treaty and, after winning a slim victory in a
referendum, confirming close economic and security ties between
France and the European Union (EU).
On his third try Chirac won the presidency in May 1995,
campaigning vigorously on a platform to reduce unemployment.
Elections for the national assembly in 1997 gave the Socialist
coalition a majority. Shortly after becoming president, Chirac
resumed France's nuclear testing in the South Pacific, despite
widespread international protests as well as rioting in the
countries affected by it. Socialist leader Lionel Jospin became
prime minister in 1997. In the spring of 1999, the country took
part in the NATO air strikes in Kosovo, despite some internal
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing anti-immigrant
National Front Party, shocked France in April 2002 with his
second-place finish in the first round of France's presidential
election. He took 17% of the vote, eliminating Lionel Jospin,
the Socialist prime minister, who tallied 16%. Jospin, stunned
by the result, announced that he was retiring from politics and
threw his support behind incumbent president Jacques Chirac, who
won with an overwhelming 82.2% of the vote in the runoff
election. Chirac's center-right coalition won an absolute
majority in parliament. In July 2002, Chirac survived an
assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist.
During the fall 2002 and winter 2003 diplomatic wrangling at
the United Nations over Iraq, France repeatedly defied the U.S.
and Britain by calling for more weapons inspections and
diplomacy before resorting to war. Relations between the U.S.
and France have remained severely strained over Iraq.
France sent peacekeeping forces to assist two African
countries in 2002 and 2003, Côte d'Ivoire and the Democratic
Republic of the Congo.
Prime Minister Raffarin's plan to overhaul the national
pension system sparked numerous strikes across France in May and
June 2003, involving tens of thousands of sanitation workers,
teachers, transportation workers, and air traffic controllers.
In August, a deadly heat wave killed an estimated 10,000 people,
mostly elderly. The catastrophe occurred during two weeks of
104°F (40°C) temperatures.
In 2004, the French government passed a law banning the
wearing of Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols in
schools. The government maintained that the wearing of
conspicuous religious symbols threatened the country's secular
identity; others contended that the law curtailed religious
In March 2004 regional elections, the Socialist Party made
enormous gains over Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP)
Party. Unpopular economic reforms are credited for the UMP's
On May 29, 2005, French voters rejected the European Union
constitution by a 55%–45% margin. Reasons given for rejecting
the constitution included concerns about forfeiting too much
French sovereignty to a centralized European government and
alarm at the EU's rapid addition of 10 new members in 2004, most
from Eastern Europe. In response, President Chirac, who strongly
supported the constitution, replaced Prime Minister Jean-Pierre
Raffarin with Dominique de Villepin, a former foreign minister.
Rioting erupted on Oct. 27, 2005, in the impoverished
outskirts of Paris and continued for two weeks, spreading to 300
towns and cities throughout France. It was the worst violence
the country has faced in four decades. The rioting was sparked
by the accidental deaths of two teenagers, one of French-Arab
and the other of French-African descent, and grew into a violent
protest against the bleak lives of poor French-Arabs and
French-Africans, many of whom live in depressed, crime-ridden
areas with high unemployment and who feel alienated from the
rest of French society.
In March and April 2006, a series of huge and ongoing
protests took place over a proposed labor law that would allow
employers to fire workers under age 26 within two years without
giving a reason. The law was intended to control high
unemployment among France's young workers. The protests
continued after President Chirac signed a somewhat amended bill
into law. But on April 10, Chirac relented and rescinded the
law, an embarrassing about-face for the government.
Presidential elections held in April 2007 pitted Socialist
Ségolène Royal against conservative Interior Minister Nicolas
Sarkozy, the nominee for the Union for a Popular Movement. Late
in the race, centrist candidate Francois Bayrou emerged as a
contender. Sarkozy, with 30.7%, and Royal, taking 25.2%,
prevailed in the first round of voting. Sarkozy went on to win
the runoff election, taking 53.1% of the vote to Royal's 46.9%.
Sarkozy immediately extended an olive branch to the United
States, saying "I want to tell them [Americans] that France will
always be by their side when they need her, but that friendship
is also accepting the fact that friends can think differently."
The dialogue signalled a marked shift from the tense
French-American relationship under Chirac.
On his first day in office, Sarkozy named former social
affairs minister François Fillon as prime minister, succeeding
Dominique de Villepin. He also appointed Socialist Bernard
Kouchner, a co-founder of the Nobel-prize-winning Médecins Sans
Frontières, as foreign minister. Workers in the public sector
staged 24-hour strike in October to protest Sarkozy's plan to
change their generous retirement packages that allow workers to
retire at age 50 with a full pension. On the same day of the
strike, Sarkozy confirmed that he and his wife, Cécilia, had
separated and planned to divorce. Rail workers staged a strike
in November to protest Sarkozy's plan to end generous benefits
that allow workers to retire in their 50s with full pension
benefits. Strikers relented after nine days and agreed to
In Feb. 2008, Sarkozy married Italian-born Carla Bruni, a former
model turned pop star.