French History

When discovering the French Culture, Architecture and even Politics, you cannot avoid the influence of the History of France! The French way of life as well as the Government still hold some marks of major historical events. gives you here some clues about the French History.
Why is Christianity the major religion in France? Where does the name "France" originate from? How long had the French Monarchy lasted, when was the First Republic of France created? So many questions about the French History we tried to answer here, from the Medieval Times to the 20th century...
Learn More About the History of France, By Region!


France was originally named Gaul or Gallia. Julius Caesar led the Romans into Gaul, whilst the Celts were still dominating the territory. In 121, the Roman troops won a conclusive victory over the Celtic tribes and the Roman Empire set the First Roman Province (in the area of Narbonne). Marseilles, ally to Rome as it was a great rival of the Carthaginians, became an important centre for trading and merchandising. After his trumphal campaigns and famous Gallic Wars (58-51 BC), Julius Caesar got built the town of Lutetia - future Paris - in 52 BC, when the Southern regions were already successful (the southern town of Lugdunum (Lyon) used to be the capital of the Gauls). Romans also brought the Christian Religion into Gaul in the 2nd century. From the 3rd century, Barbarian from the East such as the Franks, the Vandals and the Visigoths, started to invade the territory. Thus Gauls gathered up and formed alliances with local lords to gain their protection: the first marks of the Feodal system emerged. The Franks were actually a Germanic people who decided to conquer the Gallic territory from the East. Their leader, Clovis, rapidly became the First Frankish King and the "Country of the Franks" received its Latin name Francia - France in modern French. Christianity was definitely renowned and adopted when Clovis, who initiated the Merovingian Dynasty, was baptised in the Cathedral of Rheims in the late 4th century. French legends related that Clovis' conversion to Catholicism was an evidence of his love for Clotilda, a Burgundian princess who was Catholic. The most popular French Kings' name - Louis - may derive from the Latin name for Clovis.


Taking over from Dagobert I, last Merovingian Frankish king, Charles Martel initiated the Carolingian Dynasty. He expanded the Frankish kingdom even more than Clovis had done to the East, and struggled to stop Muslims' invasion from the South in 732. A popular French kids' song - entitled Le Bon Roi Dagobert - talks about King Dagobert who apparently has put his pants back to front! So-called Pepin the Short succeeded his father in 751 but the powerful Charlemagne ("Charles the Great" in Latin) rapidly took over as Military Leader. Charlemagne is crowned Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800, which is still one of the major dates of the History of France regarding the relationships with Papacy as well as politics. Emperor Charlemagne indeed made crucial changes - these changes would have consequences for the future France, especially in the education and arts fields. A very popular 60s French song even evoked Charlemagne "inventing" school! During the Middle Ages, the Frankish kingdom successions caused many wars and conflicts. After the Treaty of Verdun was completed in 843 to share Charlemagne's lands into his three sons, the Carolingian dynasty started to decline. Dane and Norvegian Viking raids increased on the Northern coast and the Carolingian King lost his power. The Scandinavian word for Viking is "Northman", becoming Normand in vernacular French. The Normandy province of France actually received its name from the former Vikings' French dukedom.
Hugh Capet was finally enthroned in 987, initiating the Capetian Dynasty. The complex game of dynasties would continue with the Duke of Normandy known as William the Conqueror, but who was also officially the King of France's vassal and would become the King of England in 1066! At that time, France widely developped the Education and Architecture fields. When Pope Gregory IX licenced Paris's university La Sorbonne as an independent institution, the Gothic style emerged as the Saint Denis and Chartres Cathedrals were restored. The Sorbonne was rapidly renowned as a centre of education and culture, and French Gothic churched would become a benchmark in terms of Architecture. After the death of Charles IV, last Capetian King, Edward III of England started the Hundred Years' War in 1337, determined to get the French kingdom - especially the Southwest regions (Gascony or the modern Aquitaine used to be English people's fief). The Franks' Victory was partly dued to a young French peasant girl named Jeanne d'Arc, Joan of Arc, who helped Charles VIII to send the English out of France (excepting Calais) in the late 15th century.

Renaissance and Grand Siècle

When François I was enthroned in 1515, he brought the Italian Renaissance to France, inviting great artists like Leonardo da Vinci who would largely influence the French culture, arts and architecture. Meanwhile, the increasing number of Protestants following Calvin's Reformation and coming to France led to serious and long religious wars. These violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants were initiated by the terrible Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre ordered by Catherine de Medicis. The first Bourbon King of France, Henri IV, originally protestant, converted to Catholism and put an end to the Wars of Religion signing the Edict of Nantes in 1598 that gave the Huguenots (protestants) full civil rights and protection. The 17th century is known as the Grand Siècle, a period of extravagance and power for the French Monarchy. After more thriving and peaceful times, Cardinal Richelieu indeed ventured to turn the French feudal system into an absolute monarchy. From that day onwards, France has been more important on the European stage. King Louis XIV take the most of it and strengthened his own power by centralising the elaborate court life at his palace in Versailles (hosting the well-known "hall of mirrors", Galerie des Glaces) . Louis XIV - nicknamed Le Roi Soleil ("Sun King") to represent his influence - also forced the local princes and lords to be answerable to him and revoked the Edict of Nantes. Following the example of Richelieu and principal "minister" Mazarin, Colbert became the so-called Louis XIV's right hand man, acting with autority as for the French economy for instance. The reign of Le Roi Soleil was crucial as regards to the French culture and arts too: court ballets, shows, exhibitions and above all dramas were successful at that time. Molière, Racine and Corneille remain three major symbols of the French Classic Theatre. Probably resulting from the Fronde - refering to the political agitation affecting France for five years as a reaction against Richelieu absolute rules - the French Monarchy eventually stopped during the reign of Louis XV.

Age of Enlightenment and French Revolution

The 18th century gave rise to Modern Thoughts, Enlightenment and Revolution in France. The Bourgeoisie began to demand more political rights, scholars and thinkers like Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau questioned the absolutism and claimed equal rights, free trade and liberalism. French philosophers and writers also criticized the abuses associated with the French political system (the "Old Regime"), targetting especially the clergy and the nobility. In the meantime, inspired by the recent struggle for the American Independence, Parisian masses began to protest against disparities. As a result, the well-known French Revolution occured on July 14th, 1789, symbolised by the storming of a great prison called La Bastille. Robespierre, Danton and Marat were some powerful figures of the Revolution, leading a radical group called the Jacobins and imposing the so-called Reign of Terror. The French national anthem La Marseillaise resulted in fact from the call to fight: the officer Rouget de Lisle composed this entertaining song to encourage the soldiers.

Learn more about the symbols of France!
During the Revolution, Louis XVI was decapitated (convicted of treason) at the Place de la Revolution now known as "Place de la Concorde". This event tragically marked the end of the French monarchy and in 1792, the First Republic of France was proclaimed. The court of Louis XVI and Austrian Queen Marie Antoinette is now often regarded as powerful as well as frivolous and corrupt. The French struggle between the privileged classes and the king turned into a real, political crisis and led the noble deputies to give up their traditional privileges: the legislation voted in August 1789 abolished all forms of feudalism - serfdom, monopolies and taxation, tithes to the clergy stopped, equality before the law and free provision of justice were set.

Learn more about the Former Provinces of France such as Normandy, Anjou and Berry!

Napoleon, 19th Century

To conclude the crucial - and bloody - late 18th century that also led to a kind of revolutionary war against France's European neighbours, the authoritarian and ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned "Emperor Napoleon I" in 1804. Apart from challenging the authority of the church and centralising again the French administration, Napoleon was foremost renowned for his military campaigns. He indeed did his best to expand his empire in Europe, but the defeats in Russia in 1812 and Waterloo in 1815 forced him to exil on the Saint Helena Island. Napoleon I would remain an essential figure of the French history, mainly remembered for his constitutional reforms, commercial practices and the establishment of the French Baccalauréat examination. The coronation of the following moderate Bourbon King Louis XVIII was known as the Restoration; Louis XVIII was due to establish a constitutional monarchy but the 1820s were marked by reactionary policies at the Parlement. This political turning was even more visible after Charles X succeeded his brother in 1824: the clergy got back its power, the Jesuits reappeared, some money was again given to recompense the aristocracy, etc. Such perturbations rapidly provoked street fighting and rebellion: during the July Revolution, the French people - remembering the recent Revolution - finally won, Charles X gave up and Louis Philippe, a Bourbon cousin, was elected first King of the French by the will of the people". This young and modern King duly called "the Citizen King" originated the July Monarchy, period of prosperity in France. Napoleon I's nephew, Louis Napoleon, overthrew Louis Philippe and became the first president of the Second Republic in 1848. He was then proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III by national plebiscite - for the first time in France, the new constitution was approved by the nation. This marked the beginning of the Second Empire. At those times, the French were reassured by this new firm government, the economy and trade increased, railways were extended, industrialization and financial services were developed. As part of the Industrial Revolution, the Baron Haussman was ordered to redesign Paris by Napoleon III. That is not surprising then that one of the greatest boulevards in Paris received his name! The late 19th century included some European troubles, especially between France and Prussia - a powerful neighbouring nation that overcame Austria in the Seven Weeks' War. Therefore, a Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 due to diplomatic issues, whilst a crucial uprising affected Paris in 1871. Indeed, as the royalists had a great majority at the Assembly at that time (expecting the return of the Bourbon dynasty), Parisians rose up in reaction to the disarming of the National Guard in March 1871. The following tragic insurrection was very violent and remains a revolutionary event named La Commune.

20th Century in France

After the defeat of the 1871 revolution, the third Republic was born. During this period, very important rights have been voted like the freedom of assembly, which led to the creation of the French political parties, and the freedom of the press (1881), the union right (1884). Some symbols of the French Republic were set at that time: Marianne’s bust, the Marseillaise and July, 14th as the French national holiday. The beginning of the 20th century was much influenced by the wish to separate the church from the state. As seen previously, Catholicism has always had a crucial place in the French society and culture, but Jules Ferry fought to establish the non-clerical organisation of public education. In 1905, a law of separation of church and state was implemented and, among other things, school became obligatory, non-denominational and free. France represented at that time a big colonial empire. The country kept on extending its territories for economic reasons and conquered new colonies in Asia, but especially in Africa in countries such as Senegal, Gabon, Congo and Mauritania for instance. Another characteristic of the third Republic was that the major part of the population was leaving the countryside to go to the city. The rural depopulation began in the middle of the 19th century. It indeed led to the urbanisation of France – as in other developing countries of that time. The 20th century was tragically marked by the two world wars, WWI and WWII. France suffered heavy losses despite being part of the winning forces, but it rapidly recovered thanks to American aid. The WWI bloodiest battle was undoubtedly the battle of Verdun, which occurred in 1916 and caused over 700000 casualties. During the interwar years, France also experienced les années folles (the French roaring twenties) and the Great Depression – a long and difficult economic crisis which initially hit the United States and appeared later in France. The third Republic came to an end in 1940 when Marshal Pétain (Prime Minister of the third Republic) proclaimed the Vichy government, as a consequence of the French military defeat against the Nazi troops. From 1940 to 1944, France was split into two parts: the northern zone, which was occupied by the German soldiers, and the southern zone, which was “free” and governed by the French Maréchal. General Charles De Gaulle has been the most important president of the 20th century. He has been at the head of the country from 1946 to 1958 (4th Republic) and initiated the 5th Republic in 1958. De Gaulle founded the current 22 French regions in 1969. After WWII, a period of decolonization began, marked by the first Indonesian war (1946-1954) and the Algerian war (1954-1962). This second controversial and violent war led to the independence of Algeria, in which De Gaulle proved to play an essential part. The following presidents of the 5th Republic were Georges Pompidou (1969-1974), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (1974-1981), François Mitterrand (1981-1995) and Jacques Chirac (1995-2007).

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