| After the disintegration
of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Gaul
was settled by Germanic peoples from the east.
After the collapse of the Visigothic Merovingian kingdom,
Gaul in the eighth and ninth centuries became the heart of Charlemagne’s
Frankish empire, which stretched from the Pyrénées
to the Baltic.
During the following centuries, the area under the control of the
French kings gradually increased, although it was not until the
reign of Louis VI (1108-37) that royal authority
became more than an empty theory in parts of France, whose rulers
were vassals in name only. Among the most powerful of these were
the Dukes of Normandy who had, by the mid-12th
century, acquired England and western France.
In 1328, the direct line of the Capetian royal house became extinct
and one of the claimants to the throne was Edward III
of England. The resulting intermittent conflict, known as the Hundred
Years’ War, was not resolved until the final English
defeat in 1453. The period of French recovery is associated with
the reign of the astute Louis XI (1460-83) and
by the time of his death the area of France was much as it is today.
During the late 15th and 16th centuries, France was again distracted
by foreign adventures, including the Italian Wars
and several other grandiose pan-European schemes initiated by François
I, and internal troubles including the Wars of
Religion. This latter conflict was ended by the accession
of the gifted Henry IV, a Protestant-turned-Catholic.
Henry was assassinated in 1610, but his work of building up the
power of the French state continued under the administrations firstly
of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and subsequently
the long reign of the ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV
(1643-1715), by which time the country had replaced Spain
as the major European power.
The 18th century was a period of great colonial expansion, and France
again became involved in conflicts with England and this time over
their possessions in the New World. The reign of
Louis XV (1715-74) was in general a time of great prosperity
in France, but the age also witnessed a widening gap between rich
and the poor. The inequality of the taxation system, in particular
the aristocratic and clerical exemption from the taille (tax), the
lack of political representation for the increasingly wealthy middle
class and the inefficiency and profligacy of central government
were but three of the underlying causes of the French Revolution
of 1789 which overthrew Louis XVI.
One of the great driving issues of the Revolution, the equality
of the individual before the law, proved to be a significant, often
decisive source of political contention in Europe for the next century.
The Government of the last years of the 18th century was very unstable,
unpopular and impoverished, and was overthrown in 1799 by a rising
army commander named Napoleon Bonaparte.
After five years as consul, Napoleon was declared
Emperor and embarked on a military campaign to
establish a French empire in Europe. Defeat at Trafalgar
at the hands of Nelson in 1805 left Britain
in command of the sea, but on land Napoléon scored a series
of stunning victories over the next seven years, defeating the Prussians,
Austrians and Russians.
By 1812, the French empire extended beyond France to take in northwest
Italy and the Low Countries, while the Confederation of the Rhine,
Switzerland, Spain and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw were dependent
states. Napoléon’s fortunes went into decline after
the ill-fated invasion of Russia in April 1812 in which 600,000
men, were driven back westwards and destroyed six months later.
Napoléon was forced into exile, his armies
and empire dismantled by the Austrians and British. He temporarily
escaped imprisonment and returned to France, where he was welcomed
as a hero. This brief ‘Hundred Days’
came to an end when Napoléon, his previous
military prowess much diminished by time and physical infirmity,
was defeated at Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington.
With the end of Napoléon, the monarchy was
restored and remained until the uprising of 1848 led by workers
and radical students. Although the insurrection was crushed within
a few months, the monarchy was again overthrown and the Second Republic
declared. Four years later, the army intervened and instituted the
Second Empire with Louis Napoléon (a nephew
of the first Emperor Napoléon) as Emperor, seizing dictatorial
power. The Second Empire (1852-70) further expanded
France’s colonial possessions, while at home the repression
was eased during the 1860s. In 1870, the regime obtained a popular
mandate by referendum.
France now faced a new enemy in the emerging power of Germany. The
Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1
ended in defeat for the French and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine
by the Germans. The Third Republic, which was established
in France after 1871, maintained an uneasy peace with its new powerful
neighbour and sought succour in the Entente Cordiale
with Britain. As events proved, the elaborate diplomatic designs
of the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe were too fragile
to guarantee peaceful co-existence in Europe. The interlocking network
of treaties and alliances finally collapsed in August 1914 following
the assassination of Grand Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
This was the trigger for World War I. Like all
the main protagonists, France lost huge numbers of troops to the
conflict, as the gap between military technology and tactical thinking
led to unprecedented mass slaughter. As one of the eventual victors,
France recovered Alsace-Lorraine as a result of the Treaty
of Versailles and introduced a new electoral system, still
under the Third Republic, based on proportional representation.
The inter-war years saw the election of a series of socialist governments
and an increasing preoccupation with Germany and the deteriorating
European situation. After the German invasion of Poland in 1939,
France, which had previously committed itself to an alliance with
the Poles, declared war on Germany. The Third Republic collapsed
with the German invasion of 1940, after which France endured 4 years
of Nazi occupation. During this period, the country was divided
between a northern government under direct German control based
in Paris, and the collaborationist Vichy administration, led by
World War I leader Marshal Pétain, and based
in the southern spa town of the same name. In 1946, two years after
liberation from Nazi rule, the Fourth Republic
was established, but came to an end in 1958 as a result of the Algerian
crisis. Then a French colony, Algeria was wracked by a civil war
which caused bitter divisions from top to bottom in French society
and ultimately destabilised the government.
The Fifth Republic which followed has lasted from
1958 up until the present day. The constitution that underpins it
is characterised by the strong executive powers vested in the presidency,
typified by the first holder of the office, General de Gaulle,
the wartime leader of the anti-Nazi government in exile. The Fifth
Republic was itself almost overthrown in 1968 by a radical alliance
of students and industrial workers. By way of reaction, conservative
presidents and centre-right majorities in the National Assembly
governed France throughout the 1970s. But in 1981, the Socialist
François Mitterrand won the presidential
election, the first time the party’s candidate had been victorious.
In May 1988, he was re-elected for a second term. Under ‘Ton-ton’
(Uncle) Mitterrand and his conservative Gaullist successor, Jacques
Chirac , the French pursued their customary activist and
occasionally maverick foreign policy. Its major commitment is to
the European Union, and especially relations with
Germany. After some initial uncertainty about the consequences of
German reunification in 1991, the Franco-German axis has continued
to be the driving force behind the EU’s progress towards economic
and political harmonisation. France has also been, a keen proponent
of EU expansion.
France is still active in almost every other part of the world.
This arises from a combination of historical reasons, colonies and
a self-image as a nuclear and world power, coupled with a desire
to confront a perceived Anglo-American pursuit of global hegemony.
French suspicions of the USA are a common feature of the international
diplomatic environment. In no case was this more apparent than the
2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, to which the French were the
leading opponent. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council,
with the power of veto, the French carry decisive influence in that
forum and used it to the full. The French position was widely supported
by the other Security Council members, but has caused a major diplomatic
rift with the United States and (to a lesser extent) Britain.
The French continue to maintain a significant economic and military
presence in some of their former colonies, especially in Africa
where there has been a number of military interventions, and substantial
influence in many others. The principal economic instrument was
the ‘Franc Zone’ under which many francophone African
countries, mainly in West Africa, linked their currencies to the
French Franc. France remains a principal player in events in places
as far apart as Rwanda, Algeria
and the Pacific island group of New Caledonia.
It has also been engaged, in conjunction with other allied forces,
in Lebanon, Kuwait (during the
Gulf War) and in the Balkans. The intervention
in New Caledonia, initially a counter-insurgency
operation against pro-independence guerrillas, later became especially
controversial owing to the use of the islands as a base for French
nuclear tests in 1995. The resumption of the tests countermanded
an existing moratorium imposed by President Mitterand and attracted
huge public and international criticism. The test programme was
ended permanently in January 1996.
The decision to resume testing was one of the first decisions taken
by Mitterand’s successor, the centre-right Gaullist
Jacques Chirac. Formerly both mayor of Paris and Prime
Minister, Chirac had succeeded Mitterand as president in 1995 after
a narrow victory over the Socialist challenger Lionel Jospin.
Chirac is now in his ninth year as president after
winning the most recent presidential election in 2002, which will
keep him in office until 2009. This latter poll was notable for
the strong performance of the neo-fascist Front National (FN) leader
Jean-Marie le Pen, who came second in the first
round of voting. There has always been an extreme right current
in post-war French politics, from the Poujadiste
movement of the 1950s, through the post-imperial pieds noirs of
the 1960s to the present-day FN (formed in 1972)
with its focus on crime and immigration shared with other successful
European far-right parties.
2002 also saw the centre-right, operating under the umbrella banner
of the Union for a Presidential Majority, regain
control of the national Assembly, bringing to an end five years
of “co-habitation”. A new government took office under
premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Co-habitation, the
situation where the presidency and the national assembly are in
the hands of different parties, was virtually unknown in French
politics until the Mitterand era. Since then, it has become relatively
common, between 1997 and 2002, the national assembly was controlled
by Parti Socialiste (PS) under Lionel Jospin. (Jospin
later contested the 2002 presidential election for the Socialists,
coming a humiliating third behind the national front. In 2002, the
umbrella grouping Union for a Presidential Majority,
secured a majority for the centre-right in the national assembly,
bringing co-habitation to an end for the time being.