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 some 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, however, the direct line of the Capetian royal house became extinct: 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): 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 (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 was 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, 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 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 deeply 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 – the largest army ever assembled at that time – 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 radical students and workers. 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 neighbor and sought succor 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 four 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 destabilized the government.
The Fifth Republic which followed has lasted from 1958 up until the present day. The constitution that underpins it is characterized 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 center-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 (see below), 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 harmonization. France has also been, by and large, a keen proponent of EU expansion.
Beyond that, 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 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 program was ended permanently in January 1996.)
The decision to resume testing was one of the first decisions taken by Mitterand’s successor, the center-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 (although he lost the second decisively when all other parties, including the left, united to support Chirac). 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 center-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 – see above). In 2002, the umbrella grouping Union for a Presidential Majority, secured a majority for the center-right in the national assembly, bringing co-habitation to an end for the time being.