The territory corresponding to today’s France was inhabited in ancient times by various populations. From 1000 to 700 BC the Ligurians, Iberians, Phoenicians and Greeks settled there; the latter founded their most important colonies along the coasts, including Massilia, then Marseille, Nicaea, then Nice, and Antipolis, then Antibes.
In the 6th century the Celts, warriors, came from the Danube regions. They were organized into “clans” at the head of which there were priests, the Druids. These, in addition to their priesthood role, also taught their young men militarily. Their life flowed in a primitive way with only occupations in agriculture and cattle breeding.
It was the ancient Romans who called them Gauls and Gaul the land where they lived. In fact many names of French cities derive from those of some of their tribes: for example Paris from the Parisii, Lisieux from the Lexovii, Bourges from the Biturigi.
Around 60 BC two of these tribes, that of the Edui and that of the Sequani, found themselves at odds with each other for possession of the central part of Gaul. The Sequani, to ensure victory, called to their help Ariovisto, head of the Swabians. At this point the Roman Senate decided to come to the aid of Gaul, confident that Ariovisto would then turn his armies against Italy. And in 58 BC the Roman legions, under the command of Julius Caesar, entered Gaul. In a few months Ariovisto was defeated and forced to return to his forests beyond the Rhine. However, Cesare decided to complete the conquest of Gaul, which he managed in three years of war.
In 53 BC, the Gauls, eager to regain their freedom, gathered all the tribes and under the command of a valiant leader, Vercingetorix, launched a powerful attack against the Romans. After a very difficult war Cesare defeated the roosters; from that moment on Gaul was considered a Roman province.
At the fall of the Roman Empire, the Gauls, easily Romanized, suffered a lot from the attacks of the Germans, coming from the Rhine. Gaul, desolate by hordes of Alemanni, Burgundi and Visigoths, ended up being conquered and unified by Clodoveo, king of the Franks, with the battles of Soissons in 486 and of Tolbiaco in 495.
Under the Merovingians, descendants of Clodoveo, Gaul was not always united and peaceful. The last Merovingians, from the house of Heristal, greatly enlarged the village especially with the victories of Carlo Martello and his son Pipino, called il Short, over the Saracens, with the conquest of the crown in 754. And with Pepin the Short the dynasty of the Carolingian.
In 771 Charlemagne became the head of all the Gauls, son of Pepin the Short. He started the expansion policy which, after the wars with the Lombards, the Saxons and the Arabs, allowed him to make the Empire so powerful. That empire which, then, due to the weakness of its successors in 888 passed from France to Germany.
In the same year, Odo, Count of Paris, was proclaimed king of the Franks. But this appointment was not considered valid and shortly afterwards the Carolingians returned to the throne of France with Louis IV.
In 987 another dynasty, that of the Capetingi, alternated with the throne. The initiator of the lineage was Ugo Capeto, but his descent was made up of weak men so much that under Louis VII, in 1178/80, the British began to have possessions in France.
He was succeeded by Philip II Augustus who defeated English and German in 1214 and also took part in the Third Crusade in Palestine.
After him Louis IX, known as the Saint, reigned from 1226 to 1270, and fought in the last two Crusades (which were eight in all).
During the reign of his successor, Philip III (1270/85), Queen Giovanna of Naples ceded Avignon to the Papacy and there the Popes moved under the reign of Philip IV, called il Bello. With him the monarchy consolidated and then with his three children the Capetingi dynasty ended in 1328.
The Valois succeeded with Philip VI who was strongly opposed by Edward III, king of England, pretender to the throne of France. And from this began the famous “Hundred Years War” which lasted from 1337 to 1453 and which almost ruined France. This war, with alternating phases, and with famous episodes, such as the enterprise of Joan of Arc, meant that in the end France managed to remove its territories from England, except Calais.
There were other strong French kings such as Louis XI, Charles VIII and Louis XII, who attempted expansion into Italy but who were driven out of the Holy League.
Then came the ambitious Francis I who reigned from 1515 to 1547. During his period he wanted to fight Charles V, King of Spain, and fought four deadly wars against him, at the end of which, with the Crepy Treaty of 1544, he had to renounce any claim on Italy. With Charles V then France signed the peace of Cateau-Cambresis of 1559.
Meanwhile the Protestant Reformation had intervened which was also expanding among the Latin peoples and France had to face it with the reigns of Francis II and Charles IX, in the wars between Catholics and Huguenots, led, the first by the Guise and the second by the Bourbons.
Eight were the religious wars that these Calvinists, that is, the Huguenots, fought against the Catholics and famous was the “Massacre of St. Bartholomew”, which occurred on the night of August 24, 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were killed. Catholics eventually emerged victorious from these wars thanks also to the help of Catholic Spain.
After various vicissitudes, Henry IV of Bourbon became a throne who, as head of the Huguenots, as he had been, by marrying Margaret of Valois, sister of King Charles IX, became a Catholic, but only for convenience.
He, now on the throne and after a definitive adhesion to Catholicism, however, wanted to protect the Protestants and published the Edict of Nantes with which the freedom of worship for the Huguenots was agreed. And after that he signed peace with Spain. Then he dedicated himself to the prosperity of the country, helped by the skilled minister Sully and began colonial politics by going to conquer Quebec, Canada. And while he was preparing a vast battle plan against the House of Habsburg, joining the Duke Carlo Emanuele of Savoy, he perished in an attack on Ravaillac, stabbed: it was 1610.
He was, without doubt, the most popular king of the French. There are two famous phrases that distinguished him: the first was “Paris is well worth a mass” pronounced on the occasion of his conversion to reign in France; the second, which denoted how interested he was in the welfare of his country was: “I will be happy when I see the most miserable farmer put a hen in the pot every Sunday”. He left behind three sons and three daughters, all of whom had his second wife, Maria de ‘Medici, after his previous marriage to Margaret of Valois had been declared void.
And since the heir to the throne, Louis XIII, was still a minor, Maria de ‘Medici assumed the regency. And this was also during the period of the minor age of Louis XIV. Meanwhile, the monarchy had been increasingly consolidated, also by great ministers such as the two cardinals Richelieu and Mazarino. Upon the death of the latter, Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, took the reins of the kingdom and inaugurated the era of French hegemony.
He rearranged the army, the state finances, fought the wars of Flanders, Holland and Italy. But he had to give in to the Augusta League. His reign was enlightened: the arts developed, but his dominion was absolute. He once said “the state is me,” and said the truth. He was the eldest chief of the Bourbons and moved the court to Versailles which, therefore, became the center of European political life. He died in 1715.
His successor, Louis XV, instead found a state weakened by the previous wars that Louis XIV had triggered by revoking the Edict of Nantes, thus provoking the grievances of the Protestants and the bloody violent reactions in the Cevennes, called “Dragonnades”, ie those expeditions of Dragons, personally ordered by the king against Protestants.
Under the reign of Louis XV there were also the wars of Polish and Austrian succession and the “Seven Years War”, fought between Frederick II of Prussia and the House of Austria, supported by France.
Died his minister Fleury, Louis XV, dominated by his favorites, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, funded the treasury so that Louis XVI, upon his death in 1774, inherited a disastrous situation, aggravated also by the ineptitude of the ministers, from the spiritual restlessness aroused by the new political-economic-social currents of thought of the Illuminists.
Louis XVI was not the ruler that the people awaited. He was unable to abolish the serious social injustices perpetrated against the people who, tired of living in misery, rebelled and on July 14, 1789 the great French Revolution broke out. It was chaos: the palaces of the nobles and the houses of the rich were devastated and set on fire. Many nobles and thousands of French loyal to the nobles were guillotined and the king was sentenced to death. He managed to escape but was captured together with other members of the royal family, including the proud Austrian wife Marie Antoinette, so hated by the people for her great ambition and debauchery.
A period of horrors began, until the French people, satisfied in part especially in their thirst for justice, gave themselves more just laws and a new form of government: the Republic.
The sovereigns of the other European powers of Austria, Prussia, Spain and England, worried that the example of the French Revolution would also be followed in their countries, united, formed powerful armies and all together fought against France, which resisted victoriously on the Rhine and in Italy. In these wars the Corso Napoleone Bonaparte distinguished himself, who, with arms, prepared the way to the Consulate. Passing from victory to victory in a few years he managed to conquer almost all of Europe, so much so that France could be considered an Empire and in 1804 the emperor was Napoleon I.
But the enemies of France did not give up; especially England and Russia still felt very powerful. So Napoleon faced them and was defeated in Russia in 1812 after a disastrous campaign that decimated the army for the cold and hunger suffered. In 1813 he was defeated in Leipzig and after these reverses he was forced to abdicate in 1814. He did it in favor of his son, the so-called King of Rome, who was only three years old; and on May 5, 1814 he retired to the island of Elba. From here he returned to France in February 1815 and entered Paris on March 20. He returned to being emperor for a period that was said of the “Hundred Days”, at the end of which he was defeated in Waterloo in June of the same year and forced into exile for the second time, but now in the middle of the Atlantic, in the remote island of Sant ‘Elena, followed by a few loyalists.
Around this incredible character arose a vast literature of which Italy is particularly rich. Here he, in fact, knew how to inspire feelings of trust and hope which were a substantial contribution to the maturation of the people and of those ideals which were then able to lead to the Risorgimento of Italy.
After the fall of Napoleon, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna met and returned the throne to Louis XVIII, who held it until 1824. His successor, Charles X, had to undergo another revolution, called the “Three days of July ”of 27, 28 and 29 July 1830, and was replaced by Luigi Filippo d’Orleans.
In 1848 a third revolution restored the Republic and a coup in 1851 restored the empire which was led by Napoleon III. During this second empire France managed to increase its colonial possessions and in Algeria and Senegal, in Africa, it added the Cocincina in Asia and the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean.
But even the second empire was not to last long. In 1870 Napoleon III decided to declare war on Prussia with the aim of weakening its power in Europe. But in less than a month the Prussian army defeated the French one in Sedan and took the emperor prisoner. The news of this dishonorable defeat brought about a revolution which declared the empire decayed and restored the Republic. And from September 4, 1870, the date of proclamation of the Third Republic, until 1914, the date of the outbreak of the First World War, France was essentially concerned with enlarging its colonial possessions and conquered Tunisia.
In the First World War France was an ally of Russia, England, the United States of America, Italy and Belgium against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Germans advanced on French territory and arrived in Compiegne 60 kilometers from Paris, but here they were opposed by the army of the skilled general Joffre who defeated them at the battle of the Marne and forced them to withdraw.
The Italian victory of Vittorio Veneto, followed by the armistice of Italy with Austria on November 4, 1918, was followed by the armistice of France with Germany on November 11, 1918.
The work of the Paris Conference followed where separate peace ended with the beginning of the Peace of Versailles for France on June 28, 1919. And from that moment on in France it was a succession of governments, ministers, crises, resignations, killings, scandals and coups. Friendship and assistance agreements were agreed everywhere in Europe to secure support and collaboration. Meanwhile strikes, unrest and demonstrations took place without stopping. Until it came to 1939 when Germany raised the issue of Gdansk and invaded Poland.
France was still at the forefront of the allies of the United States and England against Germany, Italy and Japan.
Just a year after the war began, France found itself occupied by the German army for three quarters and was forced to ask for an armistice.
But General De Gaulle, not accepting the situation, decided to continue the fight alongside the Allies. He fled abroad, where he founded the association “Free France”. Many soldiers then sided with him and when in 1944 the Allies landed in Normandy to drive the Germans, De Gaulle’s men were also with them, who then redeemed what was considered by all a defeat that arrived in too short a time..
In 1945 the war ended; Germany was beaten and France was able to be part of the winning nations. Immediately the French commissioned De Gaulle to form a new government. Thus was born the Fourth Republic.
And here comes another problem. The African colonies of Morocco and Tunisia firmly demanded independence; the populations rose up and killed many French people. See Countryaah for population and country facts about France. France granted independence. Immediately afterwards it was the turn of Algeria but here, partly because more than a million French were resident there, partly because in the meantime important oil fields had been discovered, France was unable to make a decision and was forced to summon General De Gaulle, now retired to private life, to the government.
Obtained from the people with full powers, De Gaulle began by proclaiming the Fifth Republic. And with its advent, in the decade 1949/59 two important events occurred in France that changed the country both inside and out.
Inside there was the exclusion from the government of the communists and their complete isolation, but also the weakening of the party of De Gaulle, which until then, instead, had represented the union of the French people, “Rassemblement du peuple français “. The internal situation also decreed, due to its movement to the right, the complete adhesion to the western block and therefore to the Atlantic Pact, but it also highlighted a strong state of instability, so much so that from the end of 1947 to June 1954 they followed each other well 13 governments, almost all coalition governments.
The communists and trade unions contributed to the confusion of those years. Efforts were made to freeze prices and wages. An attempt was made to increase industrial production but with the devaluation, first of the pound and then of the franc, the unease increased, also in the agricultural sector.
In foreign policy, France made great efforts to activate a Council of Europe, the birth of which contributed greatly to its Foreign Minister Schuman. However, in order to better prepare Europe against possible attacks from the East, an Atlantic alliance was established with Great Britain and the United States to which France also asked for military aid.
And in the meantime the difficulties created in Indochina by the communists, who wanted independence. And on December 30, 1949 the Franco-Indochinese federation ended and this determined the formation of three distinct independent states: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.