Prehistory (before the 6th century BC)
The oldest traces of human life in what is now France date back about 1.8 million years, when humans were confronted with a harsh and changeable climate marked by several ice ages. The first homonids led a life as nomadic hunter-gatherers. In France there are a large number of decorated caves from the Upper Palaeolithic, including one of the most famous and best preserved: Lascaux (ca. 18,000 BC).
At the end of the last Ice Age (10,000 BC), the climate became milder; from about 7,000 BC, this part of Western Europe entered the Neolithic period and its inhabitants became sedentary. After a strong demographic and agricultural development between the 4th and 3rd millennia, metallurgy appeared at the end of the 3rd millennium, processing first gold, copper and bronze, then iron. There are many Neolithic megalithic sites in France, including the exceptionally dense site of the stones of Carnac (c. 3,300 BC).
Antiquity (6th century BC – 5th century AD)
In 600 BC, the Ionian Greeks, originally from Phocaea, founded the colony of Massalia (now Marseille) on the shores of the Mediterranean. This makes it the oldest city in France. At the same time, Celtic-Gallic tribes invaded parts of what is now France, and this settlement spread to the rest of France between the 5th and 3rd centuries BC.
It is during this period that the term Gaul appears; it corresponds to the Celtic settlement areas stretching between the Rhine, the Atlantic, the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. The borders of modern France roughly correspond to those of ancient Gaul, which was inhabited by the Celtic Gauls. Gaul was then a prosperous country whose southernmost part was strongly influenced by Greek and Roman cultural and economic influences.
Around 390 BC, the Gallic leader Brennus moved his troops across the Alps into Italy, defeated the Romans at the Battle of Allia, besieged Rome and redeemed them. The Gallic invasion left Rome weakened, and the Gauls continued to harry the region until 345 BC, when they signed a formal peace treaty with Rome. But the Romans and Gauls would remain adversaries for centuries to come, and the Gauls would continue to pose a threat in Italy.
Around 125 BC, the south of Gaul was conquered by the Romans, who called this region Provincia Nostra (“Our Province”), from which the name Provence developed in French over time. Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul and overcame a rebellion led by the Gallic leader Vercingetorix in 52 BC. Gaul was divided into Roman provinces by Augustus. Many cities were founded during the Gallo-Roman period, including Lugdunum (now Lyon), which is considered the capital of Gaul. These cities were built in the traditional Roman style, with a forum, theatre, circus, amphitheatre and thermal baths. The Gauls mixed with the Roman colonists and eventually adopted Roman culture and the Roman language (Latin, which gave rise to the French language). Roman polytheism merged with Gallic paganism in the same syncretism.
From the year 250 to the year 280, Roman Gaul experienced a severe crisis, as its fortified borders were repeatedly attacked by barbarians. Nevertheless, the situation improved in the first half of the 4th century, which was a time of renewal and prosperity for Roman Gaul. In 312, Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity. In the period that followed, the Christians, who had been persecuted until then, multiplied rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. From the beginning of the 5th century, however, there were renewed barbarian invasions and Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Suebi and Alans crossed the Rhine and settled in Gaul, Spain and other parts of the collapsing Roman Empire.
Early Middle Ages (5th century–10th century)
At the end of antiquity, ancient Gaul was divided into several Germanic kingdoms and a remaining Gallo-Roman territory known as the Kingdom of Syagrius. At the same time, Celtic Britons fleeing the Anglo-Saxon colony of Great Britain settled the western part of Armorica. Subsequently, the Armorican peninsula was renamed Brittany, Celtic culture was revived and small independent kingdoms emerged in the region.
The pagan Franks, from whom the ancient name “Francie” is derived, originally settled in the northern part of Gaul, but under Clovis they conquered most of the other kingdoms of northern and central Gaul. In 498, Clovis I was the first Germanic conqueror after the fall of the Roman Empire to convert to Catholic Christianity rather than Arianism; the papacy therefore gave France the title “Eldest Daughter of the Church” (French: La fille aînée de l’Église), and the French kings were called “the most Christian kings of France” (Rex Christianissimus).
The Franks adopted the Gallo-Roman Christian culture and ancient Gaul was eventually renamed Francia (“Land of the Franks”). The Germanic Franks adopted the Romance languages, except in northern Gaul, where the Roman colonies were less dense and where the Germanic languages emerged. Clovis made Paris his capital and founded the Merovingian dynasty, but his empire was not to survive his death. The Franks treated the land as simple private property and divided it among their heirs, resulting in four kingdoms from Clovis: Paris, Orleans, Soissons and Reims. The last Merovingian kings lost power to their palace mayors (heads of families). One of the palace mayors, Charles Martel, defeated an Islamic invasion of Gaul at the Battle of Tours (732) and gained respect and power within the Frankish kingdoms. His son, Pépin le Bref, wrested the crown of Francia from the weakened Merovingians and founded the Carolingian dynasty. Pépin’s son, Charlemagne, united the Frankish kingdoms and established a vast empire in Western and Central Europe.
Proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III, thus seriously establishing the French government’s long-standing historical bond with the Catholic Church, Charlemagne attempted to revive the Western Roman Empire and its cultural greatness. Charlemagne’s son, Louis I (Emperor 814-840), kept the Empire united; however, this Carolingian Empire did not survive his death. In 843, the empire was divided among Louis’ three sons in the Treaty of Verdun: East Francia went to Louis the Germanic, Middle Francia to Lothar I and West Francia to Charles the Bald. West Franconia is close to the area of present-day France and is the forerunner of the latter.
During the 9th and 10th centuries, constantly threatened by Viking invasions, France developed into a highly decentralised state: the titles and lands of the nobility became hereditary, and the authority of the king became more religious than secular, therefore less effective and constantly contested by powerful nobles. Thus feudalism was established in France. Over time, some of the king’s vassals became so powerful that they often posed a threat to the king. For example, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror added “King of England” to his titles, becoming both vassal (as Duke of Normandy) and equal (as King of England) to the King of France, which always led to tensions.
Late Middle Ages (10th-15th century)
The Carolingian dynasty ruled France until 987, when Hugh Capet, Duke of France and Count of Paris, was crowned King of the Franks. His descendants – the Capetians, the House of Valois and the House of Bourbon – gradually united the country through wars and dynastic inheritance to form the Kingdom of France, which was fully proclaimed by Philip II Augustus in 1190. Augustus proclaimed it in its entirety. The French nobility played a leading role in most of the Crusades to restore Christian access to the Holy Land. French knights provided most of the steady stream of reinforcements during the two hundred years of the Crusades, so much so that the Arabs uniformly called the crusaders “Franj” and cared little whether they were really from France. The French crusaders also imported the French language into the Levant and made French the basis of the lingua franca (litt. “langue franque”) of the crusader states. French knights were also in the majority in the orders of the Hospital and the Temple. The latter in particular owned many properties throughout France and were the main bankers to the French crown in the 13th century until Philip IV extinguished the order in 1307. The Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209 to eliminate the heretical Cathars in what is now south-west France. Eventually the Cathars were exterminated and the autonomous county of Toulouse was annexed to the Kingdom of France. Subsequent kings extended their dominions to cover more than half of what is now mainland France, including most of northern, central and western France. During this period, royal authority increasingly prevailed, centred on a hierarchical society that distinguished between nobility, clergy and commoners.
Charles IV the Fair died in 1328 without an heir. According to the rules of Salic law, the crown of France could not pass to a woman and the royal line could not be passed through the female line. As a result, the crown passed to Philippe de Valois, a cousin of Charles, instead of passing through the female line to Charles’ nephew Edward, who would soon become Edward III of England. During the reign of Philippe de Valois, the French monarchy reached the height of its medieval power. Philip’s seat on the throne was challenged by Edward III of England and in 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France entered what would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The exact boundaries changed greatly over time, but the French land holdings of the English kings remained extensive for decades. With charismatic leaders such as Joan of Arc and La Hire, strong French counter-attacks helped to recapture continental English territories. Like the rest of Europe, France was ravaged by the Black Death; half of France’s 17 million inhabitants died.
Early modern period (15th century-1789)
The French Renaissance saw spectacular cultural development and the first standardisation of the French language, which would become the official language of France and the language of the European aristocracy. It was also the scene of a long series of wars, known as the Italian Wars, between the Kingdom of France and the powerful Holy Roman Empire. French explorers such as Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain claimed land in the Americas for France, paving the way for the expansion of the first French colonial empire. The rise of Protestantism in Europe led to a civil war in France known as the French Wars of Religion. The most infamous incident was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were murdered. The Wars of Religion ended with the Edict of Nantes by Henry IV, which granted the Huguenots some religious freedom.
Under Louis XIII, the energetic Cardinal Richelieu reinforced the centralisation of the state, royal power and French supremacy in Europe, anticipating the reign of Louis XIV. During Louis XIV’s minority and the reigns of Queen Anne and Cardinal Mazarin, France, then at war with Spain, experienced a period of unrest known as the Fronde. This revolt was led by the great feudal lords and courts in reaction to the rise of royal power in France.
The monarchy reached its peak in the 17th century and during the reign of Louis XIV. By transforming powerful feudal lords into courtiers at the Palace of Versailles, Louis XIV’s personal power became unchallenged. Known for his many wars, he made France the leading European power. France became the most populous country in Europe and exerted a significant influence on European politics, economy and culture. French became the most widely used language in diplomacy, science, literature and international affairs and remained so until the 20th century. France gained many overseas possessions in America, Africa and Asia. Louis XIV also revoked the Edict of Nantes and forced thousands of Huguenots into exile.
Under Louis XV, grandson of Louis XIV, France lost New France and most of its Indian possessions after its defeat in the Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763. However, its European territory continued to expand, with notable acquisitions such as Lorraine (1766) and Corsica (1770). An unpopular king, the weakness of Louis XV’s regime, his financial, political and military missteps – as well as the excesses of his court – discredited the monarchy and undoubtedly led to the French Revolution 15 years after his death.
Louis XVI, grandson of Louis XV, actively supported the Americans seeking independence from Britain (achieved through the Treaty of Paris (1783)). The financial crisis that followed France’s involvement in the American War of Independence was one of the many factors that contributed to the French Revolution. Much of the Enlightenment took place in French intellectual circles, and important scientific breakthroughs and inventions, such as the discovery of oxygen (1778) and the first passenger balloon (1783), were made by French scientists. French explorers, such as Bougainville and Lapérouse, took part in scientific voyages of discovery through maritime expeditions around the globe. The Enlightenment philosophy, which advocated reason as the primary source of legitimacy and authority, undermined the power and support of the monarchy and helped pave the way for the French Revolution.
Modern period (1789–1914)
Faced with financial difficulties, Louis XVI convened the Estates General (representing the three states of the kingdom) in May 1789 to propose solutions to his government. At the impasse, the representatives of the Third State formed the National Assembly, heralding the beginning of the French Revolution. Fearing that the king would suppress the newly created National Assembly, the rebels stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789, the date that would become France’s bank holidays.
The absolute monarchy was then replaced by a constitutional monarchy. With the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, France established fundamental rights for men. The Declaration affirms “the natural and inviolable rights of man” to “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression”. Freedom of speech and of the press are declared and arbitrary arrests are outlawed. He calls for the destruction of aristocratic privileges and proclaims freedom and equal rights for all people, as well as access to public office based on talent and not birth. While Louis XVI enjoyed great popular popularity as a constitutional king, his disastrous flight to Varennes seems to have justified rumours that he had linked his hopes for political salvation to the prospect of foreign invasion. His credibility was so deeply shaken that the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic became increasingly likely.
The European monarchies rallied against the new regime to restore the absolute French monarchy. The threat from abroad exacerbated political unrest in France and deepened the sense of urgency for the various factions. War was declared against Austria on 20 April 1792. Collective violence occurred during the uprising of 10 August 1792 and the following month. As a result of this violence and the political instability of the constitutional monarchy, the Republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792.
Louis XVI was convicted of high treason and guillotined in 1793. Under increasing pressure from the European monarchies, internal guerrillas and counter-revolutions (such as the Vendée War or the Chouannerie), the young republic fell under the Reign of Terror. Between 16,000 and 40,000 people were executed between 1793 and 1794. In western France, the civil war between the “Bleus” (supporters of the Revolution) and the “Whites” (supporters of the monarchy) lasted from 1793 to 1796 and claimed between 200,000 and 450,000 lives. Foreign armies and French counter-revolutionaries were crushed and the French Republic survived. It also greatly expanded its borders and established “sister republics” in surrounding countries. When the threat of foreign invasion receded and France was largely pacified, the Thermidorian reaction ended Robespierre’s reign of terror. The abolition of slavery and universal male suffrage, which were adopted during this radical phase of the revolution, were repealed by subsequent governments.
After a short reign, Napoleon Bonaparte took control of the Republic in 1799 and became first consul and then emperor of the French Empire (1804-1814/1815). In the course of the wars unleashed by the European monarchies against the French Republic, changing European coalitions declared war on Napoleon’s empire. His armies conquered most of continental Europe with rapid victories such as the battles of Jena-Auerstadt or Austerlitz. He redrew the political map of Europe, while members of the Bonaparte family were appointed monarchs in some of the new kingdoms. These victories led to the worldwide spread of French revolutionary ideals and reforms, such as the metric system, the Code Napoléon and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. After the disastrous Russian campaign and the subsequent revolt of the European monarchies against his rule, Napoleon was defeated and the Bourbon monarchy restored. Approximately one million Frenchmen died in the Napoleonic Wars.
After his brief return from exile, Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The monarchy was restored (1815-1830), with new constitutional restrictions. The discredited Bourbon dynasty was overthrown by the July Revolution of 1830, which established the July constitutional monarchy that lasted until the proclamation of the Second French Republic in 1848, in the wake of the European revolutions of 1848. The abolition of slavery and universal male suffrage, both briefly proclaimed during the French Revolution, were reinstated in 1848. In 1852, the President of the French Republic, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, was proclaimed Emperor of the Second Empire under the name Napoleon III. He multiplied French interventions abroad, notably in the Crimea, Mexico and Italy, which led to the annexation of the Duchy of Savoy and the County of Nice, then part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. Napoleon III was deposed after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and his regime was replaced by the Third Republic. France had colonial possessions in various forms since the early 17th century, but in the 19th and 20th centuries its overseas colonial empire expanded considerably, becoming the second largest in the world after the British Empire. Including metropolitan France, the total area under French sovereignty reached nearly 13 million square kilometres in the 1920s and 1930s, or 8.6% of the world’s land area. Known as the Belle Époque, the end of the century was a time marked by optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity and technical, scientific and cultural innovation. In 1905, the secularity of the state was officially introduced.
Contemporary period (1914-present)
France was a member of the Triple Entente at the outbreak of the First World War. A small part of northern France was occupied, but France and its allies emerged victorious against the Central Powers at enormous human and material cost. The First World War claimed the lives of 1.4 million French soldiers, or 4% of the French population. Between 27 and 30% of the soldiers enlisted from 1912 to 1915 were killed. The interwar period was marked by strong international tensions and by various social reforms introduced by the Popular Front government (annual leave, eight-hour working day, women in government, etc.).
In 1940, France was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Metropolitan France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and Vichy France, a newly established authoritarian regime that collaborated with Germany, in the south, while Free France, the government-in-exile under Charles de Gaulle, was established in London. Between 1942 and 1944, some 160,000 French citizens, including about 75,000 Jews, were deported to death and concentration camps in Germany and Poland. On 6 June 1944, the Allies marched into Normandy and in August into Provence. The following year, the Allies and the French Resistance were victorious over the Axis powers and French sovereignty was restored with the establishment of the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF). This provisional government, set up by de Gaulle, was to continue the war against Germany and relieve the collaborators of their duties. It also carried out some important reforms (extension of the right to vote to women, creation of a social security system).
The GPRF laid the foundations for a new constitutional order that led to the Fourth Republic, which experienced spectacular economic growth (the Magnificent Thirty). France is one of the founding members of NATO (1949). France attempted to regain control of French Indochina but was defeated by the Viet Minh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A few months later, France faced another anti-colonial conflict in Algeria. Torture and illegal executions were perpetrated by both sides and the debate over whether or not to maintain control over Algeria, which at the time had more than one million European settlers, tore the country apart and almost led to a coup d’état and civil war.
In 1958, the Fourth Republic, weak and unstable, gave way to the Fifth Republic, whose presidency was strengthened. In the latter role, Charles de Gaulle managed to maintain the country’s cohesion while taking steps to end the war. The Algerian War ended in 1962 with the Evian Accords, which led to Algerian independence. A remnant of the colonial empire are the French overseas departments and territories.
In the context of the Cold War, de Gaulle pursued a policy of “national independence” vis-à-vis the Western and Eastern blocs. To this end, he withdrew from NATO’s integrated military command, launched a nuclear development programme and made France the fourth nuclear power. He restored cordial Franco-German relations to create a European counterweight between the American and Soviet spheres of influence. However, he opposed any development of a supranational Europe, preferring a Europe of sovereign nations. In the course of the worldwide series of demonstrations in 1968, the May Revolt of 1968 had an enormous social impact. In France, it is seen as the decisive moment when a conservative moral ideal (religion, patriotism, respect for authority) tilted towards a more liberal moral ideal (secularism, individualism, sexual revolution). Although the uprising was a political failure (the Gaullist party emerged even stronger than before), it heralded a split between the French people and de Gaulle, who resigned shortly afterwards.
In the post-Gaullist era, France has remained one of the most developed economies in the world, but has had to deal with several economic crises that have led to high unemployment rates and a rise in public debt. At the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, France was at the forefront of the development of a supranational European Union, notably through the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (which created the European Union) in 1992, the creation of the Eurozone in 1999 and the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. France also gradually but fully rejoined NATO and has since participated in most NATO-supported wars.
Since the 19th century, France has taken in many immigrants. These were mainly male foreign workers from Catholic countries in Europe who usually returned home when they were not employed. In the 1970s, France was in an economic crisis and allowed new immigrants (mainly from the Maghreb) to settle permanently in France with their families and acquire French citizenship. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims (especially in the big cities) were thus able to live in subsidised social housing and suffer from a very high unemployment rate. At the same time, France abandoned the assimilation of immigrants, where they were expected to adhere to traditional French values and cultural norms. They were encouraged to keep their particular cultures and traditions and only had to integrate.
France has been sporadically attacked by Islamist organisations since the Paris Metro and RER attacks in 1995, notably the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, which drew 4.4 million people and was the largest public gathering in French history, the Paris attacks in November 2015 that killed 130 people, the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II and the deadliest in the European Union since the Madrid attacks in 2004 and the Nice attack in 2016 that killed 87 people during Bastille Day celebrations.