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Located in Western Europe, bordering eight (or nine, depending upon how you count them) European countries and with coasts on the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel, and the Mediterranean, France has long been one of the great political, military and cultural powers of the Western world.

Climate and Terrain[]

France is a country of plains and green forests with ancient mountain ranges on its south-east and west borders. A beautiful, fertile land, France is blessed with some of the best wine-growing climate and terrain in the world. Located in a temperate zone and bordered on the south by the warm Mediterranean, the French climate is generally kindly and conducive to agriculture.

Early Gaul[]

The gentle waters of the Mediterranean facilitated exploration and settlement of the coast of southern France. Greece founded the colony of Massilia (modern Marseille) as early as 600 BC, but the earliest written records of exploration of the country's interior comes hundreds of years later from the Romans , who began campaigning in "Transalpine Gaul" (Gaul across the Alps) in the first century BC. There the Romans encountered mostly Celtic people, plus a few surviving pre-Celtic Iberians and Ligurians. They also met many Germanic people emigrating into Gaul from points north and east.

Roman control over Gaul was gradual but inexorable. In 121 BC Rome sent armies into Gaul to assist Massilia against encroaching Celts, and also to defend its overland route into Spain (where it had important possessions). This led Rome to claim a chuck of southern Gaul as a province, which survives today as the "Provence" region of France. In 58 BC Caesar launched a major campaign against the interior of Gaul. The war lasted some eight years, at the end of which Gaul was more or less securely a Roman possession.

With the exception of a few notable but easily crushed rebellions, Gaul remained fairly content as a Roman province for several centuries. The country thrived under Roman rule, and remnants of wealthy Roman-style villas could still be found across the French countryside. As it was pacified Gaul became a springboard for further Roman expansion, both northwest across the Channel into Great Britain , and northeast into the barbarian Germanic lands.

Later Gaul[]

During the third and fourth centuries AD, as Roman power began to wane across Western Europe, Gaul came under increasing pressure from invaders from the north and east. Rome concentrated its power upon holding the Danube River and stopping barbarians from crossing into Italy, leaving Gaul under-defended. In the mid-third century Gaul suffered major incursions by the Germanic Alemanni and Franks , and the territory wasn't retaken by Rome until 274. As the countryside grew hostile and dangerous, the cities and towns fortified, a process which would continue through the Middle Ages.

Christianity , which was introduced to Gaul around 250 AD, had taken root across the country by the end of the fourth century.

The Fall of Roman Gaul[]

In 395 AD, Rome was divided into an eastern and western half, and Western Rome all but abandoned Gaul as it tried desperately to protect Rome itself from barbarian invasion out of Austria and Germany. As a result, in 405-406 a large number of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine into Gaul, carving out permanent homes for groups such as the Franks and Burgundians . The Visigoths drove far south, occupying land in Aquitaine. By 476 the Romans had been totally driven from power in Gaul by Germanic invaders.

The Middle Ages[]

During the Middle Ages (400-1200 AD), France was divided into a number of smaller kingdoms ruled by the heirs of the various Germanic invaders. In the late 5th century King Clovis of the northern Franks unified most of the country (with the exception of some stubborn Visigoth holdouts in the south). Clovis was the first of the "Merovingian" kings to rule the unified country. He moved his capital to Paris , and he gained a degree of recognition from the Roman Emperor, which gave his rule legitimacy.

When Clovis died in 511, the kingdom was divided between his four sons, who spent the next five decades fighting each other for the country. As a brother died, his land was apportioned among the surviving brothers. This continued until 558 when there was only one brother standing . The Merovingian kingdom remained united a whopping nine years, until that king died and the kingdom was once again apportioned between his sons. This cycle of conquest and division would continue for centuries, costing the lives of thousands every generation.

As the eighth century opened, another strong Frankish family arose to challenge the Merovingians. Based in northern Austrasia, the Carolingians defeated their local neighbors and came to dominate northern France/Germany. At first they threw their support behind the Merovingians, but when King Theodoric IV died in 737, the Carolingian King Charles Martel was strong enough to assume direct power, leaving the throne empty. During his reign Charles was able to stop the Muslims' incursions into France and extend his power into Germany as well.

Charles was followed by Pippin the Short , who, with the blessing of the Pope in Rome openly assumed the throne. Upon his death the kingdom was divided between his two sons, Carloman, who didn't last long, and Charlemagne, who did.

Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire[]

Charlemagne's father died in 768, and his brother in 771, leaving him sole king of France. He pursued a policy of expansion into Germany and Muslim-held Spain , having more success against the Germans than he did against the emirs in Spain. He intervened in Italy on the side of the Pope , whose territories were under threat from the Lombards to the north. He conquered the Lombards and had himself crowned their king, and he created the Papal States, earning a good deal of gratitude from the Church.

By the end of the eighth century Charlemagne was the undisputed power in Western Europe, ruling much of the territory which would become modern France, western Germany, the Benelux countries and northern Italy. In 800 AD Pope Leo III crowned him emperor of the Holy Roman Empire , making him the legal successor to the Caesars of the western Roman Empire.

Following Charlemagne's death in 813, his son Louis the Pious inherited the throne. When he died Charlemagne's grandsons once again began fighting over the kingdom, and in 843, at the Treaty of Verdun, the Holy Roman Empire was divided into three sections along north-south lines. These were Francia Orientalis , the eastern territories, Francia Occidentalis , the western territories, and Francia Media , perilously wedged between them. Although smaller, Francia Occidentalis approximated the borders of modern France, and some scholars date the creation of the modern country to the Treaty of Verdun.

After the Empire[]

The new kingdoms weren't especially stable, and the people of France endured another 300 years of incessant warfare and familial backbiting as the various kings and nobility struggled for dominance. Life wasn't made any easier by the arrival of the Vikings, who raided as far inland as Paris, often demanding a huge ransom before they would go away. They remained active through the ninth and tenth centuries, some settling permanently in Normandy . The rulers also had to deal with English monarchs who claimed territories in the west, including portions of Aquitaine , Brittany , and Lombardy. It took several centuries to push the Brits entirely off of the continent.

As the new millennium approached, the Capetian family gained the French crown . They too spent much time fighting each other as well as the various nobility who challenged their reign.

King Philip II , who reigned from 1180-1223, did much to strengthen the monarchy. When not off fighting at the Crusades with his friend Richard the Lionheart , Philip reorganized the government, modernized the French economy, and defeated the English, Flemish and Germans singly and in groups. King Louis IX (reigned 1226-1270), further consolidated the country.

The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453)[]

As the fourteenth century opened, France was the most powerful country on the continent. In 1328, Philip VI assumed the throne. Edward III, King of England , owned Aquitaine and also had a slender claim to the French throne, which he hadn't pressed at the time of Philip VI's succession. However, in 1337 Philip VI confiscated Aquitaine, and in response Edward III reinstated his claim, bringing France and England to war.

The English pursued the war on the seas and by fomenting rebellion among France's Flemish subjects. In 1346 an English army won a famous battle at Crecy but were unable to follow this up with any further success and were forced to evacuate the continent more or less empty-handed. In 1347 the Black Death struck, killing huge numbers of people and delaying the war. Hard fighting broke out anew in the 1350s, during which the French king managed to get himself captured by the English, who demanded a huge ransom for his release. The French refused to pay, and the king died in captivity in London. The war continued to drag on until 1420, when the Treaty of Troyes declared the unification of the French and English crowns on the infant head of Henry VI, king of England and France .

This did not sit well with everyone. The French nobleman Charles VII had a fairly strong claim to the throne, and many French patriots preferred him to any English ruler. This included a strange young peasant woman named Joan of Arc . Within a few years Joan had led the French on to victory, driving the English back on all fronts. Charles was anointed king in 1429, and Joan was burned at the stake a year later.

The Wars of the Reformation[]

By the 16th century, there was a good deal of resentment against the Catholic Church across Europe, which was seen to be greedy and corrupt. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed up his "Ninty-Five Theses," condemning the excesses of the Church. Martin Luther's movement gained many followers in France, and by 1534 the king issued the first of a series of anti-Huguenot (Protestant) edicts. This did little to stop the spread of the movement. By 1562 the two sides were in open warfare , which continued on and off for decades. It ended in 1598, when the Edict of Nantes granted tolerance to the Huguenots.

The Seventeenth Century[]

In the seventeenth century the power of the crown was enhanced, largely through the work of one man, Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duke of Richelieu . Richelieu was an extremely able minister and one of the most colorful characters in history. Brilliant, calculating, and ruthless, he worked ceaselessly to expand the king's power and prestige and to destroy his enemies. He also moved against the Huguenots, who retained their religious freedom but lost their military power.

In 1643, the remarkable Louis XIV took the throne. Known as the "Sun King," Louis seduced and tamed the French nobility, establishing the Palace of Versailles as the most opulent court the world had ever seen. Underneath the foppish trappings Louis was an ambitious ruler. During his reign he fought in three major wars and several minor conflicts. Louis would reign for an astonishing 72 years, dying in 1715. He still holds the record for the longest reign of a European monarch.

The Eighteenth Century[]

The eighteenth century saw an increase in power and wealth of the nobility, the emergence of a French middle class, and the further destitution of the peasantry. Philosophically, the Enlightenment tended to undermine the belief in the traditional institutions such as the Church and the monarchy. In 1776 the American Revolution broke out, and the French saw a free people throw off an oppressive monarchy in favor of democracy and self-rule. This would further stoke unrest already building throughout the country.

The Revolution[]

In 1789, close on the heels of the American Revolution, the French peasants and middle class revolted against the nobility and the king . The Revolution was a brutal, bloody affair, with the king and perhaps 50,000 other French citizens being executed by the newly invented guillotine (a triumph of Enlightenment science).

In the early phases of the Revolution the people marched on the Bastille, abolished the nobility, and forced the king to accept a constitutional monarchy. But the new Assembly degenerated into warring factions struggling for primacy and was unable to govern. Without government sanction the Paris Commune murdered some 1350 prisoners. In September 1792 a Constitutional Convention met and abolished the monarchy, declaring a republic. Austria and Prussia demanded the restitution of the king,threatening retaliation against the French population if they resisted. The revolutionary government saw this as evidence that the king was conspiring with the enemy; he was condemned to death and executed in January of 1793.

Later in 1793 the "Committee for Public Safety" unleashed the "Reign of Terror," ensuring public safety by guillotining some 15,000-40,000 of the public, many without trial. Several local revolts broke out, primarily caused by peasant outrage at the treatment of the Catholic Church at the hands of the Revolutionaries, but these were crushed with great ferocity.

In 1795 the new French constitution established an entirely new form for the French government. Executive power was held by "The Directory," a panel of five directors elected annually by the new bi-cameral legislature. However, the new form of government proved unmanageable, and in 1799 a man named Napoleon Bonaparte seized power.

Napoleon Bonaparte[]

This dictator was born in French-owned Corsica and trained in artillery in the French army. In 1799 he staged a coup d'état, installing himself as First Consul, a position he pretty much invented. Within five years he crowned himself Emperor. For sixteen years he ruled France, taking a bankrupt, revolution-torn country and making it into the most powerful force in Europe. Time and time again he fought and defeated every other country within reach, singly and in alliances against him, except England and Russia . He was unable to create a navy that could stand up to the unmatched British Navy, he could not reach and destroy his most implacable foe. In Russia's case Napoleon simply didn't have enough resources to take over Russia and he didn't prepare for the Russian winter.

For fifteen years Napoleon marched and counter-marched triumphantly across Europe, until he used up a lot of resources on the invasion of Russia. He was finally defeated by yet another coalition at Leipzig, and then a year later at Waterloo. For more details about this extraordinary warlord, see Napoleon's civilopedia entry.

The Nineteenth Century[]

After Napoleon's final defeat, the victorious countries instituted a constitutional monarchy in France, which lasted for some 40 years, until Napoleon's nephew, Louis Napoleon was elected president by popular vote in 1848, declaring himself emperor in 1852. He remained in power until 1870, when, goaded by Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck, he made an unfortunate decision to go to war against Prussia. The war was a humiliating disaster. The Prussians made brilliant use of their rail network to concentrate before the French were ready to fight, and on September 2, 1870, Napoleon and his entire army were captured.

The war resulted in the overthrow of the Empire once more, replaced by the Third Republic, the humiliating loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Prussia/Germany, and a burning desire for revenge which would serve France badly in the coming years. In the Spring of 1871, a popular uprising in Paris created, but for a few brief weeks, what many saw as the first experiment in creating socialism, called the Paris Commune.

The Great War[]

The First World War was caused by a huge failure of European diplomatic common sense and imagination, as countries formed a bewildering web of alliances and treaties, binding their fates together in ways that they barely comprehended. The war was initiated by a blatant land-grab of Serbia by Austria-Hungary, using as casus belli ("our excuse for shooting at the neighbor") the murder of an Arch Duke by a Serbian terrorist. The Arch Duke was killed on June 28, 1914, and by August Europeans were killing each other on three different continents.

There were two sides in the conflict, the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria, facing off against the Triple Entente, of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. On the Eastern Front the Germans struck quickly, destroying a completely outclassed Russian army and nearly driving them out of the war. On the Western Front, they drove deep into French territory before being stopped east of Paris by desperate defensive operations from France and the UK.

For the next four years France was divided by a hellish 5000 foot-long line of trenches across the countryside, with men fighting and dying in the tens of thousands, and success being measured in advancing inches. The land was poisoned by thousands of corpses, exploded and unexploded ordnance, and chemical warfare. In 1917 the United States entered the war, and German morale began to collapse. By 1918 the German government fell and the new government signed an armistice.

France had been bled white by the war, with two million dead (four percent of their entire population) and over four million wounded. The territory that had been at the front or behind enemy lines was a wasteland of festering corpses and cities and villages in ruin. Their fury at Germany resulted in a demand for huge reparations, both to help France rebuild and to punish the enemy. While this policy might have had short-term benefits, it had two major negative results: it embittered the German people, making them thirst for revenge, and it disgusted the Americans, making them less inclined to become involved in European messes in the future.

World War II[]

The Second World War was a painful and humiliating disaster for France. As the Germans rebuilt their war machine after World War I, the French, who were desperately short of manpower following the Great War, constructed the Maginot Line, a rather magnificent line of fortresses, underground bunkers and trenches on the border facing Germany. If the German army had tried to punch through that line, it would have certainly suffered great losses of manpower, and more importantly, taken precious time.

Unfortunately, for political reasons the French had not extended the Line to the sea, as it would have placed Belgium outside of the defenses, and for their part the Belgians refused to fortify their border with Germany for fear it would anger the Germans. Thus when the Germans decided to invade France they simply bypassed the Line and drove through Belgium. The French and British were never able to establish a stable defensive line against the crushing German blitzkrieg, and France was overrun in weeks, surrendering on June 22, 1940.

On June 6, 1944, British, Canadian, American and Free French troops landed at Normandy and began liberating France from German occupation. The German army retreated slowly, putting up a stubborn defense, but with Soviet troops closing in on German soil from the east, catastrophic troop losses on all fronts, the total loss of air superiority and an unending rain of Allied bombs on German factories and cities, defeat was inevitable. Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, and Germany surrendered on May 7–8, 1945.

Contemporary France[]

The years following World War II saw France grudgingly divesting itself from its overseas possessions, fighting painful and ultimately futile wars in Vietnam and Algeria. At the same time it was rebuilding at home, creating a new and modern country out of the ashes of the Great Wars. It possesses a large immigrant population, especially from former colonies in Africa and South-West Asia.

French arts are flourishing as never before, and Paris – the "City of Lights" – is once again a cultural beacon to the world. France has become a leading member of the European Union, alongside its former enemy Germany. In historical terms this is an astonishing triumph of common sense and suggests a bright future for France, Europe, and the world.

French Trivia[]

  • "Only peril can bring the French together. One can't impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 365 kinds of cheese." –Charles de Gaulle
  • Every summer more than 100 cyclists compete in the Tour de France; the course spans roughly 3,000 kilometers (2,000 miles) and takes three weeks to complete.
  • Built from 1666 to 1681, Europe's oldest functional canal, the Canal du Midi, lies in France.
  • The French have the highest female and third highest male life expectancy in Europe.
  • French was the official language of England for over 300 years (from 1066 until the early 14th century).
  • France produces some of the world's most famous liqueurs, such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, and Triple Sec, and upwards of 8 billion bottles of wine a year.

Louis XIV[]


Born to King Louis XIII of France, Louis XIV was raised in the most opulent court in Europe. His every need was catered to, and he was given an excellent education, even if he was too lazy and spoiled to appreciate it. Louis XIII died when his son was five, and the regency passed to the queen mother, Anne of Austria. For the next 18 years she ruled France with the able assistance of Cardinal Mazarin, who may or may not have also been her lover, while Louis lived in pampered splendor.

It was upon Mazarin's death in 1661 that the 22-year-old Louis XIV began to take an active interest in ruling his country. Much to everyone's surprise, he was good at it. First he gathered all of the power into his own hands, bypassing the old bureaucratic patronage system that Mazarin and his predecessors had used. He enticed the great nobles to his court, where he heaped upon them titles, honorary positions, and financial rewards, while at the same time undermining their actual power. In Louis' court, great noblemen - whose parents had fought for the crown of France itself - fought each other for the privilege of watching Louis shave.

In person Louis was said to possess a great natural dignity and bearing. He was unfailingly courteous and usually honest, but he could dissimulate with the best of them when need-be.

During his early reign Louis's court was known for its debauchery, and Louis himself had several mistresses. As his reign progressed, however, Louis became more devout, and he even married his last mistress (although in secret). Louis also became a patron of the arts, and literature and painting flourished under his rule. He built many great buildings and palaces, including the grand palace at Versailles.

Despite France's wealth, the country remained virtually bankrupt, not only because it had to pay for all the gifts that Louis gave his favorites, but, more importantly, it had to pay for all the wars of conquest that Louis embarked upon. Although a sound and thoughtful ruler at home, Louis had a great thirst for international "glory" - which in his terms meant victory on the battlefield. He constantly fought his neighbors, often for the most trivial reasons, gaining little but glory from the wars. Though he left the army and navy in splendid condition, he left his country's treasury bare.

Unique Components[]


Made famous by the swashbuckling tales of Alexandre Dumas, the Musketeers were elite French soldiers armed with sword and musket. Created in 1622 as a "junior unit" in the Royal Guard, the Musketeers of the Guard were open to the lower ranks of the French aristocracy, while the more prestigious guard units were reserved for the higher classes. The Musketeers had a reputation for fighting spirit and swagger and were much admired in Paris and the country at large. They were disbanded at the end of the eighteenth century.


A chateau is a manor house or country home of gentry, usually without fortifications. In the Middle Ages, a chateau was largely self-sufficient, being supported by the lord's demesne (hereditary lands). In the 1600s, the wealthy and aristocratic French lords dotted the countryside with elegant, luxuriant, architecturally refined mansions such as the Chateau de Maisons. Today, the term chateau is loosely used; for instance, it is common for any winery or inn, no matter how humble, to prefix its name with "Chateau."