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France - History

It is by no means easy to date France's birth as a nation. Was it 496 AD, when King Clovis converted to Christianity, or 987, the coronation of Hugh Capet, founder of the Capetian dynasty which was to reign for nine hundred years, or 1789, the year of the Revolution in which France declared itself to be a nation, as well as a State? Neither historians nor ordinary citizens seem able to agree; and France as a nation has recently celebrated all three occasions - the 1,500th anniversary of Clovis' conversion to Catholicism, the 1,000th anniversary of Hugh Capet's coronation and the bicentenary of the Revolution. The wealth of possible "dates of birth" shows, at any rate, that France, like any living entity, developed gradually and absorbed many different influences into its identity.

True, the France inherited from antiquity and the Middle Ages bore little resemblance to the France we know today and, in the late fifteenth century, the Capetian kingdom was more like a fragmented archipelago than today's metropolitan France. But these long evolutionary phases were essential in that they wove the fabric of the French nation and laid the foundations of France's territorial structure, by determining the sites of most of our towns and communication links. These focal points and axes were to knit the territory together and shape France geographically through wars, annexations, cessions of territory, inheritances and marriages. Some phases were vital to this long process of development - one thinks of the period of Roman domination, which left Gaul fine-meshed with towns and road-links and sowed the seeds of linguistic unity by spreading the use of Latin, or the medieval expansion which saw the rebirth of towns, mushrooming of villages and an increase in contacts with other communities from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries.

It should not be forgotten that during this slow emergence France was host to many different peoples. The prehistoric settlements we know about from the many sites they left behind them were added to by Celtic invaders, then Mediterranean peoples like the Greeks and Romans, warrior nomads from the Steppes such as the Huns, Germanic and Nordic peoples such as the Vandals, Swabians, Burgundians, Alemannians, Visigoths and Franks, and later the Arabs and Vikings. These peoples sometimes determined the core population in certain areas, but most of all, they mixed and intermarried in the melting-pot in which France was cast. It was in this period, too, under the Capetians, that the territory of France was gradually established and the institutions and administrative structures which govern and organize it today were first set up. The choice of Paris as the capital was crucial: the territory and the nascent State were able gradually to unite France around the focal point of the capital.

France was one of the earliest countries to progress from feudalism to the nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded themselves with capable ministers, and French armies were among the most innovative, disciplined, and professional of their day. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military campaigns of Louis and his successors led to chronic financial problems in the 18th Century.

Deteriorating economic conditions and popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics were among the principal causes of the French Revolution (1789-94). Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times--the Empire of Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III. After the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic was established and lasted until the military defeat of 1940.

World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the Maginot Line) and alliances to offset resurgent German strength. France was defeated early in World War II, however, and was occupied in June 1940. That July, the country was divided into two: one section being ruled directly by the Germans, and a second controlled by the French ("Vichy" France) and which the Germans did not occupy. German and Italian forces occupied all of France, including the "Vichy" zone, following the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. The "Vichy" government largely acquiesced to German plans, namely in the plunder of French resources and the forceful deportations of tens of thousands of French Jews living in France to concentration camps across Europe, and was even more completely under German control following the German military occupation of November 1942. Economically, a full one-half of France's public sector revenue was appropriated by Germany. After 4 years of occupation and strife in France, Allied forces liberated the country in 1944.

France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and established as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. French military involvement in both Indochina and Algeria combined with the mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government.

Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure collapsed as a result of the tremendous opposing pressures generated by four years of war with Algeria. A threatened coup led the Parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the government and prevent civil war. Marking the beginning of the Fifth Republic, he became prime minister in June 1958 and was elected president in December of that year. The Algerian conflict also spurred decades of increased immigration from the Maghreb states, changing the composition of French society.

Seven years later, for the first time in the 20th Century, the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by direct ballot. De Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote, defeating Francois Mitterrand. In April 1969, President de Gaulle's government conducted a national referendum on the creation of 21 regions with limited political powers. The government's proposals were defeated, and de Gaulle subsequently resigned. Succeeding him as president of France have been Gaullist Georges Pompidou (1969-74), Independent Republican Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81), Socialist Francois Mitterrand (1981-95), neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (1995-2007), and center-right Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-present).

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:21 ZULU