A BRIEF HISTORY OF FRANCE
By Tim Lambert
Prehistoric and Ancient France
During the last ice age humans called Cro-Magnons lived in France. They dwelt in caves and they hunted animals such as mammoths and reindeer. They must have been resourceful people to survive in such a harsh climate and they also created art. The Cro-Magnons are known for the paintings they made on the walls of caves. They also carved figurines from ivory.
After the end of the ice age the hunter-gatherer lifestyle came to an end in France. The agricultural revolution began in the Middle East but farming began in France about 6,000 BC. However the changed to farming from hunting and gathering food happened gradually. It took centuries. For a long time hunting was still an important source of food.
Nevertheless by about 4,500 BC the stone age farmers had created a sophisticated society. They built impressive stone tombs and they also erected menhirs (standing stones).
The early farmers in France used stone tools but about 2,000 BC bronze was introduced into France. Then about 900 BC a people called the Celts or Gauls migrated to France. They brought iron tools and weapons with them.
At the top of Celtic society were the aristocrats. Below them were the farmers and craftsmen. Celtic craftsmen were very skilled workers in iron, bronze and gold.
Furthermore trade flourished in Gaul and the Gauls built communities known as hill forts, which could be considered the first French towns. Then about 600 BC the Greeks founded Marseilles and Gaul increasingly came into contact with the Mediterranean world.
However the Gauls were hopelessly disunited. They were divided into about 60 tribes and that made it easy for the Romans to conquer them.
First, in 121 BC, the Romans took control of part of southern France. They called it the province (In Latin provincia). Today it is called Provence. Then in 58 BC Julius Caesar began conquering the rest of Gaul. The Gauls failed to unite against him until 52 BC when a man called Vercingetorix led them. However the Gauls were crushed at the battle of Alesia and eventually they were forced to submit to Roman rule.
Afterwards the Romans built a network of roads across Gaul to enable their army to march quickly from one area to another. Then in 43 BC they made Lugdunum (Lyon) the capital of Gaul and under the Emperor Augustus many more towns were built.
Slowly the Gauls adopted the Roman way of life (at least to a certain extent). Latin became a common language. Moreover some Gauls were made Roman citizens. (Being a Roman citizen was a privilege and an advantage). Many Gauls came to fill government posts in Gaul and in 48 AD they were allowed to become Roman senators.
Christianity arrived in France as early as the first century. Christians suffered terrible persecution. In 250 AD a man named Denis was beheaded. He later became patron saint of France.
However from the mid-3rd century the Roman Empire was in decline. There was raging inflation and epidemics struck. Worse Rome imposed crushing taxes. To escape them some peasants abandoned their farms and became outlaws.
Meanwhile, in the late 3rd century some Germanic peoples raided France. The Emperor Diocletian (284-305) tried to deal with the situation by completely reforming the administration in Gaul. As a result Roman France lasted for another century.
However in December 406 AD a group of Germanic tribes entered France and settled there. The Romans were unable to stop them. Nevertheless at first the Germanic settlers accepted Roman rule. However as the Roman Empire broke down they gradually formed independent kingdoms.
The Franks Rule France
By about 500 AD a people called the Franks ruled northern France (they gave their name to France). From 481 to 511 a man called Clovis ruled them. He converted to Christianity and his people followed. Once they shared the same religion there was less difference between the Franks and the native Romano-Gallic people. Slowly the two intermarried and their cultures merged.
Clovis also issued a body of laws called Salic law and in 507 AD he made the little town of Paris his capital. (Towns in France shrank in the 5th century with the collapse of Roman rule but they did not disappear entirely).
Clovis also subdued parts of southern France. After his death in 511 at the age of 45 his descendants continued his work and by the mid-6th century the Franks ruled all of France.
However the first dynasty of Frankish kings, known as the Merovingians had little power over the outlying parts of France. Provence and Burgundy kept some autonomy. So did Brittany. (Bretons migrated from southern England to Brittany in the 5th century).
During the 7th century the Merovingian kings had less and less power. They became figureheads and were known as the do nothing kings. Increasingly it was a powerful family called the Carolingians who ruled France. They were a rich family who owned vast estates. They also held the hereditary post of 'mayor of the palace'.
More about barbarians
Finally the Carolingians overthrew the Merovingian kings and in 751 the first Carolingian king, Pepin the short, took the throne.
Pepin's son Charles Martel halted the Islamic advance into Europe at the battle of Poitiers in 732. He also defeated the Bavarians and the Saxons. His son Charlemagne carried on his work and created a great European empire. He also forced pagan Germans to 'convert' to Christianity. Finally in 800 AD the Pope crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Thus Charlemagne claimed to be the successor of the old Roman Emperors.
Charlemagne was keen to keep the church's support so he founded many monasteries and he gave gifts of land to the church. Furthermore under Charlemagne there was a revival of art and learning called the Carolingian Renaissance.
Charlemagne died in 814. His successor Louis the Pious announced that after his death the empire would be split among his sons. Louis died in 840 and after some fighting his sons made the treaty of Verdun in 843. This divided the Frankish realm into three. The western part was ruled by Charles the Bald from 838 to 877. In time it evolved into France.
However from the end of the 8th century Arabs from North Africa raided France. More serious were raids by Vikings in the 9th and 10th centuries.
The French kings were unable to stop them and they lost power to local magnates who offered protection to the local people. France began to fragment, especially in the south where the regions became steadily more independent. In the Northwest Brittany continued to be autonomous.
Eventually in 911 Charles the Simple made a treaty with the Viking Chief, Rollo. He took Normandy in return for converting to Christianity and promising loyalty to Charles.
France in the Middle Ages
That ended the Viking threat but by the time Hugh Capet became king in 987 (founding the Capetian dynasty) French kings had little power over most of France. Counts and Dukes were largely independent.
The Capetian kings directly ruled only a small area around Paris. The situation became more complicated in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy conquered England. Under the feudal system he was subordinate to the French king. Yet as king of England he was the French king's equal.
Worse the mid-12th century Henry Count of Anjou married Eleanor of Aquitaine. In 1154 he became king of England. Afterwards the kings of England controlled huge parts of France. However in 1202 the French king Philip II went to war with the English King John and he captured most of the English kings lands in France. By the time Philip died he had greatly increased the area over which the French kings directly ruled.
The process was continued by his grandson Louis IX (1226-1270) and by the late 13th century the French kings had control of most of France. However the English still controlled Aquitaine and Brittany and Burgundy were still semi-independent.
However Philip the Fair (1285-1314) gradually extended the French king's control to the east by purchase and by marriage.
Meanwhile the French economy boomed. Trade and commerce expanded and towns prospered. By the late 11th century Paris was booming.
The arts - architecture, sculpture and literature flourished in France. Learning also flourished and many universities were founded, Paris in 1150, Toulouse in 1229, Montpellier in 1289, Avignon in 1303, Orleans in 1306 and Angers in 1337.
Meanwhile the last Capetian king, Charles the Fair, died in 1328 and his cousin Philip of Valois became Philip VI. However Edward III of England claimed the throne because his mother was king Charles the Fair's sister. (Salic law did not allow him to inherit the throne through a woman). So in 1337 a long and terrible series of wars began between England and France.
The English won a naval battle at Sluys in 1340. In 1346 the English won a famous victory at Crecy with the longbow. Then in 1348 both England and France were devastated by the Black Death, which killed about one third of the population.
Nevertheless the English went on to win the battle of Poitiers in 1356 and they captured the French king John II in 1358. The English demanded a huge ransom for John. Heavy taxes had to be raised to pay for it and the discontented peasants rose in rebellion in 1358. This rebellion was called the Jacquerie and it was crushed.
The peace treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360 and France was forced to surrender much of its territory. However the peace was only temporary. War began again in 1369.
This time France was successful and by 1375 the English were driven back until they held no more than a few ports.
However in 1392 the French king Charles VI became insane. As a result different factions in France began vying for power. One faction was led by Jean sans Peur (John the Fearless), Duke of Burgundy and the king's cousin. The other faction was led by the king's brother the Duke of Orleans. However the Duke of Orleans was assassinated and in 1415 the English invaded again. They won a great victory at Agincourt in 1415.
The Duke of Burgundy was assassinated in 1419. However the Burgundians then made an alliance with the English. They recognized Henry V of England as heir to the French throne. They also forced Charles VI to give his daughter to Henry in marriage.
King Charles's son the Dauphin fled to the south leaving northern France in the hands of the English and the Burgundians. In 1422 when his father died he claimed the throne of France but he ruled only southern France.
However in 1429 the tide turned. A woman named Jeanne D'Arc (Joan of Arc) led a French revival. Joan of Arc was a very strange person. Joan claimed she heard voices. She also wore men's clothes. Joan claimed that from about the age of 13 she heard 'voices'. We are not sure what caused to hear 'voices'. Today doctors could probably treat her but in the Middle Ages medicine was very primitive. However Joan of Arc persuaded the French king to allow her to rally the troops and inspire them at the battle of Orleans in 1429. The English were besieging the town but they were driven back. However the Burgundians captured the unfortunate Joan in 1430. They handed her over to the English who burned her as a heretic in 1431.
However the French fight back continued. By 1453 the English had been driven out of all France except Calais.
The defeat of the English brought the French kings control of Aquitaine, Normandy and Burgundy. Other parts of France also came under the king's control. Provence was absorbed in 1482. In 1491 Charles VIII (1483-1498) married Anne Duchess of Brittany and the region lost its autonomy. By the end of the 15th century France was a strong, centralized kingdom.
16th Century France
During the early 16th century France became richer and the population grew rapidly. Meanwhile in 1539 the edict of Villers-Cotterets made French the language of legal and official documents instead of Latin. Nevertheless many people continued to speak languages like Breton and Occitanian rather than French.
However in the years 1494-1559 France became embroiled in a series of wars with Italy. They only ended with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis.
Meanwhile France was rocked by the Reformation. In 1523 Jean Valliere became the first Protestant martyred in France. The persecution of Protestants grew worse after 1540. Meanwhile in 1541 Calvinism, a new branch of Protestantism, sprung up in France.
Then, in 1562, a group of Protestants were massacred at Vassy by Catholics. This terrible event led to a series of religious wars in 1562-63, 1567-68, 1569-1570, 1573-74, 1576, 1577, 1579-1580 and 1585-1598.
The worst event during these wars was the St Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572. On that day as many as 3,000 Protestants were murdered in Paris by Catholics. Similar massacres took place in other French towns and perhaps another 8,000 Protestants died there.
Then in 1589 King Henry III was assassinated leaving a Protestant, Henry of Navarre heir to the throne of France. Many Catholics refused to accept Henry, however and he had to fight for his throne. Yet in 1593 he converted to Catholicism and in 1594 he entered Paris. Finally in 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes. This granted the Protestants the right to practice their religion and the right to hold certain fortified towns as security against attack.
However war was not the only problem in late 16th century France. There were also a number of poor harvests and in the 1580s and 1590s, epidemics. It was a troubled time for France.
France in the 17th century
In the 17th century the power of the French king grew and grew and by the end of the 17th century France had an absolute monarchy. Absolutism was summed up by Louis XIV when he said 'L'etat c'est moi' (I am the state).
However things did not go smoothly in France. In 1610 King Henry IV was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, Francois Ravaillac.
In 1610 Louis XIII became king. Much of his reign was dominated by Cardinal Richelieu, who became principal minister in 1624 and held power until his death in 1642.
At the beginning of the 17th century French Protestants or Huguenots held their own fortified cities. However Louis XIII was determined to absorb them completely into his realm. In 1627 the people of La Rochelle rebelled and royal forces lay siege. La Rochelle surrendered in 1628 after a long and terrible siege.
In 1618 the Thirty Years War began between several European powers. Two of the participants were Austria and Spain. Fearing France would be encircled if they grew too powerful Richelieu entered the war against them in 1635.
Eventually the war went well for France. The French won a battle against the Spanish at Rocroi in 1643 and also advanced on the eastern front.
However the war was very expensive and heavy taxes had to be raised to pay for it. As a result there were several uprisings in France. In 1636 rebellion broke out in the west. In 1639 an uprising occurred in Normandy. However the government crushed all rebellions. The war with Austria ended in 1648 but the war with Spain went on until 1659.
Meanwhile in 1643 Louis XIV became king of France. He was destined to become one of the greatest French kings and he was known as the 'sun king'.
However early in his reign rebellion broke out. Between 1648 and 1652 there were a series of uprisings called the Fronde. These uprisings were led by angry nobles, keen to protect their feudal privileges from the encroaching power of the king. However, once again the government crushed them and restored order. Ironically the end of the Fronde left Louis XIV even more powerful than before.
Then in 1661 Louis XIV decided to do without a principal minister and run things himself. However he was helped, until 1683, by a very able finance minister called Colbert.
During Louis's reign art and science flourished in France. In 1661 an Academy of Dance was founded. It was followed by an Academy of Sciences in 1666, one of Architecture in 1671 and one of Music in 1672. Then in 1682 Louis moved into a magnificent new palace at Versailles.
However Louis also involved France in many wars. They were the War of Devolution 1667-1668, the War Dutch War 1672-1678, the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713). These wars were enormously expensive and taxes had to be increased to pay for them, placing a great burden on ordinary people.
Furthermore in 1685 Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, which granted the Protestants religious toleration. As a result France lost hundreds of thousands of its most skilled people as Protestants fled abroad. Worse France suffered from famine in 1693-1694 and in 1707-1710.
Louis XIV finally died in 1715.
France in the 18th Century
The 18th century was a prosperous time for many French people. (There was some abject poverty of course but there was in any country at that time). French trade grew rapidly. So did the numbers of middle class people - those below the rich but above the poor. The population of France also rose.
It was also an age of rationalism. Rationalist thinkers such as Voltaire (1694-1778) attacked the power of the Catholic church and also traditional laws and forms of government. Between 1751 and 1772 Denis Diderot (1713-1784) edited the Encyclopedia, which encouraged rationalist thought. Meanwhile many pamphlets and booklets were written attacking the established order.
Many educated people in France were also influenced by the example of Britain. In 1726 Voltaire visited England and he wrote admiringly of it. No doubt he had an idealized view of England but at least it was ruled by parliament (even though only a small minority of men could vote). Imprisonment without trial was illegal and though there was a state church other Protestant churches were tolerated.
Meanwhile in 1756-1763 France became embroiled in the Seven Years War. it proved to a disaster. France lost Canada and its position in India.
Then in 1776 the British colonies in North America rebelled. The French were keen to assist the rebels and to get their revenge on the British. France joined the war in 1778 and played a key part in the American victory at Yorktown in 1781. Britain was forced to recognize the independence of the colonies in 1783.
The Revolt of the Nobles
The French Revolution began as a revolt of the nobles. In theory the king was an absolute monarch who could do as he pleased. However after 1774 it turned out he was not so powerful as he seemed. At first resistance to the king was led by bodies called parlements. They were not elected bodies. They were bodies of nobles who acted as royal courts. However one of their duties was to register the king's decrees. In the late 18th century the nobles who made up the parlements began to feel that their traditional feudal rights were under attack and they resisted the king by refusing to register decrees.
(Most importantly the nobility were exempt from many taxes and they jealously guarded this right).
Whenever the parlements disagreed with the king they were eventually forced to submit but they were becoming foci of resistance to the king.
In 1778 France declared war on Britain in support of the American colonists. The war was very expensive. France had to borrow heavily to pay for the war and the loans were very difficult to repay. So in 1786 the finance minister, Calonne, proposed a new tax on land (with no exemptions for the rich) and a stamp tax. Calonne feared the parlements would resist the idea so he persuaded the king to call a Council of notables to discuss the idea. Calonne hoped that if they agreed to it the parlements would not dare to resist.
However things did not go according to plan. The Assembly of Notables was not elected, its members were appointed by the king and they were almost all nobles. Yet when they met in 1787 the notables declared they had no power to accept the plans. Instead they suggested the king call the Estates-General. (This was an elected body that had not met since 1614).
The king dismissed the assembly and in June 1787 he sent the new tax measures to the Paris parlement to register. However, as feared the parlements refused to register. In August it was sent into exile but in September 1787 the king was forced to recall it.
Across France parlements continued to reject the king's schemes and clamored for the Estates-General to be called. Finally in July 1788 the king gave in. He agreed to call the Estates-General.
However the king was unlucky. The harvests of 1787 and 1788 were poor and bread (the staple food of the poor) was expensive so the people were in an ugly mood.
The French Revolution
The Estates-General had not met since 1614. It was divided into three parts. The third estate represented the ordinary people (the vast majority of the population). The second estate represented the clergy and the first estate represented the nobility. However the consent of all three estates was needed to pass a measure. So the nobles or the clergy could veto any measure passed by the third estate.
The third estate thought that was not fair as they represented the vast majority of the people. They wanted the Estates-General to vote as a single unit, with all its members put together. If a majority of all the members voted for a measure it would pass. At that time half of all the members of the Estates-General were in the third estate. So if some members of the clergy and nobility voted with them they could push through reforms.
The Estates-General met on 5 May 1789 and promptly began to argue over how they should vote. Finally the third estate lost patience and in June they declared themselves the true representatives of the people of France. On 17 June they declared themselves the National Assembly. On 19 June the clergy voted, by a narrow majority, to join them.
However the king and his advisers were alarmed. So when the deputies arrived on Saturday 20 June they found their building locked and guarded by soldiers. However the third estate refused to disperse. They met in a tennis court nearby and took an oath not to disperse until the king met their demands. On Monday 22 June the majority of the clergy joined them.
The king dithered. Then finally, on 27 June, he caved in. He ordered the three estates to join together and vote as one body His decision caused rejoicing in Paris. It seemed that the reformers had one.
However the king then ordered troops to march towards Paris. The people were alarmed and they searched for weapons to defend themselves. On the morning of 14 July 1789 they seized cannons and guns from the Invalides (a hospital for military veterans). They then surrounded a fortress and prison called the Bastille. The governor was forced to surrender. To the ordinary people the Bastille was enormously important as a symbol of royal power and arbitrary government.
The king was then advised that the army was unreliable. The soldiers might refuse to fire on the people. So Louis backed down from using force. In one stroke the king's authority evaporated.
Following the fall of the Bastille Paris was given a new city government with a man named Bailly as mayor. To preserve law and order in Paris a citizen's militia was formed. It was called the National Guard and it was led by a man named Lafayette.
A wave of unrest then swept rural France. It was known as the La Grande Peur (Great Fear). Rumors spread that the aristocrats had hired brigands to take revenge on the peasants. (At a time when people were anxious and desperate rumors spread quickly). The peasants grabbed arms to defend themselves. When the bands of brigands failed to appear the peasants turned on their masters.
The peasants had always been burdened with feudal dues to their lords. Now they seized and burned records of feudal dues. In some cases they sacked or burned buildings.
Alarmed the National Assembly decided the only way to calm the situation was to abolish feudal dues as soon as possible. On the night of 4 August 1789 the assembly voted to scrap the feudal privileges of the nobility in France.
On 26 August 1789 the Assembly voted for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It declared that all men are born free and equal. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment were outlawed. Furthermore in future all appointments to public posts would be open to everybody and would be solely on the basis of ability.
However the economic situation in France grew worse. The price of bread continued to rise and the ordinary people grew more desperate.
Meanwhile Louis ordered troops to move from the border to his palace at Versailles, near Paris, alarming the Parisians. On 5 October 1789 crowds of women gathered in Paris and seized arms and cannons. They marched to Versailles and entered a meeting of the National Assembly demanding bread. They also sent a deputation to the king who immediately gave in and accepted all the decrees previously made by the Assembly.
Meanwhile the National Guard marched out to Versailles. Their leader Lafayette, was reluctant to leave Paris unguarded but his men demanded it. When he arrived Lafayette 'requested' the king leave Versailles and come to Paris. However the crowds of ordinary people demanded it. Faced with popular uproar Louis gave in and on 6 October agreed to move to the capital.
Meanwhile the Assembly reformed local government. The old parlements were swept away and new courts were formed. From then on 83 departments replaced the old regions of France. All were run by elected councils. The old taxes were abolished and replaced by new ones.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy
The French revolution also broke the power of the Catholic Church in France. On 4 August 1789 tithes were abolished (until then people had to pay one tenth of their income to the Church). In November the Assembly voted to confiscate land belonging to the Church and pay the clergy a salary (making them state employees).
A committee of the Assembly drew up plans to reform the Church. It decided a pay scale and changed the number of bishops. From then on there would be 83, one for each department. The number of parishes was also reduced.
Furthermore in future parish priests would be elected by district assemblies. Bishops would be elected by departmental assemblies.
These new plans were ready in July 1790 and they were called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. However many of the clergy refused to co-operate and in November 1790 the Assembly voted to dismiss any clergyman who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the new constitution. Across France some clergymen did take the oath. Others refused and resigned.
Furthermore from 1790 France began to split between those who felt the revolution had gone far enough and those who wanted to go further.
Then in 1791 the king made things worse by attempting to flee France. On the night of 20 June he and his family slipped away. However the king was recognized. The royal party was stopped at Varennes. It was now obvious that the king rejected the revolution and would turn the clock back if he could. Louis alienated many people in France.
Nevertheless in September 1791 the new constitution was ready and the king accepted it. The king still kept some powers including the right to appoint and dismiss ministers. Furthermore not all men could vote. The poorest class was excluded but at the time that was normal.
In October 1791 a new assembly called the legislative assembly met. The new assembly had a 'lifetime' of two years. Every two years elections were to be held for a new one.
Unfortunately the king was given the power to veto the assembly's decrees, not permanently but for the rest of the lifetime of that particular assembly, a maximum of two years.
However the French revolution entered a new radical phase in 1792 when war began with Austria in April and with Prussia in May. However at first the war went very badly for France leading to fear and recriminations.
Moreover in the Summer of 1792 public opinion hardened against the king. At that time Paris was divided into sections with sectional assemblies. On 9 August they seized power. They joined to form the Paris Commune and they sent national guards to arrest the king. The king and his family took refuge and escaped harm. However the king's Swiss guard tried to stop the national guard and were massacred.
The Legislative Assembly then declared that the king was suspended. The Constitution of 1791 (which gave the king an important role) was now unworkable. The assembly then agreed to call elections for a new government, the National Convention, which met in September 1792.
Meanwhile on 17 August 1792 the Commune formed a tribunal to try people accused of political crimes. The first political prisoner was guillotined on 21 August.
Then, in September 1792, massacres of political prisoners took place. At that time the Prussian army was advancing into France. The Parisians were frantic and they began killing prisoners held in jails in the city. Kangaroo courts were set up and thousands of people were killed. The killings became known as the September massacres.
However on 20 August 1792 the French army halted the Prussians at Valmy.
The French revolution had now entered a new phase. The new government, the National Convention, abolished the monarchy. In December 1792 the king was put on trial. He was executed on 15 January 1793. Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine on 16 October 1793.
After the execution of the king Britain went to war with France. Increasingly desperate the French government introduced conscription in February 1793.
Meanwhile in conservative parts of France the revolution was becoming increasingly unpopular and conscription was the last straw. Finally in March 1793 the Vendee and parts of Brittany rose in revolt. However by December the uprising was crushed, with appalling bloodshed.
However as well as facing internal revolt the French government was faced with military defeat in early 1793. In April a kind of war cabinet called the Committee for Public Safety was formed.
In June there was another popular uprising in Paris. This time the National Convention was purged. The moderate members (called Girondins) were removed and the extreme revolutionaries (called Jacobins) took control. The French revolution now entered its most extreme phase.
In August the British captured Toulon. On 23 August faced with a dire military situation the government called for the mobilisation of the whole nation for war. It was called the Levee en masse.
The Terror (La Terreur)
Meanwhile in March 1793 Watch Committees were formed to monitor foreigners and other suspects. In September 1793 the committees were given much greater powers. From then on anyone who 'by their conduct, their contacts, their words or by their writings' were revealed to be 'supporters of tyranny, of federalism and or to be enemies of liberty' could be arrested. Such a catch-all phrase meant virtually anybody could be arrested and executed. In the following 9 months at least 16,000 people were executed.
Meanwhile the military tide turned. In October 1793 the French army defeated the Austrians at Wattignies. In December 1793 Captain Napoleon Bonaparte recaptured Toulon.
Many Jacobins were deists or atheists and were bitterly opposed to Christianity. In September 1793 a movement called De-Christianization began. The church was persecuted. Churches were vandalized and closed. The church of Notre-Dame was renamed the 'Temple of Reason'.
In October a new calendar was adopted. Years were no longer counted from the birth of Christ. Instead they began on 22 September 1792, the first day of the republic. The year was divided into twelve months with names taken from nature. The seven day week was replaced by a ten day one.
However the Convention now became alarmed. The members now feared for their lives, realizing that Robespierre might arrest and execute any of them. The only way to ensure their safety was to denounce Robespierre and remove him from power. This they did.
Robespierre tried to shoot himself on 27 July but he was arrested and he was sent to the guillotine on 28 July 1794.
The apparatus of terror was then dismantled. Furthermore thousands of prisoners were released.
In March 1795 many churches re-opened for worship for the first time since October 1793.
The Convention now drew up a new constitution, which was ready in August 1794. France would have a bicameral legislature. Executive power was held by a group of five called the Directory. Furthermore In October 1794 the National Guard and the sectional assemblies were abolished.
However the Directory failed to solve France's political problems and restore stability. By 1799 many people yearned for a return to stability and one man promised to provide it - Napoleon Bonaparte. He first came to the public's notice in September 1795 when he suppressed a riot in Paris with a 'whiff of grapeshot'. In 1796-97 he became a hero when he led a brilliant campaign against the Austrians in North Italy.
In 1798-1799 Napoleon fought a campaign in Egypt. Although he was successful on land the French fleet was shattered at the battle of the Nile in 1798.
In October 1799 Napoleon returned to France and in November he staged a coup. The French Revolution had ended and a new era had begun.
At first Napoleon was made 'First Consul'. There were two other consuls but Napoleon had the real power. The new constitution was accepted by the people in a referendum. At first Napoleon was made a consul for 10 years but in 1802 in another referendum the people voted that he should be made consul for life. Then in 1804 Napoleon crowned himself emperor.
Napoleon kept some of the achievements of the French Revolution. Equality before the law was preserved and careers were open to anyone of talent and ability. There was no return to a privileged nobility.
On the other hand Napoleon introduced censorship of the press and even imprisonment without trial. Napoleon also appointed prefects to run the departments and he created a strong, centralized bureaucracy.
He also reduced women's rights and reintroduced slavery to the French colonies. Napoleon also made a concordat (agreement) with the Pope in 1801. Furthermore Napoleon drew up a new code of laws to govern France. It was published in 1804 and was called the Code Napoleon.
Meanwhile Napoleon's military genius allowed him to dominate Europe. In 1799 Austria, Russia and Britain formed a coalition against France. However Russia left the coalition in 1800. Austria was defeated in 1800 and forced to make peace in 1801. Britain made peace in 1802 but was begun again in 1803.
However in 1804 Russia, Austria and Britain formed a third coalition but Austria was crushed at Austerlitz in 1805. Prussia joined the war against France in 1806 but was crushed at Jena the same year.
However the French and Spanish fleets were severely defeated at Trafalgar in October 1805 ending Napoleon's hopes of invading Britain. Despite that naval defeat by 1807 Napoleon was at his peak. However things began to wrong in 1812. Napoleon's invasion of Russia ended in disaster and in 1813 Prussia joined the war against France. Austria and Sweden also joined and the French were badly defeated at the battle of Leipzig in October 1813.
In March 1814 the allies entered Paris and Napoleon was forced to abdicate. He was exiled to Elba. However in 1815 he returned to France and was welcomed by the people. Yet he was defeated at Waterloo in June and forced to abdicate again. This time Napoleon was exiled to the island of St Helena. He died in 1821.
Napoleon was replaced by Louis XVII's brother Louis XVIII. (Louis XVI's son died in 1795 but royalists insisted he became Louis XVII after his father's death in 1793). However Louis XVIII realized he could not turn the clock back completely so he allowed France a constitution.
Louis XVIII also tried to restrain those who wanted to completely undo the revolution (they were called Ultra royalists). However they gained influence after the Duc de Berry was assassinated in 1820.
When Louis XVIII died in 1824 his brother Charles X became king. Charles claimed to rule by divine right and had no intention of compromising with the liberals. Not surprisingly therefore, he provoked an uprising in 1830 and he was forced to abdicate.
However the French were afraid of creating a republic because the other European powers would have been hostile and might have taken military action.
Instead the Duc D'Orleans was made King Louis Philippe. He reigned for 18 years. Under him the French constitution was made more liberal. More men were allowed the vote (but only the middle classes the workers were still excluded).
Meanwhile Under Charles X the French had invaded Algeria. Under Louis Philippe the conquest continued but it took many years.
At home the industrial revolution began to change France. However industrialization was slower than in other countries like Britain and Germany and France remained a mainly agricultural country. Nevertheless by 1848 there were a considerable number of urban workers in certain cities. They lived and worked in dreadful conditions and in the mid-19th century they were influenced by socialists thinkers.
The July monarchy, as it was called, was really only a stopgap measure. In 1846-47 France suffered an economic crisis and popular discontent seethed.
Finally in February 1848 a demonstration was held in Paris. Soldiers fired on the demonstrators and triggered a revolution. Louis Philippe abdicated and fled.
The Second Republic in France
To reduce popular discontent the provisional government created national workshops in Paris for the unemployed (some unemployed workers from the provinces came to work in them). However the workers were dissatisfied and they still held demonstrations. In June 1848 the government decided to close the workshops and they ordered the workers to disperse. However the workers refused and they manned barricades in Paris. Eventually government troops crushed the uprising known as the June Days.
Then, in November 1848 the new constitution was published. All men were allowed to vote and there was to be a single elected assembly and a popularly elected president. In December 1848 Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte was elected president.
However the constitution did not allow the president to serve a second term. Therefore on 2 December 1851 Napoleon led a coup. A referendum was held and the people agreed to allow the president to change the constitution. He did so and in December 1852 he made himself Emperor Napoleon III. (This was because Louis XVI was executed in 1793 and his son was never crowned. He died in 1795. However when the monarchy was restored in 1814 royalists insisted that Louis XVI's son had been Louis XVII even though he never ruled France. So the next Bourbon king was named Louis XVIII. Napoleon Bonaparte had a son who never ruled France and who died young. Following the royalist myth Louis Napoleon insisted that he had been Napoleon II and he called himself Napoleon III).
Napoleon III was responsible for largely rebuilding Paris. Many wide boulevards were built during his reign. Furthermore new sewers made Paris a healthier city. The building work also provided employment for many of the masses.
Meanwhile industrialization continued in France. During Napoleon's time many more railways were built and new banks were founded.
However Napoleon had a disastrous foreign policy. In 1854 he went to war with Russia (The Crimean War). Although the war ended successfully in 1856 France gained nothing. Then, in 1859 he fought a war with Austria. Again the war was successful but France gained little (only Savoy and Nice).
Furthermore in 1862 France joined Britain and Spain in sending an expedition to collect debt from Mexico. Spain and Britain withdrew but Napoleon foolishly tried to make Maximilian, a prince of Austria, emperor of Mexico. The Mexicans rebelled and in 1865 Napoleon was forced to withdraw his troops. Maximilian was shot.
Realizing he was losing popularity after 1867 Napoleon made his regime more liberal. He relaxed press censorship and restrictions on public meetings. Workers were given the right to strike.
However in 1870 Napoleon went to war with Prussia. The French were utterly defeated at Sedan in September. Napoleon was captured and abdicated. He later fled abroad.
A provisional government was formed led by Adolphe Thiers. Meanwhile the Germans surrounded Paris and the inhabitants were reduced to virtual starvation. Finally on 28 January 1871 Paris surrendered. By the peace treaty France lost Alsace-Lorraine. She also had to pay an indemnity and German troops were stationed in northern France until it was paid.
Shortly after the surrender of Paris a National Assembly took control of the government. It met at Versailles. However the Parisians were outraged by the peace treaty and they rebelled. The Parisians formed their own municipal government called the commune. Thiers was determined to crush the revolt and on 21 May 1871 he sent in the army. While the Germans watched French soldiers took the city street by street with great loss of life.
Afterwards Thiers was named president and he quickly managed to pay the indemnity demanded by Germany. The last German soldiers left France in September 1873.
Meanwhile in 1873 Thiers was replaced by Marshal MacMahon, a monarchist. Nevertheless in 1875 the National Assembly established the Third Republic by one vote.
The Third Republic in France
In the late 19th century industrialization in France continued. Iron and chemical industries grew rapidly and in the early 20th century car making became an important industry. Meanwhile more railways were built.
In the late 19th century living standards for ordinary French people improved and their diet became better. In 1900 a law was passed limiting women and children to working no more than 10 hours a day.
However on 15 October 1894 Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who worked in the intelligence section of the General Staff of the French army was arrested for treason. He was accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island.
However Dreyfus was Jewish and he was a victim of anti-Semitism. He was also an Alsatian and was seen as an outsider. He was completely innocent of the charge.
After two years a man named Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart uncovered evidence that the real culprit was a Major Walsin Esterhazy. However the army transferred Picquart to Tunisia and a military court acquitted Esterhazy, despite the evidence.
Then the novelist Emile Zola published an article in a newspaper, which was called J'accuse! (I accuse) in which he denounced the army cover up. The case then split France with the right ring and the leaders of the Catholic Church against Dreyfus and the left wing for him.
In 1899 Dreyfus was given a new court-martial but again he was found guilty! Nevertheless the president pardoned Dreyfus and he returned to France. Poor Dreyfus had to wait until 1906 before he was cleared of all blame.
France in the 20th Century
Also in 1906 a law was passed separating Church from state.
Then in 1914 France was plunged into the First World War. About 1.3 million French soldiers died in the war. Nearly a million men were left disabled. The war also caused great damage to the French economy. Many buildings were destroyed and many domestic animals were killed. Furthermore the French government was left heavily in debt.
However in the early 1920s the French economy recovered. By 1924 industrial production had reached its 1914 level and by 1929 it had risen to a level 40% above that. Many foreigners such as Poles, Italians, and Spaniards came to work in France.
However in 1929 the Wall Street Crash triggered a worldwide depression. It took a long time to reach France but the economy began to slump in 1932.
Then, in the mid-1930s the communists formed a common front with the socialists. It was called the Popular Front and it won the 1936 election. However following the election there was a wave of strikes and factory sit-ins. So the main employers got together and made concessions. They made the Matignon Agreement with Leon Blum, leader of the Popular Front. By it wages were raised 10% and a 40-hour week was introduced. Workers were granted 2 weeks paid holiday. However the French economy was still depressed and unemployment remained high.
France in the Second World War
The Second World War began on 3 September 1939 when France declared war on Germany.
On 10 May 1940 the Germans attacked neutral Holland and Belgium. The British and French rushed armies into Belgium to stop them. However German tanks drove through the Ardennes Forest in northeast France. They then drove to the coast, cutting off the allied troops.
The British army and 140,000 French troops were evacuated by sea. However the Germans now advanced into France. Panic-stricken millions of French civilians fled before them. France surrendered on 22 June 1940.
The Germans imposed harsh terms. North and eastern France were occupied by the Germans and the French army was limited to 100,000 men. Then on 10 July 1940 the French assembly granted Petain dictatorial powers. He became head of a new fascist state in southern France, based in Vichy. The Vichy regime soon began to persecute Jews. However the regime was short lived. The Germans occupied southern France in November 1942.
Furthermore the Germans drained France of its resources. Hundreds of thousands of Frenchmen were forced to go and work in Germany. The Germans also took much of French industry's goods and they took much of French agriculture's produce. As a result there was widespread malnutrition in France.
Meanwhile resistance groups formed in France while in England Charles de Gaulle became leader of the French forces still fighting the Germans.
Then in the summer of 1944 the allies liberated France and de Gaulle became provisional president. However he soon quarreled with a newly elected assembly and he resigned in January 1946.
A new constitution was drawn up in 1947. However from the start de Gaulle opposed the new constitution. As he feared it produced a series of weak governments. However in the late 1940s France quickly recovered from the war. By 1951 French industrial production had reached its pre-war level.
Then in the 1950s France had trouble with its colonies. In the late 19th century France built up an empire in Southeast Asia. However after 1945 Vietnam fought for independence. In 1954 the Communists won a great victory at Dien Bien Phu and the French were forced to withdraw.
France also split over the issue of Algerian independence. Then on 13 May 1958 French colonists in Algeria seized power and France was threatened with civil war. At the moment of crisis, on 1 June 1958 the National Assembly voted to give de Gaulle emergency powers for 6 months. The Fourth Republic came to an end.
The Fifth Republic in France
De Gaulle called a referendum for a revised constitution in September 1958. The French voted overwhelmingly in favor. De Gaulle gave himself, as president, greatly increased powers.
Then in 1959 de Gaulle entered into negotiations with the FLN in Algeria. However in 1961 French colonists in Algeria formed the OASC (Organisation Armee Secrete) to fight against independence. Attempts were made to assassinate de Gaulle but in July 1962 Algeria voted for independence.
De Gaulle was re-elected in 1965 but only by a very narrow majority. However in May 1968 France exploded. It began as a protest among students at the university of Nanterre. The protests soon spread to the Sorbonne. Workers also joined the protests. On 10 May the riot police attacked demonstrators and in response the trade unions called a general strike. Protests also spread across France.
However the Communist Party continued to support de Gaulle. Furthermore the prime minister Georges Pompidou defused working class anger by offering wage rises. Finally de Gaulle called an election and there was a right wing backlash. The right took control of the French assembly and the crisis fizzled out.
However de Gaulle resigned in 1969. He died in 1970.
De Gaulle was replaced by Georges Pompidou. He was re-elected in 1972 but died soon afterwards. He was succeeded by Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
Although the French economy boomed during the 1960s in the 1970s inflation and unemployment rose.
In 1981 Francois Mitterrand was elected president. Mitterrand was a socialist and under him the welfare state was enlarged and working hours were reduced. However the dream soon turned sour. The French were forced to devalue the France several times in the early 1980s and both inflation and unemployment rose.
Mitterrand changed course and introduced wage freezes and cut public spending. By 1986 inflation had fallen and unemployment, though high was stable. Mitterrand was re-elected in 1988. In 1995 he was replaced by Jacques Chirac. Meanwhile in 1999 France joined the Euro.
France in the 21st Century
Today France is prosperous although unemployment stood at 9% in 2017. The tourist industry is thriving. Today the population of France is 67 million.
A Timeline of France
A Brief History of Spain
A Brief History of Italy
A Brief History of Belgium
A Brief History of Switzerland
A Brief History of Paris
A Brief History of Germany
Last revised 2018