This week we’ve arrived in one of Europe’s most storied countries – France. An engaging, sometimes tumultuous (but always enthralling) history makes this one of the most exciting countries anywhere in the world
- Capital (and Largest City): Paris
- Population (2015): 66,186,000 (20th)
- Total Area: 640,679 km² (42nd)
- Official Language: French
- Currency: Euro (€) (EUR)
History of France
The history of France has been told time and time again, and the wealth of major events means we can only scrape the surface. Prior to the Roman invasion of what’s now France, the land was inhabited by people known as Gauls. The Gauls formed a prosperous kingdom, even going so far as to challenge Rome from the north. Repeated incursions into Roman lands prompted pushbacks. Over the course of about a century, the Romans conquered first the southern portion of Gaul, with Julius Caesar later finishing the conquest in 52 BC.
Over the next several centuries, the Gauls mixed with the Romans, forming a culture based heavily on both. The eventual fall of Rome and the Barbarian invasions that came with it led to Gaul dividing into several weaker kingdoms ruled by a variety of different groups. One of these was the Franks. From the north of the country, the Franks pushed southwards and succeeded in conquering most of the region. The most famous ruler of all, Charlemagne, ruled over much of Western Europe in the kingdom’s zenith, eventually being crowned Emperor.
His descendants however were not as powerful, with the vast kingdom once again divided into smaller entities. One of these, West Francia (led by Charles the Bald), was approximately equal in area to what is now France. This period was also fraught with Viking invasions and powerful vassals that threatened the king’s power. The most famous of these underlings was the Duke of Normandy (also known as William the Conqueror), who went on to become the King of England.
The late Middle Ages saw France take a leading role among the Christian kingdoms, particularly when it came to the crusades. This was a period of ultra-powerful nobility, an ever-prevalent church, feudalism, and warfare. The Black Death hampered the country’s development in the 1300’s while the Hundred Years War against the English put a continual drain on both finances and manpower, though France ultimately emerged victorious (or as victorious as one can be after a 116 year conflict).
France continued in its position of power throughout the Renaissance. King Louis XIV in particular is remembered for his absolute power and opulent development of the Palace of Versailles. The French language spread across the globe as well as the country explored and colonized vast swathes of the New World – though the Seven Years War saw part of this handed over to the British.
After Louis XV’s weak rule, the American Revolution, and growing discontent with the monarchy and nobility – France found itself in the grips of its own revolution. Some of the most famous (and notorious) events in French history took place during this period – with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 often considered the beginning of the revolution. Eventually, the monarchy was abolished, Louis XVI was executed, and a republic formed. The Reign of Terror and ensuing civil war led to thousands of deaths, with only Robespierre’s downfall putting an end to it.
In 1799, the face of France changed once again when Napoleon Bonaparte seized control as First Consul (later becoming Emperor). Under Napoleon, France conquered much of continental Europe. After a failed invasion of Russia (something no army has seemed to learn from), he was defeated and exiled. Napoleon later returned but was finally defeated for good at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the monarchy was restored once again. This too wasn’t meant to last as the Second Republic was declared in 1848. Another Napoleon (the III) and Empire later, and the Republic seemed set to stay.
When World War I broke out, France was a member of the Triple Entente (allied with Russia and the UK). They were eventually victorious, though with large amounts of the fighting taking place on French soil, the cost was great. World War II brought even more suffering, with Germany conquering and occupying France in 1940. After the Allies invaded Normandy and liberated the country, France was able to reclaim what was once theirs.
The post-war period saw France coming to terms with its new position of no longer being one of the great powers. National hero Charles de Gaulle attempted to remain somewhat independent in Cold War politics, but at the cost of alienating the US and UK to a degree. This time was also important for the decolonization of French possessions around the world and greater integration in Europe. By pursuing closer relations with Germany, France helped pave the way for the eventual formation of the European Union in 1992. Today, France remains one of the world’s foremost military and economic powers, holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and continues to impact world politics a great deal.
French culture is well known and beloved not just in its home country, but around the world. Thanks to the historical power of France, it has formed the basis of many Western institutions and customs over the centuries. It is difficult to define exactly what French culture is, but there are some overarching characteristics. For instance, national identity and the country’s accomplishments are held in high esteem.
Creative works, including art, literature, and cinema, are particularly revered in France. Some of the greatest writers and thinkers have come from the country, from before, during, and after the Revolution. French art and architectural styles are prized worldwide, while the country is also home to some of the world’s most renowned museums (like the Louvre). The French film industry remains hugely important, with numerous celebrated films and famous actors produced over the last several decades.
Like much of Western Europe, France is a keen sporting nation. Soccer is the most popular sport, with both the national team and league enjoying success. The national team hosted and won the World Cup in 1998 and made the final, losing in 2006. Teams such as Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Lyon, and Monaco are well known throughout Europe, while famous players include Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini, Karim Benzema, Franck Ribéry, and Hugo Lloris. Rugby Union is also popular in the country, with France commonly competing against the British and Irish nations as well as the southern hemisphere powers. Other important events on the French sporting calendar include the French Open (tennis) and the Tour de France (cycling).
France occupies an enviable position in Western Europe, and has a great deal of geographic diversity. Temperate plains and hills dominate the north while the idyllic Mediterranean coast can be found to the south. The French Alps and Pyrenees also cover large parts of the country, adding a healthy dose of alpine climate.
Though the days of a vast Empire are over, France still maintains numerous overseas territories across the world. These include tropical climates such as Martinique as well as land in colder regions such as Saint Pierre and Miquelon off the south coast of Newfoundland.
France is home to many large cities like Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, and Nice. However, the capital Paris dwarfs all others in size with over 12 million people living in the region (making it one of Europe’s largest population centres). Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world, and is home to popular destinations and sights such as the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and many more that we don’t have room to list!
Did you know?
- Mt. Blanc, located in France, is Europe’s highest mountain
- The country’s motto is ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ – can you translate that?
- There are over 1000 types of cheese made in the country!
- The last usage of the guillotine was in 1977
- France is the most touristed country in the world
- At its height, France was the second largest colonial empire (behind Britain)
- Louis XIX was king for about 20 minutes before abdicating
- Charles de Gaulle survived 32 assassination attempts – that’s officially more than Fidel Castro
- France had their own internet known as the ‘Minitel’ in the 80’s
France has always (and will continue) to impact the world both in the political and cultural sphere – so get out there and experience it for yourself when you have a chance!
Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all here). Be sure to check out our Currency Spotlight for more information on the euro.
Stay informed. Stay Current.