Historical Profile of France

old map of France
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France is a country in Western Europe that is roughly hexagonal in shape. It has existed as a country for a little over a thousand years and has managed to fill those years with some of the most important events in European history.

It is bordered by the English Channel to the north, Luxembourg and Belgium to the northeast, Germany and Switzerland to the east, Italy to the southeast, the Mediterranean to the south, southwest by Andorra and Spain and west by the Atlantic Ocean. It is currently a democracy, with a president and prime minister at the top of government.

Historical Summary of France

The country of France emerged from the fragmentation of the larger Carolingian empire, when Hugh Capet became King of West Francia in 987. This kingdom consolidated power and expanded territorially, becoming known as “France.” Early wars were fought over land with English monarchs, including the Hundred Years War, then against the Habsburgs, especially after the latter inherited Spain and appeared to surround France. At one point France was closely associated with the Avignon Papacy, and experienced wars of religion after the Reformation between a twisting combination of Catholic and Protestant. French royal power reached its peak with the reign of Louis XIV (1642–1715), known as the Sun King, and French culture dominated Europe.

Royal power collapsed fairly quickly after the financial excesses of Louis XIV and within a century France experienced the French Revolution, which began in 1789, overthrew the still-lavish spending Louis XVI (1754–1793) and established a republic. France now found itself fighting wars and exporting its world-changing events across Europe.

The French Revolution was soon eclipsed by the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), and the ensuing Napoleonic Wars saw France first militarily dominate Europe, then be defeated. The monarchy was restored, but instability followed and a second republic, second empire and third republic followed in the nineteenth century. The early twentieth century was marked by two German invasions, in 1914 and 1940, and a return to a democratic republic after liberation. France is currently in its Fifth Republic, established in 1959 during upheavals in society. 

Key People from the History of France

  • King Louis XIV (1638–1715): Louis XIV succeeded to the French throne as a minor in 1642 and ruled until 1715; for many contemporaries, he was the only monarch they ever knew. Louis was the apogee of French absolutist rule and the pageantry and success of his reign earned him the epithet ‘The Sun King’. He has been criticised for letting other European nations grow in strength.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821): A Corsican by birth, Napoleon trained in the French army and success gained him a reputation, enabling him to get close to the political leaders of late-revolutionary France. Such was Napoleon’s prestige that he was able to seize power and transform the country into an Empire with himself at its head. He was initially successful in European wars, but was beaten and twice forced into exile by a coalition of European nations.
  • Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970): A military commander who argued for mobile warfare when France turned instead to the Maginot Line, de Gaulle became the leader of the Free French forces during the Second World War and then Prime Minister of the liberated country. After retiring he came back to politics in the late 50s to found the French Fifth Republic and create its constitution, ruling until 1969

Sources and Further Reading

  • Jones, Colin. "The Cambridge Illustrated History of France." Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Price, Roger. "A Concise History of France." 3rd ed. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
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Wilde, Robert. "Historical Profile of France." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/france-a-historical-profile-1221301. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). Historical Profile of France. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/france-a-historical-profile-1221301 Wilde, Robert. "Historical Profile of France." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/france-a-historical-profile-1221301 (accessed May 28, 2023).