France - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about France: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



France, major industrialized nation in western Europe. France is the third largest country in Europe, after Russia and Ukraine, and the fourth most populous. Officially the French Republic (République Française), the nation includes ten overseas possessions, most of them remnants of France’s former colonial empire. Paris is the nation’s capital and largest city.

Roughly hexagonal in shape, France shares boundaries with Belgium and Luxembourg to the northeast; Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to the east; and Spain and Andorra to the southwest. In the northwest, France is bounded by the English Channel. At the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the channel, France and England are separated by just 34 km (21 mi). France faces three major seas: the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the North Sea to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the southeast.

France is a nation of varied landscapes, ranging from coastal lowlands and broad plains in the north, to hilly uplands in south central France, to lush valleys and towering, snow-capped Alps in the east. Mountainous and hilly areas lie on nearly all of France’s borders, creating a series of natural boundaries for the country. Only the nation’s northeastern border is largely unprotected. Several major rivers drain France, including the Seine, Loire, Garonne, and Rhône.

France is highly urbanized. About three-quarters of the population lives in cities, including nearly 10 million people in the metropolitan area of Paris, the most densely populated region in France. The French are among the healthiest, wealthiest, and best-educated people in the world. A comprehensive social welfare system is in place, guaranteeing all citizens a minimal standard of living and health care. Most citizens speak French, the principal language. The dominant religion is Roman Catholicism.

French culture, especially French art and literature, has profoundly influenced the Western world. Paris, one of the world’s great intellectual capitals, has been at the center of Western cultural life since the Middle Ages. World-renowned French cultural figures include philosophers, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, composers, playwrights, and film directors. French literary and artistic contributions during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment deeply influenced the path of Western cultural development. Impressionism, an innovative painting movement in the late 19th century, originated in France. During the 20th century, French writers and artists were at the center of movements such as dada, surrealism, existentialism, and the theater of the absurd. France has a long reputation for excellence in cuisine, and French fashion styles are imitated throughout the world.

The economy of France is large, diverse, and one of the most highly developed in the European Union (EU). It is a leading manufacturing nation, producing goods such as automobiles, electrical equipment, machine tools, and chemicals. France is the EU’s most important agricultural nation—shipping cereals, wine, cheese, and other agricultural products to the rest of Europe and the world. In recent decades service industries, including banking, retail and wholesale trade, communications, health care, and tourism, have come to dominate the French economy.

France is one of the oldest states in the Western world and its history is rich and varied. Little is known of France’s earliest inhabitants. Cave paintings in southwestern France dated to about 15,000 BC reveal the existence of a sophisticated and creative people (see Paleolithic Art). By the 8th century BC hordes of Celts, among other tribes, began entering and settling in France. A Celtic word, Gaul, was a name used in antiquity for the region of France. The ancient Romans incorporated France in the 1st century BC and ruled the region until the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century AD.

After the fall of Rome, a series of royal dynasties ruled much of what would become France. Royal power declined in the Middle Ages with the spread of feudalism, which distributed power among local rulers. From the 14th to 18th century the power of the monarchy grew steadily as French kings and their ministers built a centralized bureaucracy and a large standing army. The French Revolution in 1789 toppled the monarchy, ushering in decades of political instability. Despite this turmoil, the revolution, and the subsequent rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, established a uniform administrative state in France.

French strength and prosperity grew during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and France built a worldwide colonial empire rivaling that of the United Kingdom. Much of World War I (1914-1918) was fought on French soil, and the nation suffered heavy losses. During World War II (1939-1945), Germany occupied northern France while a collaborationist regime was established at Vichy in central France. After the war France rebuilt its shattered economy and emerged as one of the world’s major industrial countries. Growing resistance to French rule in the colonies increased in the postwar period, triggering a wave of decolonization that stripped France of most of its overseas possessions.

In 1958 an uprising in Algeria, then a French colony, threatened France with civil war. The French government surrendered dictatorial power to Charles de Gaulle, a resistance leader during World War II, and invited de Gaulle to form a new government. French voters approved a new constitution by popular referendum that strengthened the powers of the presidency, and de Gaulle became the new government’s first president. De Gaulle viewed France as a great power, and he followed an independent stance in foreign affairs, a policy that helped boost France’s international influence. In recent decades, France, working closely with Germany, has played a leading role in the move toward greater European economic and political integration.


The total area of France is 543,965 sq km (210,026 sq mi), including inland waters. The Mediterranean isle of Corsica is considered part of the total area of metropolitan France. France has an extreme length from north to south of about 965 km (600 mi) and maximum width from east to west of about 935 km (580 mi). The country spans the breadth of the European peninsula, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, and stretches from the coastal lowlands of the Great European Plain to the Alps.

Natural Regions in France

France has three distinctive types of surface features—rolling plains, uplands, and high mountains. Nearly two-thirds of France consists of lands that are less than 250 m (820 ft) above sea level in elevation. Despite the existence of several uplands in the French interior, there is relatively easy access from lowland to lowland. Most of the high mountains are located on France’s borders.

Plains in France

The north and west of France are dominated by segments of the Great European Plain, a vast lowland. This plain includes the Basin of Aquitaine in the southwest, which stretches from the foothills of the Pyrenees, near the border with Spain, to west central France. The basin narrows midway up the coast where it meets the expansive Paris Basin in north central France, the nation’s heartland. Here the landscape consists mainly of plains separated by low plateaus. The plateaus typically rise in a series of concentric, outward-facing escarpments (cliffs). The escarpments resemble saucers of progressively smaller size stacked atop one another, with the city of Paris in the middle of the smallest, central saucer. These escarpments, particularly those facing east, have been the sites of many battles, as France defended itself against invasions.

In both the Paris and Aquitaine basins, fertile soils derived from limestone and wind-deposited dust, called loess, have supported prosperous agriculture since ancient times. Other lowlands in France are scattered and relatively small. They include the Alsace Plain in the east, bordering Germany, the valley of the Rhône River in the southeast, and the Languedoc Plain along the Mediterranean coast.

Uplands in France

France contains several regions of uplands, the worn down remains of ancient mountain systems. The largest of these is the vast plateau of the Massif Central, in south central France. A region of rounded hills, the Massif Central has abundant extinct volcanoes, remnants of the powerful geologic pressures that uplifted the region. Deep river gorges cut many parts of the Massif Central. The steepest areas of the region are to the east, nearest the Alps. To the west and north the Massif Central gradually descends to meet the Aquitaine and Paris basins.

The Armorican Massif in the far northwest forms the peninsula of Brittany, a landform that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. Less elevated than the Massif Central, the Armorican Massif is still deeply scored by stream valleys and has comparatively little level land. Steep slopes and poor soils restrict agriculture in much of the region. Other uplands include the Vosges and Ardennes mountain ranges in the northeast, where rounded and wooded hills rise above deep valleys.

Mountains in France

Imposing mountains form the southeastern and southwestern borders of France. These mountains, created by the ongoing collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, are younger than the eroded mountain systems of the French interior (see Plate Tectonics).

The high, rugged mountains of the Alps border southeastern France. Mont Blanc, in the French Alps, is one of the highest points in Europe at 4,807 m (15,771 ft). Rivers carved deep valleys in the Alps, and Ice Age glaciers gouged the valleys wider and deeper. These broad valleys offer a number of low passes that permit relatively easy travel through the mountains.

The Pyrenees, a mountain range of fairly uniform height, lie along the border with Spain. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is Pic de Vignemale, at 3,298 m (10,820 ft). The Pyrenees were not heavily glaciated during the Ice Age and are devoid of the large lakes, pleasant valleys, and serrated ridges characteristic of the Alps. Their high, difficult, and infrequent passes establish a true barrier and have historically served to limit traffic between France and Spain.

The Jura Mountains form the boundary with Switzerland to the east. Although less rugged than the Alps, the Jura Mountains were created at the same time and are related geologically to the Alps.

Rivers of France

France has several major rivers. The Seine, in northern France, drains much of the Paris Basin and flows northwest into the Atlantic Ocean. The Seine’s even flow is well suited to navigation, and the river is an important water route to and from Paris. The Loire rises in the Massif Central, flows west across the southern portion of the Paris Basin, and enters the Atlantic Ocean at the Bay of Biscay. The Loire’s water level fluctuates greatly, and floods are frequent. Stretching more than 1,000 km (620 mi), the Loire is the longest river in France. The Garonne rises in the Pyrenees and flows north, draining much of the Aquitane Basin. The Dordogne rises in the Massif Central and flows west, joining the Garonne to form the Gironde estuary, just before the Atlantic. These four great rivers all lie entirely within French territory.

Major rivers with some sources outside of France include the Rhône, the great river of the Mediterranean region of France. The Rhône rises in Switzerland, joins the Saône at Lyon, and crosses the Languedoc Plain en route to the Mediterranean Sea. Draining the French Alps region, the Rhône is the largest river in France measured in terms of volume of discharge. The Rhine, which is one of the world’s most important inland waterways, rises in the Swiss Alps and flows northwest, forming part of France’s eastern boundary. The river then travels through Germany and the Netherlands before entering the North Sea. The Meuse traverses northeastern France and passes through Belgium and the Netherlands before also emptying into the North Sea.

An extensive network of canals connects the major rivers with each other and with other river and canal systems. Nearly all of France’s more than 200 streams are commercially navigable for varying distances. France has only a few lakes. Lake Geneva (also known as Lake Leman), situated along the Franco-Swiss border, lies mainly in Switzerland.

Coastline of France

The coastline of mainland France, about 3,430-km (2,130-mi) long, is highly varied. A marshy lowland prevails along the northern coast, and many areas must be artificially drained. Moving west, along the English Channel, these lowlands give way to the cliffs of Normandy and then to the rugged, ragged coast of Brittany. Stretching south of Brittany, a low, sandy coast meets the Atlantic Ocean.

The Mediterranean coast is equally varied. In the Riviera district to the east, the Maritime Alps plunge abruptly into the sea, forming one of the most scenic areas of Europe. West of the Riviera, the coastline gives way to the large, marshy delta of the Rhône. West of the Rhône delta, a coastal lowland dotted with wetlands stretches all the way to the Pyrenees.

The French coast has relatively few natural harbors. The northern coast, along the English Channel and the North Sea, is broken by a number of promontories, river estuaries, and minor indentations, few of which provide safe anchorages. The harbor at Le Havre, at the mouth of the Seine, is the one outstanding exception. A number of harbors in the north have been formed by the construction of breakwaters, including the seaport at Cherbourg. Along the Atlantic coast, important harbors are at Brest, Lorient, and Saint-Nazaire. The best natural harbors in France are on the Mediterranean and include the harbors of Marseille, Toulon, and Nice.

Plant and Animal Life in France

France’s generally mild climate, ample rainfall, variety of elevations, and long growing season, offer habitat for many species of plants and animals. Centuries of human settlement have profoundly altered the land and greatly reduced the number and diversity of indigenous species. Conservation efforts in recent decades have helped protect important undeveloped areas that remain.

The natural vegetation of France is closely related to climatic conditions. In the mountains, the highest elevations near the snow line consist of expanses of bare rock with only a few varieties of moss and lichen growing in sheltered areas. Farther down the mountainside, but still above the timberline, alpine pastures provide good grazing for sheep and cattle during the summer months. Below the tree line the higher forests are composed of coniferous species such as pine, larch, fir, and spruce.

Below the coniferous forest is a deciduous forest of oak, beech, and chestnut. Only tiny remnants of the great forest that once covered the plains and lower mountain slopes of France remain. Most of the lowlands of France are now in farmland, and forests are restricted to areas of poorer soil. Yet the lowlands of France are not treeless; lines of stately trees border many highways and canals, and in the hedgerow country of Normandy and Brittany virtually every tiny plot of ground is enclosed by an embankment planted with bushes or trees.

Expanses of an evergreen shrub, called maquis, prevail along much of the Mediterranean coast, where summers are generally long, hot, and dry (see Shrub Land). The Mediterranean region once supported open forests of live oaks and grasses. This native vegetation was destroyed by centuries of overgrazing, burning, and woodcutting. Many areas have been reduced to expanses of bare ground. The most common trees found in the Mediterranean region are the olive, the cork oak, and the Aleppo pine.

The destruction of France’s native woodlands led to a sharp decline of native animals, a process that continues to the present day. Few specimens of the larger mammals remain in France; the most common of these include species of deer and fox. Red deer and roe deer are still hunted, as are wild boar, which survive in remote forest areas. The rare chamois, a type of goat, is found in the Alps and in the Pyrenees. Among the smaller animals found in the region are the porcupine, skunk, marmot, and marten. Endangered species include beaver, otter, and badger. A small population of brown bears and lynx survive high in the Pyrenees.

France has an abundance of bird life. Many species of migrating birds, including ducks, geese, and thrushes, spend their winters in France. The Mediterranean region is home to various exotic bird species, including the flamingo, bee-eater, egret, heron, and black-winged stilt. Reptiles are rare, and the only venomous reptile in France is the adder.

Natural Resources of France

France is richly endowed with agricultural resources. The fertile soils of its basins and plains have supported a robust farming culture since antiquity. Today, France is the largest exporter of agricultural goods in the European Union (EU). The French landscape, most of which receives abundant precipitation, also supports a thriving timber industry. Today, about one-quarter of France is forested, and commercial tree farms constitute a significant share of this total.

France is not exceptionally rich in natural mineral resources. The coal deposits of northern France and the iron ore deposits in the east were important to the nation’s early industrialization. However, France’s coal deposits have largely been depleted, and the low quality of French iron ore has lead to a sharp decline in domestic production. Deposits of petroleum and natural gas are small and largely tapped. Today, France imports iron ore along with most other minerals important in industrial production. However, France remains a significant producer of uranium, a fuel used in nuclear reactors, and bauxite, from which aluminum is made.

Climate in France

The climate of France is generally temperate with three major variations: oceanic, continental, and Mediterranean. The climate of any particular region of the country is largely determined by the dominant of these three influences in the region, although elevation and other local conditions are also important. In general, the climate of France is well suited to agriculture.

The oceanic climate prevails throughout much of the country, especially in the north and west, where westerly winds from the Atlantic Ocean bring mild and moist conditions. These winds, charged with moisture, produce cool summers, mild winters, and year-round rainfall. The rain usually comes in the form of a slow, steady drizzle. Overcast skies are common, but snow and frost are rare. Paris, for example, receives 650 mm (26 in) of precipitation annually, with rain occurring an average of 188 days each year. The average daily temperature range in Paris is 1° to 6°C (34° to 40°F) in January and 13° to 24°C (55° to 75°F) in July. The oceanic climate fully dominates the west coast. Brest, in Brittany, has an average January temperature range of 4º to 9ºC (39° to 47°F) and an average July temperature range of 12º to 19ºC (54° to 67°F).

The continental climate has a pronounced influence in northeastern France. Winds and air masses coming from the east, over the great Eurasian landmass, bring little moisture and more extreme temperatures. In winter these air masses bring cold weather, and in summer they bring heat. The eastern city of Strasbourg, for example, has an average January temperature range of -2º to 3ºC (28º to 38ºF). In the course of an average winter the temperature in Strasbourg is below freezing for 80 days, and on at least 20 days snow is recorded. But the summers in Strasbourg, which average 13º to 25ºC (56º to 77ºF), are hot and often oppressive, with heavy precipitation during summer thundershowers.

The Mediterranean climate holds sway over regions of southern France, with the strongest influence felt in areas lying within 160 km (100 mi) of the sea. Winters are mild and moist, although much of the precipitation comes in short showers. Summers are hot and rainless. The Mediterranean city of Marseille, for instance, has an average daily temperature of 2° to 10°C (35° to 50°F) in January and 17° to 29°C (63° to 84°F) in July. Average precipitation in Marseille is 550 mm (22 in) annually, with rain occurring an average of 95 days a year. Occasionally, a cold, dry wind, called a mistral, blows down from the north, through the narrow Rhône-Saône trench valley, and out onto the Languedoc Plain. The mistral is strongest and most frequent in the winter and spring and can temporarily bring chilly temperatures to the Mediterranean shore.

Severe climates are found only in the mountains. High in the French Alps and Pyrenees, winters are long and snowy, sufficient to support ski resorts. In several places in the Alps, remnant glaciers survive.

Conservation in France

For centuries the French devoted few resources to the protection and conservation of the environment. Like most of the world’s peoples, they have focused mainly on economic development of national lands and waters. A conservation movement arose in France in the 19th century, as environmental problems associated with industrialization accumulated. However, the movement did not gain broader popular support until the end of World War II (1939-1945). Rapid industrial expansion, urbanization, and the proliferation of automobiles further degraded the environment, leaving the nation’s air and water supplies severely polluted, and its remaining forests and wild animals threatened.

Since the early 1960s, France has undertaken a variety of initiatives to conserve and protect its environment. A cornerstone of this effort was the creation of a system of parks and reserves. Today, about 10 percent of the French national territory enjoys some type of protected status. This includes national parks, regional nature parks, and smaller nature reserves. In addition, numerous measures are in place to reduce air pollution, water pollution, and soil erosion.


The population of France is 64,420,073 (2009 estimate). It is the fourth most populous nation in Europe, after Russia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. France is western Europe’s largest nation in total area and is sparsely populated by European standards, with an average population density of 101 persons per sq km (261 per sq mi). The population is distributed unevenly within France. The most crowded area is Paris in north central France and the surrounding urban region. The region of Limousin in the hill lands of central France and the mountainous Mediterranean isle of Corsica have the sparsest settlement. France is overwhelmingly urban: Three of every four people live in cities and towns.

France’s annual rate of population growth of 0.55 percent is low compared to most of the world. In 1800 France was the most populous nation in western Europe. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the birth rate in France declined relative to that of the rest of Europe, and the French population grew slowly. By the mid-20th century the population of France had fallen behind that of Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy. (France’s population narrowly surpassed Italy’s in the 1990s). The slow growth of the French population can be partly attributed to the bloody wars of the Napoleonic era (see Napoleonic Wars) in the early 19th century and the two world wars in the 20th century. The early and wide-scale adoption of birth control by the French people also slowed population growth. Immigration, especially from Europe and North Africa, was a major source of French population growth during the 20th century.

The age structure of France changed dramatically in the late 20th century, with elderly people accounting for an ever larger share of the total population. The number of older people is growing in France, as it is in most industrialized nations, as a result of the low birth rate and medical advances that have prolonged life. Life expectancy in France is now among the highest expected longevities in the world. France’s infant mortality rate is one of the world’s lowest.

Principal Cities of France

The capital and largest city of France is Paris, with a population of 2,153,600 (2005 estimate). Located on the shores of the Seine, Paris dominates France economically, politically, and culturally. It is the nation’s leading industrial center, and most key services, including banking and finance, are concentrated there. Paris is the seat of the national government and home to France’s most prestigious educational and cultural institutions. Close to 10 million people live in the Paris metropolitan area.

France’s second largest city is Marseille (820,900) on the Mediterranean coast. Marseille is a major seaport and a diversified manufacturing center. Founded by Greek mariners in the 6th century BC, Marseille has long served as an important commercial and trading city. Today, Marseille is socially and ethnically diverse, with a large immigrant population. The third largest city is Lyon (466,400) in east central France. Lyon is an industrial center located at the junction of the Saône and Rhône rivers. It is famous for its fine textiles, although other manufactures, including chemicals, automobiles, and petroleum products, are now more important. The urban area surrounding Lyon is the second largest in France, after greater metropolitan Paris.

Other major cities include Toulouse (435,000), a major manufacturing and trade center in southwestern France; Nice (347,900), a resort city on the French Riviera; and Nantes (281,800), a seaport on the Atlantic coast that is noted for shipbuilding, food processing, and other industries. Strasbourg (272,700) is the principal French port on the Rhine River and is also a major industrial center. Montpellier (244,300) is a commercial and manufacturing city in southern France. Bordeaux (230,600) is a major seaport in southwestern France and the principal exporting center for one of the great French vineyard regions. Lille (225,100), an industrial city in northern France, is situated amid a cluster of cities that have a combined population exceeding 1 million. According to the 1999 census, more than 25 additional French cities had populations surpassing 100,000.

Ethnic Groups in France

The predominant ethnic stock in France is mixed, the result of thousands of years of ethnic intermixing. A succession of migrating and invading groups, including Celts, Romans (see Roman Empire), and Germanic peoples, have left their ethnic imprint among the French people. The very name for the nation, France, comes from the Germanic Franks, who invaded the area as the Roman Empire collapsed.

The French government has long pursued an active campaign of assimilating ethnic minorities. The expansion of the French state, completed by the mid-17th century, brought centralized rule over diverse peripheral ethnic groups. As late as the French Revolution in 1789, less than half the population spoke French. After the revolution, the French government sought to build a unified nation-state based on a common language. The “law of the soil” (droit du sol), a key part of this effort, held that residency and ethnic identity were inseparable—that is, if a person lived in France, he or she was French. Only in recent years, under the prodding of the European Union (EU), did France extend any noteworthy rights or privileges to ethnic minorities. Instead, every effort was made to absorb them into the French mainstream, with considerable success.

Indigenous Ethnic Minorities

The indigenous ethnic minorities of France inhabit ancient homelands, all of which lie on the nation’s frontiers. In the far northern part of France live a people of Flemish descent, in and around the marshland town of Dunkerque in the historic region of Flanders. Flemings, many of whom speak a dialect of Dutch, harbor no separatist sentiment and have largely been assimilated. In the western peninsular region of Brittany live the Bretons, a people of Celtic descent (see Celts). Many Bretons seek cultural autonomy and resent French dominance. They present an overtly Celtic image to visitors, incorporating bagpipes and Celtic harps into their local musical traditions. Dozens of Breton-language schools have opened in Brittany since the early 1990s.

In southwestern France, where the Pyrenees and Atlantic Ocean meet, live the French Basques. Many French Basques share the separatist sentiments of the Basques across the border in Spain, but the French Basque country has not experienced the terrorist violence that has occurred for decades in Spanish territory. At the eastern end of the Pyrenees, in the Mediterranean region, is the Catalan homeland. French Catalonians share a language (see Catalan Language) and culture with the peoples of eastern Spain, where Catalan autonomy has been achieved and separatist sentiment is common. The French Catalonians, however, are not nearly so numerous, and they do not desire to secede from France. In recent decades, bilingual French-Catalan signs have become common.

In the Alsace-Lorraine area of eastern France live the Alsatians, a people whose native tongue is a dialect of High German. This ancient frontier area has been the object of disputes between French and Germanic rulers since the Middle Ages, and control over the region has changed hands many times. Since the end of World War II (1939-1945) the region has belonged to France. A desire for cultural autonomy is widespread in Alsace, but there is little sentiment for joining Germany. On the French-ruled island of Corsica in the Mediterranean live a people of Italian ancestry. Corsica’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte (see Napoleon I), had an Italian surname. A movement seeking independence for Corsica has been active since the 1970s.

Immigrants in France

Immigrants account for about 8 percent of the total population of France. French immigrants come from diverse places, including Europe, North and Central Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean, and Asia. The largest immigrant group in France consists of people from the largely Islamic nations of North Africa, including Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Many Muslims from Turkey have also immigrated to France. An estimated 4 million Muslims, or followers of Islam, live in France, mainly within the nation’s largest cities.

France has a long history of immigration. A strong tradition of readily accepting immigrants as citizens dates to the French Revolution, which popularized new notions of citizenship and universal rights. During the 19th century, the French government recruited many immigrants to work the nation’s farmlands and in its expanding coal, steel, and textile industries. Until the mid-20th century, immigrants came largely from other European countries, including Belgium, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Spain. Most of these immigrants were rapidly assimilated into the French population and culture.

Immigration significantly increased after World War II (1939-1945), when the nation’s postwar economic expansion generated an enormous need for workers. By the 1950s the main source of immigration had shifted from European countries to the largely Islamic countries of North Africa, the heart of France’s former colonial empire. In the mid-1970s France began to tighten its immigration policies in response to a slowing economy.

By the late 1970s immigration had become a controversial social issue in France. Many people worried that large numbers of recent immigrants appeared unwilling to adopt French customs and culture. Unlike earlier generations of European immigrants, the newcomers were often distinguishable by their skin color and Islamic religion, as well as by their food, dress, and music. Nationalist political movements, such as the National Front, emerged to promote anti-immigrant policies, including repatriation. These groups argued that immigration threatened French culture and social cohesion.

By the 1980s, heated political debate had arisen over the wearing of traditional Islamic head coverings by girls in public schools. In 2004 the French government passed legislation prohibiting students in primary and secondary schools from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. Although no specific religious symbols were mentioned in the legislation, many Muslims viewed the law as targeting the wearing of headscarves. Hostility toward immigrants has led to discrimination, social tensions, and episodes of violence.

Languages spoken in France

French is the official language of France and is spoken by the vast majority of people in the country. Modern French is a dialect of the langue d’oïl, a form of the French language that originated in northern France. This dialect developed in the Île de France, a historic province that includes Paris and much of the surrounding Paris Basin. Beginning in medieval times, the language of the Île de France gradually began to supplant other French dialects. Today it enjoys overwhelming dominance in French daily life, including in commerce, education, government, and culture.

In addition to French, regional languages are spoken in many areas. The most widely spoken regional language is Occitan, also called the langue d’oc (Languedoc), which is prevalent in southern France. Several million people speak Provençal, the major dialect of the langue d’oc. Virtually all of these speakers speak the dominant French language as well. The languages spoken north and south of the Loire River began diverging in the early Middle Ages and by the late 13th century had emerged as distinct languages. The langue d’oc is rooted in a Latin-derived regional culture that was once much more Mediterranean and Roman-influenced than the German-influenced culture of northern France. The French state’s historical drive to create a unified French language, in part by requiring state primary schools to teach in the language of the Île de France, has succeeded in assimilating the langue d’oc. In 1993, in a show of greater tolerance, the French government permitted state schools to teach regional languages, including the langue d’oc.

Several other regional languages are spoken in France, including a dialect of High German in Alsace, the Celtic language Breton in Brittany, and Catalan and Basque in the Pyrenees region. Flemish is a Dutch dialect used in the French portion of Flanders in the north, and Corse, an Italian dialect used on the island of Corsica. Many of France’s various immigrant populations also retain their separate languages, including Arabic and Turkish.

Religion in France

Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in France. More than 80 percent of the French population officially identifies with this faith, although only a minority claim to be practicing Catholics. Smaller minorities follow Islam, Protestantism, and Judaism.

Secularization has made deep inroads in France, greatly diminishing the role of the once-powerful Catholic Church. The extent of secularization varies from one region to another. The most highly secularized regions are the Paris Basin and the Mediterranean coast. The largest percentages of practicing Catholics live in rural areas, including Flanders to the north, Brittany to the west, Alsace to the east, and the Basque country in the southwest. The great pilgrimage town of Lourdes in the southwest, at the foot of the Pyrenees, draws millions of visitors annually.

The French Jewish community, although small, has long played an important role in the nation’s economy and culture. In recent decades, many Muslim immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa have settled in France, leading to a significant expansion of the Islamic faith there. Immigrants have also brought other religions to France, including Buddhism and Hinduism.

The church and state have been officially separated in France since 1905. During the 19th century, the Christian and Jewish religions were subsidized by the state. Popular opposition to the Catholic Church, and to church control of public education, resulted in legislation prohibiting the payment of public funds to Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy. This legislation, and subsequent measures, led to the withdrawal of official state recognition of any religion.

Education in France

The French constitution guarantees all permanent residents a basic education, and all public schools up to the university level are free. Higher public education is free for all students who qualify. There are also about 10,000 private schools and colleges in France, most controlled by the Roman Catholic Church.

Public education in France is highly centralized. The centralization of state control over school administration began in the early 19th century under Napoleon I. Prior to the French Revolution in 1789, most schools were administered by the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the main features of the modern educational system were adopted in the late 19th century, under the leadership of Education Minister Jules Ferry. A series of laws, enacted between 1881 and 1886, provided for free, compulsory public education entirely under government control. Among later modifications were the establishment of free tuition in secondary and technical schools, the separation of church and state in education in 1905, and the extension of compulsory school attendance to the age of 16 in 1959.

Today, the central government’s administrative role is strongest in primary and secondary education. Metropolitan France is divided into educational districts called académies. Each district is under the jurisdiction of a rector, who is accountable to the ministry of education. The ministry is responsible for maintaining schools, hiring and allocating staff, defining academic programs and curricula, and other matters. The ministry also supervises private schools.

As a result of student unrest in 1968, in which strong demands were made for greater decentralization in higher education, the government created an independent ministry of universities. Prior to 1968, the universities were organized into facultés, or schools, according to the subject taught, and were directly administered by the ministry of education. Afterward, they were reorganized into autonomous multidisciplinary universities, and students and faculty were given a voice in university administration. Under the reform, most of France’s large universities were restructured into smaller units. The University of Paris, the largest, was split into 13 independent universities, 3 of which were formed from the oldest unit, the Sorbonne (see Paris, Universities of).

The French educational system is competitive. After two or three years of optional preschool activities, students attend a primary (elementary) school from age 6 to 11. Secondary education is divided into two phases. In the first phase, students attend a collège (middle school) until the age of 15. During the second phase, students either take academic courses in general lycées (secondary schools) or take technical and vocational courses in separate institutions called professional lycées. Students attending professional lycées typically earn a professional certificate or diploma after one to three years of study. The general lycée program lasts three years and ends with a comprehensive nationwide examination for the baccalauréate degree, which is required to enter the universities. The baccalaureate examination is rigorous; only two-thirds of those taking the test typically pass it the first time.

The university sector has gradually expanded to offer a wider range of educational opportunities and serve an increasing number of students. In 1966 several instituts universitaires de technologie (technological institutes, or IUTs) were founded. These schools depart from the general studies of the traditional university and specialize in technology subjects. Community colleges, called antennes universitaires, have been established in medium-sized towns such as Blois, Troyes, Tarbes, Beauvais, and Bayonne. In 1991 the government adopted an ambitious program designed to enlarge the system of higher education. By the early 2000s there were 100 IUTs and 87 universities in France. Besides the Universities of Paris I-XIII, noted French institutes of higher education include the Universities of Aix-Marseille I-III, the Universities of Lille I-III, the Universities of Lyon I-III, the Universities of Nancy I-II, and the Universities of Strasbourg I-III.

Alongside the universities is an elite network of graduate schools, known as the grandes écoles. Admission to the grandes écoles is limited by special competitive examinations. Founded by Napoleon Bonaparte (see Napoleon I), these prestigious schools train executives for the highest positions in business and government. Among the best known of these schools are the École Polytechnique (Polytechnic School), founded in 1794 to instruct military professionals, and the École Nationale d’Administration (National School of Administration), a training ground for government leaders.

In a unique category are the Collège de France, founded in 1530, and the Académie Française (French Academy), founded in 1635. The Collège de France invites eminent scholars from all over the world to lecture publicly on their research. Membership in the Académie Française is limited to 40 of the nation’s most prominent citizens, the immortels. The Académie was established in 1635 to uphold the highest standards in the French language and literature, and it is responsible for the publication of the standard grammar and dictionary of the French language. It is the oldest of the five learned societies that make up the prestigious Institut de France.

Social Structure of France

The French Revolution swept away many of the ancient legal privileges enjoyed by the nobility and the clergy and established the principle of legal equality among all citizens. Yet the revolution did not erase sharp distinctions among social groups, nor did it fundamentally alter the distribution of wealth. France still retained a rigid social structure in the early 20th century, with little mobility among social groups. The social strata included peasants, craft and factory workers, shopkeepers, merchants, civil servants, intellectuals, landowners, and petty nobility.

The old social order changed considerably after World War II, as the postwar economic expansion brought growing affluence to an ever larger share of the French population. The vast expansion of the middle classes reduced inequality of wealth and blurred the lines between many social groups. Today power, success, and money are more important than birth in determining a person’s social status.

Another sweeping change in postwar France was the growing role of women in society. Beginning in the early 1970s, women began entering the workforce in increasing numbers, many taking jobs in the expanding service sector. In recent decades women have also played a growing role in politics. Many women have pursued successful careers in politics, but their representation in the national parliament remains lower than in most other nations in the European Union (EU).

Many social divisions remain visible in France. A privileged elite composed mainly of leading politicians, senior civil servants, business leaders, and wealthy families still retains a strong grasp on the levers of power. The middle classes are highly stratified. Among white-collar workers, two different groups have emerged: the successful, upwardly mobile senior executives and professionals with expanding spending power and stable jobs, and a growing mass of people in clerical, retail, and food-service jobs for whom unemployment and lower living standards have become increasingly the norm. Blue-collar workers remain, to some extent, economically and socially segregated; only a small proportion of university students come from blue-collar households. The number of blue-collar workers has steadily declined in recent years as the economy has shifted from jobs in industry to those in the service sector.

Way of Life in France

For centuries the French have taken pride in the sophistication of their culture, the beauty of their spoken language, and their diverse accomplishments in literature, the arts, and sciences. Even French cuisine and clothing fashions have long been a source of national pride. During the second half of the 20th century, as French society grew increasingly middle class and consumer oriented, a new set of attitudes and pursuits appeared alongside these elitist cultural attitudes. Material comforts, such as homes, new appliances, and automobiles, became synonymous with a high standard of living.

Despite the concentration of the French population in urban areas, the majority of French people live in houses, rather than in apartment buildings. Most dwellings are comfortable and have modern conveniences. In 1962 less than 20 percent of French housing had central heating. By the 1990s nearly 80 percent had central heating, at least one telephone, and access to hot water. Housing is in short supply, and housing costs, as a share of household budgets, have risen in recent decades.

The French enjoy a wide range of sports and recreational activities. Millions of people belong to sports clubs, the most common of which are devoted to soccer, tennis, a bowling game called boules, and basketball. The most popular professional sports are soccer and bicycle racing (see Cycling). The monthlong Tour de France, the world’s most famous and prestigious bicycle race, has been held annually since 1903. Horse racing at Longchamps and Auteuil in Paris and automobile racing at Le Mans also draw large crowds. The French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris attracts international attention.

Many French people enjoy eating, drinking, and socializing at sidewalk cafes, which are prevalent in most cities and towns. The cinema is also very popular, drawing millions of patrons each year. Music concerts are well attended throughout France, and many provincial towns host their own music, theater, and dance festivals.

The French are famous for their cuisine, and fine food remains an important part of the French way of life. Thousands of regional dishes are popular in France. Beloved ingredients include generous amounts of garlic, olive oil, butter, cream, and local cheeses and wines. French dishes that have risen to national and international prominence include a seafood soup called bouillabaisse, crepes, quiches, andouillette sausage, and a goose-liver paste called pâté de foie gras. Breads and pastries are a daily staple and are widely available at local bakeries, known as boulangeries.

The traditional French meal pattern is to eat a light breakfast, a large lunch, and a somewhat lighter dinner. French wines are often served with lunch or dinner. In recent decades fast food has grown in popularity, especially among young people, and elaborate meals are increasingly reserved for special occasions. The movement toward convenience in eating is also evident in the growing consumption of frozen and prepackaged foods.

The French are devoted to holidays and vacations. In addition to the Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter holidays, the religious feast days of Mardi Gras in the spring, Pentecost in May or June, Assumption Day on August 15th, and All Saint’s Day on November 1st are celebrated across France. The national holiday, Bastille Day on July 14th, commemorates the fall of the Bastille in the French Revolution. Most French workers are entitled to five weeks of paid vacation annually, and travel abroad has become increasingly popular. August is the most popular month for vacation, leading to enormous congestion in resort areas at that time of year.


The culture of France has profoundly influenced that of the entire Western world, particularly in the areas of art and letters, and Paris has long been regarded as the fountainhead of French culture. France first attained cultural preeminence in Europe during the Middle Ages; later, the wealth of the French crown in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries provided a subsidization of art on a scale comparable to that of the papacy in Rome, attracting to Paris many of Europe’s most talented artists and artisans. Wealth also created a leisure class, which had both the time and the means for developing elegance in dress, manners, furnishings, and architecture. French styles still pervade much of Western culture. In the 20th century French cinema assumed a leading world position, particularly in the 1960s with the nouvelle vague (“new wave”) group of film directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and François Truffaut.

Literature in France

See French Literature.

Art and Architecture of France

France has produced many world-famous painters, and several influential schools of painting, including impressionism, were developed here. Among French Mannerist painters of the 16th century were Jean Clouet and his son François; 17th-century baroque artists included Georges de La Tour, Nicolas Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. The most renowned French rococo masters of the 18th century were Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher, Jean Fragonard, Jean Chardin, and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. Paris became the chief art center of Europe in the 19th century. Jacques-Louis David, whose highly influential career began in the last quarter of the 18th century, was most active in the early 19th century, as were the romantic painters Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Théodore Géricault. Noted realist artists of the mid-19th century were Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Jean François Millet, and Camile Corot. The impressionist school, influenced by Édouard Manet, emerged around 1872; its most important members were the painters Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre Auguste Renoir. Major French postimpressionist painters of the late 19th century were Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Signac; also active in this period were Henri Rousseau and Gustav Moreau. Internationally known French artists of the 20th century include Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Pierre Bonnard, and Jean Dubuffet. The artist Pablo Picasso was born in Spain but settled in Paris in the early 1900s.

France has also produced many influential sculptors. Jean Goujon and Germain Pilon were famous 16th-century Mannerist sculptors; in the 17th century Pierre Puget sculpted in the baroque style; Puget inspired the 18th-century French rococo sculptors Jean Baptiste Pigalle and Claude Michel. Leading 19th-century sculptors were François Rude, Antoine Louis Barye, and Jean Baptiste Carpeaux. The most important 19th-century sculptor, however, was Auguste Rodin. In the early 20th century Romanian-born Constantin Brancusi and Italian-born Amedeo Modigliani both worked in Paris. Noted artists Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp also sculpted in Paris in the 20th century.

France is renowned for its great Gothic churches, built from the 12th to 15th century. Particularly significant are the abbey church at Saint-Denis, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and the cathedrals at Amiens, Chartres, Paris, and Reims. Splendid Renaissance structures include the palace at Fontainebleau and the famous châteaux of the Loire River valley. The outstanding baroque buildings in France are the neoclassicized enlargements of the enormous royal palace at Versailles and the Louvre, in Paris. Among the outstanding structures of the 19th century are the Second Empire Paris Opéra (1861-1875) of Charles Garnier and the wrought-iron Eiffel Tower (1889), the symbol of Paris. The pioneering 20th-century architect Auguste Perret and the influential Le Corbusier (a Swiss living in Paris) were noted for designing daring structures, mainly of concrete and steel.

Music in France

France has a long and distinguished musical tradition. From the 11th to the 13th century, chansons de geste (“song of deeds”), epic poems sung by minstrels, were produced in northern France, and the troubadours, aristocratic poet-musicians who composed famous songs that dealt chiefly with courtly love, war, and nature, were active in southern France.

The most influential French composer of the 14th century was Guillaume de Machaut, who contributed to the polyphonic form of composition. In the 15th and 16th centuries, songs, motets, and settings of parts of the Mass were among the leading French musical compositions.

In the second half of the 17th century, the Italian-born composer Jean Baptiste Lully created a French operatic style by combining traditional court spectacle with plots of contemporary French dramas, set to musical forms from ballet, dance, and Italian opera. In the early 18th century noted works for harpsichord were composed by François Couperin and Jean Philippe Rameau; the latter is also known for his operas.

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, many foreign-born opera composers were active in Paris; these included Christoph Willibald Gluck, Luigi Cherubini, A.E.M. Grétry, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Jacques Offenbach. French-born opera composers of the 19th century included Jacques Halévy, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet, and Jules Massenet.

The chief French composer of orchestral music in the early 19th century was Hector Berlioz. Camille Saint-Saëns became active in the 1850s, and he later taught Gabriel Fauré, who composed in a wide variety of forms. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries Claude Debussy composed noted works in new styles influenced by trends in literature and painting.

In the early 20th century Maurice Ravel produced works with more formal outlines. Les Six, a group of neoclassic composers formed in 1918 and 1919, included Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Georges Auric. The influential Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky worked in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. More recent French composers include Oliver Messiaen and Pierre Boulez.

Libraries and Museums in France

Most provincial cities in France have municipal libraries and museums. The largest concentration of such facilities is, however, in Paris. Major libraries in Paris include the Bibliothèque Nationale, with more than 9 million books, and the libraries of the Universities of Paris. The Louvre, also in Paris, contains one of the largest and most important art collections in the world. Other Parisian museums of note include the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne in the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou (see Pompidou Center); the Musée d’Orsay; and the Musée Picasso with its collection of works by Pablo Picasso. Many of the great masterpieces of French architecture, such as churches, cathedrals, castles, and châteaux, are maintained as national monuments.



Until the early 20th century, France was still largely a nation of small farms and family-owned businesses. After World War II (1939-1945) the French government nationalized numerous business enterprises—especially in energy, finance, and manufacturing—and it introduced a series of development plans intended to modernize the economy. These reforms, along with European economic integration, helped secure a period of sustained economic growth in the quarter century following the war. Today, France is one of the world’s leading economic powers. A member of the Group of Eight forum of highly industrialized nations and of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), France is home to one of the world’s largest economies. It is also the leading agricultural producer in western Europe. In 2007 France’s gross domestic product (GDP) was $2.59 trillion, and per capita income was $41,969.90.

The postwar economic integration of western Europe had a powerful influence on the French economy. France was a charter member of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), a cooperative organization founded in 1951 to establish a free-trade area for coal and steel products. This organization merged with the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC) in 1967 to form the European Community (EC).

Today, France is a member of the European Union (EU), a successor of the EC that promotes economic and political cooperation among European nations. European Union members share a common economic area. The creation of a single market required France and other EU members to remove national barriers to the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. French businesses long protected by trade barriers have been forced to become more competitive to withstand foreign challengers and to take advantage of new opportunities. In many sectors of the economy, the single market has spurred businesses to restructure and modernize their operations. France, like many other EU members, uses the euro, the EU’s common currency.

Successive French governments have encouraged varying levels of intervention in the economy, including state ownership and control of key industries. In 1982 the Socialist-led government of president François Mitterrand initiated a program of extensive nationalization. At the peak of this program, 13 of the 20 largest firms in France were owned by the state. The election of a center-right parliamentary majority in 1986, however, led to a reduction of state ownership. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the government continued the process of privatization, selling off a variety of state-owned enterprises and reducing its holdings in others. Despite these measures, the public sector as a share of GDP remains higher in France than in any other country to adopt the euro. In addition, France’s progress in opening its domestic markets to foreign competition as required by the EU, especially in the energy sector, has been slow, inviting criticism and legal challenges from the EU.

France faced several pressing economic problems in the early 21st century. One was the nation’s persistently high unemployment rate. Efforts to lower unemployment, including government legislation implemented in 2000 to reduce the official working week from 39 hours to 35 hours, had limited success. The lack of vigorous economic growth has also made it more difficult for France to maintain the traditionally generous social welfare benefits available to the country’s citizens. Reforming the welfare state in a socially equitable manner remains a major challenge for France in the decades ahead.

The Government’s Role in the Economy

The principle of a mixed economy, in which both government and private businesses exercise influence over various sectors of the economy has long been accepted in France. The efforts of French public officials to shape the economy are often traced back to 17th-century statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert. Under Colbert, an economic adviser to Louis XIV, king of France, the French state centralized control over key industries and regulated international trade. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, government intervention in the economy declined. This trend changed after World War II, when vigorous government planning played a major role in France’s postwar economic revival. Bold national plans were approved to promote economic growth and reconstruction of war-damaged industries, communications networks, and other infrastructure.

After World War II the French state acquired a number of businesses, created others from scratch, and adjusted the overall mix of enterprises it owned. Legislation creating a nationalized railroad system was passed in 1937. Soon after the war ended, air transportation, major banks, and coal mines came under government control. In addition, the government became a major shareholder in the automotive, electronics, and aircraft and air transportation industries, as well as the primary investor in the development of oil and natural gas reserves. From 1946 until 1981, the public sector changed little in scope. Following the Socialist Party’s victory in 1981, however, state ownership and control expanded dramatically. In 1986 the new center-right government launched a privatization program. Since then, the government has gradually reduced its holdings in most economic sectors, including telecommunications, air transportation, finance, and insurance.

The first national economic plan was developed in 1947, under the leadership of French statesman Jean Monnet. An economic planning agency was authorized to develop a new plan every four or five years. The agency convened a series of commissions, each composed of representatives of government, business, and labor, to study the economy and to discuss ways to achieve growth and production targets. During the early years of planning, ambitious growth goals were often exceeded. From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, however, planning appeared to lose much of its effectiveness as slow growth, rising unemployment, and inflation became persistent economic problems. French economic planners found it increasingly difficult to forecast economic trends as the French economy became more complex and more open to international influences. Today, national economic planning is no longer a highly visible feature of French economic policy.

The French government uses various tools to promote economic growth and stability. Until recently, these included fiscal and monetary policies, which involve the government’s powers to tax and spend and to control the supply of money. Fiscal policies generally seek to encourage economic expansion when economic growth is lagging or unemployment is high. They also try to encourage economic contraction when demand for goods and services is high enough to generate inflation (see Inflation and Deflation). Fiscal policies to promote economic expansion include cutting taxes and increasing government spending. These policies aim to stimulate demand by giving individuals and businesses more money to spend. Since the mid-1970s, the French government has generally pursued expansionary fiscal policies, and government expenditures have consistently exceeded government revenues. Under the terms of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) established by the European Union (EU), France and other participating EU members pledged to restrain their use of fiscal policies to keep their budget deficits below 3 percent of GDP. However, after France failed to meet the 3 percent limit in the early 2000s, the government received a formal warning from the EU’s European Commission to restrain government spending. EMU participants are not permitted to use monetary policies—efforts to adjust the supply and demand for money—to fine-tune their economies. Since 1999 the supranational European Central Bank (ECB) has set monetary policy for all EMU participants.

Government revenue in France comes from a variety of sources. The most important sources include social security contributions; the value-added tax (VAT, a national sales tax); a special tax on income, instituted in 1991 and earmarked to finance the social security system; and the personal income tax. In general, France tends to rely on indirect taxes, such as the VAT, rather than direct taxes, such as the personal income tax. France was the first country to implement the VAT, the primary indirect tax used today throughout Europe. A wealth tax is levied on household assets that exceed a set limit. France is one of the most heavily taxed nations in Europe.

Public expenditure accounts for a large percentage of GDP in France—generally more than 40 percent. Principal government expenditures include social security; compensation of government employees; interest payments on the national debt; investment in tangible assets, such as infrastructure and military hardware; payment of pensions; and payments to the EU. The regional and local governments generate tax revenue themselves, but they also rely heavily on transfers from the national government. Regional and local governments maintain the roads, oversee public assistance, and share responsibility for the educational system.

Economic Sectors in France

The French economy changed dramatically during the second half of the 20th century. In the early 1950s industry and services had emerged as the leading economic sectors, but agriculture, forestry, and fishing still accounted for more than one quarter of all jobs. Modernization of agriculture in the decades following World War II reduced employment in that sector while leading to large gains in agricultural production. Agriculture now employs a small percentage of the nation’s labor force, even though France remains the most important agricultural nation in western Europe. In 1950 industry and services each accounted for slightly more than one-third of all economic activity in France. Today, services—including banking, retailing, and tourism—account for more than two-thirds of all economic activity.

Agriculture of France

France is one of the world’s leading agricultural nations. France has more surface area devoted to agriculture than any other nation in western Europe—more than a third of the country’s total land area. Within the European Union (EU), France is the largest exporter of agricultural products; in world markets, France is second only to the United States. Important farm commodities in France include dairy products, wine, beef, veal, wheat, oilseeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

The large volume and diversity of agricultural products in France is made possible, in part, by favorable natural conditions. France is endowed with extensive tracts of fertile soils, a generally moderate climate, ample rainfall in most regions, and an extended growing season. Regional variations in soil, topography, temperature, and climate permit farmers to produce a wide variety of crops and agricultural products. For example, the cooler and wetter northwest region provides plentiful grasslands for the grazing of cattle and sheep, while the warm, dry Mediterranean region offers a good environment for growing many kinds of grapes.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), provided for in the 1957 treaty that created the European Economic Community (EEC), had an enormous impact on French agriculture. The CAP created a system of common prices for agricultural products across the EEC and, later, its successor organizations, the EC and the EU. The CAP stimulated agricultural production and improved the incomes of many French farmers.

The most important crops in France are cereal grains. France is the EU’s largest producer and exporter of cereals. These cereal crops, especially wheat, corn, and barley, are planted on roughly half of France’s commercial farmland. The bulk of cereal crop production occurs in the low fertile plains of the Paris Basin, a vast region in north central France that comprises the nation’s traditional breadbasket. Sugar beets and oil seeds, mainly rape seed and sunflower seed, are also grown extensively in the Paris Basin.

Production of dairy products, including France’s world-renowned cheeses such as brie, Camembert, and blue cheese, is concentrated in the northwest and along the eastern border. Beef cattle are raised mainly in eastern Brittany and the Massif Central. Quality wines are produced more broadly, in Burgundy, around the city of Bordeaux, in the Rhône Valley, in Champagne, and along the Loire River. An extensive assortment of fruits and vegetables is cultivated in the warm Mediterranean region.

Forestry in France

Dense forests once covered much of France. By the early 19th century, much of the original forest cover had been cleared for farmland, fuel, and building materials. The extent of tree cover has increased significantly since then, due in part to active reforestation programs.

Forest cover is densest in the eastern, southern, and southwestern portions of France. About two-thirds of the forests are made up of deciduous hardwoods, including oak, beech, and chestnut. Softwood species, primarily pine, spruce, and fir, comprise less than one-third of forest stands; most softwood stands are found in mountain regions. About three-quarters of the forests are privately owned; the rest are state-owned. Harvested wood is used for construction, for making pulp and paper, and for firewood.

Fishing in France

France has an extensive coastline, and commercial fishing has long been an important industry in coastal regions. French fishing vessels operate widely, plying coastal waters, the fish-rich North Sea, or the North Atlantic waters of Iceland and the northeastern coast of North America.

The leading commercial fishing ports in France are on the Atlantic coast and include Boulogne-sur-Mer, Lorient, Concarneau, and La Rochelle. Some of the principal fish caught are tuna, pollock, pilchard (sardines), hake, mackerel, and whiting. The commercial cultivation of shellfish, including oysters, clams, and mussels, occurs along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. France also has an extensive freshwater fishery.

Mining in France

France has significant deposits of several minerals important to industry, such as iron ore, bauxite, and uranium. France is one of the largest producers of iron ore in western Europe. The nation’s iron districts, centered in the Lorraine basin in the northeast, once served as a major source of employment. Most iron ore mined in France contains high levels of impurities, and domestic production has declined in recent decades as the French steel industry has turned to purer ores imported from abroad. Bauxite, or aluminum ore, is mined in substantial quantities, mainly in the southeast. France is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, a fuel used in nuclear reactors. Uranium is mined at several sites in central and western France.

France also has notable deposits of coal. The coalfields of northern France remained productive into the 1950s and 1960s, but production plummeted as seams were exhausted and extraction costs climbed. By 1990 coal production ceased in the northern region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the traditional center of coal mining in France. Limited coal mining continues in central and southern France. Today France imports more coal than it produces domestically.

Other minerals mined in significant quantities include potash salts, salt, gypsum, tungsten, and sulfur. Large amounts of nickel are excavated in New Caledonia, a French territory in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. French mines also produce small amounts of lead, zinc, and silver. Small deposits of petroleum are located in the southwestern Landes region, and nearby natural gas deposits have been tapped since the 1950s. Quarrying for construction materials such as sand, gravel, stone, and clay occurs throughout France.

Manufacturing in France

France is one of the world’s leading industrial producers. Manufacturing in France is highly diversified and serves as the nation’s primary source of export income. Leading manufacturing sectors include food products; automobiles, aircraft, ships, and trains; electrical machinery; mechanical equipment and machine tools; metallurgy; chemicals and pharmaceuticals; and textiles and clothing.

During the 17th century the French state promoted mercantilism—manufacturing and trade policies designed to develop the economy and swell the national treasury with gold bullion. These policies, established before the age of industrialization, included state support for high-quality manufactured goods—silk, tapestries, metalwork, porcelain (see Pottery), and other luxury items. France earned a world reputation for producing luxury goods.

The Industrial Revolution, which originated in Britain in the 18th century, influenced industrialization in France. By the 19th century iron and steel manufacturing, shipbuilding, and textiles had become important industries. Industrial cities, including Lille, Lyon, and Mulhouse, grew rapidly. Despite these changes, France remained overwhelmingly an agricultural nation of small towns and villages at the end of the 19th century. Industrialization in France was gradual, prolonged, and steady, rather than swift and spectacular.

Before World War II, France’s manufacturing sector consisted mostly of small, family-owned firms, many of which were geared to produce low volumes of finely crafted goods. Manufacturing grew dramatically after the war and was the major force behind France’s postwar economic recovery. By the mid-20th century manufacturing had emerged as the most important sector of the French economy. France became a leading producer of automobiles, steel, electrical equipment, and chemicals and earned a reputation for technological innovation.

During the 1960s the French government encouraged mergers among many domestic manufacturing firms to promote efficiency and to enhance the sector’s international competitiveness. This policy helped create a number of large enterprises that dominated their industries domestically. By the mid-1970s, however, manufacturing output and employment began to decline as chronic recession took hold, foreign competition intensified, and the economy shifted toward service-based industries.

Today, food processing is a major manufacturing sector in terms of employment. France is a leading producer of sugar beets, wine, and cheese. Other well-known French foods include meats, breads, and confectioneries. Another important sector is automobile production. The two major auto-manufacturing firms are Renault and Peugeot, which acquired automaker Citroën in 1974.

French firms are internationally known for technological innovation in aerospace, defense, transportation, and other specialized industries. French passenger trains and railroad equipment are sold domestically and abroad, and the French-made TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is among the world’s fastest passenger trains. France produces advanced commercial and military aircraft, as well as many kinds of military hardware. France is also a world leader in nuclear energy technology. A large electronics industry in France produces telecommunications equipment, computers, televisions, radios, and other items. French mechanical equipment and machine tools are sold throughout the world.

The manufacture of iron and steel (See also Iron and Steel Manufacture) remains an important source of employment in France, although producers are increasingly turning to imported iron ore. France is also home to a large aluminum industry. The French chemical industry produces a diverse range of products, including industrial chemicals, plastics, fertilizers, solvents, beauty products, and pharmaceuticals. The textile and apparel industries, long famous for cotton, silk, and woolen goods, remain important. However, production has declined dramatically since World War II due to intensified foreign competition.

Services in France

The production of services in France grew dramatically after World War II. In 1945 the majority of French workers were employed in agriculture or industry; today, the service sector employs the majority of French workers. The service sector covers a broad range of economic activities, including wholesale and retail trade, transportation, mail and telecommunications, finance and insurance, real estate, business services, hotel and restaurant trades, health, education, welfare, and public administration. Service industries are concentrated in urban areas, especially the Paris region.

The growth of the service sector has transformed urban landscapes in France. New office complexes and shopping malls have proliferated in large cities, and many of the small, traditional retail shops for which France is famous have disappeared. One prominent example of this new urban architecture is La Défense, an area of high-rise buildings located just west of Paris. Begun in the late 1950s, La Défense contains the offices of many multinational corporations and is one of the largest shopping centers in France. Similar complexes have altered the central business districts of other major cities, including Lyon and Lille.

Wholesale and Retail Trade

Large wholesale and retail outlets have come to play a major role in French commerce. Although French department stores were already famous in the 19th century, French households tended until recently to purchase most of their goods from small, specialized, family-owned shops or in open-air markets. France’s first supermarket, a large retail food store, was opened in France in 1957. France’s first hypermarket, an even larger retail store, was opened in 1963. Since then, chains of supermarkets, hypermarkets, and large-scale home-appliance and home-improvement stores have spread across the country.

Foreign Trade

France is one of the world’s great trading nations, and its foreign commerce includes a wide variety of goods and services. As a member of the European Union (EU), France conducts much of its trade with other EU member nations. The United States and Japan are also important trading partners. France plays a leading role in the foreign commerce of some of its former overseas possessions, including Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Côte d’Ivoire.

The leading ports in France include Marseille, located on the Mediterranean coast, and Le Havre, Rouen, and Dunkerque on the Atlantic coast. Marseille, which is served by extensive rail and air transport facilities, is the port of entry for much of the oil and natural gas imported into France. Le Havre, located at the mouth of the Seine River on the English Channel, has extensive transatlantic and transchannel shipping facilities.

France is a charter member of many international economic organizations, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF, joined in 1946), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank, 1946), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, 1948), which became the World Trade Organization (WTO, 1994), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 1961). In addition, France is a member of the European Union, established in 1993 after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Prior to 1993, France was a founding member of the EU’s precursor organizations, including the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Community (EC).


An attractive and varied landscape, a rich set of cultural resources, and a world-renowned collection of foods and wines make France a major tourist destination. Most years it attracts more visitors than any other nation in the world. Tourism is a leading industry in France. The French themselves travel widely in their own country, an activity encouraged by the mandatory five-week paid vacation received annually by most workers.

The most popular tourist destination in France is Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world. The city’s attractions are many, from its colorful neighborhoods, sidewalk cafes, and famous cuisine to its prestigious cultural institutions and world-renowned architecture. Monumental landmarks in Paris include the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Louvre museum, the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and the Georges Pompidou Center. Other popular tourist destinations in France include the Riviera on the Mediterranean coast, with its numerous hotels and waterfront resorts, and the French Alps, which provide some of the world’s best skiing and snowboarding.

Infrastructure in France

France enjoys a modern and innovative economic infrastructure. France is at the forefront of Europe’s nuclear energy industry and is one of the world’s leading producers of nuclear fuels. In transportation, France has a dense network of highways, railroads, and navigable inland waterways. It was the first European country to develop high-speed railway passenger service, and the rapid transit systems of most large cities, especially Paris, are comfortable and convenient for passengers. In telecommunications, France pioneered the Minitel, a forerunner of the Internet.

Energy in France

France is endowed with few natural energy resources. Coal was the primary fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and the modest coalfields of northern France provided much of the energy for France’s early industrial expansion. With the rapid spread of the internal-combustion engine in the 20th century, petroleum surpassed coal as a primary energy source. With very little of its own petroleum reserves, France had to import the vast majority of its petroleum supplies. By the early 1970s France was importing about three-quarters of its energy, much of it petroleum.

An oil crisis in 1973 demonstrated the danger of France’s dependence on foreign oil, and the French government undertook new initiatives to develop alternative energy sources. Much of this effort centered on an ambitious program to generate electricity through nuclear energy. France also diversified the types and sources of imported energy and promoted energy conservation. These programs significantly reduced France’s dependence on external energy sources.

The development of nuclear power in France has raised relatively few popular protests. Not all nuclear power projects have met with success, however. In southeastern France a 13-year-old fast-breeder reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that produces nuclear fuels, was permanently closed in 1998. The plant, located near Grenoble, was shut down following technical problems, safety concerns, and opposition from environmental groups.

Transportation in France

France enjoys one of the most highly developed transportation systems in the world. France has the densest road network in Europe and an extensive network of railways and navigable waterways. Its major airports are among the world’s busiest. Paris has long been at the center of the French transportation system, with the nation’s chief land, water, and air routes radiating from the capital. In recent decades major road transportation projects have focused on bypassing Paris and improving connections between large provincial cities.

Railway construction in France began in the early 19th century; by the end of the century many of the main lines of the nation’s railway network were in place. Most railway lines radiated out from Paris, which served as the nation’s transportation hub. Legislation nationalizing French railroads was passed in 1937. Independent railway companies and the existing state-controlled railways joined together in the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (French National Railways, or SNCF), with the state owning a controlling share.

Rail passenger traffic remains important in France. The development of the high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) has led to the construction of several new lines and increased the rate of rail passenger traffic. TGV can travel at speeds up to 320 km/h (200 mph) on specially built track, but the trains must travel much slower on conventional track. The first TGV line, completed in 1981, linked Paris with Lyon. Today, high-speed rail lines link Paris and other major French cities to many destinations outside of France, including cities in England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. TGV lines have proved so successful they have largely replaced passenger air travel between connected cities.

France has the longest system of navigable rivers and canals in Europe. Many of the canals linking navigable rivers were built in the 19th century, and few are suitable for large vessels. Inland water transport of freight has declined in recent decades as faster and less expensive alternatives have become available.

France possesses a number of large maritime ports, including Marseille and Le Havre, two of the largest ports in Europe. Other major ports are Dunkerque, Calais, Nantes, Rouen, and Bordeaux. Marseille, Le Havre, and Rouen serve as entry points for large amounts of imported petroleum. Calais is the nation’s major passenger port, handling a significant volume of English Channel traffic.

The principal international airports of France are located near Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Nice, Strasbourg, and Toulouse. Paris is one of the world’s busiest cities for air travel and one of the leading airfreight centers in Europe. The most important airline operating in France is Air France.

Communications in France

France has a large and diverse communications system. The French government plays an important role in the provision of key communications services, including postal, telephone, and radio and television services. The free press has a long history in France. Many national and regional newspapers and magazines enjoy wide circulation and are important sources of information for France’s population. Most are privately owned and are not linked to political parties.



France is a presidential republic with a centralized national government. France’s current system of government, known as the Fifth Republic, is based on a constitution that was adopted by popular referendum in 1958. This constitution significantly enlarged presidential powers and curtailed the authority of parliament. The president, elected by direct popular vote, is head of state. This official appoints the prime minister, who is head of government. The French parliament consists of two chambers: the National Assembly and the Senate. The National Assembly is more powerful than the Senate, although both chambers share legislative authority. The Constitutional Council, established by the 1958 constitution, has authority to supervise elections and referenda and to decide constitutional questions.

Until the French Revolution of 1789, France was a monarchy, governed by famous kings such as Henry IV and Louis XIV. The revolution abolished the monarchy but failed to establish a durable democracy. Power fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, and he eventually created an empire. Upon Bonaparte’s military defeat in 1815, the countries arrayed against him restored the French monarchy. The revolution of 1848 abolished the monarchy once again, and in 1852 Napoleon III, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, established a new empire. This regime crumbled in 1870 when Napoleon III was taken prisoner by Germany during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).

Democracy returned to France under the Third Republic, a system of government formally established by the constitution of 1875. A president, elected by a two-chambered parliament, replaced the emperor, and a cabinet responsible to the parliament exercised legislative powers. Governing during the Third Republic often proved challenging: Parliamentary coalitions shifted continually between elections, and cabinets fell frequently. The Third Republic survived until 1940, when German troops occupied France during World War II and an authoritarian collaborationist regime was established at Vichy.

In 1946, after the war ended, French voters approved the constitution of the Fourth Republic. The new constitution included several revisions intended to ensure a stable government, but it did not resolve the nation’s recurrent cabinet crises. France had 26 different governments during the Fourth Republic’s 12-year existence. In 1958 an insurrection in Algeria, then under French control, created fear of a coup d’état in France itself. General Charles de Gaulle, a French resistance leader during World War II, was invited to form a new government and draft a new constitution. De Gaulle favored a presidential system with a strong, stable executive at the center of power. His constitution was overwhelmingly approved by popular referendum and established the legal basis of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle took office as the first president of the Fifth Republic.

The Constitution of France

The constitution of the Fifth Republic took effect on October 4, 1958. It created a hybrid form of republican government based on elements of both presidential and parliamentary systems. The constitution trimmed the authority of parliament and vested the president with crucial powers, including the right to dissolve the National Assembly and to choose the prime minister. Yet the prime minister retained significant authority as head of the Council of Ministers (commonly called the government) and leader of the majority party or coalition of parties in the National Assembly.

According to the constitution, national sovereignty belongs to the people. Under the principle of universal suffrage, the constitution gives the people the right to exercise their political will in periodic elections and referenda. All French citizens who have reached the age of voting eligibility, and who have not been deprived of their civil rights, are entitled to vote. Citizens can be deprived of civil rights temporarily, or permanently, if they are convicted of certain crimes. Women gained the right to vote in 1944. The Fifth Republic’s age of voting eligibility, initially set at 21, was lowered to 18 in 1974.

As a requirement of its membership in the European Union (EU), the French parliament approved a constitutional amendment allowing citizens of EU member countries who are residents in France to vote in elections for seats on France’s municipal councils. The same group may also vote to fill France’s seats in the European Parliament, the representative assembly of the EU. Citizens of any EU country can be elected to a French municipal council or to a French seat in the European Parliament, but they may not serve as mayors or as assistant mayors.

Constitutional amendments may be proposed by the president, at the request of the government, or by the members of parliament. Amendments are adopted after they win approval by both chambers of parliament and by a subsequent popular referendum, or merely by approval of three-fifths of parliament.

The Executive of France

The constitution gives executive authority to both the president and prime minister. The former is head of state; the latter, as leader of the Council of Ministers, is head of government. Under Charles de Gaulle’s leadership, the powers of the presidency completely overshadowed those of the government. The system forged by de Gaulle remains largely in place, although the government has gradually gained responsibility for a range of national policies, especially in the domestic sphere. Under a precedent set by de Gaulle, all presidents since 1958 have taken primary responsibility for foreign policy and for national defense.

The president of France is the official head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces. The president appoints the prime minister and Council of Ministers and presides over council meetings. One of the president’s most important powers is the right to dissolve the National Assembly and call new legislative elections. Article 16 of the constitution permits the president to assume special emergency powers during a national crisis. In doing so the president must consult the Constitutional Council and may not dissolve the National Assembly or prevent it from meeting. The president is also authorized to take certain policy matters to the people in national referenda, such as the referendum authorizing ratification of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, also known as the Treaty on European Union.

The president is elected by direct popular vote for a term of five years. The president’s term of office was originally seven years, as established in the 1958 constitution, but voters approved a referendum in September 2000 to reduce the term of office to five years. The shorter term took effect with the presidential election in 2002. The constitutional revision was the most significant since 1962, when a referendum backed by de Gaulle established direct election of the president by popular vote. (Before 1962, presidents were elected by an electoral college of government bodies.) Under constitutional amendments approved in 2008, the president is limited to two five-year terms.

In general, the president works with the government to define policy goals and seeks to achieve these goals with the help of a parliamentary majority. The government is primarily responsible to parliament, which can check the actions of the government in several ways. Members of parliament can submit written and oral questions to the government and organize investigative committees. When the National Assembly adopts a motion of censure, or when the assembly refuses to approve the prime minister’s program, the prime minister must tender the government’s resignation to the president.

Presidential power is tied to the president’s support in the parliament. When the president has the strong support of a parliamentary majority, the prime minister tends to serve as a deputy of the president. When the president’s party is in the parliamentary minority, however, the president still appoints a prime minister from a party in the majority coalition. In this power-sharing arrangement, known as cohabitation, the prime minister and president may disagree about policy goals and work to limit each other’s influence. The first episode of cohabitation occurred from 1986 to 1988 under Socialist president François Mitterrand, after the Socialist Party lost its majority in the National Assembly. In 1997 President Jacques Chirac lost his conservative majority in the National Assembly, leading to a period of cohabitation with Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.

The Legislature of France

The French parliament is divided into two houses, the National Assembly and the Senate. As the legislative branch of government, parliament is engaged primarily in the debate and adoption of laws. Legislation relating to government revenues and expenditures is especially important. The other principal duty of parliament is to oversee the government’s exercise of executive authority, although this oversight capacity was restricted somewhat by the 1958 constitution.

The members of the National Assembly are directly elected for five-year terms. Candidates for the National Assembly are elected by majority vote in single-member electoral districts. Runoff elections are required if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Candidates who win at least 12.5 percent of the first round vote are eligible to run in second round.

The members of the Senate are elected indirectly by an electoral college. A law approved in July 2003 introduced a number of reforms in senatorial elections. The law specified that senators would henceforth be elected to six-year terms, with one-half of the Senate elected every three years. Previously, senators were elected for nine-year terms with one-third of the Senate elected every three years. In addition, the law increased the number of Senate seats from 321 to 346, to take effect in 2010.

In principle, the National Assembly and the Senate share equal legislative power. In practice, however, legislative authority is tilted to the National Assembly, since the Senate may delay, but not prevent, the passage of legislation. If the two chambers disagree on a bill, final decision rests with the National Assembly, which may either accept the Senate’s version or, after a specified period, readopt its own. The Economic and Social Council acts in an advisory capacity on economic and budgetary matters to the National Assembly and the government. It consists of representatives from groups of workers and employers and from professional and cultural organizations.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic introduced two distinctive measures intended to streamline the legislative process. The first measure granted the government the authority to demand an up-or-down vote on an entire bill or any portion of a bill, in either chamber. This reduces the opportunity for members of parliament to propose endless amendments to bills they oppose. The second measure authorizes the government to win adoption of a bill in the National Assembly without an actual vote. To do so, the government announces that it considers rejection of the bill to be tantamount to a vote of no confidence in the government. If opponents of the bill fail to submit and win a majority vote on a motion of no confidence, the bill is adopted.

Laws must be promulgated by the French president to take effect. The president may ask parliament to reconsider a law or any of its articles, and parliament must honor the request. The president may also request the Constitutional Council to rule on the law’s constitutionality. In such cases the law may not be implemented until the court has rendered its judgment. Prior to the Fifth Republic, laws adopted by parliament were not subject to judicial review.

The Judiciary in France

Prior to the French Revolution in 1789, judges in France exercised significant legislative and administrative powers. The revolution stripped judges of much of their power and independence. An extensive collection of laws drafted under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte, known as the Code Napoléon, affirmed the importance of limiting judicial power. The code, based largely on Roman, or civil, law, directs judges to apply legal rules passed by legislative bodies to specific cases. This civil law tradition contrasts with the English common law tradition in which judges rely on precedents—customs and decisions in previous cases—to resolve cases. The succeeding French republics maintained the ideal of a subordinate judiciary with little independent authority.

The judiciary regained some of its independence and power under the constitution of 1958. The constitution established a new body, the nine-member Constitutional Council. The council is authorized to rule on the constitutional validity of national elections, referenda, legislation, and parliamentary procedures. Members of the council are appointed for staggered, nonrenewable, nine-year terms; the president, National Assembly, and Senate each appoint three members. All former presidents also have seats on the council.

The French judiciary has two main branches. One branch of courts hears administrative cases (cases involving disputes over government regulations); another branch hears civil and criminal cases. Jurisdictional disputes between the two judicial branches are resolved by the eight-member Tribunal of Conflicts. Sitting judges in the criminal, civil, and administrative courts cannot be reassigned or terminated without cause by the executive or legislative branches of government.

Most cases involving administrative law are heard initially by administrative tribunals. Decisions in these tribunals may, upon appeal, work their way up through a hierarchy of appellate courts. At the apex of this system is the Council of State, a tribunal founded by Napoleon Bonaparte. The Council of State has final appellate jurisdiction in administrative law and advises the government on the legality of decrees, regulations, and rulings issued by the executive.

Minor offenses, such as traffic violations, are usually heard first by a police tribunal. Other criminal cases, except felonies, are heard first by correctional courts. Felonies are heard by courts of assizes. Only the latter employs a jury. Most civil cases are heard first either by a Tribunal of Instance or by a Tribunal of Great Instance, depending on the amount of money at stake. The Court of Cassation has final appellate jurisdiction in all matters of criminal and civil law.

Several specialized courts exist to try crimes of a political nature, should they arise. Cases alleging high treason by the president of the republic are heard in the High Court of Justice, made up of members of parliament. Cases alleging professional misconduct by members of the government are heard by the Court of Justice of the Republic.

Local Government of France

Historically, government authority in France has been highly centralized. For centuries the French monarchy sought to centralize economic and military power to control rebellious members of the nobility in the provinces. The French Revolution of 1789 dismantled the monarchy but retained a highly centralized national administration, centered in Paris. Today this system remains largely in place. Reforms introduced in recent decades have transferred some powers to the three levels of government below the national level: the regions, departments, and communes. However, many of France’s major policy decisions are still made in the nation’s capital.

Moves Toward Decentralization

Under pressure from growing demands for increased regional and local control, the French government took some steps toward devolution (decentralization) of authority in the 1960s and 1970s. One important step, in 1970, was the establishment of 22 administrative regions, creating a new layer of subnational government. Then, in 1982, President François Mitterrand initiated a major effort to transfer real decision-making powers and budgetary authority to locally elected officials. Since then, regional and local governments have gradually gained control over a limited range of economic, social, and cultural matters.

In another significant move toward devolution, the French parliament approved constitutional changes in 2003 intended to pave the way toward much greater local autonomy. The changes authorized France’s regions and departments to experiment with new powers in areas such as education, health, transportation, and environmental policy, and they gave local governments the power to hold referendums on matters of local concern. However, the extent to which local authorities embrace further decentralization, which in part hinges on the central government’s willingness to adequately finance devolved responsibilities, remains to be determined.

Communes, Departments, and Regions in France

Among the three levels of local government, communes are the smallest. Communes range in size from tiny villages to sections of large metropolitan areas. At the next level of government are the departments, many of which take their names from mountains, rivers, and other local geographical features. The departments are grouped into regions, the top level of subnational government. Each region, department, and commune has a directly elected council and executive.

The commune, an important component of French democracy, dates to pre-Revolutionary France. Each commune has a mayor and municipal council. The mayor, who is elected by the council, is responsible for preparing meetings of the council and for implementing its decisions. For certain purposes, including registration of births, marriages, and deaths, the mayor also represents the national government. The council determines the commune’s budget and local taxes and makes decisions regarding municipal services. Individual communes often band together to provide certain municipal services cooperatively. Before 1982 communes were strictly supervised by representatives of the national government.

Departments vary in population from tens of thousands of people to more than 2 million. Each department is administered by a general council, which elects its own president. The council votes for a budget; provides departmental services, such as health and welfare; and drafts local regulations. A representative of the national government attends council meetings and is authorized to take steps to ensure public order, safety, and security. Before 1982, a prefect appointed by the national government exercised extensive authority within the department and played a key role in centralizing decision-making authority in the hands of the national government. Today the powers of the prefect are limited to ensuring that departmental policies do not conflict with national legislation.

The regions correspond roughly to France’s historic provinces. The primary focus of regional government is economic and social planning. Compared to the other levels of subnational government, the regions deliver few services to residents and employ few public officials. Each region is administered by an elected regional council. The president of the council, elected by the council from among its members, serves as the region’s executive. A representative appointed by the national government speaks on behalf of the national government at council meetings and directs national government services in the region.

The city of Paris, the capital and seat of the most important national institutions, was formerly administered under a system designed to ensure tight central control. There was no mayor. Instead, a prefect of Paris and a prefect of the police, both appointed by the national government, exercised control. Under legislation passed in 1975, Paris became a department governed like any other, except that supervision of the police continued under a prefect appointed by the central government. Paris was permitted to have a municipal administration, similar to other French cities, with a mayor chosen by an elected council. The membership of the council, known as the Conseil de Paris, is determined by elections in 20 arrondissements (districts). In 1977 Jacques Chirac became the first mayor of Paris under the Fifth Republic.

Overseas Territories in France

France’s remaining overseas dependencies are the last vestiges of a once-vast colonial empire. By the early 20th century the French empire included colonies in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the Indian and Pacific oceans. These dependencies enjoyed varying degrees of integration into the French polity. Algeria, for example, was treated almost as if it were just another part of metropolitan France. Resistance to French rule in the colonies grew after World War II (1939-1945), first in Indochina, then Algeria, triggering long and bloody military conflicts (see First Indochina War and Algerian War of Independence). France’s forced withdrawal from these territories preceded a wave of decolonization throughout its empire. From 1954 to 1962 most of France’s overseas possessions sought and ultimately gained formal independence. Since 1962, several additional territories have sought and received independence, including the Comoros Islands in 1975, French Somaliland (now Djibouti) in 1977, and New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in 1980.

During the first decades of the Fifth Republic, France’s overseas dependencies were known collectively as the French Community. Members of the community cooperated in matters of foreign policy, defense policy, and economic policy. The French president played an important leadership role in community affairs. The wholesale disappearance of its former colonies, however, prompted France in 1995 to repeal the constitutional provisions that established the French Community.

Today France maintains a number of overseas territories with different degrees of autonomy and status. They all contribute representatives to the National Assembly in Paris.

The overseas departments are Guadeloupe, a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea; Martinique, a Caribbean island; French Guiana, situated on the northern coast of South America; and Réunion, an island group in the Indian Ocean. They are administered much like departments in metropolitan France. The overseas collectivities are French Polynesia, which includes the island of Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands; New Caledonia; the Wallis and Futuna islands in the Pacific Ocean; French Southern and Antarctic Lands; Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, an island collectivity off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador; Mayotte, an island that chose to remain tied to France when the rest of the Comoros opted for independence; and the Caribbean islands of Saint Martin and Saint-Barthélemy.

Political Parties of France

Political factions have long competed for power in France. The origins of organized political parties in France can be traced back to the Third Republic. Today French parties span the full political spectrum, from far left to far right. During the Third and Fourth republics, numerous poorly organized political parties competed for power. Individual parties rarely succeeded in winning a parliamentary majority, and coalitions of parties were needed to form governments. Political alliances shifted continually, leading to weak, unstable governments.

The introduction of a strong presidential system during the Fifth Republic greatly reduced the number of political parties. Many parties merged or joined coalitions with other groups to enhance their political influence. Since the election of Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s first president, most political parties have served mainly as organizations to mobilize support for particular presidential candidates. As the identities of the candidates change from one election to the next, so the parties change their names and alter their platforms. Party politics in the Fifth Republic are more stable and coherent than they were under earlier republics. Compared with political parties in other Western democracies, however, most French parties remain weakly organized with small, often passive, memberships.

There are several important political parties and coalitions in France. On the right is the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), a coalition initially named the Union for the Presidential Majority, which had formed in 2002 to promote the reelection of President Jacques Chirac. In 2007 UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential election. The UMP was created by the merger of the Rally for the Republic (RPR) and by a bloc of leaders from the Union for French Democracy (UDF). Founded by Chirac in 1976, the RPR espoused a modern form of Gaullism, a political philosophy that, among other things, championed a strong national government and an aggressive foreign policy. The Union for French Democracy (UDF) was originally closely tied to former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The UDF, which continues as an independent political force, supports European integration and free-market policies. On the extreme right is the National Front (FN), led by Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the National Republican Movement (MNR), founded by Le Pen’s former deputy, Bruno Mégret. The FN and MNR espouse nationalist, anti-immigrant platforms.

On the left of the political spectrum is the Socialist Party, founded in the early 20th century and reformed by François Mitterrand. Under the leadership of Mitterrand, who held the presidency from 1981 to 1995, the Socialist Party pursued a moderate socialist program and promoted closer economic and political cooperation within the European Union (EU). The French Communist Party, once a powerful political bloc, has seen its share of the vote decline steadily in recent decades. Environmentalist parties, including the Green Party, meantime have grown in importance.

The French electoral system influences the behavior of political parties in legislative races. A candidate for a seat in the National Assembly must compete in two rounds of voting, unless the candidate claims more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round. Typically, the two leading candidates who meet in the second round represent parties on the left and right. Other parties on the left and right often withdraw their candidates from the second round to improve the chances of candidates on their side of the political divide. Agreements between parties often specify in advance which party will withdraw in favor of the other. Sometimes, such agreements between parties are concluded even before the first round of voting. These agreements can promote electoral alliances, and sometimes even shared platforms among parties.

Social Services in France

France established a comprehensive system of social security in 1946, after World War II. Social security is a right of citizenship in France: The constitution explicitly guarantees a minimal standard of living and health care to all French citizens. France spends about 25 percent of its annual gross domestic product (GDP) on social security, significantly more than is spent in the United Kingdom or United States. Nearly 100 percent of the French population is covered by the social security system.

Universal, compulsory social insurance provides income to retirees, survivors of retirees, people unable to work, the unemployed, the sick, and families with dependent children. It also reimburses much of the cost of health care. More broadly, the social security system defrays virtually all of the cost of higher education and subsidizes some housing costs, especially for people with low incomes. France has a national minimum wage, which is adjusted periodically to account for changes in the cost of living.

The social insurance system is financed largely from payroll taxes, with a smaller percentage contributed from the national government’s general budget. The largest categories of expenditure are retirement and survivorship pensions. France’s aging population—a demographic shift underway in many industrialized nations—has raised concerns about the government’s ability to meet ever-rising pension costs. Expenditures on health care, maternity and family benefits, and unemployment benefits are also significant.

Civil Service in France

Professional, highly trained civil servants staff most public sector jobs. Public sector employees usually must pass competitive civil service entrance examinations. Other examinations permit successful candidates to enter elite institutions of higher learning to prepare them for careers in the civil service. These institutions include the Ecole Nationale, founded in 1945, and the Ecole Polytechnique, founded in 1794.

The French civil service consists of strict hierarchies at the national, regional, and local levels. Each level is associated with a particular set of public jobs and a particular path of career advancement. The elite corps, which staff the national government’s highest technical and administrative positions, are known as the grands corps de l’Etat. Most civil servants are members of unions.

Defense and Foreign Policy of France

France has one of western Europe’s most powerful military forces. France tested its first nuclear weapon in 1960 and maintains an independent nuclear force capable of striking from land, air, and sea. Military expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) have gradually declined in recent decades, due to modernization of the armed services and a heavy dependence on nuclear weapons. The French army is staffed by an all-volunteer professional force. Compulsory national service, a feature of French life for more than two centuries, was formally abolished in 2001.

France was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a regional defense alliance, in 1949. Seeking a more independent military posture, France withdrew all of its forces from the integrated command of NATO in 1966 but remained a member of the alliance. France rejoined the military structure of NATO in 1995 and assumed a seat on NATO’s Military Committee that year. However, France chose to remain outside the alliance’s formal chain of command and to retain sole control of its nuclear weapons, known as the force de frappe. In 2009 France became a full member of NATO and reintegrated into the alliance’s military command structure.

A strong advocate of European cooperation in defense, France supports strengthening the Western European Union (WEU), the security arm of the EU. In 1992 France and Germany created a 35,000-person joint defense force called the Eurocorps, to be placed under the WEU’s command. To alleviate concerns within Europe and the United States that the Eurocorps could undermine NATO’s security role in Europe, France and Germany agreed to establish formal ties between the corps and NATO’s military command.

A major goal of French foreign policy since World War II has been the preservation of France’s status as a great power. Toward this end, France transformed itself from a colonial ruler to a leading advocate of European integration. During the Cold War, France attempted to arbitrate between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). France has tried to retain a leadership role in Africa by building good relations with its former colonies. As one of five permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, France is a frequent volunteer for international peacekeeping operations.

International Organizations in France

France is a charter member of the United Nations, and holds one of five permanent seats on the UN Security Council. France was founding member of European Union (EU) and its several precursor organizations, including the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Economic Community (EEC), and the European Community (EC). France is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

France is party to numerous international treaties. Important examples include the European Convention on Human Rights, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Key treaties France has refused to sign include the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. After conducting nuclear tests in the Pacific in 1995, France announced the completion of its testing program and its willingness to work with Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States on behalf of a comprehensive test ban treaty (see Arms Control).



France has enjoyed a clear sense of its own identity in the modern period, but this identity took a very long time to develop. The term France did not refer uniquely to the territory now identified with the French nation until the end of the Middle Ages. The French language took a standardized form only in the 17th century. As late as the 19th century, a quarter of the population residing in France did not speak standard French. Roman Catholicism, the religion of the vast majority of French people today, was also adopted very slowly. Some historians argue that the majority of French people did not practice Catholic rituals and accept Catholic doctrines in their orthodox form before the 18th century. The French state took centuries to build. Until 1789 the French people lived under some 400 separate codes of civil law. They were better described as subjects of a king than as citizens of a nation. Similarly, not until the 19th century did a true national economy form out of several regional ones. The history of France, then, is not the story of a fixed entity over thousands of years. Rather, it is the history of many processes that, more by coincidence than plan, turned an increasing number of people into Frenchmen and Frenchwomen in the last few centuries.

Geography has played a major role in the development of the nation. France, today referred to as the “hexagon” because of the country’s roughly hexagonal shape, is located at the western end of Eurasia. France is the only European nation that borders on both the Mediterranean Sea and the northern edge of Europe, and it is the only one that faces both central Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. All these exposures have influenced the development of France’s economy, government, and culture. Its location has forced France to protect itself on both land and sea. For this reason, it developed a strong army and, in modern times, a respectably sized navy. France’s long coastlines and several long navigable rivers allowed easy access to many parts of the hexagon long before the coming of rail transportation. The absence of high mountain ranges within the interior also facilitated political and economic unification.

Yet the history of the French nation cannot be reduced to its geography. Natural forces were less important in cementing together the French hexagon than were cultural and, especially, political forces. France was effectively unified for the first time by the ancient Romans. The Romans incorporated it, along with other bordering territories, as Gaul within their sprawling empire in the 1st century BC. Once the Roman Empire disintegrated in the 5th century AD, the region was united to the rest of western and central Europe by its growing attachment to the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Middle Ages, a series of royal dynasties laid claim to what would become France. But they could not back their claims with an effective administration for many centuries. The Valois and Bourbon dynasties in the early modern period developed a larger military and civilian bureaucracy, which enabled the monarchy to pacify the region and extend France’s boundaries. As part of their efforts to build a state, these dynasties helped establish a specifically French culture.

In 1789 the monarchy was overthrown in one of the world’s greatest revolutions. The French Revolution opened up a century and a half of political instability as defenders battled opponents of the revolutionary heritage. Despite this internal strife, the nation remained robust enough to develop a modern industrial economy, build and lose a vast colonial empire, fight in two world wars, become a nuclear power, and establish itself as a major center of the arts and sciences. France is now negotiating to integrate itself politically and economically with the rest of Europe as it has not done since antiquity.

The Foundations

Modern French identity is rooted in the ancient world, chiefly in Celtic and Roman civilizations. Seen through the lens of time, the Celtic inheritance has the more romantic glow, and the French retain a sentimental attachment to it. The Celts provided the point of origin of French history and its first common culture, but the Romans laid down the first lasting foundations of any significance. Without its Roman past, France and French culture would almost certainly have developed differently.

Prehistory and Settlement of the Area

Relatively little is known about the first peoples living in the area now called France. In the period following the arrival of modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Europe around 40,000 BC, a variety of migratory peoples circulated in the region. Fine paintings in the Lascaux caves dating from the Old Stone Age, around 15,000 BC, give striking evidence of a relatively sophisticated culture (see Paleolithic Art). The people who made these paintings were itinerant and depended on hunting and gathering for food. By about 6000 BC, people in what is today France had begun to develop a sedentary culture based on agriculture. This process fundamentally altered the entire French region by about 3000 BC and allowed the population to grow to about 4 million to 5 million people by 1000 BC. Metalwork was introduced around 1400 BC.

In the 8th century BC, waves of northern peoples entered the region. The most important of these were the Celts, who spread over most of France by 400 BC, mixing with other peoples already settled there. Although the Celts never unified the region politically, they left some traces of their culture. A Celtic word meaning “hero” or possibly “Celts” was the origin of the name Gaul. Gaul was the common name for the region of France in antiquity, and it was associated with the Latin word gallus, meaning cock. Later, the cock became the symbol of the French nation.

The Celts and the peoples who lived among them had developed a thriving culture of some 6 million to 8 million people at the time of the Roman conquest in the last century BC. This large pre-Roman population was sustained by intensive agriculture, which benefited from the use of a heavy, iron-tipped plough. Commerce also enriched the population, much of it stimulated by and traded through the Greek colony of Massalía, which was founded in 600 BC on the site of present-day Marseille. Trade led to the development of urban centers, which were also used for religious ceremonies. The Celtic religion was polytheistic. Priests called Druids presided over the followers and met in yearly conclaves (see Druidism).

Politically, the region was divided into hundreds of relatively independent units with constantly shifting borders. These units averaged 1,500 sq km (580 sq mi) in size and were grouped into about 60 larger federations. Units were also tied by tribal affiliations and strategic alliances. However, power relations among the hundreds of units were constantly changing, and no formal political structure emerged that could coordinate them in united action.

This disunity made Celtic Gaul vulnerable to incursions by the Greeks and then the Romans. Greek culture penetrated Gaul from Massalía. The Gauls encountered Roman culture as Rome expanded into the western Mediterranean and confronted Carthage during the Punic Wars in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Massalía was inevitably drawn into the military conflict, usually on the side of the Romans. At the end of the 2nd century BC, Massalía called on Rome for protection against Celtic tribes, and Rome occupied the city. A political settlement was worked out that maintained Massalía’s independence and gave Rome territory in what is today called Languedoc and the upper Garonne valley. During the 1st century BC, all these territories, including Massalía, were incorporated with the Roman province of Narbonensis. From there, Rome expanded northward, ending the independence of Celtic Gaul.

Roman Gaul

Rome was prompted to expand north by two developments. First, Germanic and Celtic tribes began threatening the borders of the empire, eliciting a Roman military response. Second, Julius Caesar, the governor of the Roman province that included Massalía, schemed to advance his political career by making large conquests in Gaul. In 58 BC Caesar began military operations to subdue the area west of the Rhine River.

Caesar exploited divisions among the tribes, but once Rome threatened to dominate them, the tribes united behind Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe. In 52 BC Vercingetorix surrendered to Caesar following the successful Roman siege of Alesia, and he was taken prisoner. Vercingetorix was exhibited in chains during Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome in 46 BC, after which he was executed.

Meanwhile, Roman troops eliminated the last vestiges of resistance. As a result of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which lasted until 51 BC, more than 1 million people died, and almost that many were sold into slavery after the conquest. Following Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, the Romans divided the area north of Narbonensis into three provinces: Aquitania, Lugdunensis, and Belgica. These provinces corresponded roughly to the three parts of Gaul that existed at the time of Caesar’s campaigns, and which he described in On the Gallic Wars.

Narbonensis developed somewhat differently than did the three northern provinces. It had been under Roman domination for over half a century before the time of Caesar, and it was absorbed into the empire relatively quickly. To further this process, Caesar settled members of his legions in four colonies in Narbonensis shortly after the conquest.

The three northern provinces adopted Roman institutions more slowly. Although the Romans eventually established colonies in these provinces as well, they forestalled opposition to their rule by disturbing the preexisting order as little as they thought necessary. The Romans permitted the old Celtic elites to maintain positions of power so long as they followed Roman orders. The Romans also imposed a moderate, if not low, tax burden.

The three northern provinces, each with its own governor, were subdivided into units called the civitates. Like the provinces, the civitates largely followed political divisions that predated the Roman conquest. The civitates all elected representatives to a joint Gallic Council, which coordinated administrative policy and sent common grievances to Rome. The Romans also built an excellent system of roads and waterways in the provinces. Although built largely for military purposes, these improvements also helped to unify Gaul.

A system of courts and administration based on Rome’s highly developed system of law, internal pacification, and a new transportation system encouraged the growth of cities and the expansion of the economy. Cities mushroomed in many regions of Gaul. They were built on the model of Rome itself, often financed by Roman capital. They featured typically Roman buildings such as public baths, marketplaces, city halls, and temples. A considerable number of these structures survive today in various stages of decay, particularly in southern France, which was most heavily Romanized. The economies of these cities benefited from activities connected with public administration and the law, but their chief sources of wealth were trade and goods manufactured by artisans. In the countryside, agricultural production was carried on mainly in the villas—large estates owned by a few wealthy people and worked by tenant farmers called coloni.

The governing elite in the cities were the first to adopt Roman institutions, which then slowly spread to the countryside and the lower classes. Latin gradually replaced the old Gaulish languages, even if the Latin commonly spoken in the street was a vulgarization of “purer” forms. Similarly, Roman pagan cults and worship of the emperor slowly drove out the old Celtic religious practices of the Druids. In the 2nd century AD, religions from the eastern part of the Roman Empire, including Christianity, began to take root. Following the general cultural pattern, Christianity was first practiced in cities, each under a bishop, and spread gradually to the countryside. Christianity’s impact outside urban areas was minimal until long after Roman rule collapsed. Nonetheless, Roman authorities resisted the spread of the new faith and in some instances tried to repress it.

The decline of Roman Gaul after AD 200 was part of the complex process that led to weakening of the grip of the Roman Empire everywhere in the west. The population declined due to plague, and people migrated to the cities. These events crippled agricultural production—the main source of wealth in almost all premodern societies. As agricultural production fell, so, too, did state revenues from taxes. Furthermore, the empire was no longer expanding and could not depend on plunder for fresh supplies of slave labor and material wealth, as it had for centuries. Landlords tried to legally bind their tenants to the soil, while emperors embarked on administrative and tax reforms. But in the end, the economic decline was not reversed.

In the 3rd century, Germanic tribes, especially the Franks and the Alemanni, began penetrating the eastern boundaries of Roman Gaul and settling down without much disruption. These new arrivals may at first have actually strengthened Roman rule, because they provided a workforce that was badly needed to boost agricultural output and secure the borders of the empire. However, not all such penetration was peaceful. To counter the growing pressure from some of these tribes in the 5th century, the Romans made the Franks, and later the Burgundians and Visigoths, their foederati, or allies. This strategy allowed Roman Gaul to escape collapse but caused Rome to gradually lose control. The assignment of military responsibilities to these allies who were spreading through the four provinces of Gaul meant that Roman Gaul was not so much conquered from without as it was Germanized from within.

The Roman occupation of Gaul had an overwhelming impact on later French history. It gave Gaul its first collective political identity. Dozens of France’s modern cities were founded in Roman times, including Paris (then called Lutetia). Modern France is literally built on Roman origins inasmuch as millions of French people today drive on highways paved over Roman roadbeds. Rome left behind its legal system, which heavily influenced the course of French jurisprudence, as well as its artistic traditions, most conspicuous in Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. The French language is derived from Latin, although it has been enriched by Germanic and other infusions. In modern times, the French imagined that the spread of French political influence and culture throughout the world was a continuation of the civilizing mission they had acquired from Rome in ancient times.

Merovingians and Carolingians

By the end of the 5th century, Gaul was rapidly becoming a land of Germanic tribes, who mixed with the much larger number of native Gallo-Romans. Of these tribes, Franks dominated in the north, Burgundians in the east, and Goths in the southwest. But many other peoples lived in the area as well, including Jews, Greeks, and Syrians. They made post-Roman Gallic society highly cosmopolitan. The nature of the interchange between the Germanic tribes and the Gallo-Romans is not well understood, but apparently no violent shock of opposing cultures occurred. First, some of the Germanic tribes, including the Franks, had lived for centuries on the outskirts of Roman civilization. They had become partly Romanized before they settled within the limits of the old Roman Empire. They were familiar enough with Latin to use it when they drafted the first written Germanic law codes. Second, the incoming Germans seemed inclined to settle on previously unoccupied land, generally allowing the Gallo-Romans to keep theirs. Finally, intermarriage was common; hence, most tribal distinctions disappeared by the 8th century.

The coming of the Germanic tribes marked the onset of a period known as the Middle Ages (roughly 350-1450). During the early Middle Ages, from about 350 to 1050, trade, literacy, and law and order declined among the Gallo-Romans. Historians once painted this period in the black terms of barbarism, but today they are much less willing to do so. Historians of traditionally marginalized groups, such as women and Jews, point out that in certain respects the condition of these groups improved after AD 500. Women acquired more control over property as the result of Germanic laws. Jews, whose civil status had declined when the Roman Empire was Christianized, generally faced less persecution under the Germanic kings. Paradoxically, the condition of both women and Jews worsened once again in the 11th century, when a more orderly society was reestablished.

The Franks conquered almost all of what had been Roman Gaul and gave the region a semblance of political unity. Under their leader, Clovis, of the Merovingian dynasty, the Franks conquered the lands of the Alemanni to the east, including much of present-day Germany, and those of the Goths in present-day southwestern France. Only Brittany, in present-day western France, and the Mediterranean coast remained outside Frankish control. Clovis, who ruled from 481 to 511, was a capable, occasionally ruthless military leader, but he understood the importance of symbols and ideology in strengthening his rule. He converted to an orthodox form of Christianity, that is, a form of Christianity approved by the Roman Catholic Church. At that time most Germanic kings followed a form of Christianity, called Arianism, that the Catholic Church condemned as heretical. Clovis’s adoption of Catholic orthodoxy placed him in a special relation to the pope, the bishop of Rome who was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. It also made Clovis more appealing to the growing number of orthodox Roman Christians he had conquered. These included the bishops, who wielded considerable influence in their localities. In addition, bishops were closely connected to powerful local magnates, strongmen who commanded enough retainers and war supplies to exert power over a region. From this point on, rulers in the west relied heavily on the use of Roman Catholic imagery and associations to expand their influence and eventually to build nations.

Although the arrival of the Franks was only minimally disruptive to the Gallo-Roman peoples, Merovingian rule did cause some changes in power relations. First, the center of power shifted to northern Gaul, whereas under the Romans, the center of power had rested in southern regions closer to Rome. Northern domination of the south continued into modern times with the rise of Paris as the capital of the nation. Second, as the economy weakened, cities declined, allowing power to slip to the countryside. Third, political rule became more personalized. The retreat of the Roman armies had left in place a variety of local magnates. The magnates exerted power over their localities through clients who owed some form of loyalty to them. The Merovingians allowed many local magnates to stay in power, and they established close ties to at least some of these magnates, most of whom owed them considerable loyalty and tribute. These personal ties did not prevent the development of rivalry and even military conflict among the magnates. Ordinary people turned increasingly to the local magnates for protection, submitting themselves to their rule.

The Merovingians considered their kingdom a personal possession. Following Germanic practice, Clovis deeded his kingdom to his four surviving sons, who divided it among themselves at his death. Although in later years the kingdom was temporarily unified, the Merovingians never developed effective means of imposing centralized control.

During the 7th century, power within the royal government began to shift from the often ineffectual kings to increasingly influential court figures known as the mayors of the palace. This position was frequently held by the Arnulfing family, later and better known as the Carolingians. This family had strong ties to the great nobles of the kingdom and gradually strengthened the position of mayor of the palace. By the early 8th century, the Carolingians had become the real, if not the official, head of government.

Charles Martel became mayor of the palace in 714 and consolidated military control over outlying regions of the kingdom. To gain support for his operations, Charles Martel distributed church lands among his retainers. This action furthered the interpenetration of the church and the state that had begun in early Merovingian times. These two institutions were so deeply joined that they did not become fully disentangled in France until the 20th century. When he died in 741, Charles Martel was buried in the abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris, which later became the burial site of many French kings.

Charles Martel’s sons, Pepin the Short and Carloman, succeeded him. Carloman retired to a monastery in 747, leaving Pepin to rule alone. Pepin had to put down revolts among the magnates but was eventually able to strengthen his position. By 751 he had largely abandoned the title of mayor of the palace in favor of the Latin title princeps (source of the title prince). Pepin was ready to end the pretense of serving a king. The last Merovingian was bundled off to a monastery that year, and Pepin became the first Carolingian monarch. He was acclaimed as king by an assembly of Frankish nobles and anointed by Saint Boniface, the English missionary known as the Apostle of Germany.

Two developments made Pepin’s coup d’état possible. First, the Carolingians had accumulated vast estates, which he used to pay off supporters. Second, the church was interested in legitimating Pepin’s usurpation of the throne. The pope consecrated Pepin as king in 754 in return for much-needed military support against the Lombard tribes who threatened papal security in Rome. The church’s blessing was decisive in making Pepin’s coup a success. The Frankish magnates could accept Pepin as king from considerations of greed and power. However, only the church’s support could effectively remove the stain of usurpation that marked Pepin’s seizure of the royal title. The consequences were profound for both France and the papacy.

Pepin expanded Frankish rule farther south into Aquitaine, reaching perhaps as far as the Garonne River and Bordeaux, although the kingdom’s political center remained in the north. Pepin capitalized on his relationship with the church and ruled his freshly annexed territories through a network of abbots who were politically loyal to him. The church suffered spiritually from its increasing use by secular authorities, but Pepin’s reign coincided with a movement to reform the church, which his successor would push much further. Under Pepin’s rule, the movement sought to standardize the liturgy and the organization of the clergy throughout the kingdom.

Pepin was succeeded in 768 by his two sons, Charles (later known as Charlemagne) and Carloman, who divided the kingdom between themselves until Carloman’s death three years later. Although Carloman’s portion should legally have passed to his sons, Charlemagne wielded enough political power to bend the still flexible Frankish succession law and procedures to his advantage. He seized the inheritance of his nephews and reunited the kingdom. This usurpation provided Charlemagne with the resources for building his empire—a political achievement unmatched by any of his Carolingian predecessors or successors. Eventually he ruled lands stretching from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Elbe River.

Charlemagne ruled most of his empire through officers known as counts, who received land—much of it plundered—in exchange for their services. To secure their loyalty, the counts were obliged to swear oaths of fidelity—sometimes sworn on holy relics to make the oath a religious obligation. The counts had wide-ranging responsibilities, from maintaining roads to supervising the judiciary. They also administered oaths to a variety of officials, including clerics, as a way of reinforcing loyalty to Charlemagne. Charlemagne understood well the importance of not trusting any one group of officials too much. Thus, he sent another set of imperial agents, called the missi dominici, to comb through the empire to eliminate corruption and disloyalty among the counts.

It is unclear how well Charlemagne was able to control developments at the grass roots using this system. He was frequently obliged to put down revolts against his rule. The Saxons proved particularly hard to subdue, and their persistent resistance to Carolingian rule prompted Charlemagne to unleash ever more bloody repression against them.

Charlemagne found the church to be one of his best weapons for maintaining control, and he further integrated churchmen into his imperial system. Thus, he leaned heavily on bishops as well as the counts to carry out his orders and appointed clergymen to serve as missi. But if political considerations underlay much of Charlemagne’s treatment of the church, his political policies were also rooted in genuine religious conviction. He donated large tracts of land to churches and monasteries, worked hard on standardizing the liturgy, supported missionary efforts, and supervised the morals and education of the clergy. The results of these efforts are hard to determine for want of evidence. But Charlemagne’s attempts to improve the morals and education of the clergy led to his promotion of the arts and scholarship in a movement that has been called the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian Renaissance was less a break with the past than an extension of it, for learning was by no means dead in the kingdom when Charlemagne took power.

By the end of the 8th century, Charlemagne had made his empire reasonably secure militarily and had enriched it with plunder. He then devoted considerable effort to expanding the empire’s intellectual resources. Reportedly unable to write himself, Charlemagne nonetheless developed an exceptional respect for scholarship and the arts.

The Carolingian Renaissance occurred in schools attached to cathedrals and monasteries and in Charlemagne’s court, headquartered in Aachen (in French, Aix-la-Chapelle), in present-day Germany. The court attracted major scholars from around Europe, even from beyond the borders of the empire. Most notable was Alcuin, an English scholar, who set up an educational program. Scholars congregated at the court in part to use its large library. Scholars of the Carolingian Renaissance were concerned mainly with art, literature, and theology. Although these scholars and artists were not highly original, they kept learning alive, partly by recopying ancient works.

The climax of Charlemagne’s rule has traditionally been considered his coronation as emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day 800. But historians then and now disagree sharply on what happened on that occasion and its significance. Charlemagne was in Rome in late 800 as part of an effort to restore the pope’s power in Rome, which was threatened by a rebellion. The pope hoped to restore his political fortunes by crowning Charlemagne and thereby associating himself more closely with the major political force in Europe. According to one account, the coronation was a surprise to Charlemagne, and one he did not altogether welcome. Scholars now tend to think he knew about the coronation beforehand and that he was happy enough to accept the imperial title.

Some historians have tried to represent the coronation as a turning point in medieval history and as a key to Charlemagne’s notion of a Christian empire. However, neither Charlemagne’s ideas nor his policies seem to have changed very much as a result. The Carolingians’ legitimacy had rested on the church’s sanction for nearly half a century by this time, and Charlemagne’s elevation from king of the Franks to emperor of the Romans seems only to have followed well-established precedent.

Moreover, Charlemagne’s disposition of his empire suggests he was still thinking about it in traditional Frankish terms. Rather than try to maintain its unity after his death, Charlemagne planned to divide the empire among his three sons, Louis, Carloman, and Pepin. But two of these sons died before Charlemagne, and Louis inherited the whole empire when his father died in 814.

Charlemagne’s reign quickly became encrusted by legend, which scholars, without denying its very real achievements, are still trying to detach from the reality. Charlemagne’s impact on the development of a French national consciousness was limited. He stimulated the growth of cultural and political institutions throughout his empire. But Charlemagne did not directly promote either a specific French or German identity; such terms had little meaning in his period. The name Francia—precursor of France—was used, but it referred to the entire Carolingian empire outside Italy (northern and central Italy fell under Charlemagne’s control after he defeated the Lombards in 773-774), not a more limited region within the empire.

The reign of Louis I from 814 to 840 has traditionally been viewed as the gateway to disintegration and decline of the empire. But scholars now point out that Louis was more effective than his father in making the administration work and did more to preserve the imperial idea. Louis’s chief problem was the endemic conflict among the magnates. Toward the end of Louis’s reign, this conflict became enmeshed in the struggle among his sons—Lothair, Louis, and Charles the Bald—over the division of the empire. In 842, two years after Louis’s death, two of his sons, Charles and Louis, allied against Lothair.

In 843 the three sons reached a fragile settlement over their respective inheritances in the Treaty of Verdun. According to this treaty, Charles was to rule a western kingdom, including Aquitaine; Louis was to rule a kingdom east of the Rhine; and Lothair was to rule a central kingdom, consisting of lands lying between the two other kingdoms plus Italy. Lothair would receive the imperial title but would have no effective control over Charles and Louis or their lands. See Lothair I; Charles II (Holy Roman Empire).

This treaty was less significant for the development of the French nation than is often supposed. It did help to set France’s ultimate boundaries, inasmuch as Charles acquired a claim over most of what would later become modern France. At the time, however, it achieved little in terms of national unification. The term Francia continued to refer to regions ruled by Charles and by his brothers. Charles’s inheritance was commonly called West Francia and Louis’s was called East Francia. Only centuries later did Francia denote present-day France alone. Furthermore, the brothers continued to fight over the terms of the treaty.

Sandwiched between West and East Francia, Lothair’s portion (Lotharingia) proved extremely hard to consolidate, and imperial authority rapidly declined there. For a long time, West Francia followed a similar course. Brittany, which had been a Frankish dependency, began to move beyond royal control, while Aquitaine, a region that had been under Frankish rule for only a century, gradually reasserted its autonomy under Charles’s rule. This trend was reinforced by cultural and linguistic differences. In the north—the old Frankish homestead—Germanic law and an early version of the French language, the langue d’oïl (so called because of the pronunciation of the word for yes), prevailed. In the south, including Aquitaine, the predominant tongue was the langue d’oc, which was closer to classical Latin than was the langue d’oïl. Roman law also exercised a much greater influence in the south than in the north.

Charles’s reign was further disturbed by the incursions of the Vikings, a marauding people from the north who plundered many regions of western Europe beginning in the late 8th century. Historians are now less impressed than they once were with the destructiveness of the Vikings, pointing out that conflicts among the magnates might well have caused just as much damage to lives and property. Still, the Vikings were at the very least a destabilizing force in Charles’s kingdom and dealt an unwelcome blow to an already shaky regime.

The most critical weakness of Charles’s regime—one that would continue for centuries—was the uncertain loyalty and independence of the powerful magnates, who clustered in two major factions, the Carolingians and the Robertians, so called because of their association with Robert the Strong, count of Neustria. Charles had less booty to offer his nobles than did Charlemagne and sought to gain political leverage by playing off one aristocratic faction against the other. In this effort, he received considerable assistance from the church, which Charles protected in return for the church’s spiritual and material support. Beginning in Charles’s reign, the church started routinely anointing Frankish kings as a part of royal ceremony. This ritual added luster and authority to the king’s title, but it also offered bishops of the church an invitation to intervene in state affairs in God’s name. Charles also tried to secure a stronger political base by turning eastward to secure the imperial title. In 875 he managed to obtain it and kept it until his death two years later.

Despite Charles’s vigorous efforts to bolster his authority, his reign can only appear in retrospect as the prelude to one of the most disordered centuries of French history. Aristocratic factions had gained strength during the early and middle decades of the 9th century. These factions dominated the politics of West Francia for a long time, making the crown more a political football than the secure possession of any one dynasty.

Carolingian kings ruled until 888 when Odo, also known as Eudes, son of Robert the Strong of the powerful Robertian faction, became king of West Francia. The Carolingians recovered the crown when Charles the Simple was crowned in Reims in 893 as Charles III. But the title he temporarily regained for the Carolingians had become an increasingly empty one. Power had shifted decisively to the magnates. In 911 Charles was sufficiently pressed by the conquering Viking chieftain Rollo to recognize the Vikings’ conquest of the lower Seine River in an area later known as Normandy. In return Rollo professed loyalty to Charles and promised to convert to Christianity. The territories of Burgundy and Aquitaine, already moving beyond the king’s control, became virtually independent states in the following decades. In 922 Charles was deposed by the Robertian faction.

The Carolingians regained the royal title in 936 and ruled without interruption until 987. But they were faced with a growing challenge from the Robertians, who were ably led by Hugh the Great and his son Hugh Capet. Hugh Capet wielded sufficient influence among the magnates to overthrow the Carolingians definitively in 987, much as the Carolingians had overthrown the Merovingians more than two centuries earlier. One usurpation had given birth to another.

The 9th and 10th centuries have been viewed as the time when feudalism took shape. (Feudalism was a system of land tenure and political authority in which a lord granted the use of land in return for political and military services.) Research has now made this idea obsolete as a general description of an enormously complex situation. It is now clear that property was held on a great variety of different legal bases. Much land, especially in the south, was held by magnates and others in the form of alods—that is, land granted without services due to the king or a magnate. Other territories were held in exchange for feudal services, including military service, and over the Middle Ages these obligations became more formalized and sanctioned by custom. Nonetheless, it is hazardous to generalize about the relationship between the king and the magnates. This relationship, like land tenures, was extremely variable in form and guided by no clear constitutional principles. In reality royal power always depended largely on the king’s ability to form strategic alliances with the dominating factions. The factions fought for their own interests and sacrificed little for the king or the nation.

The growing weakness of the late Carolingians may have been aggravated by a number of factors: the invasion of the Vikings; a decline in economic production; insufficient supplies of booty to buy support. But the crisis of the Carolingian state was above all a crisis of state management: Like the Merovingians, the Carolingians allowed the magnates to form constellations of power. Eventually the Carolingian rulers succumbed to the aggressive leaders of these constellations.

The Growth of a National Identity

Hugh Capet’s establishment of the Capetian dynasty changed little in the political, social, or economic structure of West Francia. The monarchy had exercised little power since the days of Charlemagne. For another two centuries, it remained weaker than the contemporary governments of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany and Norman-dominated England. Historians have suggested that the French crown’s very weakness helped preserve it—its relative insignificance made it less attractive as a target for acquisition by the magnates.

Nonetheless, the Capetian monarchy was the thread that bound together the region that would gradually become known as France. Beginning in the late 10th century, the French monarchy felt the force of several critical developments that affected western Europe generally: a resurgent Catholic Church, a growing economy, and better-organized states. As the landscape of medieval Europe changed, the Capetians worked tirelessly to master it. They were most likely guided by short- and intermediate-term political advantage rather than any deliberate policy of nation building. The unintended result was the emergence of an embryonic French nation by the late Middle Ages.

A Weakened Monarchy: The Early Capetians

The Capetians had usurped their title in 987, and because of this usurpation their dynastic right to rule remained weak for some time. Until the 13th century, the Capetian kings tried to improve the chances for a smooth and uncontested succession. Thus, before they died, the kings had their intended successors acclaimed as king by the magnates and crowned by church officials. This process was so important that for three centuries the Capetians dated the beginning of their respective reigns not from the death of the previous king but from the moment of their coronation. The Capetians’ dependence on other institutions, principally the church, for their authority was one major reason effective centralized government required centuries to build.

Hugh Capet, who ruled from 987 to 996, accomplished little as king beyond keeping the royal title alive and out of the hands of the remaining Carolingian claimants. He avoided military confrontation when possible; he counted more on his negotiating skills and the backing of the church to shore up his shaky position. Hugh’s immediate successors—Robert II, known as Robert the Pious (996-1031), Henry I (1031-1060), and Philip I (1060-1108)—did little better.

Indeed, some historians believe that royal authority, flimsy as it was in 987, shrank even more during the first century of Capetian rule. The magnates, who in reality governed most of the kingdom, did pay homage to the king and swore fidelity to him upon becoming his vassals. But by themselves these formalities meant little until the 12th century. Far more important were the strategic alliances that the kings made with the magnates. The magnates would typically live up to their feudal obligations to pay homage and to provide counsel and military service only when such alliances had been struck. Until the 12th century, only a few scattered territories around the Île-de-France, the region centered on Paris, made up the king’s domain—the variegated bundle of rights to exploit and administer land directly and to collect taxes. However, the king had much greater power over appointments in the French church, particularly the ability to appoint bishops.


A weak monarchy made it easier for the magnates to consolidate their hold on the lives and properties of their underlings. Although slavery, a vestige of the Roman Empire, slowly disappeared, serfdom arose in its place, especially in the north, where land held as alods became less common than in the South. Serfs were legally bound to live and work on specific territories and were required to pay their lords in the form of money, or, more typically, labor services, including work on the lord’s lands.

Limited though their liberty was, serfs should not be confused with slaves. In exchange for their services, they retained precious rights, including the right to exploit land and the right to their lord’s protection. Legally, they could not be sold, and if lordship of an estate to which serfs were attached changed hands, the new lord was expected to respect the traditional rights of the serfs. In an age when law and order was in short supply and economic opportunities were limited, the concrete rights of the serfs to work the land and to protection undoubtedly appeared more important to most people than the abstract condition called freedom. Serfdom became an inheritable legal condition in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Paradoxically, at the same time, the economic forces that would eventually undermine serfdom were gathering strength. First among these forces was a steady growth of population, which increased demand and prompted greater production. The population of the area constituting present-day France grew from an estimated 5 million to 6 million people in 1000 to 18 million to 21 million by the early 14th century. As the population grew, people cleared forested areas to increase the amount of arable land, a process that also expanded supplies of timber. Timber was especially important for the medieval economy as a source of energy and building material. In addition, agricultural productivity increased. This increase was due to a warming climate that lengthened the growing season, modest technological improvements, such as heavier plows, and the three-field system, which allowed land to lie fallow for one of every three years, rather than one of every two years. Finally, trade expanded, enabling peasants to cultivate cash crops to exchange for other products in the great markets, such as the fairs of Champagne. Trade and cash crops encouraged the development of regional specialization.

Trade also promoted the growth of towns and cities. Paris was the most spectacular example. It grew from between 15,000 and 20,000 people under the Carolingians to between 150,000 and 200,000 people by 1300. The growth of trade and urban areas encouraged the decline of serfdom. By the 13th century, the population had reached the saturation point in some areas of the countryside, so not all laborers could be productively employed. Some serfs ran away to the towns and cities in search of work, and lords were not inclined to chase after them because their labor was not much needed. Indeed, given the high death rates in the unhealthful cities, urban populations could grow only if people migrated to cities from the countryside.

Resurgent Church

The revival of the economy coincided with a major movement to reform the Church. During the early Middle Ages, the church had lost a great deal of its independence. Many of the church’s most critical offices and sources of income were controlled by the magnates, who used them for their own political purposes. Beginning in the early 10th century, a movement to free the church of control by laymen emerged from the Benedictine monastery in Cluny (see Benedictines). By the end of the 11th century, 1,500 monasteries supported Cluny’s reforms, and in the 12th century, the austere Cistercian order joined Cluny’s reform efforts (see Cistercians). Nearly from the start, the papacy had maintained close ties to the Cluniac movement. Popes such as Gregory VII (1073-1085) tied the reform movement to the authority of the papacy over secular rulers.

The reformers sought to recruit the ablest people, not the wellborn, to fill high church offices, and, as a result, they strengthened the church as a whole. During the High Middle Ages from about 1050 to about 1300, the Church expanded its presence in society. The number of monastic orders multiplied, and the church promoted arts, education, and scholarship and encouraged the use of canon law and ecclesiastical courts.

Growth of Royal Power: The Later Capetians

The resurgent economy and church contributed to the slow growth of royal power starting in the reign of Louis VI, who became king in 1108. The expanding economy eventually allowed the kings to tap into new sources of wealth, and they were able to build armies and a new bureaucratic administration. The rising influence of the church and Christian religion strengthened the religious basis of the Capetian monarchy. Henceforth, French kings were crowned in formal ceremonies at Reims, where Clovis had been baptized. They acquired the title Most Christian King. The French kings claimed to have the power to cure a disease related to tuberculosis called scrofula. The Capetians also benefited from the Crusades, the military campaigns called by the church to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims. Participation in the Crusades enhanced the Capetians’ prestige. It also allowed them to redirect the warring tendencies of the magnates outside the country; approximately half of the magnates participated in the Crusades. Despite occasional differences and disputes, the Capetians were on much better terms with the papacy in the 12th and 13th centuries than were the dynasties ruling England or Germany.

Louis VI and Louis VII, who ruled between 1137 and 1180, pacified their domain, which had been overrun by marauding bandits during the reigns of their predecessors. But the real challenge they faced was the rising power of the Plantagenet dynasty. This aristocratic family had strong bases in both England and France. Henry II, who became the first Plantagenet king of England in 1154, had been duke of Normandy. He had also acquired a claim to all of Aquitaine when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. Eleanor had been married to Louis VII, but he had annulled his marriage to Eleanor for her alleged adultery. In the 1180s the Plantagenets also came to control Brittany.

Louis VII’s son, Philip Augustus, ruled as Philip II from 1180 to 1223. He maintained surprisingly cordial relations with both Henry II and his successor, Richard I, until the 1190s, when the rising Plantagenet threat erupted in conflict. Philip broke with Richard while both were on the Third Crusade. Richard was able to gain the upper hand until his death in 1199, but Philip gained the advantage after Richard was succeeded by his brother, John.

By 1206 Philip had overrun Normandy, Maine, Touraine, Anjou, Poitou, Auvergne, and Brittany. In 1214 he won a crushing victory over John and his allies at the Battle of Bouvines and then nearly invaded England. With the Plantagenets suppressed, the battle determined which dynasty predominated in France for the next two centuries. In that regard, it was a critical event in the long history of national consolidation, even though another desperate struggle with the ruling house of England lay in the future. During Philip’s reign, the royal domain expanded several fold in size, and for a time, the Capetians were the dominant power in Europe.

Louis VIII, king between 1223 and 1226, continued to build the royal domain. Philip II had already allowed a group of knights led by Simon IV de Montfort to attack the Albigenses, members of a heretical Christian sect in the south of France. The campaign against them was blessed by the pope. Louis VIII himself went south to capitalize on Montfort’s bloody assaults and placed all Languedoc, where the sect was strong, under his rule. Although Louis died in 1226, he had established the right of the Capetian kings and their families to rule over much of the south. He had incorporated into the Capetian sphere of influence areas that had been virtually autonomous since the 9th century.

Under Louis IX, who ruled from 1226 to 1270, the Capetians added luster to their power. Louis, a faithful son of the church, was so personally pious that he was eventually made a saint by the church. A committed Crusader, he was a prominent collector of holy relics, which he housed in the luminescent church of Sainte-Chapelle built in Paris under his direction. But he was also an effective administrator. He extended and enforced law and order through the royal courts and the legal system. He stabilized the currency and built the royal bureaucracy. His prestige was so high that for centuries he was held up as a model king, and his sainthood strengthened the cult of the king as a godlike figure.

Louis IX’s successor was Philip III, who became king in 1270. He was a far weaker and paler king, whose reign was dominated by factions. He was followed in 1285 by Philip IV the Fair, who was very different. Philip was the most brutal of the Capetians in using the growing power of the monarchy to bludgeon his enemies. Although generous to religious foundations, Philip came to blows with the papacy in defense of his right to tax church property. He thereby jeopardized the monarchy’s historic alliance with Rome, one of the principal sources of its success. During this struggle, Philip’s agents broke into the papal residence and sacked it. Soon thereafter, the papacy moved to Avignon, where it stayed for nearly a century. To many contemporaries, the papacy’s agreement to relocate indicated that it had fallen under the control of the French kings, and the papacy’s prestige suffered.

Philip IV risked destroying the alliance with Rome over finances because royal power was coming to depend on money. Philip took other measures to gain revenue, including destroying the Knights Templar—a rich crusading order—and expelling the Jews from France. In both cases, the king seized the assets of his victims. In addition, Philip debased the currency. He was succeeded by the last three Capetians—Louis X (1314-1316), Philip V (1316-1322), and Charles IV (1322-1328).

Legacy of the Capetians

Aside from building the royal domain and uprooting the Plantagenets, the Capetians contributed to the formation of the French nation by developing a set of core political institutions, many of which would last until 1789. Among them was a local administration composed of judicial officials variously called prévôts, baillis, and sénéchaux. In Paris, which gradually emerged as the country’s capital, a central administration began to develop. Administrative and judicial duties that had previously been performed by the royal council were assigned to other bodies, such as the parlements, courts with wide-ranging jurisdiction, and the more specialized Chambres de Comptes, which heard fiscal cases. Loosely associated with these courts was the Estates-General, an assembly composed of representatives from the three estates, or legally defined social classes: clergy, nobility, and commoners. These representatives were elected throughout the realm. The Estates-General counseled the king and consented to important initiatives of the crown. The crown also developed a rudimentary tax system. This system enabled the crown to tap the expanding wealth of the nation, although taxes were always controversial and often fiercely resisted.

When it functioned, this machinery and the institutions of the church no doubt reduced the levels of violence and disorder that had existed in earlier periods. Yet these administrative mechanisms were also used to exclude and to repress. The king and the papacy tried to enforce religious orthodoxy, which led to the bloody repression of nonorthodox believers such as the Albigenses. The rights of Jews, who were associated with heretics and lepers, eroded, and they were eventually expelled from the kingdom. Homosexuals and prostitutes also appear to have suffered increasing persecution. And although it is risky to generalize in this matter, some evidence suggests that the general reform movement of the church wresting control of church lands from lay lords caused their families to try to keep their remaining properties intact by granting women smaller shares of family estates than they had received during the Early Middle Ages. In sum, processes that led to the building of the nation were hardly cost-free.

France in the Late Middle Ages

In 1328 the Valois dynasty replaced the Capetians. By this time, the royal government that controlled the territories constituting “France” was arguably the most powerful in Europe. During the next century, two major crises tested its creativity and endurance to the limit. One was the socioeconomic crisis of the 14th century, which resulted from the inability to meet the material needs of an expanded population and from the effects of the plague. The other was a political crisis that emerged from the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the Valois and the English royal house, a conflict that grew into a French civil war. This war indicates that a strong, pervasive national sentiment had not yet emerged.

The Plague

In the late 1340s, bubonic plague struck France and most of western and central Europe (see Black Death). Bubonic plague was caused by bacteria carried by fleas. It spread rapidly through the cities and towns of medieval France, where the population was not in a strong condition to resist the disease. Already by the late 13th century, available resources were not sufficient to supply the growing French population, forcing farmers to cultivate even relatively infertile land to meet the demand for food. Productivity generally declined with the onset of colder weather, which meant a shorter growing season. Lumber, a critical resource in the medieval economy, became scarcer as forests were cleared. Famine recurred frequently after 1300, when the population reached its peak. Lower living standards gradually slowed the growth of population, which stagnated over the first half of the next century.

In 1348 the plague swept northward through France from Marseille. A quarter to a third of the French people died during the next two years. Plague remained endemic for the next 350 years and contributed to further declines in the French population. By the middle of the 15th century, plague and war had wiped out most of the population increases of previous centuries. Some areas did not again reach pre-plague population levels until the 18th or 19th century.

The plague also had complex economic and social consequences, about which there is considerable historical debate. It does seem to have contributed to the decline of serfdom and the emergence of a commercial economy, in which goods are exchanged for profit, often over long distances. As the population declined, so did demand for goods and the price of land. But wages rose because labor, which had been plentiful and cheap, suddenly became scarce. Landlords and other employers now had to bid for labor on a more competitive basis. Agricultural labor became even more expensive and difficult to hire as people migrated to the cities. The rising price of labor enabled peasants and workers to spend more money on luxuries such as meat and proportionately less on grain. Serfs may have used the greater demand for labor to win their freedom, thereby accelerating the decline of serfdom that had begun a century earlier.

In the end, however, the peasants were not able to retain most of their gains from the higher price of labor. Much of their gains went to the state, which, pressed to pay for the Hundred Years’ War, imposed higher taxes on the peasantry. To pay the taxes, the peasants often needed to obtain loans from urban moneylenders to whom they had to pay interest, further depressing their prosperity. In addition, landlords raised peasants’ rents where they could. Peasants’ grievances fueled a revolt in the 1350s, called the Jacquerie (after the name Jacques that nobles commonly gave to peasants). The Jacquerie was followed by more revolts between 1379 and 1383.

The plague seems to have had a deep psychological impact on late medieval French society, intensifying the sense of the fragility of life and the omnipresence of death. This awareness of death provoked a variety of reactions. Some people abandoned traditional moral constraints and turned to the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. Others focused more on the apparently imminent judgment of their souls and the need to repent for their sins, which some people believed were responsible for the plague. Finally, the plague unleashed a round of accusations against those whose presence in the community was resented for other reasons. Jews in particular were accused of poisoning wells and conjuring with evil spirits to bring on the plague.

The Hundred Years’ War

The despair wrought by the plague was enhanced by the devastation of the Hundred Years’ War, which dominated the French political scene for more than a century, from 1337 to 1453. The war originated in the Plantagenets’ efforts to make good on their claims to French territory. Indeed, the Plantagenets suggested that they had a claim to the French crown because the mother of the Plantagenet king of England, Edward III, was Isabella, daughter of the French king, Philip IV. To counter this claim, the Valois floated the idea that the Salic law, dating back to early Frankish times, prohibited women from inheriting the French throne and from passing on the right to inherit the throne to their sons. Although denounced by the Plantagenets and others as a historical fiction, the Salic law became one of the firmest, most widely respected French constitutional traditions.

The Hundred Years’ War began in Flanders and soon moved to other areas, notably Gascony, which the Plantagenets controlled before the war, and Normandy. During the reigns of Philip VI and John II the Good between 1328 and 1364, the Plantagenets clearly had the upper hand, winning major victories at Sluys in 1340, Crécy in 1346, and Poitiers in 1356. Faced with military setbacks, the effects of the plague, peasant and urban uprisings, and his own capture, John signed the Peace of Brétigny in 1360, in which he ceded a third of his kingdom to Edward III.

Under Charles V, who ruled from 1364 to 1380, the Valois regrouped. The crown was assisted by Bertrand du Guesclin, an able military leader who pushed back the Plantagenets on the battlefield. The Valois also benefited from conflicts within the English royal house. By 1380 most Plantagenet gains had been wiped out.

But under Charles VI, who became king in 1380, the French position again deteriorated, as did the king, who suffered from periodic bouts of insanity beginning in 1392. Two competing aristocratic factions, the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, sought to dominate Charles, and they brought France to the verge of civil war. Both factions solicited support from the English, who clearly benefited from their rivalry. In 1415 the new king of England, Henry V of the house of Lancaster, landed in France and defeated French forces at the Battle of Agincourt, which secured Plantagenet control of areas north of the Loire. Four years later, the English allied with the Burgundians, who forced Charles VI to give his daughter in marriage to Henry V and to sign the devastating Treaty of Troyes in 1420. This treaty disinherited Charles’s son, the future Charles VII, and recognized Henry’s claims to the French throne. Although many future historians would denounce it as an act of betrayal, contemporary reaction to the treaty was by no means uniformly hostile in France, especially north of the Loire. Paris, in particular, supported the Anglo-Burgundian union until late in the war, and the university and the Parlement of Paris, the presiding sovereign court, recognized Henry V as their legitimate king when Charles VI died in 1422.

From the 1420s on, however, the tide once again turned in favor of the Valois for several reasons. First, the English sometimes treated their French subjects with brutality and made heavy financial demands on the French. The English had to extort even more money from their French subjects than did the kings of France because resources coming from England were inadequate. Second, the war—a dynastic conflict that had become a civil war—gradually changed again, into a war of national liberation. Although the notion of a French nation remained embryonic, the French tended to blame the hardships of the war on the English. Royal propagandists exploited this tendency, emphasizing the need for a king who was “one of our kind.” Third, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance began to develop ultimately fatal strains. After 1435 the Burgundians threw their weight behind the Valois, decisively shifting the balance of power.

Finally, there was the mission of Joan of Arc, a young woman so romanticized in her own and later times that even today it is hard to dispel the mythology spun around her. Joan was born to relatively comfortable peasants from Lorraine. She was dismayed by the hardships her people had suffered in the war and sought an end to the conflict. She tried to reinvigorate the Valois dynasty so that it could remove the English from French soil. Contrary to the popular image, Joan of Arc was never a military commander, but she did help inspire a fighting spirit among the troops of the dauphin Charles, the eldest son of the king and the heir apparent.

Charles, the disinherited Valois prince, had remained morose, lethargic, and uncrowned before Joan arrived on the scene in 1428. In 1429 Joan helped lift the English siege of Orléans, which opened the way for the dauphin to be crowned as Charles VII at Reims, the traditional site of royal coronations. The coronation was critical at this juncture, because it undercut Charles’s disinheritance in the Treaty of Troyes by emphasizing the divine, rather than the legal, basis of royal authority.

Seized by the English, Joan was tried for heresy and witchcraft. The English wanted not only to justify her execution but also to make the French believe the coronation had been the work of the devil. Upon her conviction, which was a foregone conclusion, she was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431.

Partly as a result of Joan’s mission, partly as a result of the other factors indicated above, Charles was able to put the English on the defensive until the end of the war. France was nearly cleared of English forces by 1453, when the fighting finally ceased. Despite the armistice, the English and the French viewed each other as mortal enemies for many centuries.

Foundations of the Old Regime

The Hundred Years’ War not only bled France white materially, it nearly extinguished the Valois dynasty. But the Valois were able to use the war as the springboard for another century-long round of building royal institutions, expanding their power in the process. This expansion of power underlay the emergence of the Old Regime, a complex structure of political and social institutions dominated by an increasingly absolute monarchy.

Population Growth

Once the conflict was over, the French population rebounded. Historians generally agree that from the 1450s until around 1620, the French population expanded considerably. This growth was probably due to a drop in the average age at marriage, which meant more marriages and births. The death rate also declined, especially among children, as epidemics became less frequent. The population of cities such as Lyon, Bordeaux, and Rouen grew between 50 and 100 percent from 1500 to 1600. By the late 16th century, the population of Paris reached about 300,000, and the French population as a whole once again stood at the high level of the early 14th century.

Production methods changed relatively little during this period. But rising domestic demand and increasing foreign trade through France’s coastal cities promoted product diversification. These changes can be seen in the growth of textile trades in northern France and the expansion of commercial wine production in the south.

The growth of the labor supply eventually depressed wages. In addition, larger families meant that estates were divided into smaller, less viable homesteads. Increasing demand drove up prices over the long term. The standard of living gradually declined, and population growth leveled off about 1620.

Strengthening of State Institutions

The resurgence of population and economic growth was accompanied by the political revival of the state. The scope of royal justice widened as parlements (royal courts) were established in Toulouse in 1443, Grenoble in 1456, Dijon in 1477, Aix-en-Provence in 1501, Rouen in 1515, and Rennes in 1551. In addition to hearing cases and overseeing local administration, the parlements were charged with registering, or officially adopting, royal edicts. Kings expected registration to be more or less automatic, since in their view the procedure did not involve anything like legislative approval. But the parlements sometimes used such occasions to protest against edicts they found objectionable by issuing formal dissents called remonstrances. In addition to expanding the judiciary, the royal government also compiled local customary laws and extended the system of royal administration by establishing baillis and sénéchaux, royal administrators who supervised the prevots, in areas that now fell within the expanding royal domain. To meet the demands of war, the crown expanded its military capacity by recruiting mercenaries.

In periods of war, the crown needed to expand its taxing power, and it did so by levying extraordinary wartime taxes, including indirect (sales) taxes and the taille, a tax paid by non-nobles on their personal wealth. These taxes were gradually levied on a more routine basis. To gain consent for them, the crown summoned a variety of local and regional assemblies, in addition to the kingdom-wide assembly, the Estates-General. In general, these assemblies approved royal initiatives, facilitating the expansion of royal power. At the same time, however, the assemblies ventilated grievances against the king, and they sometimes refused to consent to fresh taxes. For these reasons, the monarchy gradually sought to dispense with assemblies, arguing that the king’s right to tax unilaterally had become customary. But this right continued to be contested, as were the amount and nature of the taxes themselves.

This opposition was one factor that prevented the monarchy from establishing a uniform tax code before the French Revolution (1789-1799), despite its rising power. Another was that the monarchy granted permanent exemptions from some taxes to certain groups and bodies for both political and fiscal reasons. Nobles were free from paying the taille on the grounds that they provided military service to the king. Some localities were similarly exempt because at some time in the past they had bought a permanent exemption through a single large contribution. Some provinces were partially shielded from taxes because they retained the right to negotiate the size and nature of their tax burden with the crown through their provincial assemblies. The Catholic Church, a major landholder in the kingdom, also acquired tax advantages. Rather than pay the standard rate, the church was permitted to make a “free gift” to the crown. This amount was much smaller than what the church would have owed if it paid taxes like other groups. Such exemptions meant that the tax system was far from equitable and weighed most heavily on those who lacked the political influence to gain exemptions, notably the peasantry.

To cover the costs of government, the crown sold state offices, a practice known as venality of office. By the early 16th century, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 offices had been sold; by the late 16th century, the number had increased to about 15,000; by the 1660s, to about 50,000. By the late 18th century, about 70,000 offices were venal, meaning that roughly one percent of all adult Frenchmen owned one. Although not all state offices were venal, some of the most important positions, including judgeships in the parlements, were. Venality limited the crown’s ability to control the quality of its own officials. Offices were resold to the highest bidder, and the crown could not fire officers without repaying the capital they had invested in their offices, a luxury that the state could hardly ever afford.

Yet by selling offices, the crown increased the loyalty of its servants: Normally few officials would revolt against a state they partially owned. Moreover, venality allowed the monarchy to make money. The crown not only profited from the initial sale of offices but also acquired further revenue by annually charging officeholders a sixtieth of their office’s value to ensure inheritability. Established in the early 17th century, this charge, called the paulette, yielded more revenue than did indirect taxes. In addition, venality occasionally resulted in officeholders being forced to lend the state money. Venality was crucial for the state because it provided an administrative apparatus at relatively low cost. Venality was also the most important mechanism for ennobling wealthy commoners. Some of the costliest offices not only paid yearly dividends gauged on their value but also conferred noble status if held by a family for four generations.

From the Hundred Years’ War to the Wars of Religion

Profiting from a somewhat healthier economy and a more muscular royal administration, the monarchy built on the momentum it had acquired at the end of the Hundred Years’ War to expand control over remaining noble enclaves. In 1461, the year Louis XI became king, the Valois-Burgundian alliance collapsed. The duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, was attempting to reconstitute the kingdom of Lotharingia. He made another alliance with the English and also allied with French nobles who were antagonistic to the new French king. This faction organized a league, to which Louis was forced to make concessions in 1465. In 1467 Charles the Bold succeeded Philip, and in 1472 he led an Anglo-Burgundian force against Louis. Louis responded by buying off England and forming his own coalition of powers that were threatened by Charles. Although Louis was slow to capitalize on his strategic advantage as king, Charles was killed in battle in 1477. Louis might have annexed all of Charles’s large inheritance, but in the end, Charles’s sole heir, Mary, wedded Maximilian I of the Habsburg family, giving the Habsburgs a major claim on her inheritance.

Growth of the Royal Domain

The settlement of the conflict produced mixed results. Mary’s marriage to Maximilian allowed the Habsburgs to annex the Low Countries and left France with a ragged eastern border. There conflicting sovereignties produced a string of conflicts with German powers in succeeding centuries. At the same time, the settlement definitively neutralized the threat to French security from Burgundy. The Burgundian territories were dismembered, and the French crown annexed the western regions. Louis also consolidated his hold on areas inside France, such as Guyenne and Normandy, which had been allied with Charles.

Moreover, the royal domain continued to grow after the Burgundian settlement. In 1481 Provence and the Var, areas in the south of France, were added. In 1491 Charles VIII, who reigned from 1483 to 1498, married Anne of Brittany, thereby preparing for that province’s absorption into the royal domain in 1532. These territories fell under Valois control according to a variety of terms. Many were allowed to keep their provincial estates (regional assemblies elected by members of the clergy, nobility, and commoners), thereby limiting the extent to which later French kings could integrate the kingdom.

The Italian Campaigns

With Burgundy dismantled and the domestic lords held in a tighter grip, the later Valois looked to expand abroad. Charles VIII set off on a military campaign in 1494 to vindicate dynastic claims in Italy. The campaign was initially successful, but ultimately an anti-French coalition forced Charles to withdraw from Naples. Charles left Italy to organize another expedition but died before he could undertake it.

The reign of Louis XII from 1498 to 1515 was, in some respects, a replay of Charles’s. To secure the Breton succession, Louis married Charles’s widow, Anne of Brittany, after a scandalous divorce from his first wife. He then embarked on another round of Italian wars, during which he, like Charles, had to abandon Naples. In 1513, again like Charles, Louis had to leave Italy altogether in the face of a coalition of anti-French forces led by the pope.

A third round of the Italian wars commenced when Francis I ascended the throne in 1515. Francis immediately captured Milan, but at the same time Spain occupied Naples. Spanish interest in Italy, which stemmed in large part from Aragonese claims on Sicily and Naples, gave the Italian wars another dimension. In 1519 the Spanish king, Charles V, of the Habsburg dynasty, became Holy Roman emperor, thereby extending his territorial claims to include Germany and the Low Countries. The Habsburgs threatened to encircle France, forcing the French to look to other powers as allies, including England and eventually the German Protestants and the Muslim Turks. The Habsburg threat would remain the focus of French foreign policy for the next 200 years.

The tide of the Italian wars at first turned against Francis, who in 1525 was captured at the battle of Pavia. Francis was ransomed the following year, after he renounced lands claimed by Charles V. Once set free, Francis rescinded his renunciation, and during the rest of his reign, he gained the advantage.

Under Henry II, who ruled from 1547 to 1559, the tide turned once again. The Italian wars ended with the definitive Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis of 1559. Under the treaty, France acquired Calais and the three bishoprics of Toul, Metz, and Verdun in Lorraine. But in return, Henry renounced claim to all his Italian possessions, including parts of Savoy and Tuscany that had been effectively united with other Valois territories. Thus ended 60 years of costly and politically fruitless Italian intervention.

The French Renaissance

Culturally, the Italian intervention was far less sterile. The Renaissance had been flowering in Italy for some time before the Italian wars. Humanism, a Renaissance movement that focused on the study of ancient texts, had already appeared in southern France during the early 15th century. But the Italian wars exposed many more French people to Renaissance styles of art, architecture, literature, and scholarship.

Francis I became one of Europe’s leading patrons of the arts. He supported the humanistic endeavors of major classicists, such as Guillaume Budé. Under the influence of his sister, Margaret of Navarre, he protected scholars, such as Lefèvre d’Étaples, who were attacked because their work was associated with new currents of Protestant religious reform. Francis also brought to France artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benvenuto Cellini. The result was a fusion of Renaissance and late French Gothic styles, as exemplified in the jewel-like royal residences Francis built along the Loire.

Francis and Henry II also patronized the group of French poets called the Pléiade, whose members used and defended French as a literary language (see Pleiad). The crown cared little about the linguistic practices of most French subjects. However, it did not want European elites to view French regard for Italian classicism as a sign that France was culturally or politically inferior. Partly for this reason, the crown stipulated in 1539 that henceforth French was the sole legal language of the state and kingdom. By this time, high culture had clearly become the business of the state.

Also notable in this period was the growing use of the printing press. The effects of the print revolution were slow to reach the nonliterate classes. However, printing did contribute to the outbreak of the Reformation, a religious revolution that challenged the supremacy of the pope and resulted in the creation of Protestant churches.

The Reformation in France

In 1517 Martin Luther, a German theologian and religious reformer, began a campaign to reform what he perceived to be widespread abuses in the church. He was quickly excommunicated. In succeeding years, he developed a new Protestant theology and church, which inspired other reformers to do likewise. The Protestant Reformation had a gradual, but growing, influence in France. On October 18, 1534, in what is known as the affair of the placards, reformers posted broadsides attacking the sacraments of the church all over Paris and other northern cities. By this time, Protestantism had spread well beyond humanist intellectual circles.

In France, Protestantism existed in many forms, some of them Lutheran in inspiration. But it was most heavily influenced by the work of John Calvin, a French lawyer and humanist who had formulated a systematic Protestant theology. Calvin had gone to Geneva, Switzerland, where he built a model Protestant society. From there, itinerant ministers carried his message back into France. Many Protestant congregations began to form, which gave organization to the growing Protestant community. For reasons that are unclear, the members of these congregations became known by the 1560s as Huguenots.

Protestantism in France grew among many different classes, including peasants and nobles, varying in its appeal depending on local conditions. It was especially strong among literate people of the middle classes who lived in a wide southern arc stretching through Guyenne, Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphiné. While Protestantism was clearly advancing during the 16th century, it remained a minority movement among all classes. At its height, only about 10 percent of the total population were Huguenots.

The attitude of the French state toward Protestantism was schizophrenic. Francis I was originally inclined to protect intellectuals suspected of Protestant leanings. But he gradually became more hostile as the new religion’s disruptive effects became more evident after the affair of the placards. In the 1540s, persecution turned violent. Following heresy trials, thousands were executed or condemned to row the galleys (large vessels with as many as 150 rowers). Overall, however, the enforcement of orthodoxy remained spotty and did little to change religious practice.

The church’s attempts to suppress Protestantism in France were met with resistance. Since the 14th century, the French state had promoted the notion of a Gallican Church that followed Rome only on doctrinal matters, a notion that had provided a convenient justification for the crown’s growing control over the bishops. Gallicanism, which would play a major political role in coming centuries, was particularly strong among the members of the parlements, who considered oversight of the French church to be their responsibility. Hence, the measures taken by the Council of Trent to reimpose orthodox doctrine through the enhanced authority of the pope had less impact in France than elsewhere. The Jesuits, the new monastic order devoted to reconquering Europe for the Catholic Church, at first gained only limited entry into France.

At the same time, the Counter Reformation did have its impact in France. It inspired efforts to reform the clergy and to launch new spiritual movements within the French church. Over the long term, the monarchy supported the Counter Reformation’s goal of reuniting the nation in a single Catholic faith.

Under Henry II, persecution of Protestants intensified but was no more effective than before. Protestant churches and organizations continued to mushroom across the kingdom during the 1550s. Religious divisions were reinforced by political ones, as aristocratic factions, acting on both religious and secular motives, sought to expand their power and their access to state patronage. The major factions included the Guises, strong pro-Catholics with claims to the French throne; the Montmorency, with ties to both Catholics and Protestants; and the Bourbons, who gradually assumed leadership of the Protestants.

The growing crisis was aggravated in 1559 with the sudden death of Henry II in a jousting accident. Henry left behind his widow, Catherine de Médicis, and four young sons as chief custodians of an increasingly besieged monarchy. Upon his father’s death, the eldest son, Francis II, became king. Morally and physically weak, the 15-year-old king fell under the influence of the Guises. In 1560 Protestant leaders organized what is known as the conspiracy of Amboise in order to kidnap the king and free him of Guise control. The Guises thwarted the conspiracy and executed hundreds of its members.

When Francis died the same year, his mother, Catherine, became regent, acting in the name of the new minor king, Charles IX. Catherine sought to reconcile the various factions, but concessions to the Protestants only further inflamed the Guises. The next ten years saw three civil wars punctuated by fragile truces. The period was marked by civil violence committed by ordinary citizens on both sides.

In 1572 Catherine gave her daughter Margaret of Valois (better known as Margot) in marriage to a leading Protestant Bourbon, Henry of Navarre (see Henry IV). The marriage exacerbated Catholic fears of a Protestant coup d’état. On August 24, 1572, dozens of Protestant leaders were butchered in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, apparently on orders of Charles IX. During the succeeding months, thousands more Protestants were murdered across France in an uncoordinated effort to purify the realm of heretics. Although devastating to the Protestants and their leadership, the massacres did not end their cause but only drove them to adopt more extreme positions. They began to claim a right to resist royal tyranny, a right rooted in an imagined Frankish constitution.

When Henry III, the third son of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, was crowned in 1574, the conflict was immediately renewed and became progressively more embedded in a Europe-wide struggle. England and the Netherlands favored the Protestants, while Spain supported the Guises. In 1584 the Guises signed an alliance with Spain, in which the two partners promised to enforce the decrees of the Council of Trent in exchange for material support. This alliance was sparked by a looming succession crisis. When the duc d’Anjou, the last remaining brother of the childless Henry III, died, Henry of Navarre, a Protestant who was a very distant relation to the Valois, became the next heir to the French throne. In response, a group of Catholic nobles formed an alliance known as the Holy League. Its goal was to reunite France in a unitary Catholic faith and prevent Henry of Navarre from becoming king. While the league established itself in provincial France, a group of officials and clerics formed the Sixteen, a committee dedicated to advancing the league’s goals in Paris.

The Sixteen threatened royal authority. It made a show of force during the Day of Barricades on May 12, 1588, when Henri I de Lorraine, 3rd duc de Guise, led a revolt against the king. Henry III was obliged to sneak out of Paris, leaving the city and state in the grip of the widely supported Sixteen. Henry III acceded to many league demands. But when the league forced him to call a meeting of the Estates-General, he struck back by assassinating the duc de Guise and another Guise leader during the meeting. The league then seized control of many cities. Meanwhile, league pamphleteers openly argued that the monarchy depended directly on the will of the people and that the people had the right to kill monarchs who violated divine laws. After allying with Henry of Navarre in 1589 to counterbalance the power of the Guises, Henry III was assassinated on August 1 by Jacques Clément, a monk associated with the league.

Like the assassination of the Guises, the death of Henry III resolved nothing. The appalling civil war and its violence dragged on for years, abetted by the intervention of Spanish troops on behalf of the league and intensified by peasant revolts against the state and the lords. Henry of Navarre was recognized as king by his supporters but not, for the moment, by many others. Acknowledging that as a Protestant he could never vindicate his claim to the throne, Henry converted to Catholicism on July 25, 1593. On February 27, 1594, he was crowned king at Chartres.

The league denounced Henry’s conversion as insincere and hence invalid, but most French people accepted it, and thereafter opposition to Henry died out. League leaders were concerned that popular violence might get out of hand. Thus, they were willing to put down their arms in exchange for handsome state grants of money and offices. The French government was able to achieve a relatively cost-free settlement with Spain in the Treaty of Vervins in 1598.

To settle the Protestant issue, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes on April 13, 1598. The edict granted Protestants a limited right to practice their faith, and it temporarily gave them the right to maintain control of certain fortified cities. The edict was so contested that it was not registered in the parlements for many months.

The edict has been widely misunderstood. It was not intended as a step towards religious toleration or pluralism, neither of which had much support. Rather, it was a concession made to end violence in the short run with the purpose of imposing religious unity in the future. Far from being a step toward secular politics, the edict was grounded in the concept of a unified Gallican Church as God’s instrument. It was surrounded with fresh assertions of the divine source of royal authority. These assertions were intended to counteract claims—made by both Protestants and Catholics at various times—that the power of the monarchy derived from the people.

Leaguers had reason to be dissatisfied with the outcome. The league lived on in the form of political factions and in movements to enforce the decrees of the Church during the Counter Reformation. But Protestants had better reasons to be fearful of the future, and their fears proved to be well founded. The Catholic-Protestant struggle continued, though at a lower level of conflict.

The Bourbon Monarchy and the Ascent of France

The late 16th century was an age of economic stagnation, characterized by a declining standard of living, social anarchy, and grotesque violence. It earned a reputation as one of the most wrenching periods in French history. Yet apart from exacerbating religious divisions, the Wars of Religion had no major long-lasting economic or social effects on the nation, which survived intact and without significant territorial losses. The Wars of Religion had their greatest impact on the state. Henceforth, the new Bourbon dynasty could point to the chaos of the religious wars as evidence that only a powerful, indeed absolute, monarchy, deriving its authority from God, could contain the virulent antisocial tendencies of private individuals. The additional threat of encirclement posed by the Habsburgs encouraged the Bourbons to build a state so large that, for certain periods during the next two centuries, France loomed as the dominant nation in Europe.

To understand this period, it is critical to recognize that even defenders of absolute monarchy sharply distinguished between absolute regimes and arbitrary regimes. In absolute regimes princes did not share power with institutions such as representative assemblies. But an absolute king could not legitimately violate the laws of God or nature or the fundamental laws that governed succession to the throne and ensured the integrity of the realm. By contrast, in arbitrary regimes—what became known around 1700 as despotisms—the state was subject to no law.

Absolutists argued that in exercising sovereignty, an absolute king could make and impose new statute law on his subjects for their own good. Absolutists held that people had most to fear from each other and that only if the monarchy wielded unchecked power could they enjoy true freedom—that is, security in their lives and property.

In fact, absolute monarchy was never close to being perfectly realized in France. The crown always had to make compromises and cut deals with local institutions and elites, much as Henry IV had to come to terms with the Holy League. Although the nobility might have occasionally resented royal policies, they found much to gain from the absolute state. They looked to the state to find the means to support their own, sometimes extensive, networks of dependents.

France Under the Early Bourbons

Henry IV

Henry IV’s most obvious task after 1598 was to pursue the process of pacification in a still bitterly divided France. This process began at home. To ensure his succession, Henry had his childless marriage to Margaret annulled in 1599 and then married Marie de Médicis, an Italian princess. Marie, who was sympathetic to the Holy League, bore him three sons and three daughters in the next ten years.

To bring order to the state, Henry imposed his will on the parlements and other state agencies. Through the efforts of his superintendent of finance, Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, he restored France’s fiscal health. He made tax collection more efficient, established the paulette—a tax that allowed venal (purchased) offices to be inherited—and reduced the interest rate on state loans. He also improved the state’s credit rating by resuming state payments on the debt, which had lapsed for more than a decade. By avoiding major military conflicts, Henry kept financial demands on the state at a minimum. As a result, he was able to lower general taxes.

Tax reductions and the restoration of peace helped generate a mild economic boom, which contrasted sharply with conditions in previous years, when hunger, wolves, and freebooting military bands stalked the countryside. France’s recovery and Henry’s buoyant personality made him popular with his contemporaries, and despite his many mistresses and nine bastard children, Henry was held up as a model king for centuries. The ugly aftershocks of the Wars of Religion were far from spent, however. On May 14, 1610, Henry was assassinated by François Ravaillac, a Catholic zealot who had been inspired by the Holy League.

Louis XIII and Richelieu

Henry’s death left the state in the unsteady hands of Marie de Médicis. She was appointed regent for her eldest son, Louis XIII, who was nine years old. Marie leaned in the direction of the parti dévot (devout party), a loose regrouping of league elements plus the Jesuits and other monastic orders. Benefiting from a widespread resurgence of Catholic devotion in Europe, the dévots favored renewed efforts to eradicate Protestantism. They thus supported an alliance with the Habsburgs, champions of the Counter Reformation who had also been partners with the Holy League.

After relying upon more moderate ministers, Marie turned to dévot Concino Concini as her chief adviser. The result was Louis’s marriage to Anne of Austria, daughter of the Spanish king, and his sister’s marriage to Anne’s brother. Concini’s rise irritated many nobles, some of whom began courting the Protestants. A meeting of the Estates-General in 1614 failed to resolve outstanding issues. This failure is one reason why the Estates-General did not meet again until 1789.

In 1617 Louis seized control of the state. He had Concini imprisoned and later killed, exiled his mother to Blois, and recalled many of Henry IV’s advisers. But these measures hardly helped the Protestants, for Louis now took the initiative against them. Between 1620 and 1622, he personally led several military campaigns against Protestants, with the result that by 1625 all Protestant strongholds, except La Rochelle, had collapsed.

In 1624 Armand Jean du Plessis, duc de Richelieu, was appointed to the royal council. Acting much like a prime minister, he immediately became a commanding figure and soon formed a lasting partnership with Louis. Strongly influenced by the Holy League, Richelieu was a protégé of Marie de Médici and supported further measures against the Protestants. In 1628 La Rochelle, a Protestant stronghold fortified by the English, was successfully assaulted. This success paved the way for the long-sought unification of the kingdom and imposition of the Catholic faith. After 1629 Richelieu left the Protestants alone, and during succeeding decades they were victimized far less than they had been during the previous century. But their situation again deteriorated in the 1660s under pressure from the monarchy.

Richelieu’s restraint against the Protestants infuriated the dévots, and so did his foreign policy. Because the Habsburgs threatened France’s eastern and southwestern borders, Richelieu concluded that France had to support the Protestant German princes, who since 1618 had been battling the Catholic Habsburg alliance in the Thirty Years’ War. Richelieu resorted to force abroad only gradually. In the 1620s he fought for French interests in Savoy against the Spaniards, but France did not openly declare war on Spain and the Habsburg Holy Roman emperor until 1635.

The war went badly at first. In 1636 Spanish forces invaded eastern France—the second Spanish intervention in France in 50 years. But Spain was eventually driven out, and the French went on the offensive in the late 1630s. By Richelieu’s death in 1642, France had conquered Alsace in the east and Roussillon in the south. Under Richelieu’s successor, Jules Cardinal Mazarin, France made peace with the Holy Roman Empire in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and with Spain in the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. These treaties recognized French acquisitions in Alsace, Artois, Picardy, Lorraine, and Roussillon. They also established the legal basis for continued French interference in the empire. Henceforth, France had the authority to thwart any Habsburg effort to expand imperial control of Germany. Of all the major participants, France clearly lost the least and gained the most from the Thirty Years’ War. From 1659 to 1713 France dominated Europe in much the same way that Spain had a century earlier.

Religious conflict and foreign war provided the occasion and the excuse to build the French state. Following no preconceived, coherent plan, Richelieu extended many well-established practices, but he also promoted bureaucratic procedures that were more modern. Thus, he created a large clientele of officials immediately loyal to him. He increased the number of venal officeholders, who in some years provided as much as 40 percent of all royal revenues. At the same time, he made important innovations. For example, he regularized the use and extended the responsibilities of nonvenal administrators called intendants, who oversaw the monarchy’s operations within provincial districts known as généralités.

Richelieu was very much aware of the cultural dimensions of building the state. He established the Académie Française (see French Academy), an organization of 40 literary scholars responsible for standardizing the French language. The Académie produced the official French dictionary. Richelieu was also a master propagandist who employed a stable of writers to justify French policies at home and abroad.

Richelieu’s achievements and his policies won him important enemies, particularly among the dévots, of whom he had once been a member. In 1630 a group of dévots—including Marie de Médicis; the king’s brother Gaston, duc d’Orléans; and the minister Michel de Marillac and his brother, Louis de Marillac—lobbied Louis to dismiss Richelieu. After wavering temporarily, Louis instead turned on the dévots during the Day of Dupes in November 1630. Michel de Marillac was imprisoned and his brother was beheaded. Gaston went into temporary exile, while Marie left France forever. Gaston was involved in two more coups directed against Richelieu—one in 1632 and one in 1642—but neither was any more successful than the first. Richelieu died in 1642, master of France, and his patron and partner, Louis XIII, died a year later.

Louis XIV

Richelieu and Louis left behind a monarchy more imposing than it had ever been. But they also left behind a heavy burden, particularly since the new king, Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715, was only four years old at his accession, and France once again fell under a regency.

The Regency

Regency government almost always meant weak royal authority. This regency also suffered from the fact that it was headed by two foreigners—the king’s Spanish mother, Anne of Austria, and Jules Cardinal Mazarin, an Italian-born protégé of Richelieu. Although Mazarin was a wily strategist, he and Anne faced awesome tasks. They had to prosecute the as-yet-unconcluded wars with the Holy Roman Empire and Spain. They also had to deal with spreading resistance to rising taxes imposed to pay for war. During Richelieu’s administration, direct taxes had nearly tripled. Refusal to pay taxes and peasant revolts directed against the state’s fiscal policies had become commonplace by the 1630s. Despite rising revenues, Mazarin and Anne had to cope with an impending state bankruptcy. At the same time, they had to handle a growing conflict between venal officeholders and the intendants. Finally, they had to deal with the legacy of Richelieu’s heavy-handed policies and uneven distribution of state patronage, which had alienated powerful members of the nobility. The nobility now sought to cash in on the government’s apparent weakness.

The Fronde

At virtually the same time that France was concluding its involvement in the Thirty Years’ War, the revolt known as the Fronde erupted in Paris. The crisis began when the monarchy ordered the Parlement of Paris to register a package of fiscal measures, including tax hikes. If the parlement failed to register the package, the monarchy threatened to suppress payments on the parlement’s venal offices and revoke the paulette, the tax that allowed venal offices to be inherited. The parlement not only protested against the package, it also demanded the reduction of the intendants’ powers and the approval of the parlements to new taxes. When the monarchy arrested one leading member of parlement, mass demonstrations broke out in Paris, forcing Anne and her family to leave the city. A compromise that favored the parlement was reached in March 1649.

But disorders that had festered for years in the countryside now exploded, as the return of plague and hunger revived memories of the not-so-distant Wars of Religion. Leading nobles, including Gaston, Louis de Bourbon prince de Condé, and Armand de Bourbon prince de Conti, joined the conflict and struggled for position. In the chaos, thousands of pamphlets, the Mazarinades, were circulated in Paris, attacking the cardinal and foreigners in general. Mazarin withdrew to Cologne in 1651, from where he continued to direct Anne until he returned the next year. Condé assumed leadership of anti-Mazarin forces and made an alliance with Spain.

At this point, the parlement withdrew to a more moderate position, and Paris turned against Condé. Condé’s internally divided faction failed to develop a coherent alternative to royal absolutism and lost ground on the battlefield. The Fronde slowly collapsed in 1652, allowing Louis XIV to return to Paris. Louis had celebrated his 13th birthday a year earlier and could thereby legally assume responsibility for the state. Although the Fronde petered out, resistance continued for some years. This resistance took the form of tax strikes and religious opposition to Mazarin. This opposition was based in Paris and led by Jean Francois Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz, and a dissident Catholic movement, the Jansenists (see Jansenism). Despite his travails, Mazarin, who died in 1661, had proved a worthy successor to his patron, Richelieu.

The Fronde clearly illuminated fault lines in the structure of the French monarchy that made it more brittle than it sometimes seemed. Yet it had little permanent effect on the state. If anything, the Fronde, like the far more devastating religious wars, gave further impetus to the growth of state power by demonstrating the need for a strong monarchy to maintain order.

Louis XIV was fortunate to come of age just as the armed insurrection of the Fronde was crumbling and France’s principal foreign enemies since the early 16th century—Spain and the Holy Roman Empire—were in sharp decline. Historians debate whether Louis took full advantage of these opportunities. But it is clear that during his long reign, France assumed a leading position in Europe, both politically and culturally.

Foreign Policy

After Mazarin died and the king assumed personal responsibility for running the state, Louis’s foreign policy led France into four wars: the War of the Devolution (1667-1668); the Dutch War (1672-1678); the War of the League of Augsburg (1689-1697), also called the Nine Years’ War; and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). These wars were increasingly long and costly and generated anti-French propaganda. They earned Louis a reputation for reckless, overweening ambition and cruel tyranny that he has never entirely lost. Most modern historians now take a more balanced view. Louis did bully and threaten weaker powers, such as the Dutch, and occasionally terrorized an area, as in 1688 and 1689 when he devastated the Palatinate, the area west of the Rhine River in Germany. But he was also capable of moderation. It now appears that—aside from achieving personal glory—his primary goal was not, as opponents alleged, to conquer Europe, but rather to secure France’s vulnerable borders.

The main such area was the long-contested, ragged eastern border with Germany and the Netherlands. Here, Louis made possibly his most critical blunder when he abandoned the old Dutch alliance against the Spanish and unnecessarily threatened and then attacked the Netherlands in 1672. The Dutch responded by striking new alliances at various times with Sweden, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and England. In 1689 England joined dynastically with the Netherlands under William of Orange. These alliances eventually wore down French forces and contained French ambitions.

The succession in Spain became a critical issue in 1700, when the Habsburg king of Spain, Charles II, died without a direct heir. Before he died, he deeded the Spanish throne to Louis’s grandson, Philip, duc d’Anjou. Louis could hardly refuse the chance to break the old Habsburg vise around France. He accepted Charles’s will, although he thereby aroused great fears in England and the Netherlands that France and Spain would eventually merge into one superpower. War might have been averted, but Louis precipitated it by reasserting Philip’s rights to the French throne before Philip assumed the Spanish throne and by moving aggressively in the Spanish Netherlands (roughly present-day Belgium).

The result was the War of Spanish Succession, in which France suffered a string of humiliating defeats. Only at the end of the war did France manage to restore some military balance. The Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, and subsequent treaties gave international recognition to Philip’s accession to the Spanish throne (Philip V (of Spain)). But Spain relinquished its rights to the Spanish Netherlands and its Italian possessions, which went to Austria. To win international recognition, Philip had to renounce his rights to the French throne, although he soon renounced this renunciation. France had acquired the eastern province of Franche-Comté earlier, and the Treaty of Utrecht confirmed France’s acquisition of Alsace and Strasbourg.

Although hardly overwhelming in scale, Louis’s territorial acquisitions were important and prepared the way for further rounding out France’s eastern frontier. The transfer of the Spanish throne from Habsburg to Bourbon hands was arguably even more significant. It removed a base of hostile operations on France’s southern border that had long caused trouble. It also led to the formation of an advantageous diplomatic and military alliance with Spain during the 18th century. Thus, France did benefit from Louis’s foreign and military policies, even if these wars cost heavily in terms of lives, money, and ultimately European public opinion.

Domestic Policies

Louis XIV’s domestic policies are harder to evaluate. The pursuit of war put heavy financial demands on the state. In response, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who managed the state’s finances until he died in 1683, pushed through a series of financial reforms. However, he was not able to correct the fundamental weaknesses of the state’s fiscal system. He streamlined the process of tax collection by creating the unified General Tax Farm, an organization composed of collectors of indirect taxes, and by making the intendants responsible for gathering direct taxes, which he tried to make more equitable. Colbert was a mercantilist—that is, someone who believed that the wealth of the world was more or less fixed and that to increase its revenues the government should actively work to expand production, enhance exports, and limit imports. Among his reforms, he lowered internal tolls, raised tariff barriers to imported goods, and established and granted state monopolies to commercial and manufacturing enterprises (see Mercantilism). Although most of these state companies failed, Colbert did bring a temporary order to state finances. This order was disrupted after Colbert’s death, when Louis’s wars also became longer and more expensive.

By the end of Louis XIV’s reign, the monarchy was so financially squeezed that it adopted one desperate, old, and dubious fiscal measure after the other in attempts to cover expenses. These included contracting massive loans, selling venal offices merely to raise revenue, and tampering with the currency. But the crown also experimented with new, more promising initiatives. These initiatives included the capitation—the first nearly universal tax levied according to status and income—and the Council of Commerce, an advisory board on trade policy that included merchants.

French Colonial Empire

By the late 17th century, a French colonial empire began to take shape. Although some French traders and fishermen had ventured overseas earlier, the French colonial empire effectively began under Francis I. He supported French voyages of exploration along the Atlantic coast of North America and in the Canadian interior. Sponsored by trading companies enjoying state monopolies, the first permanent French settlements were made in the Americas under Henry IV. The explorations of Samuel de Champlain led to the founding of Québec City in 1608 as a fur-trading post. Competition with England arose immediately, and in 1613 the English attacked a French encampment in present-day Maine. Both powers allied with opposing factions among the Native American tribes, thereby amplifying the conflict (see New France).

Under Louis XIII, the first French colonies in the Caribbean were established in Martinique and Guadeloupe. At first these colonies relied on indentured white servants for labor in the sugarcane fields, but gradually they shifted to African slaves. Colbert sought to breathe new life into colonial trade and settlement by amalgamating established trading companies and by forcing the pace of migration to the colonies. Neither the unified trading companies, including the French East India Company (see East India Company) based in India, nor the settlement policies were noticeably successful. Although French explorers continued to widen French claims in North America, the French population of Canada in the 1680s stood at only about 10,000. Partly for this reason and partly because the French navy was weak, England was able to seize Nova Scotia and the asiento—the right to sell slaves in the Spanish colonies—from France by the early 18th century.

Louis’s Absolutism

The authoritarian quality of Louis’s rule has often been exaggerated. Louis certainly did enhance the cult of royal authority. He did this most conspicuously through his belligerent foreign policy and the grandiose court he built at Versailles, which he located away from the people and political pressures of Paris. Versailles and its lifestyle elevated the private person of the Sun King, as Louis was called. Thousands of courtiers focused attention on his every activity from morning to night. The nation’s best and brightest intellectuals and artists were enlisted to enhance Louis’s glory in historical writing, music, poetry, art, and architecture, all of which flourished under his reign. So brilliantly did Versailles shine that knowledge of French culture and language became common among elites across Europe. Louis also increased surveillance of and control over his subjects by building up the military, creating a Parisian police force, and tightening the system of book censorship.

At the same time, Louis normally sought to rule by way of negotiation and compromise, not by intimidation and command. Although the Parlement of Paris lost its right to protest before registering royal edicts in 1672, Louis often consulted the parlement when advancing his initiatives. Similarly, in dealing with local matters, Louis’s government did not undermine the wealth and status of traditional French elites. Rather, it enhanced these elites to the point of sharing tax revenues. Versailles itself, although a showcase for the crown, also served the interests of the courtiers. They came there not only to watch Louis dress, but also to earn pensions, win government appointments, and gain public confirmation of their privileged status. Moreover, the Versailles court was only one pillar of aristocratic social life. Another was Paris, where aristocrats mixed more freely with middle-class intellectuals and socialites in informal, private gatherings called salons, which prominent women held in their homes.

Final Years of Louis XIV’s Reign

After the late 1680s, Louis’s reign became increasingly troubled. The burdens of war and increasing debt weighed more and more heavily. At the very end of his reign, a wave of deaths in the royal house left a single, sickly five-year-old great-grandson as Louis’s sole direct and legitimate heir. Religious problems also resurfaced. Early in his personal reign, Louis had put pressure on the already declining Protestant community by restricting Protestants’ worship and access to jobs. In 1681 he forced Protestant families to lodge troops called dragonnades in their homes. Finally, in 1685 he issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, repealing the remaining provisions of the Edict of Nantes. The dévots were now getting closer to realizing their dream of a nation united in faith. Most Protestants either converted, while sometimes secretly practicing Protestant rituals, or left France.

Although it was generally well regarded in France at the time, the harsh anti-Protestant campaign was costly. France lost productive merchants and artisans, but more important, the campaign gave propaganda opportunities to France’s enemies. Bitter French Protestant exiles joined with writers subsidized by England, the Netherlands, and Germany to assault Louis’s character and regime as tyrannical and despotic for violating French liberty and the rights of other nations. These charges would be repeated endlessly against the monarchy until the French Revolution.

Louis also reignited problems with the Jansenists. During the 1650s, the Jansenists had been implicated in the Fronde. Louis’s government regarded them with suspicion, especially after two Jansenist bishops favored the pope’s position in a major dispute with Louis in the early 1680s. When Louis sided with the upper clergy against the local priests in the 1690s, the Jansenists began to build what proved to be a critical alliance with the parlements, which claimed jurisdiction over the Gallican (French Roman Catholic) Church. Like the Jansenists, the members of the parlements resented the authority of the high clergy.

In one of the major blunders of his reign, Louis sought to crush Jansenism. In 1713 he arranged for the pope to issue a papal bull, Unigenitus, which condemned ideas allegedly contained in a work by a prominent Jansenist theologian. Unigenitus enraged many members of the parlements and others as well because it suggested that the pope was once again interfering in the affairs of the Gallican Church.

A highly dangerous lineup of opponents was about to cause major damage to the monarchy, which had already suffered at the hands of Protestant pamphleteers. When Louis died in 1715, his once glorious regime had already begun to tarnish.

From Glory to Revolution

Louis XV

Louis XIV’s death allowed the French to breathe somewhat more freely, but the regime of the new king, Louis XV, who ruled from 1715 to 1774, confronted serious problems. Louis XV was only five years old when he succeeded Louis XIV, and France once again faced a regency government. To gain approval from the Parlement of Paris for full authority as regent, Philippe II, duc d’Orléans restored the parlement’s right to protest royal edicts before registering them. Although this right was soon restricted, the parlements would continue to oppose many royal edicts, especially those dealing with Jansenism and taxes.

The most critical and urgent issue facing the new regime was the impending bankruptcy of the state. After trying more modest expedients to add revenue, the duc d’Orléans backed the riskier proposals of a Scottish financial wizard, John Law. With royal permission, Law founded a private bank, the Banque Générale, in 1716. Two years later, it was transformed into a state institution, the Banque Royale. Law also established a speculative commercial company to invest in French colonies. This company, the Compagnie de l’Occident, was later joined with the bank and other royal concessions, which together became known as the System. Law expanded the money supply by issuing ever-increasing amounts of paper money through the bank. This measure, he hoped, would reduce the cost of government borrowing and stimulate the economy. But the bank issued too many new bank notes in an effort to sustain share prices in the Company with cheap credit, and confidence in the profitability of the Company declined. The System collapsed in 1720.

This failure made it more difficult to establish another state bank later on, which the French government badly needed to obtain cheap credit. It also gave critics grounds for charging that the regime was becoming a despotism, because Law had used many high-handed, coercive measures to promote his bank. In fact, however, Law’s System probably gave the economy a much-needed jolt by freeing investors of debt and prompting new commercial investment, but these benefits were not recognized at the time. In the aftermath of Law’s failure, the regime dealt with its fiscal problems through partial bankruptcy, whereby the government renounced part of what it owed to its creditors.

Louis came of age in 1723, officially ending the regency. But he was only 13 and continued to rely on the duc d’Orléans, who died a few months after Louis’s 13th birthday. Orléans was followed by the duc de Bourbon, who was dismissed in 1726 and succeeded by Louis’s old tutor, André Hercule de Fleury, a cardinal who served as virtual prime minister until 1743.

Foreign Policy

Fleury tried to restore the nation’s strength by avoiding wars abroad and pacifying domestic disputes, such as those over Jansenism. After Louis XIV’s death, the regency had scaled back the military to reduce costs. Fleury wanted to maintain this policy, at least until the state was fiscally stronger. Under his regime, France, which for a time was uncharacteristically allied with England, took the lead in calming international tensions. But during the mid-1730s, France became engaged in the War of the Polish Succession and thereby acquired rights to the provinces of Bar and Lorraine, which passed into the French royal domain in 1766.

Despite Fleury’s efforts to stay on good terms with England and Austria, an anti-Austrian party in the government pushed France into participating in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) as an ally of Prussia against Austria, the Netherlands, and Britain. Initially the war did not go well. Austrian troops ravaged eastern France, and Charles Edward Stuart, a claimant to the British throne who had the unsteady support of France, failed to topple the Hanoverians, the British royal house. But France eventually succeeded on the battlefield, capturing a number of cities in the Netherlands. Partly because of fiscal pressures, partly because Fleury had trained Louis XV not to act the conqueror like Louis XIV, France settled for much less than it might have gotten in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the war in 1748. France returned its conquests in the Netherlands and agreed to exile the highly regarded Charles Edward. The treaty precipitated an outbreak of public protest, and the monarchy’s popularity declined.

State Finances and the Economy

In addition to rising costs due to war, the state faced growing expenditures for domestic programs. These programs included building roads, reconstructing public buildings, and keeping tighter surveillance over urban populations, especially the poor. Despite these initiatives, the government was able for a time to roughly balance the budget. After the Law debacle, the monarchy experimented with a variety of new taxes to tap the wealth of a broader segment of the population, although political pressures prevented full implementation. The state also required peasants and day laborers to work a shift each year on state road crews.

After the War of the Austrian Succession broke out in 1740, however, the government was forced to borrow increasingly large sums, and by 1748 it had already added 200 million livres to its debt. (The livre was worth about 7.25 grams of silver in 1700 and declined to about 4.5 grams by 1785.) This debt would have certainly been higher had the economy not begun to improve and the tax base widened.

Economic expansion resulted in part from the growth of population, which had stagnated around 1560 and grew little if at all for the next century and a half. In 1715 the population stood at about 23 million; in 1745 it was about 25 million; by 1789 it reached around 28 million. These moderate increases can be explained in part by a decline in the death rate, which was in turn due to a reduction in plague and war-related deaths. Modest improvements in food production and better transportation of grain to areas hard-hit by famine also contributed to population growth. Famine, which occurred often during the 17th century, was less severe and frequent between 1710 and 1789. Manufactures grew, and by 1789 their value roughly equaled the value of all agricultural products. Moreover, between 1716 and 1789 foreign trade tripled, enriching in particular major port cities, such as Marseille, Bordeaux, and Nantes.

The fastest growing sector of the economy was colonial trade, which increased tenfold during the 18th century. The major source of colonial wealth was the French Caribbean possessions, including Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), which had nearly half a million slaves by 1789. Although France lost most of its possessions in North America, including Canada, to Britain in 1763, it kept its valuable colonies in the West Indies for several more decades.

The benefits of this economic growth were not spread evenly. Poorer peasants and communities far from major trade routes gained little. Inflation, which caused prices to double between 1720 and 1789, ate up the wage increases of many workers. But urban populations, especially the middle class, flourished. The middle class benefited from new ways to earn a living (in trade and the professions) and spent more on a growing variety of products that made life more comfortable and interesting. These ranged from medical devices and services to books and newspapers.

The Enlightenment

During the 18th century, literacy grew throughout France—faster among peasants than among urbanites. By 1789 roughly a third of the French nation was literate enough to sign their names, and demand grew for inexpensive editions of classics and new works. Publishers struggled to meet demand by using cheaper paper, smaller print, and flimsier bindings. Best-selling works that had been censored for religious, political, or moral reasons were often printed abroad and smuggled across the border.

The increase in literacy helps explain the emergence of the intellectual movement called the Enlightenment. At the core of the Enlightenment was the philosophes, a group of professional writers and scientists who advocated reform. They frequented salons and often worked under the auspices of the royal academies in Paris, which was gradually replacing Versailles as the cultural center of France. The philosophes wrote works both for the growing public and for state-sponsored publications and agencies. Their influential critiques of traditional knowledge and society were most fully developed in the multivolumed, multiauthored Encyclopédie, which became an international best-seller.

The politics of the philosophes were diverse, reflecting divergent interests and attempts to persuade different audiences. Their core political value was liberty, but they disagreed on how to best promote it. Some philosophes, like Charles Louis de Montesquieu, believed liberty would be best protected by maintaining the traditional rights of individuals and corporate groups and by expanding the role of the parlements. Others, like Voltaire, believed a strong monarchy was liberty’s best defense. On the margins of the movement were more radical thinkers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, who widened the political imagination by proposing models of democracy.

As reformers, not revolutionaries, most philosophes tried to strengthen the state by modernizing and liberalizing it. But their vigorous assaults on religious and political orthodoxy offended conservatives. Their books were frequently censored, and occasionally a philosophe served a prison term. Without intending it, the philosophes inadvertently fostered the French Revolution by discrediting old authorities and pushing the pace of reform.

Growing Crisis

By the 1750s the Enlightenment had reached high gear. At the same time, the monarchy was becoming increasingly entangled in controversy. A gradually escalating crisis in the state made the French people open to new possibilities. This crisis had many sources. First, the battle over the anti-Jansenist papal bull Unigenitus was fought repeatedly during the early and mid-18th century, despite Fleury’s efforts to quell the conflict with moderate anti-Jansenist policies. The Jansenists published an underground newspaper and hundreds of pamphlets, and made multiple parlementary protests in an effort to mobilize public opinion against the crown. Jansenist publications represented the crown as despotic because it had repressed those appealing to the Paris parlement against the hated papal bull. Although the controversy around Unigenitus had diminished by the 1760s, many Jansenists continued to agitate against the monarchy in later crises.

Second, French foreign policy raised profound questions about the monarchy’s competence. In agreeing to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the monarchy threw away its hard-won conquests in the War of the Austrian Succession. Then in 1756 the crown reversed France’s historic diplomatic position by allying with Habsburg Austria. In the ensuing Seven Years’ War, France was humiliated by its archenemy Britain and Britain’s new ally, Prussia, leading many to think that France had lost its “natural” position as Europe’s leading power. Louis XV did not help matters when he instituted a policy regarding succession to the Polish crown that he kept secret from most officials, including his own foreign minister.

Third, the state’s finances were beginning to crumble again. The Seven Years’ War cost France an immense 1.5 billion livres, of which one-third was paid from new taxes but two-thirds was paid through borrowing. Creditors became increasingly unsure the state could repay them and, for this reason, charged higher interest rates. Taxpayers grumbled over their rising tax bills.

Fourth, Louis’s personal conduct made it all too easy to attribute the state’s mounting problems to the onset of a true despotism, in which decisions were made by sinister figures behind the throne. Louis took up with a series of mistresses, most notably the marquise de Pompadour, to whom he appeared more devoted than he was to the nation. Although the extent of Pompadour’s personal power is unclear, she did provide a rallying point for some of the king’s ministers. The dévot faction at court opposed Pompadour and tried to get Louis to dismiss her by carrying out a publicity campaign blaming her for causing many of France’s problems. Pompadour kept her position until her death in 1764, but the publicity campaign made Louis appear weak and vacillating. This impression was confirmed by his tendency to change ministers abruptly, and it helped discredit the monarchy.

Louis’s reputation as a despot peaked during the last years of his long reign. In 1770 Chancellor René Nicolas de Maupeou abolished the parlements. Their objections to royal policies had elicited uncharacteristically strong restatements by the crown of its absolute authority. The result was an outpouring of pamphlets that condemned not only Maupeou but also the king. Louis was caught in the crossfire between members of the parlements, who sought more limits to royal power, and the dévot faction, who wanted to maintain absolutism in its traditional form. By the end of his reign, he had managed to turn his sobriquet, the Well-Beloved, into a satire.

Louis XVI

The public hoped for more from the reign of his grandson, Louis XVI, who became king in 1774. Not wanting to appear a despot, he quickly reinstated the parlements, to much public rejoicing. But Louis was an unimpressive emblem of the monarchy in an age when public opinion carried increasing political weight. Awkward and seemingly slow-witted, he became an object of derision for his incapacity to consummate his marriage to Marie-Antoinette for seven years. More important, the king was thought to be dominated by his Austrian-born wife, whose conspicuous spending was increasingly resented.

Under Louis XVI, France had only one major success in foreign affairs, the American Revolution, which France supported with men and money to weaken Britain. But in eastern Europe, France lacked the means to effectively prop up its old allies, Poland and the Ottoman Empire, against rising threats from Russia. Austria, France’s supposed ally, frequently sided with Russia, causing the French to become increasingly hostile to the 1756 alliance and to Marie-Antoinette. Her Austrian origins and connections aroused doubts about her loyalty to France. Meanwhile, Prussia humiliated France by snuffing out a French-supported revolt in the Netherlands.

Financial Problems

But the monarchy’s main problem lay closer to home, namely its finances. The American Revolution added another 1.5 billion to 2.0 billion livres to the exploding national debt. By 1789 the government was spending half its budget on debt servicing. Louis’s finance ministers sought to stem the coming tide of bankruptcy, while other ministers sought reforms in the administration. From 1774 to 1776, Finance Minister Anne Robert Jacques Turgot tried to increase revenues by expanding the economy. To do so, he removed state controls on the grain trade and encouraged new manufacturing by suppressing the guilds.

His successor, Jacques Necker, streamlined the tax-collection system and reorganized the treasury. But like Turgot, Necker was forced to borrow additional money at increasingly ruinous interest rates. In 1781 Necker published the Compte rendu, a doctored account of state finances, to reassure the state’s creditors about the regime’s financial health.

These numbers were soon challenged by Necker’s rival, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who succeeded him in 1783. Calonne sought to expand tax revenues by stimulating the economy through additional state expenditures. Whatever its economic effects, Calonne’s spending spree worsened the debt crisis, and he had to consider additional taxes, among other measures. By this time, however, the French public viewed such initiatives as signs of impending despotism. To overcome resistance in the Paris parlement, Calonne sought to win prior approval of his plans by an Assembly of Notables, composed of nobles and high church officials hand-picked for the occasion. Meeting in early 1787, the notables approved parts of his general plan, but not the tax increases.

Calonne left office and was replaced by Loménie de Brienne, whose own reform plan did no better with the notables. The notables were dismissed in May 1787, and Brienne tried to deal directly with the Paris parlement. But negotiations eventually broke down. To resolve the impasse, the monarchy stripped the parlements of their political powers in May 1788. The only result was an outpouring of support for the parlements and rising demand for a meeting of the Estates-General to consider the disintegrating condition of the state. In August, Brienne was fired, Necker recalled, and the Estates-General summoned to meet in Versailles. The calling of the Estates-General raised a second issue alongside that of royal despotism: How was the nation to be represented?

The Estates-General

Elections were held in late 1788 and early 1789, and lists of grievances were drawn up to guide the delegates in their deliberations. The compiling of these lists contributed to the politicization of the nation. In September 1788 the Paris parlement decided that voting in the forthcoming meeting of the Estates-General would proceed by estate, not by head. (The Estates-General was divided into three estates, or legally defined social classes: the clergy, who made up the first estate; the nobility, who made up the second estate; and the rest of the people, who made up the third and largest estate.) The decision was probably made to prevent the king from tampering with the procedures of the Estates-General. But members of the third estate considered the decision a sellout because it gave disproportionate power to the clergy and nobles. The issue of voting dominated the Estates-General when it met in May 1789, leaving the financial crisis unresolved.

After weeks of bickering, the third estate acted on its own. It established itself as the National Assembly in June and invited the clergy and nobility to join it and vote by head. The king at first opposed the new arrangement, then reluctantly accepted it. But already a major break with past practice had occurred, and the king appeared to want to reverse a process over which he had lost control.

Further deepening the crisis was the first major famine in France since 1709. Bread prices skyrocketed, and vagrancy increased as the poor searched for food. Many saw these vagrants as paid agents of the nobility intent on attacking the peasantry, resulting in new waves of panic. When Louis called for military reinforcements in and around the capital and dismissed Necker, the hungry people of Paris rose in revolt. On July 14, 1789, they stormed the Bastille, an old fortress-prison that many critics of justice in the Old Regime had made the symbol of despotism. Revolt had turned into revolution.

The Reshaping of France

The crumbling of the monarchy in 1789 opened the way to more sweeping changes in France’s political structure than occurred in any other period of French history. In the course of the French Revolution, the state was massively reorganized, while a tradition of revolution became part of France’s political culture. As a result, political stability, which the revolutionaries themselves sought after a time, proved elusive. The French Revolution caused a breach in French politics that would not be healed for a century and a half. Again and again, conservative, counterrevolutionary parties that defined the nation in terms of its prerevolutionary past clashed with parties that saw 1789 as a critical moment of national rebirth. Since the revolution, France has lived through five republics, two empires, and a variety of other regimes.

During the 19th century, France’s society and economy experienced other less dramatic but equally important changes. The French Revolution destroyed the structure of traditional privilege, turning subjects unequal before the law into citizens with roughly equal rights. The Industrial Revolution, which took place more gradually in France than in other European nations, offered new means of making a living and greatly raised living standards. Indeed, one of the major issues in modern French politics has been how to assure a fair distribution of the benefits provided by the industrial economy.

Revolution and Empire

The Moderate Revolution

In 1789 the French nation embarked on reconstructing itself. In August the National Assembly proclaimed the end of the feudal regime—meaning primarily the end of the dues peasants owed their landlords. The assembly also enacted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, intended as the preface to a constitution to be written later. Brief and vague, the Declaration both affirmed the sovereign authority of the nation and limited that authority by recognizing individual rights to life, property, and security. Work on the constitution began immediately. Finished in 1791, the constitution maintained the monarchy. But in an effort to prevent further despotism, the constitution sharply limited the king’s powers and invested greater authority in a single-bodied legislature, to be elected by wealthy males.

Between 1789 and 1791, the National Assembly also reorganized the nation into 83 districts, called departments, and gave them considerable power to run their own affairs. The assembly eliminated the nobility as a legally defined class, abolished venality of office, and made the French Catholic Church an agency of the state. The lands of the church were seized and gradually sold off to repay the monarchy’s debts and to reimburse venal officeholders. Full citizenship was extended to Jews and other religious minorities. These radical changes were resisted by some people, especially the nobility and the clergy, who began to leave France as early as the summer of 1789. Called the émigrés, these exiles lobbied other nations to crush the French Revolution.

In October 1789 an angry mob forced the king and his family to leave Versailles for Paris. The king then reluctantly and belatedly accepted revolutionary reforms. In June 1791 the royal family attempted to escape from Paris and possibly from France, only to be stopped near the French border.

The king and his family were essentially prisoners when the new constitutional monarchy took effect in October 1791. Differences soon surfaced over measures to be taken against the émigrés and those members of the clergy who refused to swear the required oath of allegiance to the new regime. Using the issue as a means to gather support, a group of deputies called the Brissotins gained power in the legislature (Brissot, Jacques Pierre). In April 1792 they pushed the legislature into declaring war on Austria, which was later joined by Prussia, England, Spain, and the Netherlands. The French army was unprepared for war and was soon put on the defensive. The whole revolution now seemed in acute danger. In August angry mobs attacked the Palace of the Tuileries, where the royal family lived. Shortly thereafter, the assembly voted to disband the new government in favor of a new constitution to be written by the National Convention, a new body of elected deputies.

The Radical Revolution

The National Convention met in September 1792 and voted to abolish the monarchy immediately and establish a republic. It proceeded to try Louis for treason, convicted him, and executed him on January 21, 1793. During this time, counterrevolutionary revolts broke out in rural areas such as the Vendée, and the military situation continued to deteriorate.

The convention was dominated by conflict between two factions—the more moderate Girondins (the former Brissotins) and the more radical Jacobins—although many deputies were unaffiliated. The Jacobins formed an alliance with the Paris mob, which for a time exercised considerable power, and purged the convention of the Girondin leadership. In the late summer and fall of 1793, the Jacobins, under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, established the machinery of the Reign of Terror. The Terror was intended to coerce citizens into contributing to the war effort and to help save the republic.

The Jacobins won notable successes on the battlefield and crushed the Vendée revolt. They thereby saved the revolution, but they also arrested a quarter-million French people. Of these, they executed about 30,000, often on questionable grounds, for working against the republic. They terrorized other deputies and eventually alienated the Paris crowd. By July 1794 they had so narrowed their political base that Robespierre and his closest associates were arrested and guillotined. The Terror was over, and the French Revolution drifted toward the right for the first time since 1789.

The End of the Revolution

As the instruments of the Reign of Terror were dismantled, the convention worked on a new constitution. The goals of this new constitution were to preserve the achievements of the French Revolution while ending the process of revolution itself. To prevent a renewal of the Terror by a single branch of government, the constitution that was enacted in 1795 distributed power between a two-chambered legislature and a five-man executive, known as the Directory.

Although it lasted longer than the other revolutionary regimes before it, this government also failed to stabilize the political system. Its leaders fundamentally distrusted democratic procedures and went so far as to cancel elections that brought undesired results. The government refused to abide by its own constitution. It shifted back and forth between alliances with the left and the right, turning increasingly to a policy of repression imposed by the military.

Meanwhile, the armies of the republic extended the French sphere of influence into Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy. Military victory contributed to the growing power of a Corsican-born general with great political ambitions, Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1799 serious military setbacks weakened the Directory’s political grip, and fears grew that the radical left was about to take over. Politician and theorist Emmanuel Sieyès then joined forces with Bonaparte to scuttle the government. On November 9, 1799, Bonaparte’s troops forced members of the legislature to vest state power in a new provisional government, soon to be called the Consulate. It was composed of Sieyès, Bonaparte, and French statesman Pierre Roger Ducos. The Directory was finished and so was the revolutionary process that had brought it into existence.

The only real star in the new government, Bonaparte was designated as first consul and given a term of ten years. He quickly assumed nearly total power, despite the existence of a puppet legislature. In 1802 he signed a treaty with France’s enemies, which allowed France to keep control of northern Italy and the regions around the Rhine. It brought France the first real peace it had known in ten years. On a wave of popular acclaim, Bonaparte was appointed first consul for life. He successfully built up a wide constituency, drawing from both supporters and opponents of previous revolutionary regimes. To further that end, he pardoned most of the émigrés in 1802.

Even more important were Bonaparte’s institutional reforms, most dating from this early period of his rule. In 1801 he settled the outstanding issues related to the French Catholic Church in a concordat agreed to by the pope. The concordat affirmed Roman Catholicism as “the religion of the great majority of citizens,” limited papal interference in the affairs of the French church, provided state salaries for the clergy, and recognized the Revolution’s confiscation of church lands as permanent. Bonaparte reorganized the civil administration, instituting a system of prefects, subprefects, and mayors charged with executing his orders in the provinces. To strengthen state finance, Bonaparte stabilized the value of the franc, the common name for the livre after 1789, and established the Bank of France (Banque de France), which facilitated government borrowing. To reform education, he instituted a series of secondary schools run according to a code of military discipline. These schools were later incorporated into the Imperial University, a state agency to oversee and coordinate education. Bonaparte also completed another project that would help define the modern French nation—France’s first systematic law code (see Code Napoléon).

Having reformed France’s government, Bonaparte reformed his own status. In 1804 he crowned himself emperor as Napoleon I, thereby initiating the First Empire. The revolutionary dreams of liberty were now forgotten in favor of a benevolent despotism, whose citizens were kept under close surveillance by Napoleon’s police chief Joseph Fouché, duc d’Otrante.

First Empire

Many of Napoleon’s individual domestic reforms—the system of prefects, the Bank of France, the law code—proved enduring, but the fate of the First Empire as a whole was determined on the battlefield. Indeed, the First Empire was, more than anything else, a machine of war. In 1803 France renewed conflict with England, and soon thereafter with other powers. Over the next few years, Napoleon won a string of brilliant military victories. His special target was Britain, the keystone of the opposing alliance. Napoleon sought to cripple the British economy and stimulate French production with the Continental System, a blockade to prevent British goods from reaching most European nations. The Continental System failed, but by 1810 Napoleon had established an empire of satellite kingdoms—many ruled by his relatives. Napoleon’s empire extended from Spain to Poland and included an alliance with Russia as well as the subordination of Prussia and Austria.

This empire proved unstable and was short-lived. Spain erupted in guerrilla activity, supported by Britain; Russia pulled out of both the Continental System and its French alliance; and Napoleon failed to turn around Russian opposition through his ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812. By 1813 the empire was crumbling and reeling from defeat. The following year allied armies entered France. Napoleon abdicated and was sent to the Italian island of Elba while the Bourbons returned to power under Louis XVIII.

In 1815 Napoleon attempted a comeback. He arrived in France and rallied the people to his side under the promise of a new, more liberal regime. But this brief interlude, known as the Hundred Days, ended with Napoleon’s final crushing defeat in the Battle of Waterloo and the second Bourbon restoration. The career that began in military glory ended because of military and diplomatic miscalculation. Napoleon was exiled to the Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

Few individuals have had such a lasting impact on French history as Napoleon. Yet the nature of his legacy remains disputed. He ended the turbulence of the revolutionary decade while completing some of the revolution’s unfinished business. His way of healing the cleavage between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries was to personalize politics through a cult of his own glory, to embark on ultimately fruitless campaigns of military conquest that cost the lives of about 3 million people, and to unify the nation through the centralization of power. This was one possible answer to the instability resulting from the revolution, and those who were moved by Napoleon’s myth in later years found it as compelling as had so many of his contemporaries.

Yet, whether such a system could have endured much longer is questionable, given the losses of manpower and wealth. Although Napoleon attempted to stimulate French economic production, he was unable to prevent a net decline in trade and a reduction in the agricultural and industrial growth rate, due to the disruptions of war. Moreover, it is arguable that the Napoleonic system of command was not suited for a nation that still had aspirations for liberty, had practiced a primitive form of democracy during the revolution, and was about to enter a new industrial age. Napoleon opened careers to men of talent but modest background, so long as they accepted the kind of state-imposed tutelage from which the early revolution had sought to release them. It remained to be seen what the French would do under less coercive regimes.

19th-Century French Economy and Society

Industrialization in France

The term Industrial Revolution, invented over a century ago to describe the rapid economic transformation of Britain, is not entirely appropriate to describe the change of manufacturing methods in modern France. To be sure, the two economies appear remarkably similar now, but France’s transition to an industrial economy was much more gradual. French industrial production lagged behind that of Britain and Germany for many decades.

This pace was in large part the result of the slow expansion of the French population relative to population growth in virtually all other countries of Europe. During the 19th century, the British population increased by about 350 percent, the German population increased by about 250 percent, and the overall European population more than doubled. But the French population increased by only 40 percent, to about 39 million. French mortality rates did decline—from 25.3 per 1,000 between 1816 and 1820 to 18.3 per 1,000 during the period from 1911 to 1913. However, the birthrate declined more—from 32.9 per 1,000 from 1816 to 1820 to 18.8 per 1,000 from 1911 to 1913, which was unusually low for Europe in this period.

Part of the explanation for France’s low birthrate lies in the persistence of the peasantry, which grew in absolute size, although it declined as a fraction of the total population. Peasants were typically forced to limit family size because they earned only very modest incomes from cultivating small plots and working at a variety of low-paying jobs. Some peasants migrated to the cities in search of work, but France’s urban growth was modest relative to Britain’s. Only 14 percent of the French population inhabited cities of over 10,000 by 1851, compared to 39 percent of the British population. Slower rates of population and urban growth meant smaller domestic demand for industrial goods. The foreign market did little to increase this demand because France exported only 8 percent of its manufactured products until the 1840s. High protective tariffs until the 1860s reduced foreign competition that might have stimulated innovation.

As in Britain, industrialization in France began in the textile industry. It then spread to heavy industry, especially iron, which became the dominant industrial sector by the mid-19th century. Not all sectors of manufacturing were immediately affected by the Industrial Revolution. Until the 1880s, for example, glassware continued to be produced by small family firms of skilled workers employing traditional, manual glassblowing techniques.

Beginning in the 1840s, railroad construction powerfully transformed all sectors of the French economy, spearheading an economic boom that lasted until the 1860s. Earlier in the 19th century, canal and road building had begun to create a truly national market, but the railroads allowed goods to reach virtually all areas of France by World War I (1914-1918). Railroad construction also stimulated demand for metal to produce rails and rolling stock.

Railroads did not, however, prevent the onset of a serious economic recession beginning in the 1860s. The recession was caused primarily by the inability of French agricultural and industrial producers to meet the growing worldwide competition for markets to which a reduction in tariffs in 1860 had exposed them. The recession slowed but did not halt French industrial growth until the strong recovery of the 1890s. Between the 1890s and World War I, French economic growth accelerated to twice the rate of the previous three decades.

The impact of industrialization on French society was strong, but not so dramatic as in Britain and Germany, where faster rates of economic change altered the landscape within a few decades. Paris suffered critical problems related to health and traffic congestion because it was so large and grew relatively rapidly. In the 1850s the government undertook a massive program of urban reconstruction under the leadership of the George Eugène, baron d’Haussmann, who was prefect of the Seine. Haussmann demolished many buildings, widened streets, and constructed a massive network of waterworks and sewers. Haussmann’s projects, which were accompanied by a great deal of private rebuilding, transformed Paris from a medieval city into a modern city and provided a model of urban renewal followed in other French cities.

Industrialization also led to the formation of a French working class. The industrial labor force expanded from 1.9 million in the period between 1803 and 1812 to 6.7 million in 1913. However, as late as 1906, only about a quarter of these people worked in establishments of more than 50 workers, while the remainder worked in smaller businesses. Many people worked under dangerous conditions, lived in overcrowded housing, and had little employment security. The living standards of most workers did not begin to rise substantially until the boom of the 1850s. This improvement was followed by further uneven rises until World War I.

Peasants, too, improved their standard of living during the 19th century, as comforts once known to only a few became more common. Some peasants had maintained commercial relations with urban areas for centuries. However, the coming of railroads and the opening of state-supported schools, especially during the Third Republic, broke down the commercial and cultural isolation of others. Standardized French gradually replaced old dialects.

Emergence of the Middle Class

Living primarily in cities and larger villages, the middle class blended imperceptibly at its upper end with the aristocracy. This group of so-called notables reaped most of the benefits of industrialization and dominated politics until the Third Republic in the 1870s. At its lower end, the middle class fused with the upper reaches of the working class. Between these extremes emerged a large class of white-collar workers with modest incomes derived from small businesses, retail shops, and clerical and professional jobs. This class formed the backbone of the republican constituency in the late 19th century.

In families of the middle class, women were not expected to work in salaried positions outside the home. This was particularly true for women who were married and had children. But primarily because of economic necessity, 68 percent of all women over age 16 and 56 percent of all married women held salaried jobs in 1906; these numbers were, however, much lower in nonagricultural areas.

Despite their critical contributions to the economy, women had far fewer rights than men. Indeed, they constituted the largest disadvantaged group in a nation that had proclaimed the equality of rights in 1789. Under the Code Napoléon, husbands had full control over family property, including dowries brought by wives into their marriages. Divorce was illegal from 1816 until 1884, and the legal and social consequences of adultery were much more severe for women than for men. Secondary education was unavailable to most females until the 1880s. The right to vote was extended to women only in 1945 after a half-century of agitation.

Politics from Napoleon to World War I

The collapse of the First Empire led to a quick succession of regimes and revolutions until 1875. This instability was rooted in the deep political divisions left by the French Revolution, divisions relating to the structure of government, the role of the church, and the distribution of wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution.

The Bourbon Restoration

The First Empire was followed by the Bourbon Restoration under Louis XVIII. It is often said that the leaders of the Restoration tried to “turn the clock back to 1789,” but they were well aware that that was impossible. Too many institutions of the Old Regime had been destroyed, and too many new ones had survived Napoleon’s passing. Not only was a new system of law and administration in place, but a double-chambered legislature henceforth provided at least some balance to executive authority. Instead, the leaders of the Restoration sought to reinstitute the power and authority of the nobility and the elite clergy, groups that had suffered grievous losses during the previous quarter of a century. They also wanted to make the new institutions work to their advantage.

Louis realized that he had to make some concessions to those who had supported the French Revolution. Thus in 1814 he proclaimed—not as a matter of natural right but as the concession of a divine-right king—a charter with weak guarantees of basic civil liberties. But after the Hundred Days, the brief period in 1815 when Napoleon returned to office, extreme ultraroyalists convinced Louis to purge the administration of its revolutionary personnel. At the same time, conservatives unleashed a wave of terror against political undesirables in the countryside. Ultraroyalists decisively won the first round of elections, but their hold was broken in the elections that Louis called in 1816.

These elections were won by a loose coalition of liberals, who supported the moderate reforms of the revolution but not popular democracy. They continued to increase their influence until 1820, when the king’s nephew was assassinated. Then the ultraroyalists, who blamed the assassination on the liberals, returned to power, where they remained for most of the Restoration. Their position was enhanced when a supporter of their agenda, Charles X, became king in 1824 upon Louis’s death.

Charles’s coronation at Reims in 1825 with most of the medieval trimmings was followed by other gestures that recalled the Old Regime, including legislation (never enforced) to punish sacrilegious acts. A relatively modest law was passed compensating émigrés for property confiscated during the revolution. But disputes over leadership and the role of the papacy in the French Catholic Church split the ultraroyalists, allowing moderate royalists and liberals to gain seats in the elections of 1827.

Charles made temporary concessions to the moderates, but in 1829 he installed an ultraroyalist ministry under the hated chief minister, Jules de Polignac. Polignac offended both the center and the left, leading to a fight in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower legislative house, in 1830. When the king called for new elections, the ministry was decisively repudiated at the polls. Charles responded by signing the July Ordinances, which dismissed the new Chamber of Deputies even before it met, restricted the right to vote, and limited freedom of the press. Despite a military victory in Algeria that led to its annexation by France, Charles’ government was doomed. The July Ordinances touched off a revolution in Paris that drove Charles from the throne. The Restoration was over.

The July Monarchy

The Revolution of 1830 led to a new regime, known as the July Monarchy because of the month of its birth. It was headed by Louis Philippe of the house of Orléans, who ruled from 1830 to 1848. His supporters in the Orléanist Party were largely drawn from the notable class of wealthy landowners and businessmen. The Orléanists were prepared to endorse the political heritage of 1789 to the extent that they broke with the idea of divine-right monarchy and waved the three-color flag created in the early 1790s. But they did not endorse popular democracy.

The Orléanist regime was challenged on the left by radical republicans and on the right by former ultraroyalists, but it was devoted to maintaining political and social stability. It did so with brute force, as when it put down revolts of the Lyonnais weavers in 1831 and 1834. Although not marked by great new initiatives, the July Monarchy did pass a law in 1833 laying the foundation for a national system of primary schools. The sponsor of this measure, François Guizot, a Protestant, became chief minister in 1840, lending a slight anticlerical cast to the regime.

Under the July Monarchy, the social problems arising out of the Industrial Revolution became matters of increasing debate. The regime itself, however, tended to a laissez-faire, or hands-off, policy and did little to solve social problems. Félicité de Lamennais, a philosopher who later became a priest, led an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to interest the pope in the cause of social reform. The left developed a number of sweeping plans of reform to save humanity from the perils of modern industrial society. Among the more grandiose were the plans of Charles Fourier and those of the followers of Saint-Simon. Fourier wanted to replace modern cities with utopian communities, and the Saint-Simonians advocated directing the economy by manipulating credit. Although few of these programs had much support, they did expand the political and social imagination of their contemporaries, including a German-born exile in Paris named Karl Marx.

They also increased dissatisfaction with the bland policies of the July Monarchy, and in 1848 the regime was overthrown. An economic recession in 1846 and 1847 had already spread discontent in the population. Then in February 1848 opponents of the regime provoked it into ordering a crackdown on dissent. The government failed to master the situation, and crowds in Paris drove out the king. Louis Philippe abdicated on February 24. A new republic was declared, a provisional government was organized, and the call went out for fresh elections. France was once again in revolution.

The Second Republic

The Second Republic lasted only four years, due chiefly to the inability of the regime to reconcile widely divergent political agendas. The provisional government responded to the crisis of unemployment by establishing national workshops to provide jobs in Paris. But the workshops were quickly dismantled after a relatively conservative government was elected in April 1848. This election was the first held in France on the basis of true universal male suffrage, and France was still overwhelmingly a country of relatively conservative peasants.

Parisian workers rose in revolt, barricading themselves in the streets. The government responded by sending in troops, who bloodily repressed the revolt in what is known as the June Days of 1848. This repression marked a major breakdown in the loose alliance of workers and bourgeois that had underpinned revolutionary movements since 1789. A new republican constitution was enacted in November, but it left unclear the respective powers of the unicameral assembly and the executive president. In the presidential elections of December 1848, the overwhelming winner was a nephew of the great Napoleon, Louis Napoleon, who had previously tried to overthrow the July Monarchy and had served time in jail for it.

Louis Napoleon’s appeal lay not only in his prestigious dynastic background but also in his fuzzy political platform, which allowed people of different parties to see in him a fellow spirit. In May 1849 a new legislature was elected. The big winners were right-wing monarchists and, to a lesser extent, left-wing radicals; moderate republicans went down to defeat. Exploiting ambiguities in the constitution regarding the limits of his power, Louis Napoleon at first favored the right. He agreed reluctantly to a restriction of the suffrage and to a law that increased church influence in education. But by 1851, the president fell out with the assembly over his demands for funds to pay his debts and for a constitutional revision that would allow him to serve a second term.

On December 2, Louis Napoleon had assembly leaders arrested and then altered the constitution so that he could have a ten-year term. This change was approved overwhelmingly by the voters, and a year later he followed in his famous uncle’s footsteps by making himself emperor as Napoleon III. This move was also approved by a wide margin, demonstrating what many liberals, such as the historian Alexis de Tocqueville, feared—namely that democracy in France would lead to the end of liberty. The republic had given way to the Second Empire.

The Second Empire

Napoleon III enjoyed the political benefits of ruling during a period of rising prosperity, but his success was due equally to his considerable political talents. He built a well-oiled political machine that made him master of France, and he had sufficient insight to see that his success depended on distributing patronage widely. Moreover, he had the unusual foresight to anticipate and forestall opposition before it became a real threat.

Recognizing that the authoritarianism of his early reign would eventually be challenged, he gradually liberalized his regime, relaxing controls on the press, allowing workers to organize, and widening the power of the legislature. Although the opposition exploited these concessions and grew stronger, Napoleon III continued on his liberalizing course. In 1870 he proposed a new constitution that further increased the power of the legislature. It was heartily endorsed by the electorate, thereby lending fresh authority to the regime. Had Napoleon III shown as much wisdom in foreign affairs, France might well have evolved fairly smoothly into a regime resembling the Third Republic, with the emperor assuming a supervisory role above party politics.

As it happened, Napoleon III’s regime, like that of his uncle, died of battle injuries. Since 1815 France had pursued a cautious foreign policy, surprising the rest of Europe, which had expected France to continue being a disruptive force in international affairs. Although allied loosely with Britain, France remained isolated under the July Monarchy. Napoleon III conceived of a grander French role in Europe and elsewhere. Between 1854 and 1856 he joined forces with England to fight Russia in the Crimean War. Imagining himself the godparent to Italian and German nationalism, he supported the efforts of Piedmont to form a northern Italian league, and in 1866 he helped arrange an Italian-Prussian alliance. In the 1860s he also backed an ill-fated effort to put a Habsburg prince, Maximilian, on the throne of Mexico. This venture ended in 1867 with the withdrawal of French troops, the execution of Maximilian, and the insanity of Maximilian’s wife.

But his fatal blunder was to engage militarily the growing power of Prussia under the able leadership of Otto von Bismarck. Napoleon III allowed a dispute with Prussia over the Spanish succession to become a matter of national prestige. Bismarck used the issue to elicit from France a declaration of war (see Franco-Prussian War). Vastly underestimating Prussian military strength and overestimating his own, Napoleon III saw his army beaten soundly at the Battle of Sedan in September 1870, and he became a prisoner of war. Sedan set off political demonstrations in Paris that ended the Second Empire. On September 4, 1870, a new provisional government was declared.

As minister of interior in the new government, the republican leader Léon Gambetta worked vigorously to mount patriotic opposition to the advancing Prussian troops, which laid siege to Paris. He escaped from besieged Paris in a balloon in order to organize provincial defenses. But French resistance crumbled. During the winter of 1870 to 1871, starving Parisians were reduced to eating zoo animals. In January, some members of the provisional government split with Gambetta and sued for peace.

A hastily called election in February 1871 produced a legislature that was overwhelmingly monarchist, largely because the right favored a quick end to the war, as did most French people. The left, on the other hand, called upon a weary nation to keep on fighting. The new assembly chose Adolphe Thiers, a seasoned Orléanist politician, to be executive of the provisional government. Thiers negotiated the peace terms for ending the Franco-Prussian War. France was required to pay 5 billion francs, allow Prussian forces to temporarily occupy eastern France, and cede to Prussia all of Alsace and part of Lorraine. Although the assembly reluctantly approved the terms, the republicans disavowed them.

In March 1871 Paris rose in the revolt of the Commune, which turned a foreign war into a civil one (see Commune of Paris, 1871). Lasting 72 days, the revolt was largely motivated by opposition to the peace terms and to the monarchist assembly. But to the radical left, it became a symbol of proletarian insurgency against the ruling classes. In May Thiers unleashed troops against the Commune and crushed it. The result was 20,000 people dead and 50,000 sent to trial. Such repression had not been seen since the Reign of Terror, and bitter memories of the atrocities committed by both sides endured.

The Third Republic

The right appeared strong enough to rebuild a monarchy on the ruins of the Commune, but instead France unexpectedly established the Third Republic. The monarchists’ failure can best be explained by several factors: rival claims to the throne by the Bourbons and the Orléanists, delays that allowed opponents to gain strength, and the receding of the war issue on which the right had won at the polls in 1871.

Meanwhile, Thiers consolidated his power. He rebuilt the army and paid off reparations owed to Germany as a result of the Franco-Prussian War, after which Prussia was incorporated into the unified state of Germany. Most importantly, he inspired confidence among people in the political center. His brutal repression of the Commune convinced them that a republic would not sell out to the radical left. However, opposition to Thiers led to his resignation in 1873. He was replaced by Marshal MacMahon, an ally of the monarchists.

Two years later a new constitution was enacted that formally established the Third Republic with a two-chambered legislature, a president, and a cabinet responsible to the legislature. Few were truly satisfied with this arrangement, and a party of republican radicals initially rejected it. But the constitution gained enough support to pass because so-called republican Opportunists such as Gambetta imagined it could be altered later to create a more unified state. At the same time, moderate monarchists thought the president would eventually be replaced by a king. As it turned out, both groups were wrong. The Third Republic lasted longer than any other French regime since 1789—a remarkable result, given that all other major European states at the time were monarchies of one sort or another.

Republicans decisively won the elections of 1876, which eventually put them at loggerheads with MacMahon. The next year MacMahon called for new elections to the Chamber of Deputies, which led only to another, if lesser, republican victory. MacMahon was forced to resign, and his defeat had long-lasting consequences. Henceforth, the president became a relatively weak figure that would never again dissolve the Deputies, thereby making the legislature the chief center of power. This outcome was disappointing to both republicans and monarchists. It also increased the difficulties of forming ministries with activist agendas, because the large number of parties made forming coalitions necessary to gain the support of the legislature. If any party in a governing coalition objected to a proposed policy, this party could easily bring down the coalition by withdrawing from it. Conservative, agrarian interests dominated in the senate and were thereby able to block reform; as a result, women and labor unions benefited little from the Third Republic.

Yet the common image of the Third Republic as a stalemate regime with many brakes and a weak motor needs some correction. In the 1880s the government was strong enough to initiate a vast program to build and staff secular primary and secondary schools, which instilled patriotic republican values as a counterweight to those of the church. In the same decade, it expanded France’s colonial empire, which became the second largest European overseas empire. In the early 20th century, the Third Republic disestablished the church and led the nation through the severe trials of World War I.

Perhaps most significant, it made republican democracy—still a widely distrusted form of government in 1870—acceptable to the vast majority of the French. This was achieved partly by developing nationalistic symbols with wide appeal. In 1879 the revolutionary hymn La Marseillaise was made the national anthem, and in 1880, Bastille Day, July 14, was declared a national holiday.

Except during the World War II years from 1940 to 1945, France has remained a republican democracy. To be sure, the Third Republic was brought down in 1940 by depression and defeat. But no other post-Napoleonic regime had survived disasters of equal gravity, and most had collapsed under considerably less stress.

The first serious test of the Third Republic’s resiliency was the Boulanger affair, which followed a series of financial scandals that discredited the government. In the late 1880s a rising career soldier, General Georges Boulanger, launched a political career on the basis of his popularity as military reformer. In a highly nationalistic age, his campaign drew wide support, and radicals such as Georges Clemenceau initially thought he might serve as a charismatic figure on behalf of the left.

Increasingly however, Boulanger flirted with the right, calling for drastic revisions to the constitution. He rallied elements of the French population who were dissatisfied with the Third Republic and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies. As his movement gained strength, the government threatened to arrest him. In 1889 Boulanger fled to Belgium, where two years later he committed suicide on the grave of his mistress. Although the Boulanger affair now appears something of a farce, it seriously threatened the Third Republic, and its resolution proved a political windfall to the center.

Still more serious was the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish career army captain working in military intelligence. In 1894 he was arrested, court-martialed, convicted, and sent to Devil’s Island for espionage on behalf of Germany. Convinced of his innocence, his family tried unsuccessfully to reopen the apparently closed case. However, military secrets continued to pass to the Germans, and a military investigator, Colonel Georges Picquart, found evidence showing that Major Marie Charles Esterhazy was guilty instead. The army called Picquart off the case, but information about it began to seep out to the public.

Center-left newspapers gradually adopted Dreyfus’s cause as their own, and Esterhazy was brought to trial. He was acquitted in 1898, but by then it was becoming clear that the army had framed Dreyfus. In perhaps the most famous newspaper editorial ever published, “J’accuse” (“I Accuse”), the great novelist and Dreyfus supporter Émile Zola denounced the army for its deceptions.

Controversy gripped the nation and the world as Dreyfus became a symbol of the secular Third Republic itself. Ordinary citizens chose sides according to their politics. In defending Dreyfus’s innocence, the center-left saw itself refighting the battles of the French Revolution in favor of liberty and against the aristocracy and the church. Led by many anti-Semitic monarchists in the church and the army, the right argued that Dreyfus had to be regarded as guilty, or the army, and by extension the nation, would fall into disgrace or worse. In 1899 a new military court met and convicted Dreyfus, now an emaciated walking skeleton, for a second time.

To resolve the controversy, the president of the republic offered Dreyfus a pardon. Dreyfus accepted it only with reluctance, because it implied a guilt that he had always denied. In 1906 an appeals court cleared Dreyfus officially of all charges. The army refused to admit it had framed Dreyfus, but he was nonetheless reinstated. The right continued to believe in Dreyfus’s guilt long after the great affair was over.

The Dreyfus case inflated the political sails of the Radicals, who pressed on with their campaign against the church and in 1905 disestablished it altogether. The church vigorously resisted disestablishment, and as a result, its income declined seriously, as did entries into the priesthood and attendance at church schools. Disestablishment also freed the church from many compromising political entanglements. Ultimately it may have improved the quality of the clergy because only the more dedicated were willing to accept lower salaries. In any case, the church henceforth became a much less important source of political controversy.

Another effect of the Dreyfus affair was to galvanize and reorient the right, which had begun to change even earlier. This “new right” mixed its pleas on behalf of monarchy and the church with a new, shrill nationalism, opposition to parliamentary government, and anti-Semitism. It used these tenets effectively in its campaign against Dreyfus. The new right learned how to mobilize public opinion through journalism and how to organize political campaigns, two abilities that prepared the way for the fascist leagues of the post-World War I era.

The appearance of the new right was accompanied by the emergence of a larger, more effectively organized left, in the form of labor unions and the Socialist Party, formally called the Section Française de l’International Ouvrière (SFIO). The largest labor association was the General Labor Confederation (CGT), founded in 1895, which claimed nearly a million members by World War I. Its leaders were suspicious of political parties and leaned toward a strategy of revolutionary anarchism that called for strikes, sabotage, and boycotts to improve the lot of workers.

This program competed fiercely with the strategy proposed by the Socialist Party, which called for putting political pressure on the state to raise wages and improve working conditions. The Socialist Party was formed when a workers’ association led by Jules Guesde joined a political faction led by socialist scholar, journalist, and politician Jean Jaurès. The Socialist Party, which adopted Marxist revolutionary language, was winning more than a million votes at the polls and had elected 100 deputies to the legislature (close to 20%) by 1914. Although workers saw their real wages double between 1894 and 1914, they gained little from state initiatives. The industrial working class remained a minority of the population, and democracy continued to forestall socialism, even in a regime whose heart was on the left.

During the early years of the Third Republic, France’s colonial empire grew. Algeria had already become a French colony in 1830, and by the end of the century Algeria had a European population—only half of it French—of 665,000 people. Under Louis-Philippe, Tahiti and the Comoro Islands were added to the French Empire. Under Napoleon III, the French acquired Cochin China (part of present-day Vietnam) and protectorates over Cambodia and Senegal.

In the 1880s, a fresh round of imperialist expansion occurred as France gained colonies in Tunisia, the Congo, Indochina, and Madagascar. Over the following two decades, France expanded its empire in China and throughout West Africa, nearly coming to blows with Britain in 1898 over conflicting claims in the Sudan. The crisis was settled amicably, and the resulting improved relations paved the way for French military alignment with Britain in Europe. By contrast, colonial expansion only inflamed relations with Germany, which sought unsuccessfully to frustrate French expansion into Morocco, where France established a protectorate in 1912.

Economically, French colonialism was problematic. Exports to the colonies represented only about 13 percent of all French exports before World War I. At the same time, the costs of maintaining the empire increased fivefold from 1875 to 1914, suggesting that empire-building had stronger political than economic causes.

French colonies were governed centrally from Paris through agents who did not answer to any local parliament. In the majority of its territories, France denied full citizenship to most indigenous peoples. Full citizenship was given only to those who could pass a battery of stringent legal, linguistic, educational, and religious tests. Thus in French West Africa, only 0.5 percent of the population qualified as citizens.

The growth of France’s world empire occurred during a period when international tensions were rising closer to home. The key developments occurred in Germany, which had been unified in 1871 and had industrialized rapidly. Having soundly defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War, Germany became Europe’s strongest continental power, while France was diplomatically isolated until the early 1890s.

Then Germany blundered by allowing its secret defense agreement with Russia to lapse. In 1894 Russia joined France in a defensive military pact, which was gradually strengthened. In 1902 France negotiated an agreement with Italy that ensured Italian neutrality in case of a French war with Germany. Most important, though far less formalized, was the growing solidarity between France and Britain. Having already begun to reduce colonial tensions in 1898, France and Britain slowly drifted together in reaction to Germany’s increasingly erratic and aggressive foreign policies after 1900. In 1904 the two nations reached the Entente Cordiale, an agreement that further clarified colonial spheres of influence and initiated coordinated military planning.

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, thereby initiating a chain reaction of war declarations that opened World War I. Russia declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany declared war on Russia and then two days later on France; the next day Germany invaded Belgium, a neutral nation. This invasion caused Britain to enter the war, transforming the Anglo-French entente into a more formal alliance. France became more closely allied with other nations than ever before, and the Third Republic faced its most severe crisis to date.

France in Turmoil: World War I Through World War II

Historians often date the end of the real, as opposed to the chronological, 19th century at 1914, the year Europe exploded into World War I. This was the first total war, in which governments mobilized the full resources of the state and society to achieve victory. World War I led to the success of Bolshevism in Russia and indirectly to the rise of fascism. In France, however, these developments had less immediate impact. To be sure, France suffered from the heavy economic and human costs of the war, which left deep scars on the participants and introduced a level of violence that would have repercussions later.

Even so, the continuities in France between 1914 and 1930 were more striking than the changes. After a period of adjustment, the economy rebounded, and the government gradually solved its fiscal problems. Although the war lowered birthrates, these rates had been falling before the war. Diplomatically, France regained territory it had controlled before 1871, but otherwise the war settled little. In the 1920s French diplomats contended with more or less the same nationalist rivalries that had fueled World War I. Politically, the parliamentary system of the Third Republic endured without much striking change, while the French world empire also continued to grow.

The 1930s and 1940s were the real turning point in France. The onset of the Depression coupled with the aggressive expansion of Nazi Germany put heavy strains on the Third Republic, and it collapsed after Germany defeated and then occupied France at the beginning of World War II (1939-1945). Under German occupation, the French replaced the Third Republic with a right-wing regime, known as the Vichy government, which effectively abandoned France’s republican traditions.

German authorities limited the Vichy government’s margin of maneuver, but Vichy still enjoyed broad support in the population until the tide of war turned against Germany. Yet already in 1940 there was an alternative to collaboration with the Germans. Local grassroots resistance movements took shape almost immediately, while General Charles de Gaulle, who was in exile in London, announced that Vichy would not be France’s future. Events proved him right.

World War I

World War I in France began in 1914, when Germany marched through Belgium, hoping to capture Paris and encircle the French army, most of which was poised on the German border to retake Alsace-Lorraine. The Germans moved faster than the French did and were well on their way to completing their plan when the French recognized the danger. They pulled troops back from the German border and redeployed them to block the German advance on Paris. The Germans were stopped in the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914. If the German plan had succeeded, it would have ended the war in weeks. Instead, a standoff resulted, which defined the nature of fighting for the rest of the war.

In that stalemate, Anglo-French and German armies opposed one another for four years in rain-soaked, rat-infested, barbed-wire trenches running for hundreds of kilometers through northeastern France. Both sides tried vainly to puncture the lines of the other and win a decisive victory. They used the full range of new weaponry—poison gas, tanks, machine guns, airplanes—only to be thrown back. Meanwhile, casualties mounted in appalling numbers. The Battle of Verdun resulted in more than 700,000 casualties and lasted most of 1916 but resolved essentially nothing.

Such pointless slaughter eroded morale. In 1917 mutinies broke out in the French army, reflecting the defeatism common among those on the left, who had shown pacifist tendencies before 1914. The mutinies were put down by the Radical prime minister, Georges Clemenceau, through a combination of repression and patriotic appeals. In the spring of 1918, the Anglo-French military—now backed by fresh American troops—finally went on the offensive and forced Germany to an armistice on November 11, 1918. The war that had lasted more than four years was effectively won in six months.

Aftermath of the War

World War I did not transform France, but its effects were surely considerable. In a country already stricken by depopulation, 1.4 million men—10 percent of the nation’s active males—were killed and twice that number wounded. This loss led to further declines in France’s very low birthrate. So deep were the scars that monuments to the war dead were erected in virtually every village and town in France. Material losses were also enormous, especially since the area of the country occupied by Germany during the war produced about half the country’s coal and steel. Fiscally, too, the war was costly. The government, which had not anticipated massive expenditures, met expenses by printing great amounts of paper money and by borrowing. These measures tripled prices, quintupled the national debt, and weakened the franc. The government’s only real innovation in dealing with these problems was the introduction of a modest income tax.

The war also had social effects other than the demographic ones. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants entered the country to fill the jobs vacated by soldiers. Together with native-born workers, they swelled the ranks of labor unions by an estimated 1 million members. During the war, 450,000 women worked in factories and earned incomes that had formerly been restricted to men, but after the war two-thirds of these women were let go to create jobs for veterans.

Treaty of Versailles

The difficulties of winning the war were followed by the frustrations of winning the peace. The peace terms were worked out at an international conference held in Versailles during 1919 (see Versailles, Treaty of). The French succeeded in regaining Alsace-Lorraine and in foisting exclusive blame for the war on Germany. On that basis, reparations were imposed on Germany, just as France had been forced to pay reparations after the Battle of Waterloo and the Franco-Prussian War. The exact amount was to be computed by a commission later, but initial estimates were astronomical. France’s chief goal, ensuring its security, proved far more elusive. In the end, France had to renounce hopes for permanent control of the Rhine Valley. Germany agreed to demilitarize the Rhineland, and France won the right to occupy the area until 1935. Britain and the United States guaranteed their aid to France in case of attack.

However, many of the peace terms did not turn out as expected. Britain and the United States soon retracted their assurances. France was left to rely on a set of alliances with central and eastern European powers—alliances that paradoxically wound up dragging France back into war in 1939. France withdrew its troops from the Rhineland five years earlier than planned, and German leader Adolf Hitler remilitarized the Rhineland in 1936. German reparations, which France needed to pay off debts owed to the United States, amounted to considerably less than first imagined, even though by 1931 Germany had paid 10 billion francs. Under such circumstances, it was not surprising that in the 1930s France built the Maginot Line, a heavily fortified string of defenses running along the frontier from Switzerland to Belgium. The French trusted the Maginot Line to withstand a German assault.

Like other nations, France made an effort to forestall war. It joined the League of Nations and signed agreements such as the Locarno Pact of 1925, which reaffirmed the Franco-German border, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which renounced war as an instrument of foreign policy. But a strong sense of vulnerability continued to lie behind French foreign and military policy in Europe throughout the period between World War I and World War II. This vulnerability laid the basis for the appeasement policies and military strategies of the 1930s.

A sense of vulnerability was much less apparent in French overseas imperialism in this period. The French colonial empire reached its peak, expanding into the African and Middle Eastern regions formerly controlled by Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The French empire now extended to 11.7 million sq km (4.5 million sq mi)—20 times the size of France—and included a population of roughly 80 million people—about twice that of France. Yet commercial relations with the colonies continued to be marginal—amounting to only 15 percent of France’s foreign trade in 1929.

Politics Between the Wars

At home, the shape of politics changed relatively little in the aftermath of World War I, as France was governed by a variety of center-left and center-right coalitions. The most important change was the division of the SFIO into separate communist and socialist parties, which occurred in 1920. The Communist Party continued to profess Marxist revolutionary doctrines and warmly embraced the Soviet regime that had come to power in Russia in 1917. The Socialist Party, under Jaurès’s protégé Léon Blum, adopted a less confrontational position with regard to the Third Republic and refused to endorse the Soviet government in Moscow.

Although the Socialist Party initially had fewer members, they were far more successful than the Communist Party at the polls. In the 1932 election, they won 131 seats in the legislature—more than any other party—while the Communist Party won only 10 seats. However, neither party had much impact on French government social policy until the Great Depression, especially because the Socialists refused to participate officially in any coalition they could not dominate.

The major domestic political concerns of the 1920s were fiscal. Although the economy expanded in the mid-1920s, state finances remained shaky. Accumulated war debt and deficit spending caused the franc to decline; it was only one-tenth of its prewar value by 1926. In that year, a centrist government under Raymond Poincaré restored the franc by raising taxes and cutting spending. These measures increased confidence in the economy, and capital investment grew. By 1929 manufacturing and trade had climbed to roughly 50 percent above prewar levels. In the agricultural sector, efficiency improved, but the sector was still much less prosperous than were manufacturing and trade.

The coming of the Great Depression changed fiscal concerns into economic ones. France escaped the depression until late 1931, many months after it had begun elsewhere. But when the depression did reach France, it lasted longer. Whereas in 1937 British industrial production was 24 percent greater than in 1929 and German industrial production 16 percent greater, French industrial production in 1937 was 28 percent lower than it had been in 1929. The response of the French government, like that of many other nations, only aggravated the problem. Having fought so hard to support the franc in the 1920s, the French government resisted devaluation, although the franc declined anyway. To protect home markets, the French government, like others, raised tariff barriers, thereby worsening the prospects for a general European recovery. What made France’s situation bearable was the fact that unemployment was less serious than elsewhere, partly because many foreign workers were sent home and many unemployed workers returned to family farms. Nonetheless, the standard of living declined.

The center-right coalitions failed to stop the economic slide, and in 1932 they gave way to governments run by the Radicals and supported by the Socialist Party. But these governments could not agree on a coherent economic program. Paralysis in the center-left encouraged the growth of a variety of new political organizations on the right. These ranged from blatant imitations of Benito Mussolini’s and Hitler’s fascist movements, such as Jacques Doriot’s French Popular Party (PPF), to more tradition-minded groups, such as the Cross of Fire. Both groups had memberships in the hundreds of thousands.

When the operations of a shady financier, Serge Stavisky, were made public and linked to the Radical Party in 1934, the right staged a massive demonstration in Paris, joined by members of the Communist Party. The demonstration threatened to overthrow the Third Republic, although its goal was apparently only to force a change of cabinet. During the demonstration, 17 people were killed and thousands were wounded. The cabinet was changed, but the new government offered no effective cure for the Depression. Equally ineffective was the next government led by Pierre Laval, who would later be a key member of the Vichy government.

The Popular Front

In 1935 the Communist Party, acting on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s orders, offered to ally with the Socialists and the Radicals to stem the tide of fascism sweeping Europe. This coalition would be called the Popular Front. Stung by previous communist attacks on them as social fascists, the Socialist Party was reluctant to join, but did so. To solidify the alliance with the Radicals, both Communists and Socialists dropped earlier plans to socialize the economy, but even the coalition’s mild calls for government intervention to improve the lot of workers scandalized the right.

The bitterly fought 1936 elections witnessed the beginning of the end of the broad centrist consensus that had supported the Third Republic. The center’s failure to solve the Depression drove voters to extremes on both right and left at the expense of the center, and the Communist Party increased its seats from 10 to 72. This gave Léon Blum the support he needed to form the Popular Front, the first French government led by a Socialist.

The record of the Popular Front was mixed. Blum settled a wave of strikes by arranging for wage increases, collective bargaining, a 40-hour workweek, and paid vacations. He also attempted to support farm prices. But Blum’s government lacked an adequate theory to explain the Depression and had no better idea than earlier ones for how to cure it. When the Popular Front was toppled by the Radicals in 1937, the economy was no stronger than before.

Except for a very brief period in 1938, Radicals dominated the government from 1937 until 1940. During this time, they managed to nudge production up, through tax cuts and concessions to business at the expense of labor. Even so, by the summer of 1939, economic activity had returned only to the level of 1928.

World War II

The failure of the Third Republic to deal effectively with the Depression was accompanied by the collapse of its foreign and military policy. Until 1936 the rise of Nazi Germany caused little controversy in France. The government responded to growing Nazi power by attempting to strengthen ties with France’s central and eastern European allies, establish new agreements with Italy and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and renew the old entente with Britain. But after the Popular Front government came to power, the right, which portrayed the Popular Front as the prelude to a communist takeover, began to see Hitler as less of a menace than Blum. The left, torn between its old pacifism and its fears of creeping European fascism, was divided on whether to confront or negotiate with Germany.

Clearly, the majority of the French people wanted to avoid war at almost all costs, and British pressure to do so inclined France toward a policy of appeasement. In 1936 France merely protested Hitler’s remilitarization of the Rhineland, despite the fact that this move violated the treaties of Versailles and Locarno. While the Popular Front was in power, Blum declined to aid the Spanish Republic, which was fighting a brutal civil war against anti-Republican forces led by Franco and supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (see Spanish Civil War). Since the right favored Franco, Blum feared a civil war in France if he intervened in the Spanish conflict. In March 1938 France acceded to Germany’s annexation of Austria (see Anschluss). At the Munich Conference (see Munich Pact) in September 1938, France violated its own defense treaty with Czechoslovakia by agreeing to German occupation of the Czech Sudetenland. The next March, France stood by while Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Only on September 3, 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, did France and Britain reluctantly declare war. Even then France took little offensive action beyond participating in a naval blockade of Germany, still hoping that something might be worked out. Such paralysis, far from thwarting Nazi aggression against France, only invited it. The German attack on France in May 1940 was no repetition of the attack of September 1914, which had stalled out very quickly. Hitler directed his massed tank divisions north of the Maginot Line through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest. France and the rest of the Allied Powers did not lack men and material, but they were unprepared strategically. In six weeks Hitler won the decisive victory that had eluded the Germans in World War I. Seventy years after the Battle of Sedan, France was once again an occupied nation.

The Vichy Government

While millions took to the roads to escape the German advance, the French government left Paris for Bordeaux. On June 17 the government asked Germany for an armistice, after which aging Marshal Henri Pétain, the hero of World War I, was appointed prime minister. On June 22 France signed an armistice agreement in the same railroad car in which the Germans had signed the armistice of 1918. French armed forces were to be demobilized, the southern third of France would continue to be governed by the French, and the northern two-thirds was to be occupied and administered by the Germans with funds provided by French taxpayers. Reassuring the French people with a soothing, paternal radio voice, Pétain called upon France to lay down its arms and accept the armistice. Most French people, in shock over the quick defeat, followed his advice.

In the south, the government moved from Bordeaux to Vichy, where on July 10 it voted overwhelmingly to authorize Pétain to draft a new constitution. Under this constitution, Pétain became head of state and the final arbiter in all decisions, while a variety of ministers responsible to him carried out government functions. Pétain’s deputy, Pierre Laval, pushed the plan through the Chamber of Deputies.

The professed goal of the new regime was a national revolution, which would regenerate a decadent France by rerooting the nation in its traditions of religion, family, and the land. The squabbling and corruption of parliamentary democracy was now supposed to give way to the authoritarian efficiency of one-man rule. Legally and spiritually, the Third Republic, which was blamed for involving France in a war it could not win, was now dead.

In fact, Vichy was a hodgepodge of competing factions and interests. The principal division lay between the traditionalists and the modernizers. A majority of Vichyites were traditionalists who sought to contain capitalist competition, organize society into partially self-governing associations, and restore the influence of the Catholic Church. The modernists, who were closely associated with big business, wanted to push France forward through more active government intervention in the economy. Although they were in the minority, the modernists gradually gained influence, in large part because their program called for measures that were more practical. If Vichy had a positive legacy, it lay in its efforts at government economic planning, which were continued after the war and helped remove obstacles to growth. One of the ironies of the Vichy regime was that in some ways it promoted modernization more effectively than the Third Republic had.

Yet Vichy also meant an active collaboration with Nazi Germany. Although Vichy leaders protested after the war that they had resisted German demands as much as they had dared, they were in fact convinced in 1940 that the future belonged to fascism. They actively cooperated in building the Nazi-dominated European empire, doing even more than Germany expected or demanded.

Germany did not, in the end, reward France for this cooperation. France was required to supply Germany with hundreds of thousands of forced laborers and more material aid than any other German satellite. Despite their vast agricultural resources, the French ate more poorly and suffered more inflation during the war than any other western European people except the Italians. Alsace-Lorraine was again annexed by Germany, and in November 1942, the Germans occupied the southern third of the nation, thereby removing most of Vichy’s independence.

However, the most shameful acts committed by the Vichy government resulted more from its own hatreds than from German demands. Not only did Vichy hunt down and execute resistors to German rule, but it also initiated its own campaign of anti-Semitic persecution. Jews were fired from positions in the civil service, judiciary, army, public schools, and cultural institutions (publishing houses, newspapers, radio, and entertainment), and only a limited number were permitted to practice medicine and law. Vichy seized Jewish property, while Jews who had recently immigrated to escape persecution elsewhere were interned in concentration camps.

Still worse was Vichy’s collaboration in the Holocaust. Vichy was not inclined to commit genocide itself and was anxious to keep French-born Jews under its control, all the better to strip them of their property. However, Vichy employed its own police and militia to round up Jewish men, women, and children, most of them foreign-born. They were then shipped in appalling conditions to German-occupied Poland and gassed in Nazi death camps. The death toll of Jews transported from France was about 75,000.

The Resistance

Most French people initially supported Pétain’s regime, but resistance to German rule and opposition to Vichy began almost immediately after France was defeated. Charles de Gaulle, a career general and undersecretary of war who had bitterly criticized French strategy in the 1930s, escaped to London in June 1940 and established a government in exile. Lacking any formal authority, de Gaulle attracted few followers at first, but he received vital recognition and material assistance from British prime minister Winston Churchill.

In France, small groups of resisters formed and committed isolated acts of protest and sabotage. These groups were better organized in the southern unoccupied zone and attracted support from various parties, especially the Communist Party. Contacts between de Gaulle’s government in London and the Resistance in France increased, and gradually de Gaulle was able to impose control from abroad on the expanding Resistance in France.

In 1943 de Gaulle moved his headquarters to Algiers, after clashing with Churchill and U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt over strategy. De Gaulle’s relations with the Resistance in France were also sometimes difficult. Resistance leaders feared de Gaulle’s ambitions, but sufficient harmony was maintained to prevent a breakdown in relations. As the tide of war turned against the Germans and the Germans demanded more forced labor from the French, the ranks of the Resistance swelled. By 1944 most people could demonstrate they had done something to resist the Germans, so they could later claim to have been members of the Resistance.

Following the successful landing of Allied troops in Normandy on June 6, 1944, France was gradually liberated (see D-Day Invasion). The communists made some attempt at seizing power, most notably through an uprising against the Germans in Paris in August 1944. But in the end de Gaulle was able to establish his authority throughout France without much difficulty. A new provisional government under de Gaulle’s leadership assumed power. The harshness of the occupation led to rough justice against former collaborators, often without formal trials. About 10,000 people were executed and 40,000 sent to prison. Laval was tried and executed. Pétain was also tried and sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The Fourth Republic

France emerged from World War II profoundly weakened economically, but it had once again learned to appreciate its republican traditions. Indeed, one effect of Vichy’s collapse was to discredit the traditional right, which had never really accepted the values of 1789 as its own. The nearly universal acceptance of republican values after 1945 facilitated the building of a more stable political system.

The year 1945 was also a turning point demographically and economically, after which France acquired an energy not seen for half a century. Striking new population growth and a rising standard of living increased demand for consumer goods and for more education and other services from the state. Women, enfranchised in 1944 by a wartime decree, exercised their newly acquired right to vote and gradually improved their economic status.

Having dealt with some of the collaborators, the new government sought to build on the patriotic spirit of the Resistance, hoping to synthesize unity out of the myth that nearly everyone had been a resistor. The government enacted fresh reforms, extending the vote to women. But political differences soon resurfaced, and parties quickly formed. The political right, which had been discredited by its association with Vichy, was in disarray. A new centrist party, the Christian Democratic Mouvement Republicain Populaire, or MRP, emerged and won about 25 percent of the votes in the fall 1945 legislative election, as did the older socialist and communist parties.

The National Assembly drew up a new constitution amid protracted controversy. It soon became clear that the constitution would mandate another parliamentary regime, not the presidential system that de Gaulle favored. De Gaulle resigned in January 1946 and spent the next 12 years in virtual political exile. The assembly approved a proposed constitution calling for a state dominated by a single-chambered legislature, but the voters rejected it, fearing it would facilitate a communist takeover of the whole government. In October 1946 the voters approved a second draft, which proposed a two-chambered legislature, but included mechanisms to make it easier to pass legislation than under the Third Republic. The Fourth Republic was born.

During the 12 years of its existence, the Fourth Republic witnessed a string of relatively short-lived governments that over time tracked more and more to the right. None was particularly distinguished, except for that of the Radical Pierre Mendès-France, who sought to breathe life into the republic through a series of reforms inspired by British economist John Maynard Keynes. Two major items dominated the political agenda: the economy and decolonization.

Economic Issues

At the end of World War II, the French economy suffered from low production and an excess of money, which led to rapid inflation. The Vichy experiments at planning and the postwar nationalization of key industries—coal, gas, electricity, and some banks and insurance companies—prepared the way for bold efforts to energize the economy. Beginning in 1946, Jean Monnet, head of the state planning commission, administered a program to break through traditional economic bottlenecks by stimulating investment and thereby production. Part of the investment capital was provided by the United States under the Marshall Plan (see European Recovery Program).

In addition, France and other European nations recognized how economic isolationism had undermined all their economies during the 1930s. They began to form international associations to promote more broadly based economic growth and to lay the basis for possible long-term political integration. An additional incentive to form such associations was the fear that an economically weak and politically divided western Europe would invite further expansion by the Soviet Union, which after World War II had established a broad band of satellite countries in eastern and central Europe.

In 1951 France joined with West Germany and other European nations in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the brainchild of the French statesman Robert Schuman. The ECSC led to the formation in 1957 of the European Economic Community, known as the Common Market, a trade association that included Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg). Although generally successful, reduction of tariff barriers tended to benefit large producers at the expense of smaller ones. In the 1950s many small producers backed a short-lived, right-wing protest movement for tax relief, led by the shopkeeper Pierre Poujade. The movement failed, but it expressed resentment against modernization that would show itself more forcefully later.


Overall the Fourth Republic dealt successfully with economic issues, but it was less successful in resolving colonial ones. Decolonization eventually brought down the regime, much as the Franco-Prussian War had terminated the Second Empire and World War II the Third Republic. The sprawling French Empire, like those of other European nations, faced widespread revolts after World War II.

In Indochina, resistance movements had been organized to oppose the Japanese, who had occupied the area during World War II. After the war, these movements were redirected against French imperialism. From 1946 to 1954 the French army attempted to suppress the resistance movements in Indochina, but it was dealt a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (see First Indochina War). Prime Minister Mendès-France arranged for as graceful a diplomatic and military withdrawal from Indochina as was possible under the circumstances, and he preempted trouble in Morocco and Tunisia by conceding independence.

The prime minister faced a much more difficult situation in Algeria, where the vast majority of Arab Algerians wanted independence but the 1 million European settlers there demanded the continued protection of French rule. A violent independence movement began in 1954, and increasingly large numbers of French troops were sent to Algeria to put it down. The movement escalated into a virtual civil war involving the use of terror and torture. Extremists in the French army and their sympathizers who feared a French pullout from Algeria plotted to bring down the French government. By 1958 it was clear that the Fourth Republic could not resolve the crisis (see Algerian War of Independence).

Supporters of Charles de Gaulle, who had bided his time in retirement, plotted to use the turmoil to put him in power under a new constitution, and eventually a smooth transition was arranged. De Gaulle became the last prime minister of the Fourth Republic. In May 1958 the National Assembly vested him with full power for six months and the authority to draft a new constitution, to be approved by the voters. Then in June the Assembly dissolved itself. The Fourth Republic was dead.

The Fifth Republic

A new constitution for France’s Fifth Republic was drafted by a committee headed by Gaullist Michel Debré. The new constitution was a hybrid of the presidential and parliamentary systems. It pruned back the powers of the two-chambered legislature and granted the president considerably more power than the presidents of previous regimes. But it also maintained a prime minister, who was chosen by the president yet needed the support of the legislature.

Perhaps because the first president was likely to be the charismatic de Gaulle, the constitution did not spell out the distribution of power between the president and prime minister. This ambiguity would create uncertainties later, but it also allowed for flexibility in situations in which the presidency and the legislature were controlled by different parties.

The constitution was approved by 80 percent of the voters in September 1958. The elections that followed gave a new Gaullist party a near majority in the legislature, while the left, which had opposed the new constitution, lost badly. Following procedures stipulated by the new constitution, which gave the right to choose the president to a college of local officials, de Gaulle, not surprisingly, was made president. De Gaulle chose Debré as his first prime minister.

J.1. The De Gaulle Years

De Gaulle attempted to keep the French colonial empire together by granting more autonomy to the remaining colonies within a new French Community. But in the end he had to agree to their overwhelming demands for independence. The Algerian crisis, which had brought him back to power, was the toughest problem on his agenda. De Gaulle had led the differing parties to believe he was sympathetic to their opposite positions. He had misleadingly assured the French Algerians that “I have understood you.” But he gradually recognized the hopelessness of continued repression in Algeria, and in 1962 he reached agreement with the insurgents in meetings at Evian, France.

The Evian Accords, which 90 percent of French voters also approved, provided for an Algerian referendum on independence. A majority of Algerians voted for independence. Even before the accords were reached, however, a group of military officers and colonials organized the Secret Army Organization (OAS), which conspired to overthrow the government. De Gaulle put down this rebellion in 1962, ending the Algerian crisis. French Algerians remained bitter over what they saw as de Gaulle’s sellout. Most of them also had to endure the insult of living in a France governed by their nemesis, de Gaulle, after having suffered the injury of leaving Algeria forever.

De Gaulle envisioned a greater role for France in world affairs than it had played under the Fourth Republic. With the Algerian crisis settled and Soviet expansionism into Europe more or less contained, de Gaulle set out to create and lead a group of nations distinct from the American and Soviet superpowers. To give this group teeth and to gain independence from the United States, he initiated a successful, if expensive, program to develop nuclear weapons. Then in 1967 he pulled France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a defense alliance led by the United States that France had joined earlier to provide a common front against the USSR.

De Gaulle maintained cordial relations with former French colonies and even intervened in Canadian internal affairs by declaring solidarity with Canadian Francophones who were demanding independence for the province of Québec. He also prevented Britain from joining the Common Market on the grounds that it was too closely tied to the United States. At the same time, he forged stronger ties with West Germany. In the end, de Gaulle did make the French feel that they continued to be an important presence in international affairs, even after their once extensive empire had crumbled.

At home de Gaulle worked to strengthen the franc, which in the late 1950s was again in trouble, instituting devaluations and government austerity measures. Whatever the effect of these measures, the economy experienced another growth spurt in the 1960s, which added credibility to the Fifth Republic. To enhance his authority, de Gaulle had the constitution altered in 1962 to provide for the direct election of the president, beginning with the next election, in 1965. De Gaulle was elected to a second term as president in 1965, but he had a harder time winning than expected. He failed to get a majority of votes in the first round of the election. Even in the second round, his margin of victory was only 10 percent over that of his challenger, François Mitterrand.

However, de Gaulle still seemed unremovable and irreplaceable in 1968, when he faced his worst crisis. That May, a student protest movement escalated into a massive national strike, paralyzing the country. These developments drew on multiple resentments that had been building against the Fifth Republic for years, particularly among the young and the working class. De Gaulle wisely retired from the scene, waiting for the country to grow tired of the chaos. He then boldly reentered, presenting himself as the only alternative to anarchy and promising university reforms for the students and wage increases for the workers.

In the legislative elections of June 1968, de Gaulle’s party won a crushing victory. But de Gaulle’s prestige had declined greatly, and he ruled with less mastery than before. Aging, tired, and apparently looking for an exit, in 1969 he pledged to leave office if the voters rejected his proposal to restructure the Senate. It was rejected and de Gaulle resigned. The most prominent French leader of the 20th century made perhaps the strangest departure from politics in all French history.

With de Gaulle gone, Gaullism became an affair of more ordinary politicians. The Fifth Republic, which de Gaulle had previously seemed to embody, became more depersonalized and institutionalized. De Gaulle was succeeded as president by the much less commanding Georges Pompidou, who was closely tied to big business. Pompidou was less committed to French intervention in world politics than de Gaulle had been, and he permitted Britain to enter the Common Market. In economic matters, he leaned more toward a laissez-faire position than had de Gaulle, and his administration undertook relatively few new initiatives.

When Pompidou died in 1974, he was succeeded by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was not a Gaullist but the leader of the center-right Independent Republicans. A technocrat by training, Giscard had a progressive agenda. He proposed to protect the environment, legalize contraception and abortion, lower the voting age, and redistribute taxes. He was successful in most of these initiatives. However, his popularity was undercut by the first major economic downturn since World War II, which caused unemployment and inflation to grow. He was defeated in 1981 by François Mitterrand, whose Socialist Party also won a majority in legislative elections.

J.2. The Socialist Era

An able political strategist, Mitterrand had rebuilt the Socialist Party during the 1970s, working first with the Communist Party and then apart from it. His decisive victory in 1981 marked the first major swing to the left since the Popular Front in the 1930s. Even more significantly, it was the first time power had been passed to an opposing party without a major change to the constitution. It seemed that the Fifth Republic was a regime that both left and right had learned to live within.

After Mitterrand’s election, struggle among the major political parties centered not on which one offered the most popular, distinctive vision of the future, but on which one appeared best able to achieve commonly desired goals of economic growth and political stability. Ideological differences between left and right mattered less than before; voters were now looking for competent leadership.

One indication that voters were abandoning traditional ideological causes was a major drop in support for the once powerful French Communist Party in the elections of 1981. The French Communists were unable or unwilling to follow the example of the more successful Italian Communist Party, which broke with Soviet Marxist orthodoxy. The French Communist Party’s refusal to innovate structurally or ideologically led to the loss of the support of many intellectuals and workers. The Communist Party henceforth exerted only marginal political power, although its decline was temporarily masked by the appointment of four Communist Party members to the cabinet of Mitterrand’s first prime minister, Pierre Mauroy.

Mitterrand decentralized power by allowing localities more self-government. He enacted a string of new reform measures that gave workers new rights to bargain collectively, raised the minimum wage, and increased family subsidies and old-age pensions. The death penalty was abolished, and new prisons were built to alleviate overcrowding. The government nationalized the nation’s major banks, as well as a number of large industries. By 1983 the government controlled 13 of France’s 20 largest companies. In the end, however, these reforms did not add up to a successful economic or fiscal strategy. Deficits escalated and the economy failed to expand under the government’s stimulation, leading to greater unemployment, inflation, and trade deficits. After two years of left-wing euphoria, the Mitterrand regime was losing its popular support, while the right regained strength.

When the Socialists tried to impose controls on state-subsidized, private Catholic schools, they provoked one of the largest popular demonstrations in French history. A new extreme right-wing movement, the National Front, emerged, led by a former paratrooper, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The National Front drew its support chiefly for its anti-immigrant proposals, which proved especially popular among unemployed older males. It won over 10 percent of the vote in some elections. Although the National Front divided the right, the government could not afford politically or economically to continue on its earlier course and began dropping its socialist agenda. Budgets for social programs were slashed, and private industry was favored with tax cuts. The economy improved somewhat, although unemployment continued to rise.

Mitterrand hoped to divide the right-wing opposition by introducing proportional representation in elections to national and regional assemblies. The new system, which awarded seats to parties according to their share of the vote, was intended to favor small splinter parties and make it more difficult for stable majority coalitions to form. Mitterrand’s reform allowed the National Front to claim more than 6 percent of seats in the National Assembly in the legislative elections of 1986. But the left lost anyway. For the first time in the Fifth Republic, the president came from a different part of the political spectrum than did the prime minister and the majority in the legislature. In fact, cohabitation, as it was called, worked more smoothly than some observers had predicted. Mitterrand dealt primarily with foreign affairs, and the new Gaullist prime minister, Jacques Chirac, focused on domestic matters. This arrangement lasted only until 1988, when the Socialists won a slim margin in the legislature after Mitterrand defeated Chirac in the presidential elections. Cohabitation was tried again without much friction in 1993, when the Socialists again lost control of the legislature and Edouard Balladur, a Gaullist, became prime minister.

In 1995 Chirac succeeded Mitterrand as president, but he, too, had to contend with cohabitation after just two years in power. The center-right lost control of the legislature in 1997, and Chirac was obliged to appoint a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin. Cohabitation sharply constrained Chirac’s political influence. He was unable to prevent the left-wing majority from instituting major reforms, including 1998 legislation to shorten the work week from 39 to 35 hours (which took effect in 2000) in an effort to increase employment opportunities.

J.3. Ghosts of the Vichy Past

After punishing thousands of people who collaborated with the German-backed Vichy regime in World War II, the French in the 1950s and 1960s sought to forget about the Vichy past. Although many people guilty of heinous crimes remained at large, the trials of Vichyite collaborators were routinely halted under pressure from powerful state officials with compromising pasts of their own. Prior to the 1990s, no French president had officially acknowledged the role played by the French state in the commission of crimes against humanity during the war. Rather, to foster a badly needed sense of national unity, most French parties, especially the Gaullists, cultivated the myth that nearly everyone had belonged to the French Resistance.

As time passed and the Fifth Republic acquired stability, France became more willing to reexamine critically the Vichy legacy. Path-breaking research beginning in the 1970s exploded the myth of near universal participation in the Resistance and proved beyond doubt the willingness of Vichy leaders to collaborate with Nazi Germany. The French soon began revisiting the Vichy years in a growing flow of books, documentaries, and films, most of which confirmed the new research. In 1995 President Jacques Chirac publicly acknowledged the role of the French people and government in abetting crimes under German occupation. Two years later French Catholic bishops apologized for the church’s failure to resist the deportation and murder of Jews more vigorously, and the leaders of the French police union apologized for police participation in the roundup of Jews. Also in 1997, the government initiated procedures to return artworks and other property stolen from French Jews during World War II by the Vichy authorities.

The most controversial aspect of this wrenching reassessment of the Vichy years was a new round of trials directed against collaborators who had yet to be tried and punished. Painful memories were already stirred in 1987 during the trial of Klaus Barbie, a notorious German Gestapo (secret state police) officer. Barbie was convicted of crimes against humanity committed in Vichy France and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Other trials followed. In 1991, René Bousquet, an important French police official in the Vichy government, was indicted for crimes against humanity. Bousquet had previously escaped trial with the help of powerful friends, but he was assassinated before the trial began. In 1994, Paul Touvier, a French member of the Vichy militia who worked under Barbie, was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. Touvier had been sentenced to death for treason shortly after France’s liberation, but he had escaped his sentence with the help of influential allies, including conservatives within the Catholic Church. In 1998, Maurice Papon, an administrator in the Vichy regime and later a Gaullist minister, was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity and sentenced to ten years in prison. After escaping to Switzerland, Papon was extradited to France in 1999, where he served three years in prison and was released in 2002 on grounds of ill health. Papon’s trial was likely to be the last of its kind, leaving the French public divided over whether such trials had even begun to rectify the atrocities committed by the defendants.

J.4. Economy and Society After World War I

J.4.a. Stagnation Between the Wars

Despite dramatic ups and downs resulting from World War I and the worldwide depression of the 1930s, France changed relatively little economically and socially between the two world wars. By 1924 the French had again reached their 1914 levels of industrial production. Although industrial production grew another 40 percent by 1929, three-quarters of this increase was lost during the global depression. Agriculture was relatively stagnant during the same period. Production of some crops, notably wheat, became more efficient, but overall, French agriculture lagged increasingly behind that of other nations. It was, for example, only one-third as efficient (measured in output per farmer) as agriculture in the United States.

Partly as a result of the large number of Frenchmen killed in World War I, population growth between the wars was sluggish. The most striking demographic trend was the continued immigration of foreigners. By the 1930s 2.5 million immigrants lived in France, making it Europe’s foremost melting pot. However, some of these newcomers returned home when the employment situation deteriorated during the depression.

During the interwar period, the standard of living rose only slightly. Workers and small farmers, in particular, saw barely any improvements in their quality of life. Demographic and income stagnation meant little growth in consumer demand, delaying the onset of a consumer society. Modern lifestyles and an artistic avant-garde could be found in Paris and a few other areas, but most regions, especially in the center and south, showed few signs of change. On the eve of World War II, a full half of the population still lived in agricultural communities.

Feminism in this period was relatively inactive, and the legal and economic condition of women improved very little. Partly because the population was growing so slowly, females were constantly reminded of their “natural” duty to become mothers, while contraceptives and abortion were banned. The frozen condition of the French economy and society undoubtedly underlay often-heard charges that France had become so “decadent” that it could not meet the challenges of modern international economic and political competition.

J.4.b. Post-World War II Growth

The end of World War II marked a decisive economic and social turning point. The war cost France about 600,000 dead, but this was less than half the death toll of World War I. The French population surged significantly in the late 1940s, reversing decades of little growth. By 1962 the population had reached 46.5 million, by 1975, 52.7 million, and by 1995, 58.1 million. Some of this increase was due to more births among native-born French women, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1990s, with the spread of birth control and the aging of the French population, population increases came largely from immigration, mostly from southern Europe and northern Africa.

By 1975 about 4 million immigrants lived in France, making it more racially and ethnically diverse than at any time since the barbarian invasions of the early Middle Ages. Immigrants provided much needed labor in boom periods, but when unemployment rose in the 1980s and 1990s, their presence was resented. This resentment prompted support for the anti-immigrant policies of the National Front. Prejudice against immigrant workers was also fueled by their comparatively low standard of living.

Increasing population, government planning, funds from the Marshall Plan, and greater European integration sparked a boom in industrial production, which rose 80 percent between 1950 and 1958. Agriculture was transformed by additional mechanization, as the number of tractors increased sixfold between 1945 and 1980. As productivity rose, the number of farmers declined steeply, from 35 percent of the population in 1945 to 6 percent in 1990, nearly severing the nation from its peasant roots. The economy grew at an average annual rate of 4.5 percent between 1949 and 1959, and 5.8 percent between 1959 and 1970. Altogether, the gross national product increased fivefold between 1946 and 1977. Since then, economic growth has been more sluggish, due partly to oil price increases in the 1970s and the 2000s and to increasing competition from abroad.

The benefits of this growth trickled down to ordinary citizens in the form of increases in real wages, especially after 1960. A large variety of consumer goods became widely available and affordable, raising the standard of living. Higher standards of living led to growth in the service sector of the economy, which by the 1990s absorbed more than half the national work force.

The state became an increasingly important employer as the range of government services and pensions expanded. The government established a system of state-sponsored medical care, which paid the major costs of treatment for most citizens. Slowly the state also expanded its educational and research institutions. Between 1950 and 1984, the number of baccalaureate students rose from 32,000 to 249,500, reflecting the increasing importance of education and the declining importance of land as the basis for a successful career.

These changes were accompanied by a slow change in the status of women. Women were granted the vote in 1944, and they improved their levels of education. Contraception and abortion were legalized in the 1970s, giving women more control over their reproductive lives. By 2000 women provided 45 percent of the national work force.

Although women made many gains since World War II, they did not achieve political representation in proportion to their numbers. Thus, for example, in 1993 women held barely 6 percent of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies. During the 1990s, feminists and their sympathizers lobbied for a “law of parity” that was intended to force the nomination of more female candidates. Enacted in 2000, this law required that at least half of all candidates chosen by parties to run for municipal office be women. It also reduced state subsidies to parties that declined to meet this requirement. Most French voters supported the law as a means to rectify the gender imbalance. The law had some success in reducing gender inequality, but it did not produce gender-balanced political representation. Some parties evaded the law by accepting lower government subsidies.

J.4.c. Social and Economic Outlook

Today, France continues to face significant social and economic problems, some of them a product of France’s growth since World War II. Despite the proliferation of government social welfare programs, wealth in France remains more unevenly distributed by social class than in any other northern European country, and regional variations are significant as well. Economic development has produced major environmental problems that need to be resolved. Among them is the escalating problem of air pollution, in large part the result of the increasing number of automobiles in Paris and other cities. Contraception (see Birth Control) and abortion have led to a declining birthrate since the 1970s, which in turn has led to the aging of the French population. Budgets for social services have escalated beyond taxpayers’ willingness to support them, requiring cutbacks in free services and possibly putting the whole French welfare state in jeopardy.

During the 1990s the unemployment rate climbed to more than 12 percent, thereby replacing inflation as France’s most critical economic problem. In 2007 the unemployment rate still stood at 8 percent, and the French economic outlook remained cloudy. Growing international competition and a downturn in the U.S. economy in the late 1990s reduced demand for goods produced in Europe, with the result that in the early 2000s the French economy grew at its lowest rate in years.

J.5. France and the European Union

The establishment of the European Union (EU) in 1993, a successor of the European Community, had profound consequences for France and other European nations. Power over a wide range of policies, once exercised solely by European national governments, gradually shifted toward the EU. The creation of the EU marked the evolution of the European Community from a largely economic organization into a political one, which now includes a European Parliament. The Maastricht Treaty of 1991, which created the EU pending the treaty’s ratification by member states, provided a new impetus toward further European integration. Among its provisions was the call for a single European currency. This currency, the euro, was introduced for limited purposes on January 1, 1999, much to the surprise of many observers. They had been skeptical because the EU had not always been able to agree on a common economic policy. In early 2002 euro notes and coins became legal tender and entered circulation, replacing national currencies in 12 of the 15 EU member states.

French governments of both the center-left and center-right have consistently supported European integration under the auspices of the EU, and this support has perhaps been France’s most significant contribution to world affairs since it dissolved its overseas empire. A Frenchman, Jacques Delors, provided strong leadership as president of the European Commission, an agency of the EU, from 1984 to 1994. French president Nicolas Sarkozy took over the rotating presidency of the EU in 2008.

France has favored European integration for several reasons. First, as Charles de Gaulle had recognized in the 1960s, France without an empire was too small a nation to play a major role in international affairs. France’s influence abroad promised to be enhanced if it joined with other nations of Europe to pursue a common foreign policy. Second, trans-European institutions, such as those of the EU, could help restrain Germany, whose great industrial and financial power was bound, in the absence of such institutions, to dominate Europe economically. Membership in the EU would allow France and other nations to have greater economic influence in Europe through common policies on trade and interest rates. Third, at a time when growing international competition meant that France had to compete more intensively to sell its goods abroad, participation in the EU ensured that France would have greater access to the markets of its neighbors.

No doubt the French economic situation would have been worse had the EU not acted to promote growth. Agreements between the EU and several eastern European countries during the 1990s made markets in those countries more accessible, and successful implementation of the euro facilitated commerce across national borders. However, the extent to which greater European integration will be, on balance, a boon to the French economy and society remains uncertain. New opportunities for reaching foreign markets must take into account the difficulty of maintaining domestic wage rates that are much higher than wage rates abroad. Greater European integration also threatens to increase the influence of large multinational corporations on national policies while limiting the ability of countries such as France to address important domestic concerns, such as environmental pollution. As they become integrated into wider and deeper economic and political networks, France and the other EU members may well be compelled to develop a broader definition of the nation than they have ever known before.

J.6. Recent Political Developments

In 2000 the term of the French president was reduced from seven years to five years by constitutional amendment. The purpose of this change was to discourage further cohabitation—a president and prime minister from different parties. This power sharing had become associated with deadlocked government. Under the amendment, legislative and presidential elections are more likely to occur in the same year and hence to register similar outcomes. The shortened presidential term took effect in 2002.

J.6.a. The Return of the Center-Right

Jacques Chirac was overwhelmingly reelected in the presidential election of 2002. In a surprise showing in the first round of presidential balloting, National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen had finished slightly ahead of Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin. Appalled by the success of Le Pen, over 1 million people took to the streets in protest before the second round of voting, in which only the top two candidates appeared on the ballot. Chirac swept the election, winning the second round with more than 80 percent of the popular vote. The outcome was a stunning defeat for the Socialist Party and for Jospin, who resigned his post and retired from politics.

In the 2002 legislative elections a coalition of center-right parties backing Chirac, called the Union for the Presidential Majority, captured an absolute majority in the National Assembly, thereby completing the rout of the left. (The coalition was later renamed the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP.) The elections ended five years of cohabitation between Chirac and the Socialist-led National Assembly and gave Chirac significant new power over the direction of the French government. Chirac appointed Jean-Pierre Raffarin as prime minister of the new government. Raffarin, a member of the small, pro-free-market Liberal Democracy party, had led an interim government since May, following Jospin’s resignation. Raffarin pledged to support Chirac’s conservative reform agenda, including tax cuts, a major crackdown on crime, and the easing of labor regulations.

Despite the lopsided conservative victories, voters closely watched the performance of Chirac and the new government, particularly in its economic policies. Of special concern were tax cuts introduced in hopes of spurring economic growth and boosting future tax revenues. In the short term, the cuts threatened to expand France’s budget deficit beyond 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a limit imposed by the EU. After France’s budget deficit exceeded the 3 percent limit two years running, in 2002 and 2003, the European Commission issued a formal warning to France to restrain government spending. However, the commission subsequently announced it would suspend its excessive deficit procedure, thereby sparing France from fines for violating the EU deficit ceiling. With little room to maneuver, the French government was forced to reduce planned tax cuts, provoking sharp protests from the right. Meanwhile, the persistence of high annual unemployment rates in France drew strong criticism from the left.

In 2003 the government announced a proposal to restructure the public sector pension system, prompting widespread demonstrations. Later that year, both houses of parliament approved the reforms, which required employees in the public sector to work more years to be eligible for full state pensions. But opposition to Raffarin’s economic reforms raised questions about the governing coalition’s ability to maintain popular support. In local elections held in 2004, center-right parties lost control of 13 regions to leftist parties—a result that analysts attributed to growing public discontent with the government’s economic policies.

J.6.b. Vote on the EU Constitution

In 2004 Chirac announced that France would hold a referendum on the new EU constitution. The announcement came a month after EU member states had agreed to the constitution’s final text, ending extensive negotiations. Chirac’s move signaled his confidence that French voters would support the constitution, as France was not bound by its own constitution to hold a referendum. Ratification of the EU constitution required approval by all 25 member states, either by popular referendum or by parliamentary vote.

Prime Minister Raffarin led the government’s campaign in favor of the EU constitution, holding firm to the official position that it would strengthen France’s position in Europe. Leaders of the UMP and the Socialist Party also supported it. Parties of both the far right and far left led the opposition campaign, joined by some trade unions, farmers’ groups, and antiglobalization activists. They raised many doubts about the EU constitution, charging among other things that it would undermine national sovereignty and allow unrestrained free market policies. The possible accession of Turkey to the EU, widely opposed in France, also became a hot-button issue.

In the referendum held in 2005, almost 55 percent of the French electorate voted against the proposed EU constitution. Analysts attributed the result to dissatisfaction with the government, particularly its handling of the economy, in addition to fears about the implications of an enlarged and more integrated EU. With confidence in the government badly shaken by the result, Raffarin tendered his resignation. In his place Chirac appointed a trusted protégé, former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, who quickly formed a new government. Chirac announced the top priority of the new government would be to lower the country’s high unemployment.

J.6.c. Civil Unrest

The need for more jobs and better economic opportunity was further emphasized when rioting broke out in France in late October 2005. Decades of poverty and racism boiled over after two boys were accidentally killed while fleeing police in a suburb of Paris, sparking nearly three weeks of rioting in the economically depressed suburbs and quickly spreading to hundreds of other French cities and towns. Nearly 3,000 people were arrested during this period, as protesters set thousands of cars on fire and clashed with police. Much of the violence was instigated by people of African descent living in France, who suffer from some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the country.

It was the worst period of civil unrest in France since student uprisings and a general strike paralyzed the country in 1968. The French government declared a state of emergency to help control the situation, while at the same time announcing new job programs and economic assistance to address the deeper causes of the crisis.

Even greater unrest broke out in early 2006, after the French government proposed a change in labor law to allow employers to fire young workers during a two-year trial period. Under the new law, a worker could be fired without requiring the employer to give a reason. The government claimed the change would give employers more flexibility, leading to greater job growth and reducing France’s high unemployment rate.

Student demonstrations against the proposed labor law reform shut down many French colleges and universities. The demonstrations escalated into violence that resulted in hundreds of arrests, much like the protests in late 2005. After more than a million people across France took to the streets, Chirac and de Villepin backed down. A weakened version of the law was quickly passed, removing the controversial provision and emphasizing more job training and internships.

J.6.d. The Sarkozy Presidency

Chirac’s second term expired in 2007, and UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy won the French presidential election in May. Sarkozy secured 53 percent of the vote in the runoff against socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, who took 47 percent. A divisive and controversial figure in French politics, Sarkozy gained a reputation as a law-and-order hardliner while serving as minister of the interior. In 2005 he was accused of fanning the violence in impoverished urban areas after he called the rioters “scum” and said that immigrant neighborhoods should be cleaned out with a power hose. In his campaign for the presidency, Sarkozy promised to re-energize the French economy and reduce unemployment through restrictions on the 35-hour work week, tax cuts, and stricter controls on immigration. He named François Fillon, a former social affairs minister, as prime minister. In his previous post Fillon pushed through reform of France’s pension system despite considerable opposition.

Sarkozy’s UMP lost seats in the National Assembly in elections in 2007. Although the UMP still maintained a majority, it had predicted a landslide in its favor. The Socialist Party gained 36 seats.

Despite the decline in his party’s seats, Sarkozy was still able to secure constitutional reforms that he had been seeking. In 2008 parliament passed amendments to the constitution that limited the president to two five-year terms and restricted his ability to issue collective pardons but allowed him to deliver “State of the Union” type speeches to parliament. The changes also altered the way France approves new members to the European Union (EU). Under the changes parliament can, by a three-fifths vote, authorize the president to approve adding a new member country either by a referendum or by a parliamentary vote. If parliament cannot muster the three-fifths authorization, however, a popular referendum must be held.

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