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France - History

France History

The Eiffel Tower was originally nicknamed 'the metal asparagus'

Humans have inhabited France for about 90,000 years. The Celtic Gauls arrived between 1500 and 500 BC; after several centuries of conflict with Rome, Gauls lost the territory to Julius Caesar in 52 BC, and by the 2nd century AD the region had been partly Christianised. In the 5th century the Franks (thus 'France') and other Germanic groups overran the country.

The Middle Ages were marked by a succession of power struggles between warring Frankish dynasties. The Capetian Dynasty was a time of prosperity and scholarly revivalism despite continued battles with England over feudal rights. During this period, France was also embroiled in the Crusades, a holy war instigated by the Church against non-Christians. The Capetian Dynasty waned by the early 15th century as France continued to fight England in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), which featured 17-year-old firebrand Jeanne d'Arc.

Religious and political persecution, culminating in the Wars of Religion (1562-98), continued to threaten France's stability during the 16th century. In 1572, some 3000 Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered in Paris. The Huguenots were later guaranteed religious, civil and political rights. By the early 17th century the country was held in thrall by Cardinal Richelieu, who moved to establish an absolute monarchy and increase French power in Europe.

Louis XIV (the Sun King) ascended the throne in 1643 at the age of five and ruled until 1715. Throughout his reign, he hounded the Protestant minority, quashed the feuding aristocracy and created the first centralised French state. But as the 18th century progressed, the ancien régime (old order) became dangerously out of sync with the rest of the country, and was further weakened by the Enlightenment's anti-establishment and anticlerical ideas. France's involvement in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the American War of Independence (1776-83) was financially ruinous for the monarchy, and the latter provided ammunition for opponents of French absolutism.

When the king tried to neutralise the power of reform-minded economists, the urban masses took to the streets. On 14 July 1789, a Parisian mob attacked the Invalides, seized weapons and stormed the Bastille prison, the ultimate symbol of the despotism of the ancien régime. At first, the Revolution was in the hands of moderates, but from this milieu emerged the radical Jacobins, led by Robespierre, Danton and Marat. They established the First Republic in 1792, holding virtual dictatorial control over the country during the Reign of Terror (1793-94), which saw mass executions and religious persecution. Ultimately the Revolution turned on its own, and many of its leaders, including Robespierre and Danton, were pruned by Madame la Guillotine.

Buoyed by a series of military victories abroad, mercurial Napoleon Bonaparte assumed domestic power in 1799, sparking a series of wars in which France came to control most of Europe. Ultimately, a disastrous campaign against Russia in 1812 led to Bony's downfall - he was banished to the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. His escape and reinstallation as Emperor lasted 100 days before he was defeated by the English at Waterloo. The English exiled him to the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where he died in 1821. Napoleon is remembered as a great hero not so much for his military gusto but because he preserved the bulk of changes wrought by the Revolution and promulgated the Napoleonic Code, which remains the basis of the French legal system.

During the 19th century, France was characterised by inept government, quixotic wars and the founding of the Third Republic (1870). The importance of the army and the church was reduced, and separation of church and state was instituted. Around the same time, the Entente Cordiale ended colonial rivalry between France and Britain in Africa, creating a spirit of cooperation.

France's involvement in WWI came at high cost: over a million troops were killed, large parts of the country were devastated, industrial production dropped and the franc was seriously devalued. The country fared little better during WWII, when it capitulated to Germany and the lackey Vichy government was installed. General Charles de Gaulle, France's under-secretary of war, set up a government-in-exile and underground resistance in London. France was liberated by Allied forces in mid-1944.

De Gaulle returned to Paris and set up a provisional government, but resigned as president in 1946. Emboldened by American aid, the French reasserted colonial control in Indochina, but their forces were defeated by Ho Chi Minh's cadres at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. France also tried to suppress Algerian independence. De Gaulle returned to power in 1958 and negotiated an end to the war in Algeria four years later; in the meantime, almost all of the other French colonies in Africa had achieved independence.

In May 1968, student protesters and striking workers surprised themselves and the world at large by bringing the country to a standstill. Just as anarchy was poised to engulf France, De Gaulle went on national television and told everybody to calm down, go home and leave the running of the country to him. And they did. The government then reformed the higher education system, and De Gaulle resigned as president the following year.

Resilient socialist François Mitterand was France's president from 1981 to 1995. In May 1995 he was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, who headed off the demoralised socialists and Jean-Marie Le Pen's anti-immigrant Front National (FN). A series of bombings in Paris and Lyon from July 1995 by terrorists protesting French support of the Algerian government contributed to anti-foreigner sentiment and lent a false legitimacy to the FN's racist stance.

Chirac strongly endorsed the European Union (EU), which raised his popularity, but his decision to conduct nuclear tests on the Polynesian island of Mururoa towards the end of 1995 was met with a local and international outcry. France's Pacific and Caribbean colonies have beefed up their independence rumblings, with Tahiti a recent site of particular agitation. Domestically, limits which Chirac imposed on the welfare payment system resulted in the country's largest protests since 1968. Strikes throughout the public sector over several weeks in late 1995 brought Paris to a standstill and affected the economy so badly that France's qualifications for joining the EU looked dubious.

Chirac called a snap election early in 1997, under the pretence of seeking a mandate for the final push towards meeting economic monetary union (EMU) controls. However, he did not count on the fickleness of the French people and his RPR party was ousted from government (though Chirac remains president) by an unlikely alliance between the socialists, communists and Greens.

The nation was thrust into the international spotlight during the August 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in an auto accident in Paris, and the country's first-ever World Cup victory (3-0 over odds-on favourite Brazil) in July 1998. In October 2001, Concorde flights resumed; the planes had been grounded since the July 2000 crash that killed 113 people.

In early 2003 France was once again in the world spotlight when it insisted it would veto any UN security council resolution to go to war with Iraq. The US was rather miffed by this, and relations between France and the US remain cool.

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