France History

April 17, 2023

Paul Kay

When we were growing up, most of what we learned about France was from movies and books. The Three Musketeers movie and book were all about the Kings’ Musketeers – Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Of course, there was also D’Artagnan who was their friend. The King was King Louis XIII who ruled from 1610 to 1643. The 3 Musketeers candy bar was introduced in 1932. Originally, it had three pieces in one package, flavored chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla; hence the name, which was derived from the 1844 novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Both the strawberry and vanilla flavors were removed in 1945 to save on sugar, but the name continues.

Scary Gargoyle of Notre Dame

Then there was The Hunchback of Notre Dame which was set in the 15th century. The movie was very exciting in black and white and starred Charles Laughton as the hunchback. The book was also wonderful. I learned later that Victor Hugo wrote the book because he was trying to preserve the decaying Notre Dame of Paris. It worked. After the publication, parts of the cathedral were renovated. The picture above is of a gargoyle, not the hunchback. In the Disney adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo (the hunchback) makes friends with the gargoyles.

We watched An American in Paris and thought Paris would be wonderful to see sometime. Then there was To Catch A Thief which was set in the south of France near Nice and Monaco. Alfred Hitchcock cast Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the starring roles. Grace Kelly wound up meeting Prince Rainier III of Monaco and married him – becoming Princess Grace. 

Newer movies include Hugo, Chocolat, Julie and Julia and Ratatouille.  But France didn’t just start in the 15th century. 

Cave Paintings

Pre-modern hominid populations migrated to France during Paleolithic times, and between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago, modern humans left evidence of their presence in cave art. After 600 B.C. Greek and Phoenician traders operated along the French Mediterranean coast, while Celts migrated westward from the Rhine valley, settling the territory later called Gaul by the Romans.

Gaul was a region of Western Europe and named by the Romans. The area included present-day France, Belgium, Luxembourg, most of Switzerland, parts of Northern Italy, and Germany west of the Rhine. It was quite large.

Julius Ceasar

Julius Caesar led the Romans into Gaul. The Celts dominated most of the territory in 121.  The Celts were a grouping of tribes with origins in central Europe that shared a similar language, religious beliefs, traditions, and culture. The Celtic culture started to evolve as early as 1200 B.C. The Celts spread throughout western Europe and their legacy remains today predominantly in Ireland parts of Great Britain.

Caesar conquered a group of Celts around Marseilles in the south of France. He continued north and east founding the town of Lutetia, which would become Paris, in 52BC. You can see remnants of Caesar’s army all over Europe, not just in France. Roman occupation continued until they were forced out by the Franks and the Visigoths (Germanic people) in the 3rd century. 


The leader of the Franks, Clovis, rapidly became the First Frankish King and the "Country of the Franks" received its Latin name Francia - France in modern French. 

Charlemagne on his horse

Charlemagne or Charles the Great, a member of the Carolingian dynasty, was King of the Franks from 768, King of the Lombards from 774, and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800. During his rule, there were many wars and conflicts. After the Treaty of Verdun was completed in 843 to share Charlemagne's lands into his three sons, the Vikings raided the Northern coast, and they ruled the northern area of France. The Vikings were referred to as “Northmen” which translated to Normand in French. The area was called Normandy.

William the Conqueror, vintage engraved illustration. Colorful History of England, 1837

In 987, the Duke of Normandy was known as William the Conqueror. He was called that when his Norman troops conquered England in 1066. He was crowned King of England as a result. William was personally devout in his religious practice had always been a loyal follower of the Pope who assisted in his conquest of England. There was plenty of animosity between the people of France and England. Various Norman Kings ruled England and France, but it took the Hundred Years’ War to move things in a different direction. The Hundred Years' War was a long struggle between England and France over succession to the French throne. It lasted from 1337 to 1453, more than 100 years. The war started off with several stunning successes on Britain's part, and the English forces dominate France for decades

Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) golden statue

Edward III of England started the Hundred Years' War because he wanted the English people out of France. His early victory was partly due to a young French peasant girl named Jeanne d'Arc, Joan of Arc. The war continued through five generations of kings.  In 1453, the Hundred Years' War ended without a treaty and England had lost all the territory in France with the exception of the port city of Calais which came back to France in 1558.

Hand drawn portrait on paper background Leonardo Da Vinci

Francois I became King of France in 1515. He brought the Italian Renaissance to France. He even brought Leonardo da Vinci to France. You can read more about Leonardo and Francois in another blog post. During the rule of Francois, I and others, there were often violent conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. Henri IV was originally Protestant, but he converted to Catholicism and put an end to the Wars of Religion signing the Edict of Nantes in 1598 that gave the Huguenots (Protestants) full civil rights and protection,

Equestrian statue of Louis XIV castle of Versailles

Henri XIV was succeeded by Louis XIII who started what would later be called the Grand Siècle. Between Louis XIII and Louis XIV (The Sun King) they ruled a period of great extravagance and power. 

Bassin du Midi in the gardens of Versailles, in front of the west facade of the Palace of Versailles

If you’ve been to Versailles, you’ll have an idea of the level of indulgence. The reign of Louis XIV was a period of renaissance of French culture. Ballet, painting, sculpture, dramas, and court plays were very successful during this period. The royalty and their sycophants were quite happy. The French people were not so happy. There is a terrific mini-series about Louis XIV called Versailles that you will enjoy.

Queen Marie-Antoinette and king Louis XVI in basilica of Saint-Denis

In Paris, masses of people protested and on July 14th, 1789 people stormed the prison called La Bastille and freed the prisoners. Louis XIV was decapitated at the Place de la Concorde. This changed the rule from a monarchy to the First Republic of France. Louis XVI was the new ruler along with his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette but Marie wanted to continue the life of extravagance and the people were furious. She and Louis XVI attempted to escape to Austria in 1791 but they were captured. Louis XVI was beheaded in January of 1793 and Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine in October.

Napoleon Bonaparte on his horse

Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence during the French Revolution and served as emperor of France from 1804 to 1814. He tried to expand France’s territory and was successful until he was defeated in Russia in 1812 and Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon I would remain an essential figure of the French history, mainly remembered for his constitutional reforms, commercial practices, and the establishment of the French Baccalaureate examination. 

Charles X, vintage engraved illustration

King Louis XVIII was succeeded by his brother, Charles X, in 1824 but the people were still quite unhappy. Charles X gave up his throne in a general election. Louis Philippe was elected the first King of the French by the will of the people. Napoleon I's nephew, Louis Napoleon, overthrew Louis Philippe and became the first president of the Second Republic in 1848. He was then proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III and a new constitution was approved by the nation. Napoleon III wanted Paris to be redesigned. 

The Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870 due to diplomatic issues. In 1871 another revolution of the people began, and the third Republic was created.  This is the beginning of what we might recognize today. French political parties were created, union rights were granted, and the press was free to publish without restraint. The beginning of the 20th century was influenced by the desire to separate the church from the state. In 1905, a law of separation of church and state was implemented, and school became obligatory, non-denominational and free. 

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Douaumont ossuary and cemetery for First World War One soldiers who died at Battle of Verdun

The 20th century was tragically marked by the two world wars, WWI, and WWII. France suffered heavy losses despite being part of the winning forces, but it rapidly recovered thanks to American aid. The WWI bloodiest battle was undoubtedly the battle of Verdun, which occurred in 1916 and caused over 700,000 casualties.

Charles de Gaulle statue and bridge with Notre Dame de Dinant in sunlight

The third Republic came to an end in 1940 when France was split into two parts: the northern zone, which was occupied by German soldiers, and the southern zone, which was “free” and governed by the Charles De Gaulle.  When the Germans were forced out of France, he became head of the French Republic and in 1958, he was elected as the 18th President of France, a position he held until his resignation in 1969. The above statue was taken by Madeline in Dinant, Belgium. The bridge behind De Gaulle is named for him and you might see lots of saxophones on it as well. That is because Dinant is the birthplace of Adolphe Sax. You can read more about our trip to Dinant here.

France, similar to England, was a great worldwide conqueror. Under de Gaulle, the dissolution of France’s overseas empire began. The French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia received independence in 1956. In 1960 French West Africa was partitioned, and the new nations were granted independence. Algeria, after a long civil war, finally became independent in 1962. Many of the former colonies maintained close economic and cultural ties with France. The French language is the official language in 29 countries around the world. Most of these French-speaking countries are part of La Francophonie, and many of them are former French colonies. The Francophonie are people who share French as a common language. It is estimated that there are over 300 million French speakers across five continents.

French president Emmanuel Macron

Many French presidents followed, and the current president is Emmanuel Macron. He won his reelection in 2022 but his parliamentary group lost 100 seats which is 44 short of the 289 required to have an absolute majority. He is France’s youngest president at age 39.  So, while he is still elected President, he will not have a majority in Parliament.

European Union map with stars of the European Union. Map of member states after Brexit

Since World War II France has been a permanent member in the UN Security Council and NATO. It played a central role in the unification process after 1945 that led to the European Union. Despite slow economic growth in recent years, it remains a strong cultural, economic, and political factor in the 21st century.

Eiffel Tower of Paris Texas

Of all the countries in the world, France has the most visitors! Approximately 89 million people visit France every year to take in the culture and enjoy the food. France is not a huge country. In fact, it is smaller than Texas. However, Texas also has a town called Paris! While France isn’t that big, it is the biggest country in the European Union. France is twice as big as the United Kingdom and eight times the size of Ireland.

French cheese collection camembert, emmental, marble delicious cheese, blue cheese french, dorblu, mold, roquefort, cheese platter, snacks

If you are a cheese lover, France is your place because they produce over 1,500 varieties of cheese including Camembert, Roquefort, Munster, Bleu, Comte, Emmental, Neufchatel, Brie and so many more.

French High Speed train TGV Reseau ready for departure on Toulon train station platform. TGV is one of the main trains of SNCF company

If you want to travel in France, you’ll love the train. The French rail network is the second largest in Europe and the ninth largest in the world. France was one of the world’s first countries to utilize high-speed technology. The TGV is France’s version of the Japanese bullet train. The TGV trains reach speeds up to 180 miles per hour.

Col du Tourmalet in Stage 9 of the 2009 Tour de France

If you want a more leisurely pace, France is very famous for bicycles. I’ve cycled in France twice when I was younger. I crossed the French Pyrenees on one trip and learned that I should consult maps and elevations more closely. The world’s greatest cycling race is the Tour de France. The first race was on July 1, 1903 when more than 60 cyclists took part. Today, there are a series of stages over 23 days all over France and sometimes neighboring countries. Millions of French cycling fanatics will watch the race in person and millions more will enjoy it on TV.

France Map With Cities

If you travel to France, you will likely go to Paris, which is a wonderful city. But just visiting Paris and saying you saw France is like going to New York City and claiming you saw the USA. You can visit Normandy to the north, Nice and Marseille to the south, Nantes and Bordeaux to the West and Strasbourg to the West.  In between there is Lyon, Rouen, Barbizon, Honfleur and so many castles to visit including Chambord, Chenonceau, Fountainbleau, Amboise, etc. I have quite a few posts for many of these places, including Paris. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them.

Now that you have learned a bit more about the history of France, it’s time for you to visit France! Toute a l’heure alligateur.

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