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World > Europe > France > France History

 History of France

France was one of the earliest countries to progress from feudalism to the
nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded themselves with capable ministers, and
French armies were among the most innovative, disciplined, and professional
of their day.

During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in
Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military campaigns of Louis and his
successors led to chronic financial problems in the 18th century.
Deteriorating economic conditions and popular resentment against the
complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics were among
the principal causes of the French Revolution (1789-94). Although the
revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of
government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional
monarchy four times--the Empire of Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII,
the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III. After the
Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic was established and lasted
until the military defeat of 1940.

World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In the
1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the Maginot
Line) and alliances to offset resurgent German strength. France was defeated
early in World War II, however, and was occupied in June 1940. The German
victory left the French groping for a new policy and new leadership suited to
the circumstances. On July 10, 1940, the Vichy government was established.
Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as
the sending of French forced labor to Germany; in doing so, they claimed they
hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty.

The German occupation proved quite costly, however, as a full one-half of
France's public sector revenue was appropriated by Germany. After 4 years of
occupation and strife, Allied forces liberated France in 1944. A bitter
legacy carries over to the present day.

France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a
short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de
Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and established
as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions.
The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on
measures for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet
crises and changes of government.

Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure collapsed as a result of
the tremendous opposing pressures generated in the divisive Algerian issue. A
threatened coup led the Parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the
government and prevent civil war. He became prime minister in June 1958 (at
the beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected president in December of
that year.

Seven years later, in an occasion marking the first time in the 20th century
that the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by direct
ballot, de Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote, defeating
François Mitterrand. In April 1969, President de Gaulle's government
conducted a national referendum on the creation of 21 regions with limited
political powers. The government's proposals were defeated, and de Gaulle
subsequently resigned. Succeeding him as president of France have been
Gaullist Georges Pompidou (1969-74), Independent Republican Valery Giscard
d'Estaing (1974-81), Socialist François Mitterrand (1981-95), and
neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (first elected in spring 1995 and reelected in

While France continues to revere its rich history and independence, French
leaders are increasingly tying the future of France to the continued
development of the European Union. During his tenure, President Mitterrand
stressed the importance of European integration and advocated the
ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European economic and political
union, which France's electorate narrowly approved in September 1992.
President Jacques Chirac assumed office May 17, 1995, after a campaign
focused on the need to combat France's stubbornly high unemployment rate and
growing "incomes gap."



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