France was one of the earliest countries to progress from feudalism to
nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded themselves with capable ministers,
French armies were among the most innovative, disciplined, and
of their day.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power
Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military campaigns of Louis
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
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
the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic was established and
until the military defeat of 1940.
World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In
1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the
Line) and alliances to offset resurgent German strength. France was
early in World War II, however, and was occupied in June 1940. The
victory left the French groping for a new policy and new leadership
the circumstances. On July 10, 1940, the Vichy government was
Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as
the sending of French forced labor to Germany; in doing so, they claimed
hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty.
The German occupation proved quite costly, however, as a full one-half
France's public sector revenue was appropriated by Germany. After 4
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
short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de
Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and
as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of
The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on
measures for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive
crises and changes of government.
Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure collapsed as a result
the tremendous opposing pressures generated in the divisive Algerian
threatened coup led the Parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head
government and prevent civil war. He became prime minister in June 1958
the beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected president in
Seven years later, in an occasion marking the first time in the 20th
that the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by
ballot, de Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote,
François Mitterrand. In April 1969, President de Gaulle's government
conducted a national referendum on the creation of 21 regions with
political powers. The government's proposals were defeated, and de
subsequently resigned. Succeeding him as president of France have been
Gaullist Georges Pompidou (1969-74), Independent Republican Valery
d'Estaing (1974-81), Socialist François Mitterrand (1981-95), and
neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (first elected in spring 1995 and reelected
While France continues to revere its rich history and independence,
leaders are increasingly tying the future of France to the continued
development of the European Union. During his tenure, President
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
growing "incomes gap."