After the conquest of the Gauls and the fall of Rome, the area we know as France was dominated by a tribe known as the Franks. They were headed up by a brutal man named Charlemagne, whose mission was to convert all of Europe to Christianity. After Charlemagne’s death his empire was split into three, with West Francia corresponding to the modern territory of France.
The Hundred Years’ War
West Francia, which was really a patchwork of territories run by the dukes, had institutional power more or less centralised in the 12th century. As time went on the tension between France and England grew until the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War, which actually lasted 116 years. Though France’s population was decimated during this period, thanks to both war and plague, it was also a formative time for the country’s national identity.
One of the key figures to come out of this long period of fighting was Joan of Arc, who is still a national hero in France. She was born in 1412, just after the Battle of Agincourt, during which the French were dominated by the English. As a young girl she heard the voices and saw visions of multiple saints, all of whom told her to go fight for Charles, the rightful king of France. At the age of 16 she travelled to his court to convince him of her mission and somehow did exactly that. She turned the tide of the war and in doing so was captured by the English and sentenced to death as a witch. Her ashes were scattered in the River Seine, but her story was never forgotten.
The French Revolution
Bad harvests, taxation, abject poverty and an unrestrained aristocracy sowed the seeds of the French Revolution in the 18th century. The Renaissance began in Italy and spread across Europe, ushering in the Age of Enlightenment, which spread the ideas of individual liberty, tolerance and the separation of church and state. In France, King Louis XVI had inherited a country in dire trouble but was still living it up at the Palace of Versailles. The peasants revolted and stormed the Bastille Prison – hence the national celebration of Bastille Day – and King Louis, along with Marie Antoinette, his queen, were captured and executed by guillotine. A decade of chaos ensued.
It was Napoleon, a military general, that took control of France following the revolution and established the Napoleonic Code, which has become the foundation for the development of most modern democracies. He embarked on military campaigns throughout Europe and was eventually defeated and exiled by the combined forces of Russia and Prussia, a northern state that would rise to power as a united Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The World Wars
The 20th century was a horrific time for France with Germany invading the country twice. France suffered huge casualties during both WWI and WW2, and by 1945 it was on its knees. Further conflicts followed in colonial territories across Africa and Asia, which led to an influx of migration to France. In Europe, governments were dealing with the fallout from WWII and making agreements to avoid another conflict, from which the European Union was born.
France is now a leading power both in Europe and globally after a huge post-war effort to rebuild the country. It has the third-largest economy in the EU and is one of the most modern countries in the world, continuing to value liberty, fraternity and equality. Recent years have seen issues arise with the Islamic extremism and the European refugee crisis, but the country continues to grow and remains a thriving destination for tourism.