Make your own free website on


France is a country in western Europe.  It is Europe's third largest country in area.  Only Russia and Ukraine have more land.

France's capital and largest city is Paris, one of the world's great cities.  For hundreds of years, Paris has been a world center of art and learning.  Many great artists have produced their finest masterpieces there.  Every year, millions of tourists visit such famous Paris landmarks as the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre--one of the largest art museums in the world.

There is much more to France than Paris, however.  The snow-capped Alps in the southeastern part of the country form the border between France and Italy.  Sunny beaches and steep cliffs stretch along the southern coast on the Mediterranean Sea.  Fishing villages dot the Atlantic coast of northwestern France.  The peaceful, wooded Loire Valley of central France has many historic chateaux (castles).  Colorful apple orchards, dairy farms, and vineyards lie throughout much of the countryside.  Many regions have fields of wheat.

The French are famous for their enjoyment of life.  Good food and good wine are an important part of eve-ryday living for most French people.  The delicious breads, appetizers, sauces, soups, and desserts of France are copied by cooks in most parts of the world.  The wines of France are considered the world's best.

France has a long and colorful history.  Julius Caesar and his Roman soldiers conquered the region more than 2,000 years ago.  In the late part of the A.D. 400's, after Rome fell, the Franks and other Germanic tribes invaded the region.  France was named for the Franks.  By the A.D. 800's, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, had built the area into a huge kingdom.

In 1792, during the French Revolution, France became one of the first nations to overthrow its king and set up a republic.  A few years later, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power.  He conquered much of Europe before he finally was defeated.  During World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945), France was a battleground for Allied armies and invading German forces.

France is one of the world's leading manufacturing nations.  It is, for example, one of the largest producers of automobiles in the world.  It also has large chemical and steel industries.  It is a leader in growing wheat, vegetables, and many other crops.  France stands high among the countries of the world in its trade with other nations, as measured by exports.  It also has an important role in world politics.  Its foreign policies affect millions of people in other countries.

The political importance of France today resulted partly from the leadership of Charles de Gaulle, who served as president of the country from 1958 to 1969.  De Gaulle established a strong French republic.  He looked on France as a world power and followed a policy that was independent of both the United States and the Communist nations.  De Gaulle ended France's close military ties with the United States and tried to improve relations with Communist countries.  De Gaulle's actions angered many other nations, but to the French people he was a symbol of their nation's greatness.


France is a parliamentary democracy with a strong national government.  Its present government, called the Fifth Republic, has been in effect since 1958.  The First Republic was established in 1792.  Between 1792 and 1958, the structure of the French government changed a number of times.

National government.  France's national government has three branches.  They are (1) an executive branch headed by a president and a prime minister, (2) a legislative branch consisting of a Parliament, and (3) a judicial branch, or system of courts.

The president of France is elected to a seven-year term by voters, who must be 18 or older.  The president can serve an unlimited number of terms.  The president appoints the prime minister (also called premier).  The prime minister chooses the other ministers who make up the Council of Ministers.

The president of France is considered the head of state, and the nation's prime minister is the head of government.  The president manages France's foreign affairs.  The prime minister directs the day-to-day operations of the government.

France's Parliament consists of two houses, the National Assembly and the Senate.  The National Assembly consists of 577 deputies, who are elected by the voters for five-year terms, unless an election is called earlier.  The president has the power to dissolve the National Assembly and call for new elections.

The Senate has 319 members.  Senators are elected to nine-year terms by regional and city electoral colleges.

The National Assembly is more powerful than the Senate.  For example, if the two houses disagree on the text of a proposed law, the National Assembly makes the final decision.  In addition, the Council of Ministers must have the support of a majority of members in the National Assembly.  Without such a majority, the ministers must resign, and the president would then appoint a new prime minister.

Local government.  The basic unit of local government in France is the commune.  France has about 36,500 communes, which vary in size from small villages to large cities.  Each commune is governed by a mayor and a local council.

Mainland France and the island of Corsica are divided into 96 metropolitan departments.  Each of the departments is administered by a locally elected council.  Each department also has a commissioner.  The commissioner is appointed by the national government and represents the government.

Each department is part of one of France's 22 regions.  Each region has a regional council, elected by the people, and a president, who is elected by the council members.  The region of Corsica has a special status with more local independence.

France has nine inhabited overseas possessions: Guadeloupe and Martinique, both in the West Indies; Reunion and Mayotte, both in the Indian Ocean; New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and the Wallis and Futuna Islands, all in the South Pacific Ocean; French Guiana in South America; and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in the North Atlantic Ocean.  These possessions are considered part of France.  Their people vote for the president of France and send representatives to both houses of the French Parliament.

Politics.  France has several political parties.  The chief conservative parties are the Rally for the Republic (RPR) and the Union for French Democracy (UDF).

The RPR supports the policies of former French President Charles de Gaulle, and it favors a strong national government and an aggressive foreign policy.  The UDF has called for removing government regulations that restrict individuals and companies from operating freely in the French economy.

The National Front is an extremely conservative political party.  Its members oppose immigration and favor the death penalty.

The Socialist Party and the French Communist Party hold liberal or radical views.  In theory, both parties support public ownership or control of most of the nation's factories, machines, and other basic means of production.  In practice, however, the Socialists have cooperated with private business since the 1930's.  Both parties support strong, government-financed social security and medical benefits.

Courts are in the major cities of each department.  Appeals from civil and criminal courts may be taken to Courts of Appeal.  The Courts of Assizes hear cases involving murder and other serious crimes.  The decisions of the Courts of Appeal and Assizes are generally final.  But the Court of Cassation, the highest court of France, may review them.  It can return cases to the lower courts for new trials.

A minister of justice controls the appointments and promotions of judges.  Judges are appointed for life.

Armed forces.  France has an army, navy, and an air force.  About 400,000 men and women serve in the country's armed forces.  Military service is voluntary.


Among the people of France, there are notable regional differences in language and traditions.  As a result, many people have a strong sense of regional identity.  In Corsica and Brittany, some people have organized to work for independence from France.  But most people in the various regions feel comfortable having both a regional identity and a national "French" identity.

Ancestry.  In ancient times, peoples called Gauls lived in what is now France.  The Gauls were a Celtic people related to the Welsh and the Irish.  Roman, Germanic, and then Norse invaders came from the south, east, and north.  The Romans brought peace to the warring Gallic tribes, and Roman law became the basis of modern French law.  The name of France came from Germanic conquerors called Franks.  Many people of northeastern France have Germanic ancestors.  Some people from Normandy, in northwestern France, trace their ancestry back to the Norse people who settled there.

About 7 percent of France's population consists of people from other countries.  The largest groups are from Algeria, Indochina, Italy, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey.

In the late 1900's, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from former French colonies in Africa and Indochina moved to France.  The status of these immigrants is a controversial issue.  For example, Algerian immigrants represent a large work force that the country has not yet absorbed.  Algerian workers are often the first to be laid off during periods of slow economic activity.  Because they send most of their earnings home, many of them live in poor neighborhoods.  Some immigrants from Morocco, Portugal, Tunisia, and Turkey are in similar situations.  On the other hand, many Vietnamese refugees have become more fully integrated into French society.

Language.  By about the 1500's, the language that is now called French was spoken only in the area around Paris.  The rest of the people living in what is now France spoke Basque, Breton, Dutch, or German, or dialects related to modern French, such as Picard, Provencal, or Walloon.  The building of the modern French nation is closely tied to the standardization and increased use of the local dialect of Paris beginning in the 1500's.  For a detailed discussion of the French language, including its development, see FRENCH LANGUAGE.

On the island of Corsica, the majority of the population speaks a dialect similar to Italian.  A group of people living along the Pyrenees Mountains speaks Basque.  The region of Brittany has a significant number of people who speak Breton.  Along the border with Belgium, many people speak the Flemish dialect of Dutch.  The region of Alsace has many German-speaking people.  But in all of these regions, French is taught in the schools, and the number of people who speak the regional tongue has dwindled from one generation to the next.  In Corsica, Brittany, and the Pyrenees, people have formed groups to promote the use of the local language.

Way of life

City life.  Almost three-fourths of the French people live in cities and towns.  In the larger cities, most people live in apartments.  Many Parisians live in old apartment buildings.  In general, the older a building is, the more prestigious it is.  Many French city dwellers tolerate buildings with old plumbing and appliances so that they may enjoy antique fireplaces and ceiling beams.

Strict zoning regulations help protect and enhance the center of many French cities.  Such regulations may prohibit traffic on certain city streets or limit high-rise construction in the center of a city.  The regulations are designed to ensure a high quality of life for urban residents.  Such urban problems as overcrowding and high crime rates are more likely to occur in the outskirts of cities or in nearby suburbs.

While city living is generally pleasant, it is also expensive.  Many poor city residents live outside the city centers in run-down apartments or in housing complexes built by the government.  Many middle-class people cannot afford to live in Paris and instead live in a suburb as a second choice.  Mass transit systems carry people from the suburbs to a variety of jobs and recreational and cultural activities in the city.

Rural life.  Only about a fourth of the French people live in rural areas.  However, France traditionally has been an agricultural society.  The French people are thus more familiar with--and more respectful of--such rural activities as farming and hunting than are people in many urbanized countries.

Most rural residents enjoy the same comforts and conveniences as city dwellers.  Most of them live in single-family houses in villages or on farms.  They own a car and a television set and have such appliances as a refrigerator and a washing machine.

Farm families make up much of the rural population in France.  Most farmers own their land.  Some rent all or part of their land.  A few French farmers are wealthy.  But many farmers require other sources of income to support their families.  A spouse or another family member may hold a job as a factory worker, office worker, or teacher.  In poorer areas, such as Brittany, some farmers earn barely enough to support themselves.

Food and drink.  The French consider cooking an art.  French haute cuisine (gourmet cooking) has set a standard accepted in many parts of the world since the 1700's.  French chefs have created many delicious sauces and fancy appetizers.

French appetizers include escargots (snails) in garlic butter sauce, scallops and mushrooms in a creamy wine sauce, and puff pastries filled with chicken in cream sauce.  Sausages and pates (chopped meat cooked with spices) also serve as appetizers.  Goose liver pate with black mushroomlike truffles is considered a special delicacy.  French cooks put fillings of cheese, vegetables, shrimp, ham, or bacon into omelets, crepes (thin, rolled pancakes), and quiches (custard baked in a pastry shell).  These dishes are served as appetizers or light meals.

A traditional French main meal has several courses.  It starts with an appetizer or soup.  Popular main courses include chicken, chops, fish, or steaks.  A green salad often follows the main course, then cheese or fresh fruit.  Crusty French bread accompanies most meals.  A very special meal might add a dessert after the cheese course.  Desserts include fancy pastries, fruit tarts, and crepes filled with whipped cream or cooked fruit.

Such hearty French specialties as bouillabaisse and cassoulet make a full meal and need few extras.  Bouil-labaisse is a chunky chowder with six or more kinds of fish and shellfish.  Cassoulet is a casserole of beans, sausage, poultry, and pork.

The French eat light breakfasts.  A typical breakfast consists of such soft rolls as croissants and brioches, served with butter and jam, plus coffee.

Some French people drink wine at lunch and dinner, sometimes different wines for different courses.  Beer, cider, or mineral water may substitute for wine.  Coffee is served at breakfast, and after other meals.

Ethnic cooking is becoming more popular.  For example, many restaurants offer Indian, Italian, Mexican, Thai, or Vietnamese dishes.

Recreation.  The greatest national sporting event in France is the Tour de France, a bicycle race.  Every summer, more than a hundred professional cyclists race around almost the entire country.  They ride daily for nearly a month and finish in Paris.  Thousands of spectators line the route and cheer them along.

France's most popular team sport is soccer, a form of football.  Almost every area and region has its own team.  The French also enjoy such sports as boules (a form of bowling), fishing, ice skating, rugby, skiing, swimming, and tennis.  Basketball has also become popular, and a number of professional teams have been set up.

All French workers are entitled to receive five weeks of paid vacation every year.  In July and August, automobiles filled with vacationers crowd the highways leading south to the Mediterranean Sea and the mountains.  To accommodate the vacationers, there are thousands of special camps and resorts that organize activities for children and adults.  Many French people have second homes in the country.  Vacation festivals in many cities in southern France feature music, theater, parades, and folk dancing.

Throughout the year, city dwellers take daily walks through public parks.  They may stop at one of the sidewalk cafes that dot many city boulevards.

Holidays.  Most French holidays and festivals are closely connected with the Roman Catholic Church.  Many cities celebrate Shrove Tuesday, the last day before Lent, with a festival called Carnaval.  The Carnaval celebration in Nice includes a colorful parade, and it attracts many tourists.  Most villages honor their local patron saints with a festival in July.

On Noel (Christmas), French families hold reunions and the children receive gifts.  The French people also exchange gifts on Le Jour de l'An (New Year's Day).  On Paques (Easter), the children receive colored candy eggs and chocolate chickens.

The French national holiday is Bastille Day, July 14.  It marks the capture of the Bastille, a fortified prison, by the people of Paris in 1789, during the French Revolution.  A large military parade is held in Paris on Bastille Day.  At night, the people watch fireworks and dance in the streets until dawn.  The French celebrate Labor Day on May 1 and Armistice Day on November 11.

Religion.  About 75 percent of the French people are Roman Catholics.  About 3 percent are Muslims, and about 2 percent are Protestants.  About 1 percent are Jews.  From 1801 to 1905, the French government recognized Roman Catholicism as the religion of the majority of the people.  Bishops and priests were state officials and were paid by the government.  This church-state connection, established by Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, was broken by French law in 1905.

Education.  French children from the ages of 6 to 16 must go to school.  Most of the children attend public schools.  The other children attend private schools, most of which are operated by the Roman Catholic Church.

Children from ages 2 through 6 may attend free nursery schools.  Reading is taught during the last year of these schools.  Children from ages 6 through 11 attend elementary schools.  Formerly, boys and girls went to separate schools.  But since the 1970's, they have attended school together.  After five years of elementary school, children enter a college.  A college is a four-year school that resembles a junior high school.

After college, students enter either a vocational high school or a general high school.  Both kinds of high schools are called lycees.

Vocational high schools offer job training in business, crafts, farming, and industry.  General high schools provide a three-year course that prepares students to enter universities.  The last year of general high school is a period of specialized study in one of five areas.  These areas are economics and social sciences, experimental sciences, mathematics, mathematics and technology, and philosophy.  A baccalaureat examination completes this program.  This examination is so difficult that about a third of the students fail to pass it.

France has about 75 universities.  Each university selects its courses and teaching methods.  Students have a voice in university administration.  The government provides financial support to students.

France also has schools of higher education called grandes ecoles (great schools).  They prepare students for high-ranking careers in the civil and military services, commerce, education, industry, and other fields.

Museums and libraries.  France has many excellent museums.  The best known, the Louvre in Paris, is one of the largest art museums in the world.

Many old castles and palaces, once the homes of kings and emperors, are national historical museums.  They include the Palace of Versailles, which was built by King Louis XIV during the 1600's.

The Orsay Museum in Paris, located in a beautifully restored former railway station, exhibits paintings from the 1800's and 1900's--including many Impressionist works.  The Georges Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture in Paris includes a museum of modern art, a major public reference library, and a museum of industrial design.  The Museum of Man in Paris has important scientific exhibits.

Public libraries are located in all large French cities.  France's national library, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, is one of the largest libraries in Europe.  Other important libraries include the Mazarine Library of the Institute of France, the country's major learned society.  The University of Paris also has fine libraries.


Since the Middle Ages, French writers, artists, architects, and composers have been among the cultural leaders of Europe.  During many periods of history, French styles in painting, music, drama, and other art forms served as models for other countries.  This section discusses only some of France's major contributions to the arts.  For more detailed information, see the articles ARCHITECTURE, CLASSICAL MUSIC, DRAMA, FRENCH LITERATURE, MOTION PICTURE, PAINTING, and SCULPTURE.

Literature.  Poetry was the most important literary form among medieval French writers.  Musician-poets called troubadours wrote love songs in the Provencal dialect of southern France.  Poets called trouveres carried this poetry to northern France.  Other poets wrote epic poems and long fictional works called romances.

During the Renaissance, Francois Rabelais was the most important French fiction writer.  His satirical Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564) is a masterpiece of Western literature.  Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay were the major poets of the Pleiade, a group of seven poets whose poetry was based on ancient Greek and Roman models.  Michel de Montaigne, the last great writer of the French Renaissance, created the personal essay as a literary form.

French Classical art, which spanned the 1600's and 1700's, stressed order, balance, and harmony, and placed heavy emphasis on the role of the intellect in analyzing human behavior.  Francois de Malherbe was the first and greatest Classical poet.  His clear, rational, and sober poems became the basic style for classical verse.  The leading prose writers were two philosophers, Rene Descartes and Blaise Pascal.  The greatest expression of French Classical literature was in drama.  The major figures were Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, and Moliere.  Corneille and Racine wrote tragedies.  Moliere ranks as the greatest writer of comedy in French drama.

The Age of Reason, also called the Enlightenment, was a period of intellectual achievement in the 1600's and 1700's dominated by philosophical literature.  Writers of this period emphasized reason and observation as the best methods of learning truth.  The crucial figures in this movement were Voltaire,  Denis Diderot, and Jean Jacques Rousseau.  Rousseau was also an important forerunner of Romanticism because he valued feeling more than reason, and impulse and spontaneity more than self-discipline.  He introduced true and passionate love to the French novel, popularized descriptions of nature, and created a lyrical and eloquent prose style.

Romanticism began in the late 1700's and flourished until the mid-1800's.  The greatest Romantic writer was Victor Hugo, a novelist, poet, and playwright.  Honore de Balzac, Stendhal, and George Sand were also outstanding Romantic novelists, though the work of these writers was more realistic than that of the typical Romantic novelist.

Realism was a movement of the middle and late 1800's that tried to portray life accurately and objectively.  Naturalism was a movement that emerged as an extreme form of Realism.  Gustave Flaubert was the major representative of realism, notably for his novel Madame Bovary (1856).  Guy de Maupassant gained recognition for his realistic short stories.  The novelist Emile Zola was the leading naturalistic writer.

Paul Claudel, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, and Paul Valery were the leading French writers of the early 1900's.  Claudel wrote works that reflect his deep Roman Catholic faith.  Gide and Proust were major novelists.  Valery wrote classical poetry.  Philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus wrote important drama and essays in the mid-1900's.

Major French writers of the late 1900's included Alain Robbe-Grillet and Claude Simon.  They became known for the New Novel, which moved away from traditional approaches to storytelling.  The New Novel concentrated instead on descriptions of events as experienced by the characters.  Marguerite Duras was a leading French feminist writer of the late 1900's.

Painting.  In the 1600's, the French artist Claude established a tradition of landscape painting that greatly influenced later artists in Europe and America.  His landscapes illustrate the classical admiration for balance, or-der, and harmony.  In the 1700's, Francois Boucher, Jean Honore Fragonard, and Antoine Watteau were masters of the elegant, decorative style called Rococo.  In the early 1800's, Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix best represented the colorful and dramatic style of the Romantic movement.  Gustave Courbet helped found the Realist movement in art in the mid-1800's.

Impressionism was a movement of the late 1800's and early 1900's centered on French painting.  The Impressionists tried to capture the immediate impression of an object or event.  The leading painters included Edouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, and Pierre Renoir.  A movement called Postimpressionism developed out of Impressionism.  The key French Postimpressionists were Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

In the 1900's, such painters as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso (who was born in Spain), Henri Matisse, and Fernand Leger helped shape modern art.

Sculpture.  Much of the finest French sculpture of the medieval period was created as decoration for the Gothic cathedrals.  Jean Antoine Houdon was one of the greatest sculptors of the 1700's.  He was known for his statues of important men and women in Europe and America.  Auguste Rodin, who worked in the romantic style, is often considered the leading sculptor of the 1800's.  His technique had a great influence on sculpture.  Aristide Maillol, Jean Arp, and Antoine Pevsner were important sculptors of the 1900's.

Architecture.  Magnificent Gothic cathedrals were built in France from about 1150 to 1300.  The finest examples include the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and cathedrals in the cities of Amiens, Chartres, Reims, and Rouen.  The finest French Renaissance architecture appeared during the 1500's in castles called chateaux.  The best examples include those at Fontainebleau, Chambord, and Azay-le-Rideau.  The spectacular Palace at Versailles, begun about 1661, is a monument of French baroque art.

The Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier was one of the most important architects of the 1900's.  He had a great influence on modern architecture with his International Style.

Music.  In the 1600's, composer Jean Baptiste Lully wrote the first significant French operas.  Jean Philippe Rameau, a major French composer of 1700's, was also known for his operas.  Francois Couperin was an important composer of music for a keyboard instrument called the harpsichord.

During the 1800's, Hector Berlioz was the greatest French romantic composer.  He gained fame for his large-scale orchestral works.  Georges Bizet wrote the romantic Carmen (1875), probably the most popular opera ever written.  The impressionist movement of the late 1800's produced two great composers, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.

In the 1900's, composers Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen were leaders in experimental music.  Boulez became known for his work in electronic music.

Motion pictures.  France has had a thriving motion-picture industry since the 1920's, when such important directors as Rene Clair and Jean Renoir launched their careers.  Clair first won acclaim with his silent comedy An Italian Straw Hat (1927).  Renoir's most admired films include Grand Illusion (1937), which attacks the futility of war, and The Rules of the Game (1939), which satirizes the relationships of upper-class people at a weekend house party.

In the late 1950's and early 1960's, the French had a profound impact on filmmaking with a movement called the New Wave.  The leaders of the New Wave were young French film critics who turned to directing.  Their aim was to revive what they saw as a stuffy French film industry.  They believed that a film should be the personal artistic expression of the director, whom they called the auteur (author).  These critics-turned-directors included Claude Chabrol, Jean Luc-Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and Francois Truffaut.

Claude Chabrol is credited with starting the New Wave with Le Beau Serge (1958).  Louis Malle gained recognition as an important New Wave director with The Lovers (1958).  Other important New Wave films include The 400 Blows (1959), directed by Francois Truffaut, and Breathless (1960), directed by Jean Luc-Godard.

The land

France has wide differences in geography.  The northern and western regions consist mainly of flat or rolling plains.  Hills and mountains rise in the eastern, central, and southern parts of France.

France has 10 main land regions.  They are (1) the Brittany-Normandy Hills, (2) the Northern France Plains, (3) the Northeastern Plateaus, (4) the Rhine Valley, (5) the Aquitanian Lowlands, (6) the Central Highlands, (7) the French Alps and Jura Mountains, (8) the Pyrenees Mountains, (9) the Mediterranean Lowlands and Rhone-Saone Valley, and (10) Corsica.

The Brittany-Normandy Hills have low, rounded hills and rolling plains.  This region consists of ancient rock covered by poor soils, with some fertile areas along the coast.  Apple orchards, dairy farms, and grasslands crisscross the land.  In some areas, thick hedges separate the fields.  Many bays indent the rugged coast and have important fishing harbors.

The Northern France Plains have highly fertile soils and productive industries.  The plains are flat or rolling and are broken up by forest-covered hills and plateaus.  This heavily populated region includes Paris.  The Paris Basin, also called the Ile-de-France, is a large, circular area drained by the Seine and other major rivers.  East of Paris, a series of rocky ridges resembles the upturned edge of a huge saucer.  Coal is mined near the Belgian border.

The Northeastern Plateaus share the Ardennes Mountains with Belgium.  This wooded region becomes a little more rugged to the southeast in the Vosges Mountains.  It has great deposits of iron ore, and it produces iron and steel.  Farmers raise livestock and a variety of crops on the lower slopes and in the valleys.  Lumber workers operate in the large forests.

The Rhine Valley has steep slopes and flat bottom lands.  Trees and vines cover the slopes, and rich farmlands lie along the Rhine River.  This river, which forms part of France's boundary with Germany, is the main inland waterway in Europe.  Important roads and railways follow its course.

The Aquitanian Lowlands are drained by the Garonne River and the streams that flow into it.  Sandy beaches lie along the coast.  Inland, the region has pine forests, rolling plains, and sand dunes.  Its many vineyards supply grapes for France's important wine industry.  Oil and natural gas fields are in the Landes area, a forested section south of the major seaport of Bordeaux.

The Central Highlands, or Massif Central, is thinly populated.  The soils in the region are poor, except in some valleys where rye and other crops are grown.  Cattle and sheep graze on the lower grasslands, and forests cover the higher slopes.  The Loire River, about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) long, rises in the Cevennes, a mountain range.  The Loire is the longest river in France.

The French Alps and Jura Mountains border on Italy and Switzerland.  Snow-capped Mont Blanc, the highest point in France, rises 15,771 feet (4,807 meters).  Many tourists visit nearby Chamonix and other ski resorts in the mountains.  Mountain streams provide much hydroelectric power.

The Pyrenees Mountains extend along France's border with Spain.  Many peaks in this range rise more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters).  The rugged mountains have poor soils and are thinly populated.

The Mediterranean Lowlands and Rhone-Saone Valley region has productive farming areas, and irrigation is used widely.  Fruits, vegetables, and wine grapes are important products.  Marseille, on the Mediterranean Sea, is the leading seaport of France.  The coast also includes the Riviera, a famous resort area.

Corsica is a Mediterranean island about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of mainland France.  It has hills and mountains similar to those of the Central Highlands.  The island has generally poor soils and a steep, rocky coastline.  Crops are grown in the valleys, and sheep graze in the mountains.


The climate varies widely among the various regions of France.  The differences in climate are closely related to the distance of the land from the Atlantic Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea.  Westerly winds that blow in from the Atlantic strongly influence the climate of western France.  The coastal regions there have a rainy climate with cool winters and mild summers.

To the east, away from the Atlantic, the climate changes sharply between seasons.  These inland regions have hot summers and cold winters, with medium rainfall throughout the year.  The mountainous regions receive the most precipitation (rain, melted snow, and other forms of moisture), most of it in summer.  Heavy winter snows fall in the Alps and the Jura Mountains, and huge glaciers are found in the Alps.

Along the Mediterranean Sea, the lowlands have hot, dry summers and mild winters with some rainfall.  Swift, cold north winds called mistrals sometimes blow over southern France and cause crop damage.  The Alps shield the sunny Riviera from the cold north winds during much of the year.


France is a prosperous nation and its people have a high standard of living.  The prosperity resulted largely from sweeping economic changes that were made after the 1940's.  Before World War II began in 1939, the French economy was based chiefly on small farms and business firms.  After the war ended in 1945, the French government worked to modernize the economy.  New methods of production and trade were developed through a series of national plans.  These improvements brought increased production.

Most French businesses are privately owned.  The government owns all or part of certain businesses, including some banks and steel companies.  Generally, when the Socialists have controlled the government, they have worked to increase government ownership of business.  When Conservatives have been in control, they have sought to decrease government ownership.

Natural resources play an important part in France's prosperity.  Fertile soils are the country's most important natural resource.  More than 90 percent of France's total land area is fertile.  The richest farmlands lie in the north and northeast, where wheat and sugar beets are the chief crops.  The rainier northwest consists mainly of grasslands, used for grazing cattle and sheep, and orchards.  Many of the drier areas of southern France have good soils for growing grapes.  Soils are generally poor in the Central Highlands and on Corsica.

France has major deposits of bauxite (aluminum ore) and iron ore.  It also has deposits of coal, natural gas, petroleum, and potash.  France has large areas of forests.

Service industries are those economic activities that produce services, not goods.  About two-thirds of the workers are employed by service industries.  Service industries are especially important to the Paris area.

Community, government, and personal services form the most important type of service industry.  This industry employs about a third of all workers.  It includes such economic activities as education and health care, government and the military, and data processing.

Trade, hotels, and restaurants form the second most important type of service industry in terms of employment.  Paris is a major world center for the wholesale trade of automobiles and chemicals.  Marseille, France's main seaport, is the center of the country's foreign trade.  Lyon is a leading city in the wholesale trade of textiles.  Retail trade, hotels, and restaurants are greatly aided by the large numbers of tourists that visit France.

Other service industries include finance, insurance, and real estate; transportation and communication; and utilities.  Transportation and communication are discussed later in this section.

Manufacturing.  France ranks as one of the world's leading manufacturing nations.  The Paris area is the chief manufacturing center of France, but there are factories in cities and towns throughout the country.

France is the fourth largest producer of automobiles in the world, after Japan, the United States, and Germany.  French cars include Renaults and Peugeots.  Automobile plants are located in the Paris Basin and near Lyon, Rennes, and Douai.  France also makes railroad equipment.  The country has developed the world's fastest trains.

France is a major manufacturer of sophisticated military and commercial airplanes.  Toulouse is the center of aircraft production.  France has a successful space program, and has launched rockets and several communications satellites.  The country also produces aerospace equipment, electronic defense systems, and many kinds of weapons.  France has a growing commercial electronics industry that produces computers, radios, telephone equipment, and television sets.

The chemical industry produces a variety of products, from industrial chemicals to medicines and cosmetics.  French plants make high-quality glass and tires.

The French iron and steel industry uses imported iron ore as well as ore mined in France.  The aluminum industry uses much of the bauxite taken from French mines.  Local and imported wood goes into the production of furniture, lumber, and pulp and paper.  The famous French perfume industry, based in Paris, uses flowers that are grown in southeastern France.

France is a major producer of industrial machinery and also ranks as a leader in designing new machines.  French firms perform engineering services and construct industrial and transportation projects in many countries.  France also produces machine tools and robotic machines that perform repeated tasks in factories.

Cotton and silk textiles have long been important French products.  French plants also produce nylon and other artificial fibers.  The Lyon area, long a center for manufacturing silk, also has artificial-fiber factories.  Paris, the fashion capital of the world, produces much of the nation's clothing.

Food processing employs many French people.  Famous French foods include breads, meats, fruit preserves, and especially wines and cheeses.  France ranks as the world's second largest wine-producing country, after Italy.  The wines are aged in deep cellars or caves.  France produces butter and about 400 kinds of cheeses, including Brie, Camembert, and Roquefort.  France also is among the leading producers of sugar.

Agriculture.  France is western Europe's largest agricultural producer and a leading exporter of farm products.  Almost all French farms have electric power, and most have modern farm machinery.  About two-thirds of French farm income comes from meat and dairy animals.  About a fourth of the land consists of grassland used for grazing.  Beef cattle are the chief meat animals, and lambs and sheep are also important.  Much of the milk produced on dairy farms is used in making butter and cheese.  French farmers have always raised some chickens and hogs, and specialized, large-scale production of these animals is expanding.

Crops grow on more than a third of France's land.  Large farms in the Paris Basin and the north grow most of the wheat, France's leading single crop.  Most grapes used in making wine are grown in southern France.  Grapes for high-quality wines come from several regions, including Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Loire Valley.  The Mediterranean region produces grapes used for cheaper wines.  Each region produces grapes that have their own special flavor.  Grapes from southwestern France are used in brandy.

Apple orchards dot many areas of northern France, especially Normandy.  Potatoes, sugar beets, and such livestock-feed crops as barley, corn, oats, and rapeseed are major crops.  Other important crops grown in France include beans, carrots, cauliflower, cherries, flowers, peas, peaches, pears, sunflower seeds, and tomatoes.

Forestry.  Forests cover about a fourth of France.  Heavily forested sections include the Northeastern Plateaus, the Central Highlands, the southwest coastal areas, and the slopes of the Alps, Juras, Pyrenees, and Vosges.  Many forests have been planted in the Landes area of southwestern France for use by the pulp and paper industry.  Cork oaks, olive trees, and pine trees grow along the dry Mediterranean coast and on Corsica.  Forest fires are common in these regions.  Other trees of France include ashes, beeches, and cypresses.

Mining.  Iron ore is France's most important mineral deposit.  Most of it comes from Lorraine and is used in the region's steel industry.  Deposits of bauxite, from which aluminum is made, are found in southeastern France.  Bauxite was named after the town of Les Baux in the producing area.  Alsace has much potash, a substance used in making fertilizers.  Discoveries of natural gas at Lacq, in southwestern France, have attracted many industries.  French mines also yield gypsum, salt, sulfur, tungsten, and uranium.

Fishing.  Commercial fishing crews work off the French coasts, or sail to the waters of Iceland and Newfoundland.  Many fleets operate from Brittany and Normandy.  Seafood taken includes cod, crabs, lobsters, monkfish, mussels, oysters, pollock, sardines, scallops, tuna, and whiting.

Energy sources.  Nuclear power plants provide nearly three-fourths of France's electric power.  France is a world leader in nuclear energy technology and in the production of nuclear fuels.  Most of the rest of France's electric power is generated by coal-burning plants or by hydroelectric power.  The Alps and the Jura Mountains have many hydroelectric plants.

In 1966, the French government began operating the world's first tidal power plant.  It uses the tides in the mouth of the Rance River in Brittany.  These tides are among the highest in the world and may reach a height of 44 feet (13 meters).  A solar power plant operates in the Pyrenees.

International trade.  France is one of the world's leading trading nations.  Its major imports are petroleum products.  Its major exports include automobiles, chemical products, electrical equipment, and machinery.  About half of its trade is with other members of the European Union (EU), chiefly Germany.  The EU is an organization of European nations that works for economic and political cooperation among its members.  France's major trade partners outside the EU include Japan, Switzerland, and the United States.

Transportation.  Since the 1700's, France has had more road mileage in relation to its size than any other European country.  Today, it has a fine highway system, including many multilane expressways.  Two of the world's longest highway tunnels link France and Italy.  One tunnel, 8 miles (12.9 kilometers) long, cuts through Frejus Peak.  The other, 7.3 miles (11.7 kilometers) long, cuts through Mont Blanc.  In 1994, a tunnel was completed beneath the English Channel, linking France and the United Kingdom by rail.

The French railroad system, owned and operated by the government, provides excellent passenger and freight service.  A railroad tunnel through Frejus Peak links France with Italy.  In 1981, a high-speed electric train began operating between Paris and Lyon.  Called the TGV (train a grande vitesse, or high-speed train), it now links Paris to other cities in France as well as to cities in other countries.  The TGV is the world's fastest passenger train.  Daily, it reaches a speed of 186 miles (300 kilometers) per hour.  A top speed of 320 miles (300 kilometers) per hour was recorded in 1990.

Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports, both near Paris, rank among the world's busiest airports.  Marseille, Nice, and Lyon also have major airports.  Air France is the national airline.

Ships and barges operate on navigable rivers and canals throughout France.  These rivers include the Rhine, Rhone, and Seine.  Northern and eastern France have well-developed canal systems.  Oceangoing ships dock at many fine French seaports.  The country's busiest seaports are Marseille, Le Havre, and Dunkerque.

Communication.  France has about 85 daily newspapers, representing a wide range of political opinions.  The largest newspaper, Ouest-France of Rennes, prints about 45 different editions, each with local news.  Other major daily newspapers include Le Figaro, France-Soir, Le Monde, Liberation, and Le Parisien Libere of Paris; Sud-Ouest of Bordeaux; La Voix du Nord of Lille; Le Progres of Lyon; Le Provencal of Marseille; and Le Dauphine Libere of Grenoble.  Major weekly news magazines include L'Express and Le Nouvel Observateur.

France has several television and radio networks, most of which are operated by independent government agencies.  The income of the broadcasting system is largely provided by annual taxes on radios and television sets.

A government agency supervises the motion-picture industry.  The agency's activities include giving financial aid to producers, especially of experimental films and movies of serious dramatic value.  The Cannes Film Festival, held annually in the city of Cannes on the Riviera, is the world's largest international film event.



Early days.  In ancient times, tribes of Celts and other peoples lived in what is now France.  The Romans called the region Gallia (Gaul).  Roman armies began to invade Gaul about 200 B.C. By 121 B.C., Rome controlled the Gallic land along the Mediterranean Sea and in the Rhone Valley.  Julius Caesar conquered the entire region between 58 and 51 B.C. The people, called Gauls, soon adopted Roman ways of life.  They used the Latin language of the invaders.  Gaul prospered under Roman rule for hundreds of years, in spite of barbarian invasions during the A.D. 200's and 300's.

Victory of the Franks.  The border defenses of the West Roman Empire began to crumble in the A.D. 400's.  Germanic tribes from the east, including Burgundians, Franks, and Visigoths, crossed the Rhine River and entered Gaul.  They killed many Gauls and drove others west into what is now Brittany.

Clovis, the king of the Salian Franks, defeated the independent Roman governor of Gaul in 486 at Soissons.  Clovis then defeated other Germanic tribes in Gaul and extended his kingdom.  He founded the Merovingian dynasty (a series of rulers from the same family), and he adopted orthodox Christianity.

The rise of manorialism and feudalism.  From the 600's to the 1000's, during the chaotic years of the early Middle Ages, manors covered much of France.  Manors were large estates governed by owners called landlords or lords, who offered military protection to peasants called serfs.  Manorialism was a system of organizing agricultural labor.

A political and military system called feudalism began to appear in the 700's.  A feudal lord gave his subjects land in return for military and other services.  Both the lord and his subjects, called vassals, were aristocrats.  The land granted by a lord was called a fief.  Some small fiefs supported only one vassal.  Other fiefs were quite large, such as the province of Normandy.  Manorialism and feudalism thrived until the 1100's.

The Carolingian dynasty.  By the mid-600's, the Merovingian kings had become weak rulers, interested chiefly in personal pleasures.  Pepin of Herstal, the chief royal adviser, gradually took over most of the royal powers.  His son Charles Martel extended the family's power.  Charles became known as Martel (the Hammer) because he defeated an invading Arab army in 732.  The battle began near Tours and ended near Poitiers.  Charles Martel became king of the Franks in all but title.

Charles Martel's son Pepin the Short overthrew the last Merovingian ruler and became king of the Franks in 751.  He founded the Carolingian dynasty, and enlarged the Frankish kingdom.  Pepin also helped develop the political power of the pope by giving Pope Stephen II a large gift of land north of Rome.

Pepin's son Charlemagne was one of the mightiest conquerors of all time.  After Charlemagne became king of the Franks, he went on more than 50 military campaigns and expanded his kingdom far beyond the borders of what is now France.  He also extended the pope's lands.  In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans.  For the story of Charlemagne and a map of his empire, see CHARLEMAGNE.

Charlemagne died in 814, and his three grandsons later fought among themselves for control of his huge empire.  They divided it into three kingdoms in 843.  In the Treaty of Verdun, one grandson, Charles the Bald, received most of what is now France.  The second kingdom consisted of much that is now Germany.  The third kingdom lay between the other two.  It consisted of a strip of land extending from the North Sea to central Italy.  The part of the strip that lay north of Italy was divided between the other two kingdoms in 870.

The Capetian dynasty.  By the late 900's, the Carolingian kings had lost much power, and the strength of the nobles had increased.  The kings became little more than great feudal lords chosen by the other feudal nobles to lead them in war.  But in peacetime, most of their authority extended only over their personal estates.

In 987, the nobles ended the Carolingian line of kings.  They chose as their king Hugh Capet, who started the Capetian dynasty.  Many historians mark the beginning of the French nation from Hugh Capet's coronation.

For many years, the Capetian kings controlled only their royal domain (land), between Paris and Orleans.  The great feudal nobles ruled their own domains almost independently.  The dukes of Normandy were the most powerful of these nobles.  Normandy became the most unified and best administered feudal state in Europe.  In 1066, the Norman Duke William, later called William the Conqueror, invaded England and became king.

Growth of royal power.  The Capetian kings gradually added more territory to their personal lands and became stronger than any of their rivals.  In addition, every Capetian king for over 300 years had a son to succeed him on the throne.  As a result, the power of the nobles to select kings died out.  The nobles were further weakened because many of them left France between 1100 and 1300 to join crusades to capture the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Philip II, called Philip Augustus, was one of the most important Capetian kings.  After he came to the throne in 1180, he more than doubled the royal domain and tightened his control over the nobles.  Philip built up a large body of government officials, many of them from the middle classes in the towns.  He also developed Paris as a permanent, expanding capital.

The handsome Philip IV, called Philip the Fair, rebelled against the pope's authority.  He taxed church officials.  He arrested a bishop and even arrested Pope Boniface VIII. Philip won public approval for his actions in the first Estates-General, a body of Frenchmen that he called together in 1302.  This group was the ancestor of the French Parliament.

In 1305, through Philip's influence, a French archbishop was elected pope and became Pope Clement V. In 1309, Clement moved the pope's court from Rome to Avignon, where it remained until 1377.

Social conditions in Capetian France.  By the 1100's, an economic revival in Europe had put money back into use.  Towns, which had lost their importance under manorialism and feudalism, sprang up near main trade routes.  At first, towns were self-governing.  Merchants and craftworkers settled in the towns and formed organizations called guilds.  Guilds played an important role in town government (see GUILD).  As royal government grew, towns became judicial and administrative centers, as well as manufacturing and trading centers.

Although many people moved to the towns in search of jobs, much of the population stayed in the countryside.  Agricultural methods were too primitive to support more than a very small nonagricultural population.  Thus, people were still needed on farms to produce food.  In both towns and in the country, life expectancy was short.  Most children died before the age of 5.

A period of wars.  The last king of the Capetian dynasty, Charles IV, died in 1328 without a male heir.  A cousin succeeded him as Philip VI and started the Valois dynasty.  In 1337, Philip declared that he would take over lands that King Edward III of England held in France, and Edward, who was a nephew of the last Capetian king, formally claimed the French throne. These actions started a series of wars between France and England known as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453).  The English won most of the battles.  But the French, after their victory at Orleans under Joan of Arc, drove the English out of most of France.

Louis XI laid the foundations for absolute rule by French kings.  During the Hundred Years' War, the kings had lost much of their power to the French nobles.  Louis regained this power.  His greatest rival was Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.  Charles died in battle in 1477 while trying to conquer the city of Nancy, and Louis seized most of his vast lands.

Francis I invaded northern Italy and captured Milan in 1515.  In a later Italian campaign, Francis was defeated by Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.  French wars against the Holy Roman Empire continued into the reign of Henry II. The empire and England were allies.  In 1558, this alliance gave Henry an excuse to seize the port city of Calais, England's last possession in France.

Religious wars.  During the early 1500's, a religious movement called the Reformation developed Protestantism in Europe.  Many French people became Protestants.  They followed the teachings of John Calvin and were called Huguenots.  After 1540, the government persecuted the Huguenots severely, but they grew in number and political strength.  In the late 1500's, French Roman Catholics and the Huguenots fought a series of civil wars that lasted over 30 years.  In 1572, thousands of Huguenots were killed during the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day.

Henry III died in 1589 without a male heir.  He was followed by Henry of Navarre, who became Henry IV and started the Bourbon dynasty.  But Roman Catholic forces prevented him from entering Paris because he was the leader of the Huguenots.  In 1593, Henry became a Roman Catholic to achieve peace.  He entered the capital the next year.  In 1598, Henry signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted limited freedom of worship to the Huguenots.

The age of absolutism.  The power of the kings and their ministers (high government officials) grew steadily from the 1500's to the 1700's.  France became a strong nation, largely through the efforts of these ministers.  The first important minister was Maximilien de Bethune, Duke of Sully, who served Henry IV. Sully promoted agriculture and such public works as highways and canals.  He reduced the taille, the chief tax on the common people.

Louis XIII followed his father, Henry IV, to the throne.  But the actual ruler was Louis XIII's prime minister, Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu.  Richelieu increased royal power more than any other individual.

Louis XIll's son Louis XIV was the outstanding example of the absolute French king.  He is said to have boasted: "I am the State."  After the death of his prime minister, Jules Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661, Louis declared that he would be his own prime minister.

In 1685, Louis canceled the Edict of Nantes and began to persecute the Huguenots savagely.  About 200,000 Huguenots fled France, which weakened the country's economy.  Louis's minister of finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert, promoted a strong economy.  But the construction of Louis's grand Palace of Versailles and a series of major wars drained France's finances.  Louis tried to rule supreme in Europe.  He was stopped by military alliances that included England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and other nations.

The gathering storm.  By the 1700's, a government bureaucracy had developed to manage a large standing royal army, as well as to collect taxes.  Royal courts upheld law and order.  Lawyers and jurists of the courts bought their offices from the king at very high prices.  The king allowed those who bought the highest judicial offices to call themselves nobles, and he granted them tax exemptions.

This burdensome system worked well enough to allow remarkable economic and population growth in the 1700's.  But the population growth exceeded agriculture's production capacities, and food shortages and famines became common.  Such growth also strained the guild system that governed the activities of merchants and craftworkers in the towns.

Burdened by the needs of the military and unable to tax nobles or church lands, the government was forced to borrow heavily.  In 1786, the government proposed a new land tax in order to avoid bankruptcy.  Many urban lawyers, merchants, clerks, and craftworkers, as well as some aristocrats, opposed any new taxes.  The French Revolution was born out of this crisis.

The French Revolution.  To win support for new taxes, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates-General.  The Estates-General was made up of representatives from the three estates, or classes--the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.  It opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, near Paris.  In June 1789, members of the third estate--the commoners--declared themselves a National Assembly, with full power to write a new constitution for France.  The third estate had as many representatives as the other two estates combined.

At first, Louis XVI delayed taking action and began gathering troops around Paris to break up the Assembly.  However, many French people organized an armed resistance movement in Paris.  On July 14, 1789, a huge crowd of Parisians captured the royal fortress called the Bastille.  Louis XVI was forced to give in.  By September 1791, the Assembly had drafted a new constitution that made France a constitutional, or limited, monarchy, with a one-house legislature.

The new government did not last long.  In April 1792, France went to war against Austria and Prussia.  These nations wished to restore the king to his position.  In the summer of 1792, as foreign armies marched on Paris, revolutionaries imprisoned Louis XVI and his family and overthrew the monarchy.  A National Convention, chosen in an election open to nearly all adult French males, began on Sept. 21, 1792, and declared France a republic.

Civil and foreign wars pushed the new republican government to extreme and violent measures.  Radical leaders, such as Maximilien Robespierre, gained power.  They said that terror was necessary to preserve liberty.  Thus, while the revolution survived under radical leadership, it also sentenced many "enemies of the republic" to death.  Thousands of people were executed.  In time, the radicals began to struggle for power among themselves.  Robespierre was condemned by his enemies and executed.  His death marked the end of the period called the Reign of Terror.

In 1795, a new constitution was adopted that formed a government called the Directory.  The Directory, a five-man board, governed France from 1795 to 1799, during the last half of the French Revolution.  For more details on the causes, violence, and reforms of the French Revolution, see FRENCH REVOLUTION.

Napoleon.  During the French Revolution, a young officer named Napoleon Bonaparte rose through the ranks of the army.  He was named a general in 1793, and his power grew rapidly.  In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the revolutionary French government and seized control of France.

Napoleon was an excellent administrator.  He created a strong, efficient central government and revised and organized French law.  He was also a military genius with great ambition.  By 1812, Napoleon's forces had conquered most of western and central Europe.  But maintaining control over this vast empire eventually overextended French power, and Napoleon was forced to give up his throne in 1814.  He returned to rule France again for about three months in 1815 before his final defeat at Waterloo.  For the story of Napoleon's life and a map of his empire, see NAPOLEON I.

The revolutions of 1830 and 1848.  The Bourbon dynasty returned to power after Napoleon's downfall.  Charles X, who became king in 1824, tried to reestablish the total power of the earlier French kings.  He was overthrown in the July Revolution of 1830.

The revolutionists placed Louis Philippe on the throne.  He belonged to the Orleans branch of the Bourbon family.  France was peaceful and prosperous during Louis Philippe's reign.  But the poorer classes became dissatisfied because only the wealthy could vote or hold public office.  The February Revolution of 1848 overthrew the government and established the Second Republic.  All Frenchmen received the right to vote.

The voters elected Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, to a four-year term as president in 1848.  He seized greater power illegally in 1851 and declared himself president for 10 years.  In 1852, he established the Second Empire and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.

The Franco-Prussian War.  During the 1860's, France became alarmed over the growing strength of Prussia.  France feared that a united Germany under Prussian leadership would upset Europe's balance of power.  After a series of disputes, France declared war on Prussia in 1870.  Prussia defeated France the next year.  In the peace treaty following the war, France was forced to give almost all of Alsace and part of Lorraine to the new German Empire.

The Third Republic.  After Prussian victories in 1870, the French revolted against Napoleon III. They established a provisional (temporary) republic, which became known as the Third Republic, and in 1871 elected a National Assembly.  In 1875, the Assembly voted to continue the republic and wrote a new constitution.

France's strength and prosperity grew until World War I began in 1914.  French explorers and soldiers won a vast colonial empire in Africa and Asia.  Only Britain had a larger overseas empire.  France strengthened its army and formed a military alliance with Russia in 1894 and the Entente Cordiale (cordial understanding) with Britain in 1904.  French industries expanded steadily, especially after 1895.

By the 1890's, most French people were reconciled to the Third Republic, but few were deeply committed to it.  An incident known as the Dreyfus affair finally forced the nation to take sides on this issue.  On Oct. 15, 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer, was arrested on suspicion of spying for Germany.  In December, a military court found him guilty.  Evidence of his innocence slowly trickled out and eventually attracted much attention.  Many people began to rally to Dreyfus's side.  They included Socialists representing the French working class, moderate republicans, and other people with no political background.

These people believed that the French army had acted arbitrarily in convicting Dreyfus and feared that the republic was endangered.  They made Dreyfus a symbol of civil liberties and republican virtues and worked to get him a new trial.  Opponents of republican government and army supporters came together and denounced Dreyfus and his supporters as antipatriotic.  A fight followed that resulted in a strengthening of support for the republic.  In 1906, France's highest court reviewed the Dreyfus case and declared Dreyfus innocent.

World War I.  During the early 1900's, France and Germany had disagreements over colonial territories, and each country feared an attack by the other.  In 1907, France established a diplomatic agreement called the Triple Entente with Britain and Russia.  The French prepared for war.

Soon after the start of World War I (1914-1918), Germany invaded France.  The Germans hoped to defeat France quickly.  But by late 1914, the French army had halted the German advance.  For 31/2 years, the opposing forces fought from trenches that stretched across northeastern France and Belgium.

The worst fighting faced by the French army during the war took place around the city of Verdun in 1916.  In February, the German army launched a major attack to take Verdun.  For five months, intense fighting continued, and hundreds of thousands of French and German troops were killed.  At first, the Germans made rapid progress.  But they were slowly rolled back.  In July, the Germans halted their unsuccessful attack.

The Battle of Verdun became a symbol of the French nation's will to resist.  But the battle had also drained the nation.  From the middle of 1917, France's allies began handling most of the war's major battles.  The war produced enormously high casualties, partly as a result of the destructive powers of new weapons, such as the machine gun and poison gas.  Millions of French servicemen were killed or wounded.  For more on the story of France in the war, see WORLD WAR I.

Between World Wars.  In the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, France recovered Alsace and the German part of Lorraine from Germany.  France and other Allied nations also were awarded reparations (payments for war damages) from Germany.  Germany fell behind in making these payments.  As a result, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr Valley of Germany in 1923.  After Germany agreed to keep up the payments, the troops were withdrawn in 1925.

The French did much to reestablish good relations with Germany.  France joined other Allied nations and Germany in the Rhineland Security Pact of 1925.  This agreement in part guaranteed the security of the French-German border.  France reduced Germany's reparations and also dropped various controls over Germany set up by the Treaty of Versailles.  Suggestions by Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister, led to the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928.  The pact was signed by France, Germany, and 13 other nations.  But in 1929, France began building the Maginot Line as a fortified defense against Germany.

During the 1930's, the worldwide economic depression and the rise of fascist leader Adolf Hitler in Germany caused serious political unrest in France.  In 1936, at a time of widespread strikes, a government called the Popular Front came to power in France.  It made many promises to striking workers, including annual paid vacations and a 40-hour workweek.  It tried to establish a strong position against fascism.  But in 1938, the government began to give in to the demands of Nazi Germany.  As part of this policy of appeasement, France signed the Munich Agreement, which forced Czechoslovakia to give territory to Germany.

World War II began when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.  Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany.  On May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.  They invaded France through Belgium on May 12, passing northwest of the Maginot Line.  The Germans launched a major attack to the south on June 5 and entered Paris on June 14.  On June 22, France signed an armistice with Germany.  The Germans occupied the northern two-thirds of France, and southern France remained under French control.  Southern France was governed at Vichy by Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, who largely cooperated with the Germans.

After France fell, General Charles de Gaulle fled to London.  He invited all French patriots to join a movement called Free France and continue fighting the Germans.  This resistance movement also spread throughout France.  Some groups of French people called Maquis hid in hilly areas and fought the Germans.  After Allied troops landed in French North Africa in November 1942, German troops also occupied southern France.  The Germans tried to seize the French fleet at Toulon.  But the French sank most of the fleet's ships to prevent them from being captured by the Germans.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed in France at Normandy.  They landed in southern France on August 15.  After fierce fighting and heavy loss of lives, the Allied troops entered Paris on August 25.  De Gaulle soon formed a provisional government and became its president.  In 1945, France became a charter member of the United Nations.  For the story of France in the war, see WORLD WAR II.

The Fourth Republic.  In October 1945, the French people voted to have the National Assembly write a new constitution creating the Fourth Republic.  In this election, French women voted for the first time.  De Gaulle resigned as president in January 1946, over disagreements with the Assembly.  The new constitution, much like that of the Third Republic, went into effect in October 1946.  De Gaulle opposed it because it did not provide strong executive powers.

France received much aid from the United States and rebuilt its cities and industries, which had been badly damaged during the war.  But political troubles at home and colonial revolts overseas slowed the nation's economic recovery.  France played an important part in the Cold War between the Communist countries and the Western nations (see COLD WAR).  The Communist Party was one of the largest in France after the war, and it controlled the chief labor unions.  Communist-led strikes in 1947 and 1948 crippled production across the country.  But in 1949, France became a charter member of the anti-Communist North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The first revolt by a French colony began in Indochina in 1946.  Indochina was eventually divided into Cambodia, Laos, and North and South Vietnam.  The French withdrew from Indochina in 1954 after heavy losses.

Later in 1954, revolution broke out in the French territory of Algeria.  To avoid revolutions in Morocco and Tunisia, France made them independent in 1956.  Other French colonies in Africa received independence later.  But France refused to give up Algeria, the home of almost a million French settlers.  France gradually built up its army in Algeria to about 500,000 men, and the war continued through the 1950's.

In spite of the costly colonial wars, France's economy grew rapidly.  By the late 1950's, it had broken all French production records.  The boom developed with U.S. aid and a series of national economic plans begun in 1946.  French business executives and government officials were determined to prove that France's greatness had not disappeared.  Between 1947 and 1958, France helped form several economic organizations that were important steps toward a European confederation.  For discussions of these organizations, see EUROPE, COUNCIL OF; EUROPEAN UNION (History).

The Fifth Republic.  By 1958, large numbers of French people thought it was useless to continue fighting in Algeria.  But the idea of giving up Algeria angered many French army leaders and settlers in the colony.  They rebelled in May 1958 and threatened to overthrow the French government by force unless it continued fighting.  In a compromise solution, de Gaulle was called back to power as prime minister, with emergency powers for six months.  De Gaulle's government prepared a new constitution, which the voters approved on Sept. 28, 1958.  This constitution, which established the Fifth Republic, gave the president greater power than ever before and sharply reduced the power of Parliament.  In December, the Electoral College elected de Gaulle to a seven-year term as president.

France under de Gaulle.  De Gaulle's government continued the war in Algeria, hoping the Algerians would agree to a compromise settlement that provided some French control.  By 1961, however, the government realized that only Algerian independence would end the rebellion.  Peace talks began in 1961 and ended with a cease-fire in March 1962.  At de Gaulle's urging, French voters approved Algerian independence in April.  Algeria became independent on July 3, 1962, and most French settlers there returned to France.

Algerian independence set off a wave of bombings and murders in France and Algeria by the Secret Army Organization (OAS).  This group, which included many army officers, accused de Gaulle of betraying France by ending the war.  The OAS tried several times to kill de Gaulle.  Its leaders were eventually captured and sentenced to prison.

After the Algerian crisis, some French politicians tried to weaken de Gaulle's strong rule.  They wanted to reestablish the former power of Parliament and reduce that of the president.  But de Gaulle made the presidency even stronger.  He declared that the president should have nationwide support and be elected by the people, not by the Electoral College.  In 1962, the voters approved a constitutional amendment that provided such elections.

De Gaulle was reelected to a second seven-year term in 1965.  French foreign policy became his main interest.  De Gaulle declared that the French were "a race created for brilliant deeds," but that they could not achieve greatness with their "destiny in the hands of foreigners."  He hoped to make France the leader of an alliance of Western European nations.  This alliance would be free of U.S. or Soviet influence.

Instead of relying on American protection through NATO, de Gaulle developed an independent French nuclear-weapons program.  In 1966, he removed all French troops from NATO. He also declared that all NATO military bases and troops had to be removed from France by April 1967.  France withdrew from NATO militarily, but it remained a member politically.

In the 1950's, France had helped form the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Economic Community (EEC).  These agencies later became known as the European Community (EC) and, in 1993, the EC became incorporated into the European Union, which works for economic and political cooperation among its members.

De Gaulle believed France could work within the EEC to become stronger and more influential in Western Europe.  In 1963, he prevented Britain from joining the EEC. He considered Britain a rival for leadership in Western Europe.  De Gaulle also believed Britain's ties with the United States would give America too much influence on Europe's economy.

In the late 1960's, many French people became dissatisfied with de Gaulle's government.  This dissatisfaction led to a severe national crisis in May 1968.  Students staged demonstrations in Paris, some of which erupted into violent clashes with the police.  Demonstrations, many accompanied by violence, spread throughout France, and millions of workers joined in by going on strike.  The country was paralyzed for more than two weeks, and many people expected the overthrow of de Gaulle's government and possible civil war.  But de Gaulle managed to bring the situation under control by the end of May.

De Gaulle called a general election in June, and his supporters won more than 70 percent of the seats in Parliament.  However, de Gaulle's reputation as a leader had been seriously damaged by what the French called the "events of May."

In April 1969, de Gaulle asked for minor constitutional reforms and said he would resign if the voters did not approve them.  The French people voted against the reforms, and de Gaulle resigned.

France after de Gaulle.  Georges Pompidou was elected president in June 1969.  He had been de Gaulle's prime minister, and he promised to continue de Gaulle's policies.  But he changed de Gaulle's foreign policy by cooperating more closely with the United States.  He also improved relations with Britain.  In 1971, Pompidou and British Prime Minister Edward Heath agreed on Britain's entry into the European Community.

At home, Pompidou's government faced economic problems.  The nation's industrial growth began to slow, unemployment increased, and inflation rose to a high level.  Part of the trouble resulted from the worldwide oil crisis in 1973, when oil-producing countries raised the price of oil sharply.  The crisis seriously affected France, which imports most of its petroleum.

Pompidou died in April 1974.  The Gaullist Party, which had supported de Gaulle and Pompidou, split into a number of separate groups in the presidential election that followed in May.  These groups supported various candidates.  As a result, the Gaullist Party was weakened.  Valery Giscard d'Estaing, head of the Independent Republican Party, was elected president.

The Gaullists and a group of parties that supported Giscard won a majority of the seats in France's parliamentary elections held in 1978.  Those parties formed a coalition government.  The leftist Socialist and Communist parties were their main opponents.

The loss of most of its colonial empire relieved France of the cost of governing and developing the colonies.  But France continued to give economic, technical, and military aid to many of its former colonies.  For example, France supported the government of Chad against rebels by supplying military aid and, at times, troops.  In 1982, France sent troops to Lebanon as part of a peacekeeping force.  In 1983, a terrorist bombing killed 54 French troops stationed in Beirut, Lebanon.  France withdrew its troops from Lebanon in 1984.

Socialists win power.  Politically, France moved sharply to the left in 1981.  The voters elected Francois Mitterrand of the Socialist Party president.  The Socialists also won a majority of the seats in parliamentary elections in 1981.  The elections gave France its first leftist government since 1958.  Moderates and conservatives had kept control since then.  Under the moderates and conservatives, the government owned some French businesses.  The new Socialist leaders greatly increased government ownership of businesses.

From the time of Napoleon I, France's departments were administered by prefects--officials appointed by, and responsible to, the national government.  But the Socialist government gave locally elected councils the responsibility for the departments.  In 1982, the government changed the title prefect to commissioner.

The 1981 elections resulted in a sharp decline in the number of parliamentary seats held by Communists.  But the Communists had supported Mitterrand in the presidential race.  He appointed Communists to 4 minor posts in the 44-member cabinet, marking the first Communist participation in the cabinet since 1947.  In 1984, the Communists resigned after disagreements with the government over economic policies.

The Socialists lost their parliamentary majority in the 1986 elections.  Conservatives gained control of Parliament.  Mitterrand remained president, but he named Jacques Chirac, a conservative, as prime minister.  Chirac gained much influence in the government.  In 1988, Chirac ran for president, but Mitterrand ran against him and won a second term as president.

Shortly after his election, Mitterrand dissolved the National Assembly.  In new legislative elections, the Socialists and their allies won a slight majority.  As a result, in 1988, Mitterrand appointed Michel Rocard, a Socialist, to replace Chirac as prime minister.  Rocard resigned in May 1991, and Mitterrand appointed Socialist Edith Cresson to the post.  Cresson became France's first female prime minister.  She resigned in April 1992.  Mitterrand appointed Socialist Pierre Beregovoy to succeed Cresson as prime minister.

In March 1993, conservatives won a large majority in parliamentary elections.  Mitterrand then appointed a conservative, Edouard Balladur, as prime minister.

In 1995, Jacques Chirac again ran for president, and this time he was victorious.  During his campaign, he promised he would try to reduce France's high unemployment rate.  Chirac, a member and the founder of the conservative Rally for the Republic party (RPR), named RPR member Alain Juppe to serve as prime minister.

Recent developments.  In 1997, Chirac called for parliamentary elections to take place earlier than expected.  He hoped for a show of support for his government so he could put through economic reforms.  In the elections, however, the conservatives lost their majority in Parliament, and the Socialist Party ended up with the most seats.  Chirac then appointed Lionel Jospin, the head of the Socialist Party, to serve as prime minister.