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History of France

  Timeline - History in brief - The Institutions  



1. Origins

1,500 BC: Prehistoric populations, cave art and stone monuments. 
1200 BC : Settlement by the Gauls (related to the Celts). 
59-52 BC : Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar and the beginning of Gallo-Roman civilization. 
500 AD : Barbarian invasions and the end of Pax Romana following the fall of Rome.
600 AD : Settlement by the Franks, the barbarian tribe from which France derives its name. 

2. Establishment of a State and Nation

768 AD : Charlemagne, named Emperor of the Western world, attempts to recreate
the Roman Empire. 
987 AD : Hughes Capet founds the Capetian dynasty, which will last until 1328. The monarchy asserts its new power over feudal lords. 
11th-13th centuries Middle Ages : flourishing of Romanesque and Gothic art. Crusades. 
14th-15th centuries : French-English rivalry culminates in the Hundred Years War triggering a new wave of nationalism. France is also plagued by the Black Death and famines. 

3. Absolute Monarchy and the Enlightenment

15th-16th centuries The Renaissance.
1539  : French replaces Latin as the official language. 
1562-1589 : Religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. 
1598 Edit of Nantes grants freedom of conscience and worship. 
1610-1715 Reign of Louis XIII followed by the Absolute Monarchy of Louis XIV resulting in royal authority and hegemony; increased spread of French culture. 
18th century : Economic and demographic growth. Age of Enlightenment. Absolutism questioned. French participate in the American Revolution 
1789 French Revolution; Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. End of the monarchy. 

4. Political Experiments 

1804-1815 : Napoleon is named Emperor; he reorganizes the French administration and legal system, establishing the Napoleonic Code. 
1815 : Restoration of the Monarchy. 
1830-1848 : Revolution. July Monarchy. Industrialization. 
1848 : Revolution. Second Republic. Slavery abolished. 
1852-1870 : Second Empire under Napoleon III. Prosperity and growth. Colonial
1870-1871 : Loss of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. 
1875 : Third Republic. 

5. Republican France

1880-1910 : Secular education, freedom to assemble, separation of church and state
(1905). Colonial expansion. 
1894-1906 : France is split over the Affaire Dreyfus: A Jewish army captain is wrongly accused of treason, but found innocent a few years later. 
1914-1918 : World War I (1,350,000 killed). The U.S enters the war in 1917.
Alsace-Lorraine restored to France. Peace Treaty of Versailles (1919). 
1936-1938 : Rise of the Popular Front. Social developments include agreements on work conditions and paid vacations. 
1939-1945 : World War II (700,000 killed). Germany occupies France. Collaboration of the Vichy regime. General de Gaulle in London calls on the French to resist. Resistance. 
1944-1945 : Normandy and Provence landings. Liberation of France. 
1946-1958 : Fourth Republic is marked by economic reconstruction and end of colonization. Political instability. Beginning of the European construction. Sharp demographic increase. 

6. Fifth Republic

1958 : De Gaulle returns to power and founds the Fifth Republic, adopted by
1962 : End of Algerian War, begun in 1954. 
1969-1974 : Georges Pompidou elected President of the Republic. European construction strengthened. 
1974-1981 : Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, President of the Republic. Oil crisis followed by recession. 
1981 : Socialist candidate François Mitterrand is elected President of the Republic with a left-wing majority in the National Assembly; Abolition of the death penalty. Decentralization laws. Nationalization of large coorporations. 
1986 : Legislative elections; the Left loses out to conservative parties. Jacques Chirac, a conservative, is appointed Prime Minister. First cohabitation. Re-privatization. 
1988 :François Mitterrand is re-elected President of the Republic. The Left wins a majority in legislative elections. 
1992 : The French ratify the Maastricht Treaty on European Union by referendum. 1993 : March 29, victory of the Right in legislative elections: second cohabitation government. Privatization program resumes. 
1995 : May 7, Jacques Chirac of the neo-Gaullist RPR party is elected President of the Republic. Alain Juppé is appointed Prime Minister. 
1997 : June 3, Lionel Jospin is named Prime Minister after Jacques Chirac has dissolved the National Assembly. 
October 1997 : Signing of the Amsterdam Treaty. 


The only European country facing both the North Sea and the Mediterranean, France has been subject to a particulary rich variety of cultural influences. Though famous for the rootedness of its peasant population, it has also been a European melting pot, even before the arrival of the Celtic Gauls in the centuries before Christ, through to the Mediterranean immigrations of the 20th century. Roman conquest by Julius Caesar had an enduring impact, but from the 4th and 5th centuries AD, waves of Barbarbian invaders destroyed much of the
Roman legacy. The Germanic Franks provided political leadership in the following centuries, but when their line died out in the late 10th century, France was socially and politically fragmented.


The Capetian dynasty gradually pieced France together over the Middle Ages, a period of great economicprosperity and cultural vitality. The Black Death and the Hundred Years' War brought setbacks, and the dynasty'spower was seriously threatened by the rival Burgundian dukes. France recovered, however, and flourished duringthe Renaissance, followed by the grandeur of Louis XIV's reign. During the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, French culture and institutions were the envy of Europe. The Revolution of 1789 ended the absolute monarchy and introduced major social and institutional reforms, many of which were endorsed and consolidated by Napoleon. Yet the Revolution also inaugurated the instability which has remained a hallmark of Franch politics: since 1789, France has known five republics, two empires and three brands of royal power, plus the Vichy government during World War II. Modernization in the 19th and 20th centuries proved a slow process. Railways, the military service and redical educational reforms were crucial in forming a sense of French identity among the citizens. Rivalry with Germany dominated French politics for most of the late 19th and 20th century. The population losses in World War I were traumatic for France, while during 1940-44 the country was occupied by Germany. Yet since 1945, the two countries have proved the backbone of the developing European Union. 


The earliest traces of human life in France date back to around 2 million BC. From around 40,000 BC, Homo sapiens lived an itinerant existence as hunters and gatherers. Around 6000 BC, following the end of Ice Age, a major shift in lifestyle occured as people settled down to herd animals and cultivate crops. The advent of metal-working allowed more effective tools and weapons to be developed. The Iron Age is associated particulary with the Celts, who arrived from the east during the first millennium BC. A more complex social hierarchy developed, consisting of warriors, farmers, artisans and druids (Celtic priests). 


The Romans conquered and annexed the southern fringe of France by 125-121 BC. Julius Caesar brought the rest of Gaul under Roman control during the Gallic Wars (58-51 BC). The province of Gaul prospered: it developed good communications, a network of cities crammed with public buildings and leisure facilities such as baths and amphitheaters, while in the countryside large villas were established. By the 3rd century AD, however, barbarian raids from Germany were causing increasing havoc. From the 5th century barbarians began to settle throughout Gaul. 


The collapse of the Roman Empire led to a period of instability and invasions. Both the Frankish Merovingian dynasty (486-751) and the Carolingians (751-987) were unable to bring more than spasmodic periods of political calm. Throughout this turbulent period, the Church provided an element of continuity. As centres for Christian scholars and artists, the monasteries helped to restore the values of the ancient world. They also developed farming and viticulture and some became extremly powerful, dominating the country economically as well as spiritually. 


The Gothic style, epitomized by soaring cathedrals emerged in the 12th century at a time of growing prosperity and scholarship, crusades and an increasingly dominant monarchy. The rival Franch and Burgundian courts became models of fashion and etiquette for all of Europe. Chansons des gestes (epic poems) performed by troubadours celebrated the code of chivalry.


The Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), pitting England against France for control of French land, had devastating effects. The damage of warfare was amplified by frequent famines and the ravages of bubonic plague in the wake of the Black Death in 1348. France came close to being permanently partitioned by the king of England and the duke of Burgundy. In 1429-30 the young Joan of Arc helped rally France's fortunes and within a generation the English had been driven out of France. 


As a result of the French invasion of Italy in 1494, the ideals and aesthetic of the Italian Renaissance spread to France, reaching their height during the reign of François I. Known as a true Renaissance prince, he was skilled in letters and art as well as sport and war. He invited Italian artists, such as Leonardo de Vinci and Cellini, to his court and enjoyed Rabelais' bawdy stories. Another highly influential Italian was Catherine de Medici (1562-89). Widow of Henri II, she virtually rulled France through her sons, François II, Charles IX and Henri III. She was also one of major players in the Wars of Religion (1562-93) between Catholics and Protestants, which divided the nobility and tore the country to pieces. 


The end of the religious wars heralded a period of exceptional French influence and power. The cardinal ministers Richelieu and Mazarin paved the way for Louis XIV's absolute monarchy. Political development was matched by artistic styles of unprecedented brilliance: enormous Baroque edifices, the drama of Molière and Racine, and the music of Lully. Versailles, built under the supervision of Louis' capable finance minister Colbert, was the glory of Europe, but its cost and Louis XIV's endless wars proved expensive for the French state and led to widespread misery by the end of his reign. 


In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau redefined man's place within a framework of natural principles, thus challenging the old aristocratic order. Their essays were read across Europe and even in the American colonies. But although France exported worldly items as well as ideas, the state's increasing debts brought social turmoil, triggering the 1789 Revolution. Under the motto "Freedom, Equality, Fraternity", the new Republic and its reforms had a far-reaching impact on the rest of Europe. 


Two generations of Napoleons dominated France from 1800 to 1870. Napoleon Bonaparte took the title of Emperor Napoleon I. He extended his empire throughout most western Europe, placing his brothers and sisters on the thrones of conquered countries. Defeated in 1814 and replaced by the restored Bourbon dynasty, followed by the 1830 Revolution and the so called July Monarchy, the Napoleonic clan made a cameback after 1848. Napoleon I's nephew, Louis Napoleon, became President of the Second Republic, then made himself emperor as Napoleon III. During his reign Paris was modernized and the industrial transformation of France began. 


The decades before World War I became the Belle Epoque for the French, remembered as a golden era forever past. Nevertheless this was a politically turbulent time, with working-class militancy, organized socialist movements, and the Dreyfus Affair polarizing the country between Left and anti-semitic Right. New inventions such as electricity and vaccination against disease made life easier at all social levels. The cultural scene thrived and took new forms with Impressionism and Art Nouveau, the realist novels of Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola, cabaret and cancan and, in 1895, the birth of the cinema. 


Despite the devastation wrought by two world wars, France retained its international renown as a centre for the avant garde. Paris in particular was a magnet for experimental writers, artists and musicians. The cafés were full of American authors and jazz musicians, French surrealists and film makers. The French Riveria also attracted colonies of artists and writers, from Matisse and Picasso to Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, along with the wealth industrialists and aristocrats arriving in automobiles or the famous Train Bleu. And from 1936 paid holidays meant that the working classes could also enjoy the new fashion for sunbathing. 


After the 1950s, the traditional foundations of French society changed: the number of peasant farmers plummeted, old industries decayed, jobs in the service sector and high-technology industries grew dramatically, and the French came to enjoy the benefits of mass culture and widespread consumerism. High prestige projects, such as the Concorde, TGV, La Défense and Pompidou Centre, brought international acclaim. Efforts for European integration and the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel aim towards closer relations with France's neighbours. 


Following the break-up of the Roman Empire, the Frankish king Clovis consolidated the Merovingian dynasty. Itwas followed by the Carolingians, and from the 10th century by Capetian rulers. The Capetians established royal power, which passed to the Valois branch in the 14th century, and then to the Bourbons in the late 16th century, following the Wars of Religion. The Revolution of 1789 seemed to end the Bourbon dynasty, but it made a brief come-back from 1814-30. The 19th century was dominated by the Bonapartes, Napoleon I and Napoleon III. Since the overthrow of Napoleon III in 1870, France has been a republic. 

The institutions of the Fifth Republic in France are based on the Constitution of 1958, adopted by a referendum of the people on 28 September 1958. It has been amended several times and was revised in 1962, when a referendum was organized calling for the election of the President of the Republic by direct universal suffrage. 


1. President of the Republic

The President of the Republic is elected for a seven-year term. The President appoints the Prime Minister and presides over the cabinet or "government ". As the guardian of the Constitution, The President of the Republic promulgates the laws that govern France and he alone has the right to pardon. If he deems it necessary, he can dissolve parliament. He is the head of the armed forces and can take special measures in times of national emergency. The current President is Jacques Chirac, elected 7 May 1995. More info ? Visit the "Palais de l'Elysée"

2. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet

Appointed by the President, the Prime Minister (currently Lionel Jospin, re-appointed on 2 June 1997) is the head of government. The Prime Minister determines government policy and is in charge of the administration. The Prime Minister submits government bills to parliament and is responsible for their execution once they have been voted into law. The cabinet or government determines and conducts the nation's general policy. It has the power to initiate legislation, called "government bills ". 

More info ? Visit the Prime Minister's Website

3. The Legislative Branch

French laws are passed by a parliament consisting of two houses: The National Assembly (577 members) is elected by direct universal suffrage for 5 years. The most recent election was held in May and June of 1997. The Senate (321 members, 9 years) is elected by indirect suffrage, with one third of its membership renewed every three years. The last election took place in September 1995. Parliament also has the right to initiate legislation, called "parliamentary bills", and must authorize any declaration of war. By a motion of censure on specific texts concerning general policy, the National Assembly may force the government to resign. In the case of disagreement between the two assemblies on a law, the National Assembly makes the final decision




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