History of France
France was one of the earliest countries to progress from feudalism to the nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded themselves with capable ministers, and French armies were among the most innovative, disciplined, and professional of their day.
The treaty of Verdun (843) definitely established the partition of Charlemagne's empire into three independent kingdoms, and one of these was France. A great churchman, Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (806-82), was the deviser of the new arrangement. He strongly supported the kingship of Charles the Bald, under whose scepter he would have placed Lorraine also. To Hincmar, the dream of a united Christendom did not appear under the guise of an empire, however ideal, but under the concrete form of a number of unit States, each being a member of one mighty body, the great Republic of Christendom. He would replace the empire by a Europe of which France was one member. Under Charles the Fat (880-88) it looked for a moment as though Charlemagne's empire was about to come to life again; but the illusion was temporary, and in its stead were quickly formed seven kingdoms: France, Navarre, Provence, Burgundy beyond the Jura, Lorraine, Germany, and Italy. Feudalism was the seething-pot, and the imperial edifice was crumbling to dust. Towards the close of the tenth century, in the Frankish kingdom alone, twenty-nine provinces or fragments of provinces, under the sway of dukes, counts, or viscounts, constituted veritable sovereignties, and at the end of the eleventh century there were as many as fifty-five of these minor states, of greater or lesser importance. As early as the tenth century one of the feudal families had begun to take the lead, that of the Dukes of Francia, descendants of Robert the Strong, and lords of all the country between the Seine and the Loire. From 887 to 987 they successfully defended French soil against the invading Northmen, and the Eudes, or Odo, Duke of Francia (887-98), Robert his brother (922-23), and Raoul, or Rudolph, Robert's son-in-law (923-36), occupied the throne for a brief interval. The weakness of the later Carlovingian kings was evident to all, and in 987, on the death of Louis V, Adalberon, Archbishop of Reims, at a meeting of the chief men held at Senlis, contrasted the incapacity of the Carlovingian Charles of Lorraine, the heir to the throne, with the merits of Hugh, Duke of Francia. Gerbert, who afterwards became Sylvester II, adviser and secretary to Adalberon, and Arnoul, Bishop of Orléans, also spoke in support of Hugh, with the result that he was proclaimed king. Thus the Capetian dynasty had its rise in the person of Hugh Capet.
The reign of Louis VI (1108-37) is of note in the history of the Catholic Church, and in that of France; in the one because the solemn adhesion of Louis VI to Innocent II assured the unity of the Church, which at the time was seriously menaced by the Antipope Antecletus; in the other because for the first timer Capetian kings took a stand as champions of law and order against the feudal system and as the protectors of public rights. A churchman, Suger, abbot of St-Denis, a friend of Louis VI and minister of Louis VII (1137-80), developed and realized this ideal of kingly duty. Louis VI, seconded by Suger, and counting on the support of the towns -- the "communes" they were called when they had obliged the feudal lords to grant them charters of freedom -- fulfilled to the letter the rôle of prince as it was conceived by the theology of the Middle Ages. "Kings have long arms", wrote Suger, "and it is their duty to repress with all their might, and by right of their office, the daring of those who rend the State by endless war, who rejoice in pillage, and who destroy homesteads and churches." Another French Churchman, St. Bernard, won Louis VII for the Crusades; and it was not his fault that Palestine, where the first crusade had set up a Latin kingdom, did not remain a French colony in the service of the Church. The divorce of Louis VII and Eleanor of Acquitain (1152) marred the ascendancy of French influence by paving the way for the growth of Anglo-Normal pretensions on the soil of France from the Channel to the Pyrenees. Soon, however, by virtue of feudal laws, the French king, Philip Augustus (1180-1223), proclaimed himself suzerain over Richard Coeur de Lion and John Lackland, and the victory of Bouvines which he gained over the Emperor Otto IV, backed by a coalition of feudal nobles (1214), was the first even in French history which called forth a movement of national solidarity around a French king. The war against the Albigensians under Louis VIII (1223-26) brought in its train the establishment of the influence and authority of the French monarchy in the south of France.
St. Louis IX (1226-1270), "ruisselant de piété, et enflammé de charité", as a contemporary describes him, made kings so beloved that from that time dates that royal cult, so to speak, which was one of the moral forces in olden France, and which existed in no other country of Europe to the same degree. Piety had been for the kings of France, set on their thrones, set on their thrones by the Church of God, as it were a duty belonging to their charge or office; but in the piety of St. Louis there was a note all his own, the note of sanctity. With him ended the Crusades, but not their spirit. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, project after project attempting to set on foot a crusade was made, and we refer to them merely to point out that the spirit of a militant apostolate continued to ferment in the soul of France. The project of Charles Valois (1308-09), the French expedition under Peter I of Cyprus against Alexandria and the Armenian coasts (1365-1367), sung of by the French trouvère, Guillaume Machault, the crusade of John of Nevers, which ended in the bloody battle of Nicopolis (1396) -- in all these enterprises, the spirit of St. Louis lived, just as in the heart of the Christians of the east, whom France was thus trying to protect, there has survived a lasting gratitude toward the nation of St. Louis. If the feeble nation of the Marionites cries out today to France for help, it is because of a letter written by St. Louis to the nation of St. Maroun in May, 1250. In the days of St. Louis the influence of the French epic literature in Europe was supreme. Brunetto Latini, as early as the middle of the thirteenth century wrote that, "of all speech [parlures] that of the French was the most charming, and the most in favour with everyone." French held sway in England until the middle of the fourteenth century; it was fluently spoken at the Court of Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade; and in Greece in the dukedoms, principalities and baronies found there by the House of Burgundy and Champagne. And it was in French that Rusticiano of Pisa, about 1300, wrote down from Marco Polo's lips the story of his wonderful travels.
During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military campaigns of Louis and his successors led to chronic financial problems in the 18th century. Deteriorating economic conditions and popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics were among the principal causes of the French Revolution (1789-94). Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times--the Empire of Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III. After the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic was established and lasted until the military defeat of 1940.
World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the Maginot Line) and alliances to offset resurgent German strength. France was defeated early in World War II, however, and was occupied in June 1940. The German victory left the French groping for a new policy and new leadership suited to the circumstances. On July 10, 1940, the Vichy government was established. Its senior leaders acquiesced in the plunder of French resources, as well as the sending of French forced labor to Germany; in doing so, they claimed they hoped to preserve at least some small amount of French sovereignty.
The German occupation proved quite costly, however, as a full one-half of France's public sector revenue was appropriated by Germany. After 4 years of occupation and strife, Allied forces liberated France in 1944. A bitter legacy carries over to the present day.
France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and established as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government.
Finally, on May 13, 1958, the government structure collapsed as a result of the tremendous opposing pressures generated in the divisive Algerian issue. A threatened coup led the Parliament to call on General de Gaulle to head the government and prevent civil war. He became prime minister in June 1958 (at the beginning of the Fifth Republic) and was elected president in December of that year.
Seven years later, in an occasion marking the first time in the 20th century that the people of France went to the polls to elect a president by direct ballot, de Gaulle won re-election with a 55% share of the vote, defeating François Mitterrand. In April 1969, President de Gaulle's government conducted a national referendum on the creation of 21 regions with limited political powers. The government's proposals were defeated, and de Gaulle subsequently resigned. Succeeding him as president of France have been Gaullist Georges Pompidou (1969-74), Independent Republican Valery Giscard d'Estaing (1974-81), Socialist François Mitterrand (1981-95), and neo-Gaullist Jacques Chirac (first elected in spring 1995 and reelected in 2002).
While France continues to revere its rich history and independence, French leaders are increasingly tying the future of France to the continued development of the European Union. During President Mitterrand's tenure, he stressed the importance of European integration and advocated the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European economic and political union, which France's electorate narrowly approved in September 1992. President Jacques Chirac assumed office May 17, 1995, after a campaign focused on the need to combat France's stubbornly high unemployment rate.
The center of domestic attention soon shifted, however, to the economic reform and belt-tightening measures required for France to meet the criteria for Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) laid out by the Maastricht Treaty. In late 1995, France experienced its worst labor unrest in at least a decade, as employees protested government cutbacks. On the foreign and security policy front, Chirac took a more assertive approach to protecting French peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia and helped promote the peace accords negotiated in Dayton and signed in Paris in December 1995. The French have been one of the strongest supporters of NATO and EU policy in Kosovo and the Balkans. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the U.S., France played a central role in the war on terrorism. French forces, including the Charles de Gaulle carrier battle group, participated in Operation Enduring Freedom. French troops also took part in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan.
President Jacques Chirac and his center-right coalition won the May 2002 elections. Chirac was first elected in 1995, and his party, the RPR, won an absolute majority in the National Assembly (470 out of 577 seats). During his first 2 years in office President Chirac's prime minister was Alain Juppé, who served contemporaneously as leader of Chirac's neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR) Party. However, during the legislative elections of 1997, the left won a majority in the Assembly, and Juppé was subsequently replaced by Socialist Lionel Jospin. This right-left "cohabitation" arrangement, which ended with Jospin's resignation following his defeat in the first round of the May 2002 presidential elections, was the longest lasting government in the history of the Fifth Republic.
During Chirac's first term , a referendum was passed changing the presidential term of office from 7 to 5 years. This change means that, henceforth, presidential and legislative elections could take place at nearly the same time. As expected, in the second round of the presidential election on May 5th, 2002, Jacques Chirac comfortably defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen, a veteran leader of the far-right National Front. Mr. Chirac won by the largest margin (82% to 19%) ever recorded in the second round of a French presidential election; at the same time, abstention reached a record level of 20%.
The ensuing legislative elections proved to be a victory for the center-right and a reversal of the 1997 elections. The center-right coalition party led by both Chirac and a resurgent Juppé--Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP)--won 399 out of 577 seats in the National Assembly, thereby securing for Chirac and his party a majority in the government. Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whom Chirac had named as interim Prime Minister in May, was confirmed. Meanwhile, the combined left, which had previously held 320 seats, took only 178, including 154 for the Socialists (PS), 21 for the Communists (PCF), and three for the Greens. The extreme-right National Front, despite the second-place finish of its leader Le Pen in the April/May presidential election, won no seats. Abstention at 39% set a new record. The UMP was rechristened the Union for a Popular Movement following the legislative elections.
During the election campaign, President Chirac's team made pledges on reforms which could diminish the high level of overall structural unemployment. Experts also have called on France to reduce government spending, the budget deficit, and public debt, and to allow flexibility in the implementation of the 35-hour work week. Mounting pressure for short- and long-term reforms include more labor-market flexibility, less taxation, and an improved business climate, including further privatization and liberalization. French and EU analysts stress that longer term measures must focus on reducing the future burden of ballooning public pension and health care budgets, as well as reducing labor-related taxes.
* Portions of this text are from the print edition of 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia.
More To Explore