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Events that shaped France

War and peace, revolution and innovation

  Long Read Special

France has been shaped over the centuries by countless events. Some well documented, others less immediately obvious. But all played a part in creating a France that we know and love today.

Clovis I

Things could have been so different were it not for Clovis. By uniting the various quarrelsome Frankish tribes around 500, he established what we now can see was the fledging nation state of France. The stable base he formed allowed Charlemagne to later rule with purpose and authority. His reign was validated by Pope Leo III who appointed him Holy Roman Emperor, thereby ensuring Christianity as the dominant faith in western Europe to this day.

Clovis I leading the Franks to victory in the Battle of Tolbiac, in Ary Scheffer's 1836 painting
Clovis I leading the Franks to victory in the Battle of Tolbiac, in Ary Scheffer's 1836 painting

The Hundred Years War

Not just a schoolboy favourite, the Hundred Years War between England and France dragged on from 1337 to 1453, prompted by a squabble between Edward III and Philip VI of France.

Although a messy period of futile skirmishes it did spawn many colourful characters: Joan of Arc, Edward the Black Prince and Simon de Monfort among them. And for the English it provided great victories such as Agincourt (1415), Poitiers (1356) and Crécy (1346) which became household names.

Wonderful structures were built and these remain today as tranquil, atmospheric places that make tourists weak at the knees for their charm and sense of oozing history. The ancient fortified bastides of Domme and Monpazier are notable, while the brooding castles of Castelnau, Milandes and Beynac are iconic structures that have graced countless holiday brochures.

Battle of Sluys from a BNF manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles, Bruges, c.1470.
Battle of Sluys from a BNF manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles, Bruges, c.1470.

In the white heat of war, the Hundred Years’ War also saw major developments in military strategy and technology. Weapons became more powerful and effective. It was gunpowder artillery that forced the English from Normandy and Gascony and horse-drawn gun carriages made their first appearance and shaped all subsequent wars.

The war affected swathes of society on both sides of the Channel. The peasants were squeezed for tax revenues and were pressured to fight.

Not surprisingly the Hundred Years’ War prompted both France and England to do their best to steer clear of such intractable disputes for centuries. Before long the Wars of the Roses kept the English preoccupied.

The final legacy of such a lengthy war was to reinforce a sense of national identity in both England and France. A neighbourly rivalry, occasionally spilling into a mutual antagonism has endured ever since.

Louis and his family portrayed as Roman gods in a 1670 painting by Jean Nocret.
Louis and his family portrayed as Roman gods in a 1670 painting by Jean Nocret.

Reign of Louis XIV, the Sun King

Louis XIV ruled between 1638-1715 in a giddy, sparkling reign symbolised by his great palace at Versailles. It was a brilliant period of excess and flamboyance and he became the symbol of absolute monarchy in the classical age.

Louis XIV dramatically shifted the balance of power in French politics: centralising power in the monarchy and establishing a system of patronage and despotism that survived until the French Revolution. “I am the state", he famously declared, in line with the theory of the Divine Rights of Kings.

Despite his military victories France lost its way, yet the dazzling brilliance of his reign obscured areas of weakness. The aristocracy of Europe were captivated and mimicked the customs of France and its Sun King.

Salon de Madame Geoffrin - salons were the place where intellectual and enlightened ideas were built.
Salon de Madame Geoffrin - salons were the place where intellectual and enlightened ideas were built.

France and European Enlightenment

Paris is often called ‘The City of Light’, and not just because it was the first European city to install gas lighting. It was also the centre of the European Enlightenment in the mid-18th century – a time when new, challenging ideas were circulating regarding people’s relationships to the world around them, to God and to the state.

It was a time when logic and science, for many, trumped religion. The absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings were questioned. The concept of individual liberty and freedom of speech were developed, led by Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their ideas took root and helped the intellectual arguments behind the French Revolution and the foundation of the United States.

Romantic history painting commemorating the French Revolution of 1830.
Romantic history painting commemorating the French Revolution of 1830.

The French Revolution

In the late 18th century, resentment among the lower classes boiled over. Grievances over aristocratic privileges, high taxes and poor harvests took their toll and, coupled with the ideals of the Enlightenment, demands for change grew louder. The Third Estate, or commoners, rose up in 1789, famously storming the Bastille prison in Paris on 14th July.

The subsequent 1789 Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen ended feudalism. With Magna Carta, it influenced the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (1804)
The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David (1804)

The rise of Napoleon

The leader of the French Revolution during its final years, Napoleon Bonaparte assumed the role of Emperor of France in 1804 and led the country until 1814. His contributions to the country continue to hold great significance in France today.

The Napoleonic code, on which French law was founded, still influences today’s legal system. He also improved education, encouraged religious freedom and reformed France economically with industrial investment and infrastructure projects. His ideas were noted and borrowed across Europe, spread in part by his military conquests from Russia to the Peninsula Wars via Waterloo.

The pavilions of Les Halles, the great iron and glass central market designed by Victor Baltard (1870)
The pavilions of Les Halles, the great iron and glass central market designed by Victor Baltard (1870)

Haussman – making Paris a world city

Paris is a world city. But its layout was not all a gradual process of urban development. The distinctive ‘look’ of Paris – its elegant buildings, wide boulevards and civic amenities – is mainly due to one person: Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

The medieval morass that was Paris demanded bold action to rectify it. The first president, Napoleon III, ordered Haussmann to clear the slums, the dangerous lanes and filthy neighbourhoods, all hotbeds of disease and insurrection.

The result incorporated new parks, squares, fountains, aqueducts and sewers, as well as iconic buildings like the Palais Garnier (Opéra), Gare du Nord, Parc Monceau and Place du Châtelet. The transformation was noted and echoed around the world, helping shape global cities, not just Paris.

Start of construction on the second stage - May 1888
Start of construction on the second stage - May 1888

La Belle Epoque – the calm before the storm

La Belle Epoque was a period of optimism, peace, and prosperity, coupled with progress in science and technology. Starting in 1870 and brought to a crashing end in 1914, it was centred on Paris.

Highlights included the new Paris Métro, the Moulin Rouge and the Paris World Fair, bringing a new confidence to the country. Famously the Eiffel Tower was constructed to symbolise the people’s resistance during the French Revolution.

French soldiers at the beginning of World War I.
French soldiers at the beginning of World War I.

World War One – the end of the old world

The Great War surely shaped France as much as any event in its history. In terms of political change, loss of life, cost, destruction of buildings and devastation of landscape, there had been no equal. France may have ended the war on the winning side, but was haunted by feelings of relief balanced with deep despair and loss.

Crowds of French people line the Champs Élysées - 26 August 1944.
Crowds of French people line the Champs Élysées - 26 August 1944.

The Second World War – the dawn of the new age

By 1939 France was at war again. While the Vichy government under Marshal Pétain collaborated with the Nazis, much of France was soon occupied by German soldiers.

The French Resistance fought back and Paris itself escaped destruction when the Nazi general Dietrich von Choltitz, a lover of Paris, refused orders to raze it. The war shaped France’s subsequent political ambitions, internal political structure and governance.

General De Gaulle inspecting sailors on Léopard in 1942
General De Gaulle inspecting sailors on Léopard in 1942

The Fifth Republic

In 1959 De Gaulle created the Fifth Republic, giving the president more power at the expense of the National Assembly. This became the standard model of government, through to President Macron today.

Graffit in University of Lyon classroom during student revolt of 1968
Graffit in University of Lyon classroom during student revolt of 1968

Riots of May 1968 – saying ‘au revoir’ to the old values

This was a turbulent time: Algerian independence, the new Fifth Republic and the war in Vietnam all created unrest. Political debate was fevered and youth found a new voice. The old values seemed arcane and imperialist. There was a powerful post-war spirit of change and riots were sparked with the barricades and protests coming to symbolise the changing of the guard.


You may also be interested in:

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The Creation of Modern Paris

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Meet the Icons - Leaders

Iconic French Battles of the 20th Century

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