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Meet the Icons of France - Leaders

Four of France's most iconic leaders

Through turbulent times France has always found solace in a stable leader.

Meet the Leaders

  1. Charles de Gaulle
  2. Louis XIV
  3. Napoleon Bonaparte
  4. Joan of Arc

Charles de Gaulle

The leader of the French Resistance against the Nazis during World War Two.

B: 1890 D: 1970

"No nation has friends, only interests."

Charles de Gaulle (1890 - 1970)
Charles de Gaulle (1890 - 1970)

When the Germans overran France, de Gaulle escaped to London and formed a government in exile. As leader of the Free French he made famously stirring radio broadcasts and returned to Paris after its liberation to a hero’s welcome. After the war, he failed to secure agreement for his desired political reforms and he retired. In 1958 the unrest caused by the revolt in French-held Algeria created the vacuum that allowed him to return once again as leader of the Fifth Republic.

A fervent nationalist, he aimed to stabilise France financially, create growth and invest in the military. Under his leadership, France developed nuclear weapons, withdrew from NATO, granted independence to Algeria and, famously, vetoed Britain’s entry to the Common Market.

Why an icon?

A man of opinion and fortitude, he perhaps more than any other shaped modern France that we know today.

Louis XIV

As King of France, he cultivated his image as the ‘Sun King’, renowned for lavish spending and synonymous with flamboyant, over the top decadence, exemplified at the Palace of Versailles.

B: 1638 D: 1715

“Every time I appoint someone to a vacant position, I make a hundred unhappy and one ungrateful”.

King Louis XIV (1638-1715)
King Louis XIV (1638-1715)

Louis inherited the crown at the age of four and rebellions early in his life caused him to be insecure and constantly nervous of insurrection. As a result he spent more and more time outside Paris in Versailles.

As he matured he took care with his image, taking the sun as his emblem and creating an astounding palace at Versailles. He learned to implement greater central control of the country, largely through an efficient network of royal agents who helped shape and reorganise the administration and tax collection, thus enabling Louis to expand the army and navy.

Why an icon?

His 72 year reign was colourful and turbulent but saw France moving from a feudally run state to a modern nation with a centralised monarchical power that bound together any disaffected nobility and aristocracy who might otherwise have caused problems.

Napoleon Bonaparte

French leader who rose through the ranks to become Emperor, dominating European headlines for much of his life and creating an empire through his military and strategic brilliance.

B: 1769 D: 1821

“France, the army, commander in chief, Joséphine.”.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Born in Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte took full advantage of the French Revolution of 1789 and used it to make a name for himself.

Early success raised his profile and after storming through the ranks, public acclaim saw him become Emperor in 1804. His reign however was short-lived; wars followed, and after heavy losses were sustained in the Peninsular Wars, he was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in 1814.

Not allowing something as simple as exile stop him, Bonaparte escaped, only to meet his match at the now infamous Battle of Waterloo and was exiled once again, this time to St Helena where he remained until his death.

Why an icon?

To some he was a natural if despotic, leader who laid the groundwork for a modern Europe. Others saw him as responsible for incalculable misery, greater than any other before Hitler: 6 million dead over 17 years of war and a bankrupt nation. Either way, he overplayed his hand, though his many reforms and enlightened, liberal innovations away from the battlefield helped shape the France we see today.

Joan of Arc

A peasant girl who took on the English during the Hundred Years’ War before dying a heroine’s death in 1431.

B: 1412 D: 1431

When asked at her trial if she believed she was in God's grace: 

“If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me”.

Joan of Arc (1412-1431)
Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

Joan of Arc, a peasant girl originally from Lorraine in medieval France, believed that God had chosen her to come to the aid of her country in its long-running war with England.

With no military background and still a teenager, Joan somehow convinced Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orléans, where a stunning victory seemed to seal her credentials. Later captured and interrogated, Joan was tried for witchcraft and heresy and burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of 19.

Twenty years after her death, Charles VII pardoned the Maid of Orleans and five centuries later she was canonised by Pope Benedict XV in 1920.

Why an icon?

Joan of Arc has long been revered as an almost mythical figure, inspiring the arts and becoming one of the nine patron saints of France. She was, and is, an indelible symbol of French unity and nationalism.

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