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A Brief History of France

France, officially the French Republic, is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe, with a number of overseas regions and territories.  France is the largest country in Western Europe and the third largest in Europe as a whole, extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean.  Save for Morocco and Spain, it is the only country that has both an Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline.
 
As one of the oldest countries in the world, France has a long and eventful history.  Today it stands as one of the world’s major powers, with strong cultural, economic, military and political influence in Europe and around the world.

History of France:  Early History and People

Stone tools recovered in the area now known as France suggest that early humans may have inhabited the region at least 1.5 million years ago.  Neanderthals, who inhabited France during the Middle Paleolithic period (90,000-40,000 B.C.), are the first known people to have lived in the region.  These Homo sapiens hunted animals, made crude tools from flake-stone and lived in caves.  In the late 19th century, Neanderthal skeletons were found in caves located at Le Bugue, a French region in the Vezere Valley in Dordogne.1
 
Evidence of Cro-Magnons in France has also been found.  A taller Homo sapiens variety, Cro-Magnons are thought to have existed in the region approximately 35,000 years ago.  These early humans had larger brains than their ancestors, long and narrow skulls, and short, wide faces.  With much nimbler hands, Cro-Magnons were able to construct more advanced tools for hunting a number of species, including reindeer, bison, horses and mammoths.  They played music, danced and had fairly complicated social patterns.  Archaeological treasures from this period can still be seen today in the museums of Strasbourg.
 
The Cro-Magnon people were also artists—primarily crude drawings that have helped archaeologists to somewhat piece together their history.  A tour of Grotte de Lascaux in France—a replica of the Lascaux cave where one of the world’s best examples of Cro-Magnon drawings were found in 1940—illustrates how early elemental drawings and etchings of animals gradually became more detailed and realistic.2  Nicknamed “Perigord’s Sistine Chapel,” the Lascaux cave is one of 25 known caves decorated in Dordogne’s Vezere Valley.
 
The Neolithic period, also known as the New Stone Age, also produced France’s incredible collection of menhirs and dolmens.  An ode to these megalithic monuments can be seen on the Morbihan Coast in Brittany.  During this era, warmer weather caused great changes in the natural flora and fauna, and saw the beginning of activities such as farming and raising stock.  Peas, beans, lentils and cereals were grown, and villages were settled.  Decorated pottery, woven fabrics and polished stone tools also became common household items.

History of France: Gaul and the Roman Conquest

The Gauls, a predominantly Celtic people, moved into the region now known as France between 1500 and 500 B.C., establishing trading links by approximately 600 B.C. with the Greeks, whose colonies included Massilia (Marseille) on the Mediterranean coast.  From a geographic perspective, Gaul, as a region, comprised all lands from the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean coast of modern France to the English Channel and from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rhine River and the western Alps.  In short, the Gaul was not a “natural” unit but a Roman construct, the result of a decision to defend Italy from across the Alps.3

In the 2nd century B.C., Rome intervened on the side of Massilia in its conflicts against the tribes of Gaul, its core aim being the protection of the route from Italy to its new possessions in Spain.4  The end result of this backing was the formation of the Provincia (Province), a region spanning from the Mediterranean coast to Lake Geneva, with its capital at Narbo (Narbonne).  In the years from 58 B.C. to 50 B.C., Caesar seized the remainder of Gaul.  Although motivated my power and personal ambition, Caesar justified the seizure by appealing to deep-seated fear of Celtic war bands and further Germanic incursions.  Centuries of conflict between the Gauls and Romans ended in 52 B.C. when Caesar’s legions crushed a revolt led by the Gallic chief Vercingétorix in Gergovia, near present-day Clermont-Ferrand.5

The Gallic people quickly assimilated to the new Greco-Roman way of life.  The period that followed the Roman conquest gave rise to magnificent structures: baths, temples, public buildings and aqueducts such as the Pont du Gard.  Stunning theatres and amphitheatres were built in places like Autun, Lyon, Vienne, Arles and Orange. Lyon also has an excellent Gallo-Roman civilization museum.  Stones from Periguex’s first-century Roman amphitheater, which was torn down sometime in the 3rd century, were later used to build the city walls.6

France remained under Roman rule until the 5th century, when the Franks and the Alemanii overran the country from the east.  These people adopted important elements of Gallo-Roman civilization (including Christianity) and their eventual assimilation resulted in a type of fusion in which elements of the Germanic culture were combined with that of the Celts (Gauls) and Romans.

History of France:  A Look at the Dynasties

Around 450 AD, various groups of Franks moved southwards.  The Ripuarian Franks, as they would come to be known, settled near present-day Cologne, in the middle of the Rhine area, and along the lower forks of the Moselle and Meuse rivers.  There were also what would become the Salian Franks, who settled along the Atlantic coast region.  The Salian Franks, along the Atlantic coastline, were divided into many small kingdoms. One of the better-known groups established itself in and around the city of Tournai; its kinglet was Childeric (died c. 481/482), who traditionally is regarded as a close relative in the male line of Merovech, eponymous ancestor of the Merovingian dynasty.7

Merovingian Dynasty

Childeric was succeeded by his son, Clovis (481/482-511), as King of the Merovingian dynasty.  Among other accomplishments, Clovis was responsible for unifying Gaul, with the exception of a few regions in the southeast.  He consolidated the position of the Franks in northern Gaul during the years following his accession.  In 486 he defeated Syagrius, the last Roman ruler in Gaul, and in a series of later campaigns, with strong Gallo-Roman support, he occupied an area situated between the new Frankish kingdoms of Tournai, the Visigothic and Burgundian kingdoms, and the lands occupied by the Ripuarian Franks and the Alemanni, removing it from imperial control once more. 8

Clovis established Paris as the capital of his new kingdom, and in 508 he received some sort of recognition from Emperor Anastasius, possibly an honorary consulship, and the right to use the imperial insignia. These privileges gave the new king a credibility of sorts that were useful in gaining the support of his Gallo-Roman subjects.  Clovis, together with his army of 3,000, converted to Christianity in 498, becoming the first Franks to do so.  When Clovis died in 511 the kingdom was divided between his four sons, who continued to make new conquests, particularly those in Burgundy and Southern Germany.9

The Carolingian Dynasty

As power was handed down for generations to the next son in the Merovingian bloodline, the dynasty continued to rule the country until 751, although in the 720s they became mainly puppet authorities, as effective power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Pippinids (later the Carolingian Dynasty), who thanks to their valuable landholdings and loyal retainers, maintained a monopoly on the office of mayor of the palace.10  Because of their family’s disposition for the name Charles and because of the significance of Charlemagne in the family’s history, modern historians have traditionally called the Pippinids the Carolingian Dynasty.

The Carolingian Dynasty ruled the Frankish kingdom from the 8th century to the 10th century. Upon the death of Pippin II in 714, the Carolingian hegemony was in jeopardy. His heir was a grandchild, entrusted to the regency of his widow, Plectrude.  During his brief reign the Saxons crossed the Rhine, and the Arabs crossed the Pyrenees, thus putting the kingdom at great risk.  However, the situation was rectified by Pippin’s illegitimate son, Charles Martel.  When Charles defeated the Neustrians at Ambleve (716), Vincy (717), and Soissons (719), he declared himself master of northern Francia (although he never received the title of king).  Martel is best known for reestablishing Frankish authority in southern Gaul, where he prevented the Moors from taking control (as they did in Spain) during the Battle of Tours (732) in Poitiers.11

At the death of Charles Martel (741), the lands and powers in his hands were divided between his two sons, Carloman and Pippin III (the Short), as was the custom. This partition was followed by unsuccessful insurrections in the peripheral duchies—Aquitaine, Alemannia, and Bavaria.

Pippin III remained loyal to the custom of the Carolingian dynasty, and upon his death in 768 his kingdom was divided between his two sons, Charles (Charlemagne) and Carloman. The succession did not proceed smoothly, however, as Charlemagne faced a serious revolt in Aquitaine as well as the enmity of his brother, who refused to help suppress the revolt. Carloman’s death in 771 saved the kingdom from civil war. Charlemagne dispossessed his nephews from their inheritance and reunited the kingdom under his own authority. Charlemagne ruled the Frankish kingdom from 742-814 and is generally considered one of the foremost leaders in world history.  By extending the boundaries of the kingdoms through a number of bloody conflicts he was ultimately named the Holy Emperor of Rome (Emperor of the West) in 800.12  During the 9th century, however, Scandinavian Vikings (Norsemen or Normans) raided France’s western coast, settling in the lower Seine Valley and forming the duchy of Normandy a century later.

Capetian Dynasty

The Carolingian Dynasty ruled France until the late 10th century, up until Hugh Capet was crowned king in 987, establishing the Capetian Dynasty. Capet’s then-modest domain, which at the time consisted of a parcel of land surrounding Paris and Orleans—was hardly representative of a dynasty that would rule France, one of the most powerful countries on earth, for the next 800 years.13

It was during this time that William the Conqueror and his Norman forces occupied England in 1066, making Normandy and, later, Plantagenet-ruled England formidable rivals of the kingdom of France.  In 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine wed Henry of Anjou, bringing a further third of France under the control of the English crown.  The bitter rival that followed between France and England for Control of Aquitaine and the vast English territories in France lasted three centuries.14

In 1095, at what is now Clermont-Ferrand, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, prompting France to play a leading role in the Crusades and giving rise to some splendid Christian cathedrals, including Reims, Strasbourg, Metz and Chartres.   In 1309, French- born Pope Clement V moved the papal headquarters from Rome to Avignon, and Avignon’s third pope, Benoit XII, started work on the magnificent Palais de Papes (Palace of the Pope).  The Holy See remained in France until 1337.

History of France: The Hundred Years War

The Hundred Years War was a series of battles between England and France.  The war can be traced back to William the Conqueror, crowned King of England in 1066, who, after defeating the French at the Battle of Hastings, united England and Normandy and wanted to rule both as his own. Things finally boiled over between the Capetians and England’s King Edward III in 1337, sparking a conflict that would officially last until 1453.  The French suffered particularly nasty defeats at Crécy and Agincourt (home to a great multimedia battle museum).  Abbey-studded Mont St-Michel was the only place in northern and western France not to fall into English hands.15

Five years later, the dukes of Burgundy (allied with the English) occupied Paris, and in 1422, John Plantagenet, duke of Bedford, was made regent of France for England’s King Henry VI, then an infant. Less than a decade later he was crowned king of France at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.

It was right about this time that a seventeen year-old woman came along by the name of Jeanne d’ Arc (Joan of Arc).  In 1429, she persuaded French legitimist Charles VII that she had a divine mission from God to expel the English from France and usher in Charles as King.  Joan of Arc was convicted of performing witchcraft and heresy by a tribunal of French church officials and subsequently sold to the English in 1430, where she was burned at the stake.16

Charles VII did finally return to Paris in 1437, however, it was not until 1453 that the English were ultimately driven from French territory.  In 1491, at the Chateau de Langeais, Charles VIII wed Anne de Bretagne, signaling the unification of France with independent Brittany.

History of France:  Renaissance

Chateau Chambord Photo credit When the Italian Renaissance movement made its way to France during the reign of Francois I (1517-47), the focus shifted to France’s Loire Valley.  There Italian and French artists adored the royal castles in places such as Amboise, Blois, Chambord and Chaumont, including the renowned Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Le Clos Luce in Amboise from 1516 until his death.  Disciples of Michelangelo and Raphael—artists and architects—were very influential during this period, as were writers such as Ronsard, Rabelais and Marot.  Many noted Renaissance ideas of geography and science were lauded, and discovery assumed a new importance, as did the value of secular over religious life.17

History of France: The Reformation

The Reformation blew into Europe and began to take hold in the 1530s.  The ideas of Martin Luther were strengthened by those of John Calvin (1509-64), a Frenchman born in Noyon (Picardie) but exiled to Geneva.  Following the Edict of January 1562, which gave Protestant certain rights, the Wars of Religion (1562-68) erupted between the Huguenots (French Protestants who received help from the mostly-Protestant English), the Catholic League (led by the House of Guise) and the Catholic Monarchs.  In 1588, the Catholic League forced Henry III, who ruled from 1574-1589, to flee the royal court at the Louvre and the next year the monarch was assassinated.18

Succeeding Henry III (ruled 1589-1610) on the throne was Henri IV, representing the onset of the Bourbon Dynasty.  He was succeeded by Louis XIII, known as Fontainebleau.  Louis XIII had a fairly undistinguished reign and he remained under the thumb of his chief minister Cardinal Richelieu, best known for his untiring efforts to establish an all-powerful monarchy in France and French Supremacy in Europe.

History of France: Louis XIV, Louis XV, and the Seven Years War

Louis XIV, familiarly known as the “Sun King,” ascended to the throne in 1643 at age 5, and would remain the King of France until 1715.  Brazened by claims of French divine right, Louis XIV involved the country of France in a number of wars and battles; conflicts that gained territory for France but alarmed its neighbors and nearly drained the national treasury.  In France, he helped to quell the ambitious, feuding aristocracy and created the first centralized French state.19  In the town of Versailles, some 23 kilometers outside of Paris, he built a magnificent and lush palace and made courtiers compete with each other for royal favor.

Louis XV, the grandson of Louis XIV, ascended to the throne in 1715 and continued to rule the country until his death in 1774.  Not nearly the statesman that his grandfather was, Louis XV allowed his regent, the Duke of Orleans, to shift the court back to Paris.  As the 18th century progressed, the old-order Monarchy became increasingly at odds with the French people.  In this Age of Enlightenment, where the anti-establishment and anti-church ideas of Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu, the royal court also became threatened.

The Seven Years War of 1756-63 pitted France and Austria against Prussia and the British.  This was just one of the many wars that spelled doom for Louis XV, leading to the loss of France’s flourishing colonies in Canada, the West Indies and India to the British.20  It was a pricey war to say the least, especially for the monarchy, as it helped to disseminate in France the radical democratic ideas that had been placed on the world stage during the American Revolutionary War.

History of France:  The French Revolution

The latter half of the 18th century saw revolution come to France, marked by a number of social and economic crises.  In hopes of deflecting some of this personal dissatisfaction among the people, Louis XV’s successor, Louis XVI, called a meeting of the Etats Generaux (Estates General) in 1789, a body made up of representatives of the nobility (First Estate), clergy (Second Estate) and the remaining 90 percent of the population (Third Estate).  When the people’s or Third Estate’s call for a system of proportionate voting was denied, it claimed itself a National Assembly and demanded a constitution.  On the streets, a mob of French citizens took the matter into their own hands by raiding armories for weapons and storming the doors of the prison at Bastille, now one of France’s most popular landmarks.21 

France was declared a constitutional monarchy and many reforms were enacted.  However, as the new government readied itself for threats posed by Austria, Prussia and the many exiled French nobles, patriotism and nationalism butted heads with revolutionary fervor.  Soon after, the moderate republican Girondins lost power to the radical Jacobins led by Robespierre, Danton and Marat, and in September 1792 France’s First Republic was declared.  Louis XVI was publicly guillotined in January 1793 on Paris’ Place de la Concorde, and his queen, the vilified Marie-Antoinette, faced a similar fate several months later.22

The horrifying Reign of Terror, from September 1793 to July 1794, saw religious freedoms revoked, churches closed, cathedrals transformed into ‘Temples of Reason’ and thousands incarcerated in dungeons in Paris’ Conciergerie before being beheaded.23

Following the Revolution, a five-man delegation of moderate republicans, led by Paul Barras, was founded as a Directory to rule the new French Republic.  This would be short-lived, however, due largely to the arrival of a young Corsican general named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).

History of France: Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon was a charismatic leader whose skills and military tactics rapidly transformed him into an independent political force. In 1799 he overthrew the newly-created Directory and assumed power as consul of the First Empire.  In 1802, a referendum declared him consul of France for life, his birthday became a national holiday, and in 1804 he was crowned emperor of the French by Pope Pius VII at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral.24 Two years later, he commissioned the world’s largest triumphal arch to be built in his honor.
 
To broaden and make more credible his authority, Napoleon waged a series of large-scale wars, gaining control of most of Europe in the process, including Spain.  In 1812, Napoleon’s troops captured Moscow, but the long and brutal Russian winter proved too much for his army and most either died or fled.  Two years later, Allied armies entered Paris, exiled Napoleon to the island of Elba and restored the House of Bourbon to the French throne at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15).   However, this was not the last France would hear about Napoleon.  Three years later, in 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, landed in southern Europe and marched on Paris.  His brief “Hundred Days” back in power ended with the Battle of Waterloo and his return to exile, this time to the South Atlantic island of St. Helena.  Napoleon Bonaparte died there in 1821, and in 1840 his remains were returned to Paris.25

History of France:  19th Century France

Once power was restored to the House of Bourbon, three fairly ineffective French Kings—Louis XVIII (1815-24), Charles X (1824-30) and Louis Philippe—tried to restore France to the strong monarchy it enjoyed in the past.  However, the people who saw the changes wrought by the French Revolution and the radicals of the poor working-class were not willing to return to the old status quo.  The people revolted, once in 1830 and again in 1848, the latter resulting in Louis Philippe’s ouster as king.
 
The Second Republic in France was established soon after and elections brought Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, to the office of president.  Two years later, in 1851, Louis Napoleon led a coup d’état and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire (1852-70).
 
Arc de Triomphe Photo credit During the Second Empire, France enjoyed significant economic growth.  Paris was completely remade under urban planner Baron Haussmann, who created the 12 enormous boulevards radiating from the Arc de Triomphe.  Meanwhile, Napoleon III, who is was a fairly ineffective leader, threw glittering parties at the royal palace, and vacationed in places like Biarritz and Deauville.26
 
Like his uncle, Napoleon III involved France in a variety of bloody conflicts, including the Crimean War (1853-56) and the devastating Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), a conflict that ended with Prussia taking Napoleon III prisoner.  Upon hearing the news, the defiant and poor Parisian masses demanded a new republic be installed.
 
The Third Republic began in 1870 as a provisional government of national defense.  However, it was quickly besieged by the Prussians who attacked Paris and demanded National Assembly elections be held.  The first move made by the resultant monarchist-controlled assembly was to ratify the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871), the harsh terms of which—a 5 billion-franc war indemnity and surrender of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine—prompted immediate revolt.  During the Semaine Sanglante, or “Bloody Week,” several thousand rebels were killed and a further 20,000 were later executed.27
 
Despite its conflict-ridden start, the Third Republic is known as the Beautiful Age, a time in which Art Nouveau architecture, advances in science and engineering, and a number of different artistic styles, from impressionism onwards, were ushered in.  World Exhibitions were held in the capital city of Paris in both 1889 and 1901, the former of which was highlighted by the showcasing of the Eiffel Tower.
 
Colonial rivalry in Africa that existed between France and Great Britain ended in 1904 with the Entente Cordiale (Cordial Understanding), marking the start of a friendship/cooperation between the two nations that has, for the most part, lasted to this day.

History of France:  World War I

Of the eight million French men that served in the Great War (World War I), 1.3 million were killed and another one million were crippled.  Much of the war took place in northeastern France, with trench warfare using thousands of soldiers as cannon fodder merely to gain a few yards of territory.28
 
France’s desire to enter World War I against Austria-Hungary and Germany stemmed from its desire to regain Alsace and Lorraine.  The war officially ended in 1919 when the leaders of France, Great Britain, Italy and the United States signed the Treaty of Versailles in France.  Among its harsh terms included the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France and a reparations bill of 33 billion for Germany.29
 
Although industrial production dropped by 40 percent in France and threw the country into financial crisis, Paris continued to sparkle during the 1920s and 1930s, drawing artists and writers attracted to the city’s liberal atmosphere.

History of France:  World War II

The decade of relative harmony and compromise between France and Germany hit a bit of a snag when Adolf Hitler was named the Chancellor of Germany in 1933.  At first, France tried to work with the new leader but when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the country joined with Britain in declaring war against Germany.
 
Although an ill-prepared force from France tried to subdue the German armies, by June 1940 France had capitulated.  The British had tried to help the French by sending in an expeditionary force. However, the members of this unit just managed to escape capture themselves by retreating to Dunkirk and crossing the English Channel in small boats.30  The Maginot Line the French had established during the war proved futile, as the German military outflanked the line by traveling through Belgium.
 
During the war, Germany divided France into a zone under direct German occupation (in the north and along the western coast) and a puppet state led by aging WWI hero General Petain in the spa town of Vichy—the demarcation line between the two areas ran through Chateau de Cheniceau in the Loire Valley.31  Today, visitors can get a sense of what life was like for the French in the Nazi-occupied north by visiting the WWII museum at La Coupole.
 
The regime occupying the Vichy region was very prejudiced against the Jews.  They forced the local police forces in France to assist them in rounding up French Jews for their eventual deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps run by the Nazis.  Only one Nazi concentration camp lied within French borders:  Natzweiler-Strutfoh.32  Today, it can still be visited by people interested in WWII history.
 
On June 6, 1944, Allied troops, most of them American, stormed the beaches at Normandy and Brittany, liberating both.  Marching on, they also liberated Paris on August 25 with the help of Free French units, sent in ahead of the Americans, so that the French would have the honor of liberating their own country.

History of France:  Post-World War II

The damage caused by World War II would take the French decades to rectify.  During the war, the Germans requisitioned practically everything that wasn’t nailed down to feed their war machine, including ferrous and non ferrous metals, statues, zinc bar tops, coal, leather, textiles and chemicals.  Agriculture, strangled by the lack of raw materials, fell by nearly 30 percent.33
 
As they fled France, the Germans burned a total of 2,600 bridges.  The Allied bombardments also took their toll on France, damaging nearly 40,000 kilometers of railway tracks. Roadways were damaged and nearly 500,000 buildings and 60,000 factories were either damaged or destroyed.  The French were forced to pay the occupying German forces up to 400 million Francs a day, nearly emptying the public coffers.34
 
The damage and humiliation suffered by the French at the hands of the Germans was no secret to France’s colonies.  As the economy tightened in France, the native people of these colonies began to notice they were bearing the brunt of this disaster.  In Algeria, a movement for greater autonomy at the beginning of the war turned into an all-out independence movement by the war’s end.  The resistance movement in Vietnam during the war, when the Japanese moved into strategic positions in Indochina, took on an ant-French, nationalistic tone, setting the stage for Vietnam’s ultimate independence.
 
A Closer Look at the Fourth Republic
 
Charles de Gaulle Photo credit Following France’s liberation in 1944, General Charles de Gaulle faced the ominous task of putting together a viable government.  Charles de Gaulle had served as France’s undersecretary of war during WWII, but fled to London in 1940 after the French capitulated.  Elections were held in October of 1945 that created a national assembly composed largely of pro-resistant communists. De Gaulle was appointed head of the government, but because he sensed that the French people were not in favor of a strong presidency, he resigned soon after in 1946.35
 
Rectifying the damage caused by World War II required a strong central government, one with vast powers to rebuild the country’s industrial and commercial base.  Because of this, most banks, insurance companies, automobile plants and energy firms were passed into the hands of the government.  Other businesses remained privately operated, the aim being to combine the efficiency of government with the vitality of private industry.  Nevertheless, progress in France was slow.  By 1947 rationing remained in the country and France was forced to turn to the United States for loans as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.36
 
One of the goals of the Marshall Plan was to stabilize Europe both financially and politically to prevent the expansion of Soviet power and ideals.  As the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe, the Pro-Stalinist members of France’s Communist Party were put into an unwinnable position, and found themselves on the losing end of disputes involving American aid, the colonies and workers’ demands.  As a result, they were expelled from the government in 1947.
 
In the wake of this, Charles de Gaulle founded a new political party called the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF).  The goal of this party was the containment of Soviet Power.  To reinforce this, in 1949 France signed the Atlantic Pact uniting North America and Western Europe in a mutual defense alliance:  NATO.
 
With the Fourth Republic in place, the economy of France began to improve.  Many new industries were formed and the French government regularly invested in things such as hydroelectric and nuclear power, oil and gas exploration, chemical refineries, steel production, naval construction, car factories and building construction.37
 
The Colonies
 
The 1950s saw the end of French colonialism.  After the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in 1945, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam pushed for independence.  War broke out, but because the French troops were unable to fend off the brilliant tactics of guerilla warfare in Vietnam, they withdrew from the region in 1954.
 
Algeria’s push for independence was a bit more costly.  At the time, Algeria was ruled by approximately a million French settlers, who resisted all Algerian demands for political and economic equality.  This led to the brutal Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962).  The indigenous rebel attacks led to executions, torture and untold massacres, which only strengthened the resolve of the Algerian people.38  Pressure was applied on France by the United Nations, which urged the French to pull out of Algeria.  However, the pieds noirs (literally ‘black feet,’ as Algerian-born French people are known in France) became enraged at the way France was dealing with the problem.  A plot to overthrow the French government and replace it with a military regime was narrowly avoided when de Gaulle agrees to assume the presidency in 1958.

The Fifth Republic

The Fourth Republic, created after the communists were forced out of office, was hamstringed by an ineffective executive branch and the unbearable situation in Algeria.  De Gaulle remedied the first of these problems by drafting a new constitution (the Fifth Republic), which authorized considerable powers be given to the president at the expense of the National Assembly.39

Fixing the Algeria situation proved much more difficult.  After a failed coup attempt by military officers in 1961, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS; a group of French settlers and sympathizers opposed to Algerian independence) resorted to terrorism. The OAS tried to assassinate de Gaulle on several occasions, and in 1961 violence broke out on the streets of Paris.  Algerian demonstrators were violently attacked by police, with more than 100 of them being killed in the protests.  In 1962, Charles de Gaulle finally negotiated an end to the war, giving the Algerian people their independence.40

The 1960s in France saw a rise in unemployment, and the government led by de Gaulle began to feel pressure from the anti-authoritarian baby boomers clamoring for social change.  University students seemed to protest against anything the government supported, including the American’s involvement in the Vietnam War.  This dissatisfaction finally boiled over in 1968, causing a general worker’s strike by 10 million people that paralyzed the country.41

De Gaulle took advantage of these events from a political perspective, and began to appeal to people’s fear of anarchy.  Just as the country seemed it was on the brink of revolution, stability came to the Fifth Republic, and many reforms were instituted to appease both workers and students.  De Gaulle resigned from office in 1969.  He suffered a fatal heart attack the following year.42

History of France:  France Today

After a long and storied history, one filled with seemingly one major conflict after another, today France is considered one of the world’s most highly developed and well-run nations.  It is also the most most-visited country in the world, with nearly 79.5 foreign visitors annually. France possesses the world’s ninth-largest economy by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Europe’s second-largest economy by nominal GDP.  In terms of aggregate household wealth, France is the wealthiest nation in Europe and the fourth-largest in the world.  The citizens of France enjoy a very high standard of living, a superior educational system and one of the highest life expectancies in the world.  Moreover, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently listed France as having the world’s “best overall system of health care.”43
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