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Events that shaped France

War and peace, revolution and innovation

France has been shaped over the centuries by countless events. Some are well documented, others less immediately obvious. But all contributed to creating the 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

Hundred Years War

Not just a school 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 Montfort 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.

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 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 reinforcing 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.
The Sun King

Reign of Louis XIV

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 by 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.

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.

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, the demand 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. Along with the Magna Carta, it influenced the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

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 partly 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)


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.

The calm before the storm
Construction of the Eiffel Tower

La Belle Epoque

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 new confidence to the country. Famously the Eiffel Tower was constructed to symbolise the people’s resistance during the French Revolution.

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The end of the old world

World War One

The Great War surely shaped France as much as any historical event. 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.

French soldiers at the beginning of World War I.

Second World War

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.

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

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.

Saying ‘au revoir’ to the old values

Riots of May 1968

This was a turbulent time: Algerian independence, the new Fifth Republic and 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.

Graffit in University of Lyon classroom during student revolt of 1968

Recent times

As with every country in the world, the threat of terrorism plays a part in France's recent history, from the Charlie Hebdo shooting (January 2015) to the extremist attacks in Paris (November 2015) and Nice (July 2016). With the rise of the right and the National Front recording their best-ever election results in 2022, coupled with general discontent leading to strike action and the Mouvement des gilets jaune, France is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis.

However, there is much to celebrate; from the legalisation of same-sex marriage (May 2013) and FIFA World Cup wins in 1998 and 2018 (for the purposes of this article, we'll ignore the 2022 World Cup result!)

The Tour de France remains a popular annual fixture, and whilst Thibault Pinot, Julian Alaphillippe, and Romain Bardet haven't lived up to the performances of Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Raymond Poulidor, there is hope with David Gaudu after his fourth-place finish in 2022.

2023 sees the Rugby World Cup being held across France for the second time; this may be the year for Les Bleus?