A brief history of France.

The Ancient History of France

The history of France dates back many thousands of years with evidence that Homo sapiens lived there around 40,000 B.C.

Around 6,000 B.C., scattered farmers inhabited the land.

Toward 1,000 B.C. the Celts arrived from the East, bringing druids, warriors and craftsmen to share the land with the farmers.

This European country of France was first known as Gaul, (or Gallia), a territory conquered in 51 B.C. by Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars.

The area included the lands later known as Belgium and Switzerland.

At that time, the language used was Celtic, related to modern Breton, Gaelic or Welsh.

The Romans erected public buildings and theaters in the towns and Roman villas in the countryside.

Barbaric tribes, moving into the area, invaded Caeser's Gallia and destroyed much of the Roman structures built there.

Yet, there are several magnificent architectural wonders still left standing today.

A Roman aqueduct can be found near Nimes, France (The Pont Du Gard Aqueduct, a 3-tiered structure built in 19 B.C.). This ancient waterway is designed with arches and stone lacework and stands approximately 160 feet high.

There are also old Roman amphitheaters in Orange (in the Rhone Valley) and in Arles. These elaborately built outdoor stages are still used today.

The Maison Carree Temple at Nimes was built in 19 B.C. and is well preserved.

Huge Corinthian pillars still stand here.

The Triumphal Arch in Orange is another relic of Ancient Rome which is withstood the ravages of time.

The Franks place in the History of France - Country of the Franks

Near the end of the 5th century, the Franks (a Germanic civilization), headed by King Clovis, overtook the Romans and conquered the land which was eventually divided into three parts, the western part being “Francia”, which means "country of the Franks").

Around 1000 A.D., the first French speaking king, Francien, demanded that the ruling class use French, a graduated form of Latin which had evolved through years of dialects, as the official language.

The Vikings moved into the northern part of France.

The French king, the Duchy of Normandy, gave a large territory to the Scandinavian Vikings and made peace with them. The people who settled in that area became known as the Normans (Norsemen).

In 1066 William the Conqueror, a Norman, set out to invade England. William had a claim as a relative of the Viking ancestry of the incumbent King of England.

William the Conqueror indeed conquered his rival Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, and for the next 400 years French was the language of the ruling class of England.

Hundreds of castles were built and thousands of French words introduced to the English language.

In the beginning of the Middle Ages, Eleanor of Aquitaine, French queen, called the duchy of Aquitaine, divorced her husband Louis and married the young English king, Henry (Pantagenet) II, acquiring both large tracts of France, and all of England in her realm.

When Henry died, Eleanor's son Richard became king and she became his advisor.

Eleanor promoted the arts, inviting troubadors, poets and musicians into her courts, encouraging them with royal monies.

Medieval music as we know today derives from the music style of the days of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

During the Middle Ages, France grew and prospered until the choking Black Death plague fell upon the population and the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453) seriously threatened the country.

The Hundred Years' War, (1337-1451), fought periodically between France and England for control of French territory, was devastated the country, causing thousands of deaths and wanton destruction.

This, coupled with the ravages of the bubonic plague put the country into great despair along with

England's and Burgundy's threats of undesired land division.

Joan of Arc, the famous young female martyr, was prominent in leading France into victory and eventually, England was forced out of the country.

In 1494, the Renaissance had spread to country, France having invaded Italy and realizing its cultural wealth.

Francois I, attracted and influenced by the Italian arts, invited Leonardo de Vinci to his court in France.

During the Renaissance, (middle 1400s), France flourished magnificently culturally and economically.

At this time, France was charmed by the art of the Netherlands and Italy.

From 1562 to 1593 the Catholics and Protestants battled in the Wars of Religion. The wars caused more pain and destruction for the country.

After these wars, a marvelous period in the history of France evolved.

The Bourbons ruled the country in the 16th century.

The 18th century was the period in the history of France called the "Enlightenment",

France was the envy of Europe.

This was the time of philosophers Voltaire and Rousseau, the time of poetry and romance.

Louis XIV was crowned king and during his reign, France enjoyed a rebirth of art, music, drama and literature and Italian styles were the rage.

Francis I commissioned DeVinci, Cellini, Fiorentino to name a few artists summoned.

French artists imitated the Italian styles.

French chateaus were built with an Italian flair.

However, toward the end of the king's reign, the economy of France was spiraling downward into poverty.

In 1789 the French Revolution resulted in the end of the monarchy, and a torrent of bloodshed during a turbulent time in the history of France.

In 1792 France declared war on Austria.

Louis XVI was apprehended in his attempt to flee France, and executed soon after.

In 1793 France declared war on Great Britain.

A French Constitution was adopted but not put into effect.

The new Republic's motto read "Freedom, Equality, Fraternity", and the people patriotically stood behind it.

After the death of Louis XVI in 1793, the Reign of Terror made its ugly debut.

The first victim in the carnage was Marie Antoinette who had been imprisoned with her children after being seperated from Louis.

Her son, Louis Charles, (Louis XVII), had mysteriously disappeared just before her execution, (guillotine-style).

Soon there followed a long line of unfortunate French citizens to their deaths. Public executions were considered entertainment.

Women would sit and knit during the beheadings and men would eat and converse as heads rolled.

Robespierre & the Reign of Terror in the history of France

In 1793 civil liberties were discontinued and The Declaration of the Rights of Man became obsolete.

Maximilien Robespierre, leader and staunch supporter of the Reign of Terror, said , "....Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible....". (Speech on the Justification of the Use of Terror).

By 1794, 30,000 French men and women had been murdered for one thin accusation or another, 2,400 people in Paris alone had been killed.

The Terror had been designed to discourage rebellions by the ordinary citizens.

A man simply accused of complaining (in speech or in written word) of the government would not be allowed to speak in his own defense and might easily and quickly have himself annihilated.

Too late for many, Robespierre was finally arrested and beheaded, the last victim of the Reign of Terror.

Napoleon Bonaparte in the History of France

Napoleon Bonaparte, a Corsican and a military genius, became emperor of France in 1800.

His armies conquered almost all of western Europe.

"I purified the Revolution", he said.

Napoleon Bonaparte created constitutions and fair laws which included respect for religions and the abolishment of slavery.

He encouraged education of science, arts and literature and he ended feudalism.

Today, French law is still based on the principles of Napoleon's Code Civil.

Legend has it that Napoleon was unusually short, but he was 5'6.5", a normal height for a man of that time.

In 1814 the Bourbons overthrew Napoleon's rule but in 1848 Napoleon's nephew, Louis, became emperor and was renamed Napoleon III.

Napoleon I died at the age of fifty-two, but not before establishing a period in the history of France which saw mass expansion of its territories.

In 1848 France had claimed an overseas empire colonizing the West Indian Islands, Martinique and Guadeloupe as well as other smaller islands, Guyana in South America and parts of Senegal on the Guinea coast.

France also claimed two islands off the coast of Newfoundland, Miquelon and Saint-Pierre, Mayotte and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, certain areas in India, Algeria, Tahiti, and the Marquesas.

Slavery was abolished in these colonies as a result of the 1848 revolution.

France went on to claim colonization of French Equatorial Africa [Congo, Central Republic of Africa and Chad] and Vietnam in more recent years.

In 1870, after Napoleon III was overthrown, Georges Clemenceau ("the Tiger"), a strong Republic, was made mayor of Montmarte in Paris.

He was elected senator in 1902.

Once again, the French enjoyed a new era in the early 1900s, welcoming modern arts, theater, music and reveling in the new inventions made available by the capture of electricity.

The wealthy elite visited Paris in droves to see beautiful artistic city, the baudy caberets and romantic cafes.

Yet, trouble brewed with certain rebellious political parties.

From 1906 to 1909 and again from 1917 to 1920, Clemenceau was prime minister of France.

He did not agree with Napoleon III's political views, being more conservative, siding strongly with Great Britain and warning France to be wary of Germany.

Clemenceau's suspicions proved correct when Germany declared war on France in 1914 and invaded the country in World War I.

At the onset of the war, France allied with Great Britain and Russia against Germany and Austria.

The Germans filtered through Belgium and attacked France, aiming for the capital city, Paris.

The Germans were ambushed by the French and English just north of Paris at the River Marne.

Germany continued to invade French regions and France eagerly welcomed England's military aid as Germany's troops forced their way into French homes on the northern borders.

Many French and British soldiers died from disease in rat-infested and contaminated trenches, as well as in combat.

One tenth of the French population was killed or missing in this war, more than of the English or even the Germans.

After the war ended, Clemenceau, still mistrustful, demanded at the Treaty of Versailles that Germany be disarmed and to be harshly punished for the war's destructions.

France commenced resconstruction with determination and new hopes.

Before World War II broke out, there was a period called the Phony War sometimes called the "strange war" or the "funny war".

This was referred to as the lull after the fall of Poland and before any other battle had begun.

Winston Churchill called it the "Twilight War".

In May 1940 German armies invaded France once again, and France capitulated into surrender. It was a bleak period in the history of France.

Germany occupied the country from 1940 to 1944 and used France as a war base against Britain, maintaining France's Atlantic and Channel coasts.

During World War II, the Vichy government was organized.

Germany wanted to occupy France but was not interested in lending any authoritative figures, thus setting up a "pretend" government with a "puppet" leader, Frenchman Marshal Petain, in the town of Vichy.

Petain was to obey Nazi orders.

France was forced to turn over a third of goods production to Germany and over a third of the French people were forced to work to aid the war for Germany.

French general, Charles DeGaulle announced, "France has lost the battle, but France has not lost the war".

DeGaulle, one of France's most famous leaders, had fought in the first World War, had tried five escapes unsuccessfully while being imprisoned by the Germans several times.

Charles DeGaulle led numerous battles against Germany in World War II.

The French began forming resistant troops and they spied for the Allies.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies, advancing in Normandy, began the liberation of France, overthrowing the puppet Vichy authority in its wake.

Allied troops moved on toward Germany, freeing Dunkirk on the way.

The war ended in 1945 when the Axis powers yielded.

In 1945 DeGaulle became head of the French government. France did not do well socially nor politically with its neighbor, Germany.

More than one fourth of the country had been devastated. The economy was low and reconsctruction was difficult. Food and fuel were scarce.

Progress crawled but by the early 1950s France had pulled itself together again.

In recent years, the Channel Tunnel, 31 miles long (23 miles under sea), was built as an undersea roadway to Great Britain.

The French developed the superjet, the Concorde, flying at superspeed in 1969.

In 1960 France dropped a nuclear test bomb over the Sahara Desert in Algeria.

In 1996 France announced it had detonated its sixth nuclear test bomb in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of French Polynesia.

French, the language Today, the people of France are extremely proud of their language.

The French language is expected by the French people to be descriptive, poetic, fluent and clear.

“What is not clear is not French” is taught in schools.

Writer Anatole France said, “French has three qualities: the first is clarity, the second again is clarity, and the third is still clarity!”

Yet, the French language can be quite confusing. There are 277 meanings of the verb, “faire”. All 277 are listed in the Robert dictionary.

by Jan Michele

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