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Nuclear Weapons









France is the product of the combination of three cultures: the original Celtic culture (the Gauls) related to the Welsh in Britain; the Romans; and the invading Franks, a Germanic tribe. The language shows influences from all three but mainly from the creolized Latin of the Roman provinces.

There are at present several strong provincial cultures including the Languedoc in the south, the Bretons in the north west (originally immigrants from Celtic Britain escaping from the Saxons); the Basques in the south west. In the past there has been a policy of minimizing these languages and even forbidding their use, but this is relaxing now.

The southern part of modern France was conquered by the Romans during the wars with Carthage from the Greek colonies that had settled there in pre-Roman times. The northern Gauls were conquered by Julius Caesar, as described in his book De Bello Gallico (The Gallic War). He conquered an area of small tribal kingdoms. They united under Vercingetorix but were defeated by Caesar's more disciplined and centrally organised force in 52 BCE. Under Roman rule the Gauls became Romanised. The aristocracy learned literary Latin; the masses learned popular Latin, which evolved into modern French.

During and after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 the land was invaded by wandering small bands of German speaking tribes, each under a leader.The last of these were the Franks. In 481 Clovis was recognised as a Frankish king of Gaul - though whether he really controlled the whole of modern France is doubtful. The idea of the French state grew from this original kingdom of the Franks (a minority of uncivilised Germans ruling a predominantly Latin and Celtic speaking population - the Gallo-Romans).

There were two Frankish dynasties: the Merovingians named after Merovius, a supposed ancestor.

(The real history of the Merovingians has nothing to do with the various fictions claiming they are the descendants of Jesus, a ridiculous idea.)

The Merovingians are mainly interesting for the fact that this family, probably descended from the original leaders of the nomadic German tribes and frequently quarrelling among themselves, after 300 years lost control of their kingdom to a new family, who held the position of Mayor of the Palace (chief of Staff or Prime Minister). The Merovingian kings became figureheads (rois fainéants) after power had passed out of their hands - a theme of Ibn Khaldun.

In 715 the mayor (Charles Martel=the Hammer) became so powerful that he declared himself king and pensioned off the last Merovingian king. Perhaps his most significant action was to defeat the invading Muslim army at or near Poitiers in 732. The result was that the Muslims withdrew to Spain and occupied briefly only some towns on the Mediterranean coast. Martel also campaigned to extend his kingdom into what is now Germany.

His grandson was Charles the Great who built an empire covering modern France and his conquests in Germany and Italy. Charlemagne took the title of Roman Emperor from a policy of the popes, wishing to have a ruler in the west again to make them independent of the eastern Roman empire. After his death France was split off from the eastern half, which became, roughly, Germany and the Netherlands. The modern state grew from the feudal chaos of the 9th and 10th centuries as the successor states of the Carolingian empire devolved all power to local rulers - Counts and Dukes.

Feudal period
The kings started with the election in 987 by the great men (Bishops and Feudal lords) of Hugh Capet, Count of Anjou and his descendants, the rulers of the region around Paris (Isle de France) who gradually exerted control over the more or less independent and self-sufficient feudal domains of the great lords - Counts and Dukes. Among these were the kings of England who held many of the feudal states of France as Counts and Dukes (especially the north - Normandy; and the south west - Aquitaine). The Duke of Normandy became king of England in 1066 but continued to be Duke of Normandy. His descendants became by marriage also Counts of Touraine, Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine. As the French kings gained power they asserted central control. The English were finally driven out at the end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) (except for Calais, regained from England only in 1557).

Absolute monarchy
From the time of Louis 14th (1643 -1715) the central government of the monarch became stronger than in any other European state, except Russia. The kings had discovered the trick of ruling without any assembly and raising money without control. The original meetings of the Three Estates (Church leaders; feudal lords and Bourgeois merchants and lawyers known as the Etates Generales) never developed into an assembly capable of granting or refusing taxes, as in England. The failure of a tax-approving assembly to develop was perhaps partly a result of the long wars with the kings of England, known as the Hundred Years War. During this continuing state of emergency the king grew used to demanding special payments. These later became permanent.

In the early 17th century the aristocracy revolted against the king in a series of disturbances known as the Fronde. The result of this was the increased power of the king and the reduction of the freedom of action of the aristocracy. The only real justification for an aristocracy is that their riches make them available for public service. In 17th century France they became purely consumers. They developed a lavish style of living, building the huge chateaux still to be seen in the French countryside. The king's ministers became professionals promoted by himself but people with no ability to say no, or retire to their estates (as in England).

France was the leading power in Europe from the 1648 Treaties of Westfalia (taking over from Spain) until the early 19th century (with the defeat of Napoleon in 1812) and the rise of Britain. Cardinal Richelieu's (in the name of the minor Louis the 14th) treaties had broken up Germany (the Holy Roman Empire) into 350 independent states, all of them dependent on France. (Was this the real origin of the first world war?)

Overseas influence See Francophonie

The role of the aristocracy - consumers of taxes but without any formal role in the state - was increasingly resented and criticised by dissident philosophers such as Diderot and Voltaire, who advocated modernising the state. Moreover the government itself had become ossified and unable to react to problems, including a near famine due to climate problems that left many people starving. Louis the 14th had set up a government structure that was only efficient when the king was competent and energetic, like himself. His successors were less competent, especially the last king, Louis the 16th. Internal trade was impeded by numerous customs bars on the roads. France retained many of the feudal structures unchanged despite changing times.

The 1789 revolution began when the king's absolute government ran out of money - partly because of the king's support for the American war of independence, and partly because France had lost the colonial competition to Britain and had no access to the wealth of India - and was forced to call the traditional assembly, the States General, for the first time since 1614 at the beginning of the reign of Louis 13th. The States had no tradition of controlling the government - indeed no customary procedures - and was, unlike the English Parliament, divided between nobility, clergy and the Third Estate. They rapidly formed a new body, the National Assembly, by abolishing the distinction between the different estates, making the the third estate dominant. It represented mainly lawyers and the owners of property and business.

The members of the assembly refused to authorize new taxes without big changes in the king's government. This began a period of rapid political change during which many of the themes of later European history were developed: democracy (imperfectly); dictatorship; show trials of enemies of the revolution (including many of the aristocrats); militant nationalism (the concept of the people as the sovereign body).

Since 1789 there have been numerous regimes. The First Republic (1792-99) itself went through several forms including a period of one party rule (by the Jacobins) a Committee of Public Safety (in theory a presidium of the Assembly) under Robespierre for one year and a Directory. The last was subverted by a military coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius from Corsica (only recently purchased from Genoa) who conquered much of Europe and called himself in turn: First Consul, then Emperor, setting up the First Empire in imitation of ancient Rome. In reality it was a personal tyranny.

After his defeat the victorious allies insisted on the restoration of the monarchy and Bonaparte's exile first to Elba and then, after his return and second defeat at the battle of Waterloo, to St Helena. His first Empire then gave way to a restoration of the kings from 1812 to 1848. (But in 1830 there was a coup against one royal family - the Bourbon Charles the tenth - by a more liberal branch - the Orleanist Louis Philippe). Of the Restoration Bourbons it was said that "they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing" in their time of exile and tried to behave as though the Revolution had not happened, trying to abolish the assembly. Louis Philippe tried to run a liberal constitutional monarchy, but the electorate was still very small.

Second Republic (1848-51) and Second Empire (1851-70)
In 1848 a Second Republic was proclaimed which was soon subverted in an autogolpe by Napoleon's alleged nephew Louis Napoleon (his real parentage is obscure but he was probably not the son of Napoleon's brother) who was elected president and then proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon the third (but there had been no Napoleon the second as Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt, was dead).

His regime was hardly democratic, though he sometimes consulted the people with plebiscites (referendums) to which the answer No was difficult. He ruled over a divided state where many people continued to desire a republic, and some still wanted the kings back - the traditional monarchy.

He was overthrown after defeat by Prussia in 1870 and the loss of the territories of Alsace-Lorraine to the new German Empire. This ushered in the Third Republic (1875-1940) which lasted until France's defeat by Germany in 1940. (During the occupation there was a satellite regime known as the French State and headed by the world war one Marshal Petain with a government of fascists and Nazi sympathizers.)

Following liberation by British and American forces in 1944 (and the Free French) a Fourth Republic with a very proportional electoral system was inaugurated by Charles De Gaulle as Prime Minister. Governments consisted of short-lived coalitions of many small parties. This regime collapsed in 1958 with the revolt of the Algerian settlers in the closing phase of the Algerian war of independence.

De Gaulle was recalled from retirement and made effectively Dictator by the collapsing regime and he drew up a new constitution for the Fifth Republic which gives strong powers to the President and weak power to Parliament and the Prime Minister. (Some interpret this as a restoration of the Bonapartist state, or even as an elective monarchy.)

Since the late 1950s France has become very prosperous and has changed from a mainly agricultural economy to a predominantly industrial society.

Colonial Empire
Like Britain, France had an extensive colonial empire in Africa and Asia. Most of these colonies became independent. Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) was lost only after a long war of independence (1945-54). France left Algeria also after a long war. The African colonies mostly became independent in 1960 (except Djibouti). France retains colonies in the West Indies, French Guyana, Reunion Island off East Africa, French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Many of the former French colonies in Africa still possess French troops and administrators. How far are they really independent? (See Francophonia.)

France was a member of NATO but after 1958 De Gaulle withdrew from the military structure and didn't wish to cooperate. He believed NATO was an instrument of American control of Europe and built a French nuclear weapon - the Force de Frappe.

The recent government of Francois Mitterrand appeared to be rejoining the military command structure - though not to allow foreign troops to be stationed in France.

The European Community was devised by a French statesman, Maurice Schumann, as a means of preventing more wars with Germany. De Gaulle was lukewarm about integration, calling for a Community of Nations, rather than a federation but subsequent governments have been more enthusiastic. Co-operation with Germany has been the most hopeful development of the post 1945 period, as it has ended one of the most dangerous European enmities of the last two hundred years (begun when Cardinal Richelieu in the name of Louis the 14th split Germany into powerless microstates, to assert French domination).

France joined the euro-zone and continues to cooperate with other states in the EU, as long as its wishes are catered for. (Do French governments enforce EU rules they don't agree with? Perhaps not.)







German (in Alsace)
Alexis de Tocqueville - the Old regime and the French Revolution

Der alte Staat und die Revolution

L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution

Trevor Royle - Wars of the Roses

Wars of the Roses

(and the war in France)
France absorbed other kingdoms, such as Flanders and Burgundy (Bourgogne)
see Norman Davies - Vanished Kingdoms

Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe

Vanished Kingdoms







France has a history of changing political systems. The extreme dictatorship of the absolute monarchy collapsed in 1789 and then was revived under Napoleon. Two types of monarchy followed, then a brief attempt at democracy was followed by the oligarchic Second Empire. The Third and Fourth Republics were followed by the current Fifth Republic.

  • 1600 Absolute monarchy
  • 1789 Republic
  • Directoire
  • First Empire (Napoleon)
  • Restoration of monarchy 1812
  • 1830 July monarchy - Louis Philippe
  • 1848 Second republic
  • 1848 second empire Napolean the third
  • 1875 third republic
  • 1940 Etat francais (Petain under German occupation)
  • 1945 fourth republic
  • 1958 Fifth republic

The current French political system was designed by Charles de Gaulle to provide a strong and stable government. It gives great powers to the President, elected for 7 years (now reduced to 5), and rather less power to the National Assembly. He wanted to bring to an end the instability of the period from 1945 to 1958 when governments changed frequently because of many small parties in a parliament elected by proportional representation.

The executive power is divided between the President and Prime Minister and President in an ambiguous way. This is illustrated by periods when the President and Prime Minister are of different parties (cohabitation). From March 1993 until May 1995 this resumed.

Most elections follow a system of run-off elections in which the top two candidates of the first round stand again a week later (unless one of them has already received more than 50%).

This seems to be the heir of French centralizing political culture, although there are regional and local governments with more power than British local governments. The Senate is elected indirectly by an electoral college elected by the Department (District) Councils and the National Assembly.

Jacques Chirac was elected president in May 1995 after 14 years of Francois Mitterrand who led the Socialist Party, in practice a non-ideological party of opportunists. In June 1997 the Socialists won control of the Assembly and Prime Minister, beginning another period of co-habitation. Chirac was re-elected in 2003 against a Far Right candidate after the Socialist candidate was eliminated in the first round and Chirac's party regained control of the Assembly.

The most recent presidential election was in April/May 2007, when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected on a programme of following the kind of policies used in Britain and America.

The regime seems to be going through an unstable period. There has even been talk of a new Constituent Assembly and a possible Sixth Republic. This is probably not serious.

A restoration of ritual or symbolic monarchy seems unlikely, though there are various claimants. But the president's powers are so great, and parliament's power so weak, that perhaps it is an elected Monarchy

The two main candidates in the 2007 presidential elections were Segolene Royale (socialist) and Nicholas Sarkozy (conservative). France would have had a woman as head of state, if Royale had won.

It has often been noted that the real government of France is in the hands of the graduates of the elite universities the Grandes Écoles, especially the École Nationale d'Administration. These "enarques" fill all the top positions in the civil service, the nationalised industries, the banks and the private businesses too. Thus it is their policy that has planned the present economic state of France.

Presidential elections in 2012 may see as candidates: Nicolas Sarkozy (right wing); Francois Hollande (socialist); Marine le Pen (far right).

Interesting reading

Andre Maurois - History of France

Die Geschichte Frankreichs

Histoire de la France

Desmond Seward Napoleon and Hitler

Andrew Jack - the French Exception

Sur la France. Vive la diffèrence !







France has had a rapidly growing planned economy with some of the most modern infrastructure in Europe. France is notable for its investment in modern rail technology (the TGV - Very High Speed Train) and its telecommunications. There is a large state-owned sector.

There is resistance to obeying the EU directives on competition in transport and energy. Thus, although it is difficult for non-French companies to buy French energy companies, the state owned electricity company has bought electric companies in Britain and other countries.

It is suspected that the finances of this company, dependent on nuclear power, mask large losses, which would have to be revealed in a regime of internal competition. Other state owned or subsidised companies, such as SNCF the rail company, are suspected of being in the same condition. Thus the real nature of the French economy is not entirely clear.

The French franc was merged into the euro.

The rate of unemployment, as in Germany, is worrying. Does it reflect the rigid labor laws (cost of hiring and firing) and the difficulty in expanding businesses or forming new businesses? Sarkozy has proposed the relaxation of many of these laws.

France has suffered as the rest of Europe from the financial catastrophe of 2008. Its banks have lent to the weaker countries in the euro zone, such as Portugal and Greece. If either of these default on their debts or leave the euro France itself may suffer.






France has the highest reliance on nuclear power for electricity in a program of high investment following the 1973 oil crisis. This power is believed to be more expensive than admitted in official figures.

It may lead to the bankruptcy of the state-owned electric power corporation. European Union rules on fair pricing may reveal that the electricity is being sold at below cost to other countries. However, if the current (2006) high prices of oil and gas continue, the French policy may be vindicated.






Human Rights

Western norm, except for immigrants from the Arab world and Africa.

Climate effects

The general climate tendency is likely to be towards a more arid climate, as the Sahara moves north into southern Europe. Currently (2007) there was a dry winter with implications for power generation from hydroelectricity (and for cooling the nuclear power plants, mostly reliant on river water) and for agriculture in the south of the country. In the medium term future the South is likely to get hotter and drier.

Last revised 19/10/11


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