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France

History

Prehistoric people

Neanderthals were the first people to live in France. Out and about during the Middle Palaeolithic period (about 90, 000–40, 000 BC), these early Homo sapiens hunted animals, made crude flake-stone tools and lived in caves. In the late 19th century Neanderthal skeletons were found in caves at Le Bugue in the Vézère Valley in Dordogne.

Cro-Magnons, a taller Homo sapiens variety who notched up 1.7m on the height chart, followed 35, 000 years ago. These people had larger brains than their ancestors, long and narrow skulls, and short, wide faces. Their hands were nimble, and with the aid of improved tools they hunted reindeer, bison, horses and mammoths to eat. They played music, danced and had fairly complex social patterns. You can view archaeological treasures from this period in Strasbourg.

Cro-Magnons were also artists. A tour of Grotte de Lascaux II – a replica of the Lascaux cave where one of the world’s best examples of Cro-Magnon drawings were found in 1940 – demonstrates how initial simplistic drawings and engravings of animals gradually became more detailed and realistic. Dubbed ‘Périgord’s Sistine Chapel’, the Lascaux cave is one of 25 known decorated caves in Dordogne’s Vézère Valley, the prehistory of which is covered in Les Eyzies de Tayac’s Musée National de Préhistoire.

The Neolithic period (about 7500 to 4000 years ago), alias the New Stone Age, produced France’s incredible collection of menhirs and dolmens: the Morbihan Coast in Brittany is an ode to megalithic monuments. During this era, warmer weather caused great changes in flora and fauna, and ushered in farming and stock rearing. Cereals, peas, beans and lentils were grown, and villages were settled. Decorated pottery, woven fabrics and polished stone tools became commonplace household items.

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Gauls & Romans

The Celtic Gauls moved into the region between 1500 and 500 BC, establishing trading links by about 600 BC with the Greeks, whose colonies included Massilia (Marseille) on the Mediterranean coast. About 300 years later the Celtic Parisii tribe built a few wattle and daub huts on what is now Paris’ Île de la Cité.

It was from Wissant in far northern France that Julius Caesar launched his invasion of Britain in 55 BC. Centuries of conflict between the Gauls and Romans ended in 52 BC when Caesar’s legions crushed a revolt led by Gallic chief Vercingétorix in Gergovia, near present-day Clermont-Ferrand. See Vercingétorix on Clermont-Ferrand’s place de la Jaude and Caesar in action on the façade of the Roman triumphal arch in Orange.

The subsequent period gave rise to magnificent baths, temples, aqueducts like the Pont du Gard and other splendid public buildings: stand like a plebeian or sit like a Roman patrician in awe-inspiring theatres and amphitheatres at Autun, Lyon, Vienne, Arles and Orange. Lyon also has an excellent Gallo-Roman civilisation museum. In the Dordogne, Périgueux’s 1st-century Roman amphitheatre was dismantled in the 3rd century and its stones used to build the city walls. The town’s stunningly contemporary Vesunna Musée Gallo-Romain is a feast tobehold.

France remained under Roman rule until the 5th century, when the Franks (hence the name ‘France’) and the Alemanii overran the country from the east. These peoples adopted important elements of Gallo-Roman civilisation (including Christianity) and their eventual assimilation resulted in a fusion of Germanic culture with that of the Celts and the Romans.

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Dynasty

The Frankish Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties ruled from the 5th to the 10th centuries, with the Carolingians wielding power from Laon in northern France. The Frankish tradition, by which the king was succeeded by all of his sons, led to power struggles and the eventual disintegration of the kingdom into a collection of small feudal states. In Poitiers in 732 Charles Martel defeated the Moors, thus preventing France from falling under Muslim rule as Spain had done.

Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne (742–814), extended the boundaries of the kingdom and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor (Emperor of the West) in 800. But during the 9th century, Scandinavian Vikings (also called Norsemen, thus Normans) raided France’s western coast, settling in the lower Seine Valley and forming the duchy of Normandy a century later.

With the crowning of Hugh Capet as king in 987, the Capetian dynasty was born. The king’s then-modest domain – a parcel of land around Paris and Orléans – was hardly indicative of a dynasty that would rule one of Europe’s most powerful countries for the next 800 years.

The tale of how 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) is told on the Bayeux Tapestry, showcased inside Bayeux’s Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. In 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine wed Henry of Anjou, bringing a further third of France under the control of the English crown. The subsequent rivalry between France and England for control of Aquitaine and the vast English territories in France lasted three centuries.

In Clermont-Ferrand in 1095 Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade, prompting France to play a leading role in the Crusades and giving rise to some splendid cathedrals – Reims, Strasbourg, Metz and Chartres among them – between the 12th and 14th centuries. In 1309 French-born Pope Clement V moved the papal headquarters from Rome to Avignon, with Avignon’s third pope Benoît XII (1334–42) starting work on the resplendent Palais des Papes. The Holy See remained in the Provençal city until 1377.

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The Hundred Years’ War

Incessant struggles between the Capetians and England’s King Edward III (a Plantagenet) over the powerful French throne degenerated into the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). 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.

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.

Luckily for the French, a 17-year-old virginal warrior called Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) came along; her tale is told at Orléans’ Maison de Jeanne d’Arc. At Château de Chinon in 1429, she persuaded French legitimist Charles VII that she had a divine mission from God to expel the English from France and bring about Charles’ coronation in Reims. Convicted of witchcraft and heresy by a tribunal of French ecclesiastics following her capture by the Burgundians and subsequent sale to the English in 1430, Joan was burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431: one tower of the castle where the teenager was imprisoned and the square where she was burned as a witch remain.

Charles VII returned to Paris in 1437, but it wasn’t until 1453 that the English were driven from French territory (with the exception of Calais). At Château de Langeais in 1491, Charles VIII wed Anne de Bretagne, marking the unification of independent Brittany with France.

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Renaissance to Reformation

With the arrival of Italian Renaissance culture during the reign of François I (r 1515–47), the focus shifted to the Loire Valley. Italian artists decorated royal castles in Amboise, Blois, Chambord and Chaumont, with Leonardo da Vinci making Le Clos Lucé in Amboise his home from 1516 until his death. Artist and architect disciples of Michelangelo and Raphael were influential, as were writers such as Rabelais, Marot and Ronsard. Renaissance ideas of scientific and geographic scholarship and discovery assumed a new importance, as did the value of secular over religious life.

The Reformation swept through Europe in the 1530s, the ideas of Jean (John) Calvin (1509–64) – a Frenchman born in Noyon (Picardie) but exiled to Geneva – strengthening it in France. Following the Edict of Jan (1562), which afforded the Protestants certain rights, the Wars of Religion (1562–98) broke out between the Huguenots (French Protestants who received help from the English), the Catholic League (led by the House of Guise) and the Catholic monarchy. In 1588 the Catholic League forced Henri III (r 1574–89) to flee the royal court at the Louvre and the next year the monarch was assassinated.

Henri IV (r 1589–1610) kicked off the Bourbon dynasty, issuing the controversial Edict of Nantes (1598) to guarantee the Huguenots many civil and political rights, notably freedom of conscience. Ultra-Catholic Paris refused to allow the new Protestant king entry to the city, and a siege of the capital continued for almost five years. Only when Henri IV embraced Catholicism at the cathedral in St-Denis did the capital submit to him.

Throughout most of his undistinguished reign, Fontainebleau-born Louis XIII (r 1610–43) remained firmly under the thumb of his ruthless chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, best known for his untiring efforts to establish an all-powerful monarchy in France and French supremacy in Europe.

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The Sun King

At the tender age of five, le Roi Soleil (the Sun King) ascended the throne as Louis XIV (r 1643–1715). Bolstered by claims of divine right, he involved France in a rash of wars that gained it territory but terrified its neighbours and nearly bankrupted the treasury. At home, he quashed the ambitious, feuding aristocracy and created the first centralised French state. In Versailles, 23km southwest of Paris, Louis XIV built an extravagant palace and made his courtiers compete with each other for royal favour, reducing them to ineffectual sycophants. In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes.

Grandson Louis XV (r 1715–74) was an oafish buffoon whose regent, the duke of Orléans, shifted the royal court back to Paris. As the 18th century progressed, the ancien régime (old order) became increasingly at odds with the needs of the country. Enlightened anti-establishment and anticlerical ideas expressed by Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu further threatened the royal regime.

The Seven Years’ War (1756–63), fought by France and Austria against Britain and Prussia, was one of a series of ruinous wars pursued by Louis XV, leading to the loss of France’s flourishing colonies in Canada, the West Indies and India to the British. The war cost a fortune and, even more ruinous for the monarchy, it helped to disseminate in France the radical democratic ideas that had been thrust onto the world stage by the American Revolution.

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Revolution to Republic

Social and economic crises marked the 18th century. With the aim of warding off popular discontent, Louis XVI called a meeting of the États Généraux (Estates General) in 1789, made up of representatives of the nobility (First Estate), clergy (Second Estate) and the remaining 90% of the population (Third Estate). When the Third Estate’s call for a system of proportional voting failed, it proclaimed itself a National Assembly and demanded a constitution. On the streets, a Parisian mob took the matter into its own hands by raiding the Invalides for weapons and storming the prison at Bastille (now a very busy roundabout). Said to be something of a clueless idiot, Louis XVI is reckoned to have written ‘rien’ (nothing happened) in his diary that day.

France was declared a constitutional monarchy and reforms enacted. But as the new government armed itself against the threat posed by Austria, Prussia and the many exiled French nobles, patriotism and nationalism mixed with revolutionary fervour. Before long, 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 the head of his queen, the vilified Marie-Antoinette, rolled several months later.

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

Afterwards, a five-man delegation of moderate republicans led by Paul Barras set itself up as a Directoire (Directory) to rule the Republic – until a dashing young Corsican general named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) came along.

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Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte’s skills and military tactics quickly turned him into an independent political force and in 1799 he overthrew the Directory and assumed power as consul of the First Empire. A referendum in 1802 declared him consul 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. Two years on he commissioned the world’s largest triumphal arch to be built.

To consolidate and legitimise his authority, Napoleon waged several wars in which France gained control of most of Europe. In 1812 his troops captured Moscow, only to be killed off by the brutal Russian winter. Two years later, Allied armies entered Paris, exiled Napoleon to Elba and restored the House of Bourbon to the French throne at the Congress of Vienna (1814–15).

But in 1815 Napoleon escaped from the Mediterranean island-kingdom, landed at Golfe Juan in southern France and marched north, triumphantly entering Paris on 20 May. His glorious ‘Hundred Days’ back in power ended with the Battle of Waterloo and his return to exile (to the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in 1821). In 1840 his remains were moved to Paris’ Église du Dôme.

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Second Republic to Second Empire

A struggle between extreme monarchists seeking a return to the ancien régime, people who saw the changes wrought by the Revolution as irreversible, and the radicals of the poor working-class neighbourhoods of Paris dominated the reign of Louis XVIII (r 1815–24). Charles X (r 1824–30) responded to the conflict with ineptitude and was overthrown in the so-called July Revolution of 1830. Those who were killed in the accompanying Paris street battles are buried in vaults under the Colonne de Juillet in the centre of place de la Bastille.

Louis-Philippe (r 1830–48), a constitutional monarch of bourgeois sympathies, was subsequently chosen as ruler by parliament, only to be ousted by the 1848 Revolution. The Second Republic was established and elections brought in Napoleon’s almost useless nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, as president. But in 1851 Louis Napoleon led a coup d’état and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire (1852–70).

France enjoyed significant economic growth at this time. Paris was transformed under urban planner Baron Haussmann (1809–91), who created the 12 huge boulevards radiating from the Arc de Triomphe. Napoleon III threw glittering parties at the royal palace in Compiègne, and breathed in fashionable sea air at Biarritz and Deauville.

Like his uncle, Napoleon III embroiled France in various catastrophic conflicts, including the Crimean War (1853–56) and the humiliating Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which ended with Prussia taking the emperor prisoner. Upon hearing the news, defiant and very hungry Parisian masses took to the streets demanding a republic. The Wall of the Federalists in Paris’ Cimetière du Père Lachaise serves as a deathly reminder of the subsequent bloodshed.

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A beautiful age

There was nothing beautiful about the start of the Third Republic. Born as a provisional government of national defence in September 1870, it was quickly besieged by the Prussians who laid siege to Paris and demanded National Assembly elections be held. Unfortunately, the first move made by the resultant monarchist-controlled assembly was to ratify the Treaty of Frankfurt (1871), the harsh terms of which – a five-billion-franc war indemnity and surrender of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine – prompted immediate revolt. During the Semaine Sanglante (Bloody Week), several thousand rebel Communards (supporters of the hard-core insurgent Paris Commune) were killed and a further 20, 000 or so executed.

Despite this bloody start, the Third Republic ushered in the glittering belle époque (beautiful age), with Art Nouveau architecture, a whole field of artistic ‘isms’ from impressionism onwards, and advances in science and engineering, including the construction of the first metro line in Paris. World Exhibitions were held in the capital in 1889 (showcased by the Eiffel Tower) and again in 1901 in the purpose-built Petit Palais. Bohemian Paris, with its nightclubs and artistic cafés, was conceived around this time.

Colonial rivalry between France and Britain in Africa ended in 1904 with the Entente Cordiale (literally ‘Cordial Understanding’), marking the start of a cooperation that has continued, more or less, to this day.

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The Great War

A trip to the Somme or Verdun battlefields goes some way to revealing the unimaginable human cost of WWI. Of the eight million French men called to arms, 1.3 million were killed and almost one million crippled. Much of the war took place in northeastern France, with trench warfare using thousands of soldiers as cannon fodder to gain a few metres of territory.

Central to France’s entry into war against Austria-Hungary and Germany had been its desire to regain Alsace and Lorraine, lost to Germany in 1871. The Great War officially ended in November 1918 with Germany and the Allies signing an armistice in a clearing near Compiègne. But the details were not finalised until 1919 when the so-called ‘big four’ – French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, British Prime Minister Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando and US President Woodrow Wilson – gathered in the Palace of Versailles to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Its harsh terms included the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France and a reparations bill of US$33 billion for Germany.

WWI caused industrial production to drop by 40% and threw France into financial crisis. Yet somehow Paris still sparkled as the centre of the avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s, with artists pushing into the new fields of cubism and surrealism, Le Corbusier rewriting the architectural textbook, foreign writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald being attracted by the liberal atmosphere of Paris, and nightlife establishing a cutting-edge reputation for everything from jazz to striptease. In 1922 the luxurious Train Bleu (Blue Train) made its first run from Calais, via Paris, to the Côte d’Azur.

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WWII

The naming of Adolf Hitler as Germany’s chancellor in 1933 signalled the end of a decade of compromise between France and Germany. Initially the French tried to appease Hitler, but two days after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, France joined Britain in declaring war on Germany.

By June 1940 France had capitulated. The British expeditionary force sent to help the French barely managed to avoid capture by retreating to Dunkirk and crossing the English Channel in small boats. The Maginot Line had proved useless, with German armoured divisions outflanking it by going through Belgium.

Germany divided France into a zone under direct German occupation (in the north and along the western coast) and a puppet state led by ageing WWI hero General Pétain in the spa town of Vichy; the demarcation line between the two ran through Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Life in the Nazi-occupied north is examined at La Coupole, a WWII museum inside a subterranean Nazi-built rocket-launch site.

The Vichy regime was viciously anti-Semitic, and local police proved very helpful to the Nazis in rounding up French Jews and others for deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps. Museums in Grenoble and Lyon, among others, examine these deportations. The only Nazi concentration camp on French soil was Natzweiler-Struthof; it can be visited.

An 80km-long stretch of beach and Bayeux’s Musée Mémorial 1944 Bataille de Normandie tell the tale of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 when 100, 000-plus Allied troops stormed the coastline to liberate most of Normandy and Brittany. Paris was liberated on 25 August by a force spearheaded by Free French units, sent in ahead of the Americans, so the French would have the honour of liberating their own capital.

The US general’s war room in Reims, where Nazi Germany officially capitulated in May 1945, is open to the public.

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Postwar devastation

France was ruined. Over one-third of industrial production fed the German war machine during WWII, the occupiers requisitioning practically everything that wasn’t (and was) nailed down: ferrous and nonferrous metals, statues, iron grills, zinc bar tops, coal, leather, textiles and chemicals. Agriculture, strangled by the lack of raw materials, fell by 25%.

In their retreat, the Germans burned bridges (2600 destroyed) and the Allied bombardments tore up railroad tracks (40, 000km). The roadways hadn’t been maintained since 1939, ports were damaged, and nearly half a million buildings and 60, 000 factories were destroyed. The French had to pay for the needs of the occupying soldiers to the tune of 400 million francs a day, prompting an inflation riptide.

France’s humiliation at the hands of the Germans was not lost on its restive colonies. As the war economy tightened its grip, the native-born people, poorer to begin with, noticed that they were bearing the brunt of the pain. In North Africa, the Algerians coalesced around a movement for greater autonomy that blossomed into a full-scale independence movement by the end of the war. The Japanese moved into strategically important Indochina in 1940. The Vietnamese resistance movement that developed quickly took on an anti-French, nationalistic tone, setting the stage for Vietnam’s eventual independence.

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The Fourth Republic & post-war prosperity

After the liberation, General Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) – France’s undersecretary of war who had fled Paris for London in 1940 after France capitulated – faced the tricky task of setting up a viable government. Elections on 21 October 1945 created a national assembly composed largely of pro-resistant communists. De Gaulle was appointed head of the government, but quickly sensed that the tide was turning against his idea of a strong presidency and in January 1946 he resigned.

The magnitude of France’s post-war economic devastation required a strong central government with broad powers to rebuild its industrial and commercial base. Soon after the liberation, most banks, insurance companies, car manufacturers and energy-producing companies passed into the hands of the government. Other businesses remained in private hands, the objective being to combine the efficiency of state planning with the dynamism of private initiative. But progress was slow. By 1947 rationing remained and France was forced to turn to the USA for loans as part of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe.

One of the aims of the Marshall Plan was to financially and politically stabilise post-war Europe, thus thwarting the expansion of Soviet power. As the Iron Curtain fell over Eastern Europe, the pro-Stalinist bent of the Communist Party put it in a politically untenable position. Seeking at once to exercise power within the government and at the same time oppose its measures as insufficiently Marxist, the communists found themselves on the losing end of disputes involving the colonies, workers’ demands and American aid. In 1947 they were booted out of government.

While the Communist Party fulminated against the ‘imperialism’ of American power, de Gaulle founded a new party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Français (RPF), which argued for the containment of Soviet power. In 1949 France signed the Atlantic Pact uniting North America and Western Europe in a mutual defence alliance (NATO). The fear of communism and a resurgent Germany prompted the first steps towards European integration with the birth of the Council of Europe in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and military accords in 1954.

The economy gathered steam in the 1950s. The French government invested in hydroelectric and nuclear power plants, oil and gas explor­ation, petrochemical refineries, steel production, naval construction, auto factories, and building construction to accommodate a baby boom and consumer goods.

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War in the colonies

The 1950s spelled the end of French colonialism. When Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, nationalist Ho Chi Minh launched a push for an autonomous Vietnam that became a drive for independence. Under the brilliant General Giap, the Vietnamese perfected a form of guerrilla warfare that proved highly effective against the French army. After their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French withdrew from Indochina.

The struggle for Algerian independence was nastier. Technically a French département, Algeria was in effect ruled by a million or so French settlers who wished at all costs to protect their privileges. Heads stuck firmly in the Saharan sands (especially in the south where the oil was), the colonial community and their supporters in the army and the right wing refused all Algerian demands for political and economic equality.

The Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) was brutal. Nationalist rebel attacks were met with summary executions, inquisitions, torture and massacres that only made Algerians more determined to gain their independence. The government responded with half-hearted reform and reorganisation programmes that failed to address the fact that most people didn’t want to be part of France.

International pressure on France to pull out of Algeria came from the UN, the USSR and the USA, while pieds noirs (literally ‘black feet’, as Algerian-born French people are known in France), elements of the military and extreme right-wingers became increasingly enraged at what they saw as defeatism in dealing with the problem. A plot to overthrow the French government and replace it with a military-style regime was narrowly avoided when de Gaulle agreed to assume the presidency in 1958.

The Fifth Republic & Yesterday’s Man

While it could claim to have successfully reconstructed the economy and created political stability, the Fourth Republic was hampered by a weak presidential branch and the debilitating situation in Algeria. De Gaulle remedied the first problem by drafting a new constitution (the Fifth Republic), which gave considerable powers to the president at the expense of the National Assembly.

Algeria was a greater problem. De Gaulle’s initial attempts at reform – according the Algerians political equality and recognising their right in principle to self-determination – only infuriated right-wingers without quenching the Algerian thirst for independence. Following a failed coup attempt by military officers in 1961, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS; a group of French settlers and sympathisers opposed to Algerian independence) resorted to terrorism. It tried to assassinate de Gaulle several times and in 1961 violence broke out on the streets of Paris. Police violently attacked Algerian demonstrators, murdering more than 100 people. In 1962 de Gaulle negotiated an end to war in Algeria with the lakeside signing of the Accord d’Évian (Evian Accord) in Évian-les-Bains.

By the late 1960s de Gaulle was appearing more and more like yesterday’s man. Loss of the colonies, a surge in immigration and the rise in unemployment had weakened his government. De Gaulle’s government by decree was starting to gall the anti-authoritarian baby-boomer generation, now at university and agitating for social change. Students reading Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich found much to admire in Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the black struggle for civil rights in America, and vociferously denounced the American war in Vietnam.

Student protests of 1968 climaxed with a brutal overreaction by police to a protest meeting at Paris’ most renowned university. Overnight, public opinion turned in favour of the students, while the students themselves occupied the Sorbonne and erected barricades in the Latin Quarter. Within days, a general strike by 10 million workers countrywide paralysed France.

But such comradeship between worker and student did not last long. While the former wanted a greater share of the consumer market, the latter wanted to destroy it. After much hesitancy, de Gaulle took advantage of this division by appealing to people’s fear of anarchy. Just as the country seemed on the brink of revolution and an overthrow of the Fifth Republic, stability returned. The government immediately decentralised the higher education system and followed through in the 1970s with a wave of other reforms (lowering the voting age to 18, instituting an abortion law and so on). De Gaulle meanwhile resigned from office in 1969 after losing an important referendum on regionalisation and suffered a fatal heart attack the following year.

France has maintained an independent arsenal of nuclear weapons since 1960. It withdrew from NATO’s joint military command in 1966.

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Pompidou to Le Pen

Georges Pompidou (1911–74), prime minister under de Gaulle, stepped onto the presidential podium in 1969. Despite embarking on an ambitious modernisation programme, investing in aerospace, telecommunications and nuclear power, he failed to stave off inflation and social unrest following the global oil crisis of 1973.

In 1974 Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (b 1926) inherited a deteriorating economic climate and sharp divisions between the left and right. Hampered by a lack of media nous and an arrogant demeanour, d’Estaing proved unpopular. His friendship with emperor and accused child-eater Jean Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic did little to win him friends and in 1981 he was ousted by longtime head of the Parti Socialiste (PS; Socialist Party), François Mitterrand (1916–96). As the only surviving French president to remain in politics, the French media have nicknamed d’Estaing l’Ex (the Ex).

Despite France’s first socialist president instantly alienating the business community (the Paris stock market index fell by 30% on news of his victory) by setting out to nationalise 36 privately owned banks, industrial groups and other parts of the economy, Mitterrand did give France a sparkle. The Minitel – a potent symbol of France’s advanced technological savvy – was launched in 1980 and a clutch of grands projets were embarked upon in the French capital. The death penalty was abolished, homosexuality was legalised, a 39-hour work week was instituted, annual holiday time was upped from four to five weeks and the right to retire at 60 was guaranteed.

Yet by 1986 the economy was weakening and in parliamentary elections that year the right-wing opposition, led by Jacques Chirac (Paris mayor since 1977), won a majority in the National Assembly. For the next two years Mitterrand worked with a prime minister and cabinet from the opposition, an unprecedented arrangement known as cohabitation. The extreme-right Front National (FN; National Front) meanwhile quietly gained ground by loudly blaming France’s economic woes on immigration.

Presidential elections in 1995 ushered Chirac (an ailing Mitterrand did not run) into the Élysée Palace, the former mayor winning immediate popular acclaim for his direct words and actions in matters relating to the EU and the war raging in Bosnia. Whiz-kid foreign minister Alain Juppé was appointed prime minister and several women were placed in top cabinet positions. However, Chirac’s attempts to reform France’s colossal public sector in order to meet the criteria of European Monetary Union (EMU) were met with the largest protests since 1968, and his decision to resume nuclear testing on the Polynesian island of Moruroa and a nearby atoll was the focus of worldwide outrage (France didn’t sign the worldwide test-ban treaty until 1998).

Always the maverick, Chirac called early parliamentary elections in 1997 – only for his party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR; Rally for the Republic), to lose out to a coalition of socialists, communists and greens. Another period of cohabitation ensued, this time with Chirac on the other side.

Presidential elections in 2002 were a shocker. Not only did the first round of voting see left-wing PS leader Lionel Jospin eliminated, it also saw the FN’s racist demagogue Jean-Marie Le Pen (b 1928) – legendary for his dismissal of the Holocaust as a ‘mere detail of history’ in the 1980s and his ‘inequality of races’ jargon in the late 1990s – scoop 17% of the national vote. In the fortnight preceding the subsequent run-off ballot, demonstrators took to the streets with cries of ‘Vote for the crook, not the fascist’ (‘crook’ referring to the various party financing scandals floating around Chirac). On the big day itself, left-wing voters – without a candidate of their own – hedged their bets with ‘lesser-of-two-evils’ Chirac to give him 82% of votes. Chirac’s landslide victory was echoed in parliamentary elections a month later when the president-backed co­alition UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire) won 354 of the 577 parliamentary seats, ending years of cohabitation and leaving Le Pen’s FN seatless. Subsequent claims of nepotism in response to Le Pen trying to automatically pass the party leadership to his look-alike daughter, Marine, only weakened the party further.

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Power to the people

France’s outright opposition to the US-led war in Iraq in 2003 stirred up anti-French sentiment among Americans: many restaurants in the US changed ‘French fries’ to ‘freedom fries’ on their menus, to avoid having to mention the unspeakable, while US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly dismissed France (along with Germany) as ‘old Europe’.

Old Europe indeed – in need of a shake-up: in November 2002 widespread strikes brought France to a standstill as public-sector workers hit out at the government’s ambitious privatisation plans aimed at raising cash to reduce an increasingly too-high budget deficit. A few months later, in a bid to appease a discontented electorate, parliament granted greater power to local government on economic and cultural affairs, transport and further education. The constitutional reform also gave the green light to local referenda – to better hear what the people on the street were saying (though the first referendum subsequently held – in Corsica – threw up a ‘No’ vote, putting Paris back at square one).

Spring 2003 ushered in yet more national strikes, this time over the government’s proposed pension reform, which was pushed through parliament in July. ‘We are not going to be intimidated by protestors’ was the tough response of centre-right Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, in office since May 2002. An extreme heatwave that summer, sending temperatures in the capital soaring above 40° and claiming 11, 000 predominantly elderly lives, did little to cool rising temperatures.

More cracks appeared in France’s assured countenance and silky-smooth veneer during 2004. Regional elections in March saw Chirac’s centre-right UMP party sent to the slaughterhouse by the socialists; European elections two months later were equally disastrous. Strikes against various pension, labour and welfare reforms proposed by the government continued and in May 2005 the voice of protest was injected with a new lease of life thanks to French voters’ shock rejection of the proposed EU constitution in a referendum. It was no coincidence that the constitution was something Chirac had fervently backed: the overriding message behind the humiliating ‘No’ vote was loud and clear – We are fed up with you. Do something!

What Chirac did was to sack his hugely unpopular punchbag of a prime minister, Raffarin, take his own foot off the reform pedal and knuckle down to some serious people-sweetening amid calls in some circles that he should resign. In the face of a five-year high in unemployment (10.2%) and an increasingly sluggish economy (GDP grew by just 1.4% in 2005 compared to 2.1% in 2004), the newly appointed prime minister – the silver-haired and -tongued career diplomat Dominique de Villepin (b 1953) who was best known as foreign minister during the Iraq invasion – assumed the gargantuan task of turning around disgruntled public opinion.

The last quarter of 2005 was the final helter-skelter downhill. The catalyst was the death of two teenagers of North African origin in October who, apparently running from police, were electrocuted while hiding in an electricity substation in a northeast Paris suburb. Rioting immediately broke out in the poor, predominantly immigrant neighbourhood and spread like wild fire. Within days, the violence was countrywide as rioters burnt cars, hurled petrol bombs, smashed windows, looted shops and vented months of pent-up anger. Two weeks later the government introduced emergency measures restricting people’s movements and imposing curfews in 30 French towns and cities as part of its tough zero-tolerance policy on the urban chaos. Nine thousand burnt cars and buildings later, as peace returned, Chirac assured France there would be no more urban violence and steps would be made to create equal opportunities for immigrants and better opportunities for its youth. Little did he realise how loaded with irony this pledge would prove.

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The fifth republic & yesterday's man

While it could claim to have successfully reconstructed the economy and created political stability, the Fourth Republic was hampered by a weak presidential branch and the debilitating situation in Algeria. De Gaulle remedied the first problem by drafting a new constitution (the Fifth Republic), which gave considerable powers to the president at the expense of the National Assembly.

Algeria was a greater problem. De Gaulle’s initial attempts at reform – according the Algerians political equality and recognising their right in principle to self-determination – only infuriated right-wingers without quenching the Algerian thirst for independence. Following a failed coup attempt by military officers in 1961, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS; a group of French settlers and sympathisers opposed to Algerian independence) resorted to terrorism. It tried to assassinate de Gaulle several times and in 1961 violence broke out on the streets of Paris. Police violently attacked Algerian demonstrators, murdering more than 100 people. In 1962 de Gaulle negotiated an end to war in Algeria with the lakeside signing of the Accord d’Évian (Evian Accord) in Évian-les-Bains.

By the late 1960s de Gaulle was appearing more and more like yesterday’s man. Loss of the colonies, a surge in immigration and the rise in unemployment had weakened his government. De Gaulle’s government by decree was starting to gall the anti-authoritarian baby-boomer generation, now at university and agitating for social change. Students reading Herbert Marcuse and Wilhelm Reich found much to admire in Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the black struggle for civil rights in America, and vociferously denounced the American war in Vietnam.

Student protests of 1968 climaxed with a brutal overreaction by police to a protest meeting at Paris’ most renowned university. Overnight, public opinion turned in favour of the students, while the students themselves occupied the Sorbonne and erected barricades in the Latin Quarter. Within days, a general strike by 10 million workers countrywide paralysed France.

But such comradeship between worker and student did not last long. While the former wanted a greater share of the consumer market, the latter wanted to destroy it. After much hesitancy, de Gaulle took advantage of this division by appealing to people’s fear of anarchy. Just as the country seemed on the brink of revolution and an overthrow of the Fifth Republic, stability returned. The government immediately decentralised the higher education system and followed through in the 1970s with a wave of other reforms (lowering the voting age to 18, instituting an abortion law and so on). De Gaulle meanwhile resigned from office in 1969 after losing an important referendum on regionalisation and suffered a fatal heart attack the following year.

France has maintained an independent arsenal of nuclear weapons since 1960. It withdrew from NATO’s joint military command in 1966.

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