The French Alps have been inhabited since prehistoric times. Later on, migrant tribes of Celtic, Gaulish and Teutonic origin arrived, and by the 1st century BC communities were well established, especially around the lakes of Geneva and Annecy. Soon, though, the Romans took control of the Alps, building roads through valleys and over mountain passes. The Frankish kings of the Merovingian and Carolingian empires laid the foundations for the area's distinctive dialects, traditions and cultures. By the 13th and 14th centuries, the feudal houses of Savoy, the Dauphiné and Provence were fiercely contesting the Alps. The ensuing centuries were marked by successive wars and occupations, a cycle that ended with the union of Savoy with France in 1860.

Michel-Gabriel Paccard and Jacques Balmat made the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc in 1786, and holidaymakers began to flock to the area in the late 19th century. During WWII, when German and Italian forces occupied the French Alps, the area became one of the main strongholds of the French Resistance. High-tech industry, hydroelectric energy and large-scale tourism have all contributed to the region's economic growth since the war.