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The nation of France has been a key global power, by virtue of its size and the diversity of its terrain and resources, which allowed it a vast supply of manpower in Europe.

The first people to settle modern France were Gauls, a warlike tribe that came into conflict with the Romans as they expanded into Europe from the Caucasus and defeated and absorbed by the same in 52 BCE. Gallo-Roman society would for a nucleus for statehood which the Franks, a Germanic tribe, would inherit to create a modern state n the Middle Ages.  From the conclusion of the Middle Ages until the Second World War, France would be a major power in Western Europe, and a major political and cultural force in the shaping of the modern world as we know it today by sheer size and population alone.

Celtic France (c. 1200 BCE - 48 BCE)Edit

Although the presence of modern humans in France from as early as the Ice Age can be attested to by various artifacts and relics including the remarkable cave art of Lascaux, the nucleus for a modern French state did not emerge until the arrival of the Gauls, a collection of Celtic tribes who settled present-day France from east of the Rhine in 900 BCE. "The Gauls" were actually the Roman name for the Celtic tribes that inhabited the areas now known as France. They moved into the area from east of the Rhine in 900 BCE and by 500 BCE established a distinct and uniform Gallic culture. They were also introduced to Greek culture through contact along the Mediterranean coast during this time. They eventually came into conflict with the Romans, and managed to sack Rome in 390 BCE.

The one Gallic tribe to dominate present-day France was the Arverni, who enacted limited wars to secure compliance from neighbours and by this manner they managed to create a confederacy, with the Arverni being the lead powermongers. At their height in the 2nd century BCE, the Arverni Confederacy extended its influence well across the territory of present-day France, and was rightfully feared by even the Belgae, whom the Romans would label as the fiercest of all Gallic tribes in Western Europe. War brought greath wealth, secured through tribute, or by controlling the routes to trade with the Greeks, Carthaginians and later the Romans. The Averni were also master craftsmen specialised in ceramics. It is said there was no home in Gaul which did not have Arverni pottery, as so great was their reputation for making pots. Gergovia, the Arverni capital, is now believed to have been home to the greatest kilns in Gaul, in terms in quality and sheer numbers.

This, combined with Arverni control of the northern trade routes, made them very wealthy and powerful — at their height, the warriors of the Averni had the best weapons and armour in all of Gaul, while their nobles could also import Greek-produced luxury goods. Greek sources state that the Verrix Luernos was clothed in a brocaded robe during a visit to Massilia.

Foundations of Roman culture in France (48BCE-500CE)Edit

However, Rome managed to contain them as their warlike society often put them at odds with other Gallic tribes as much as they did with Rome. Eventually Imperial Rome conquered the area inhabited by the Gauls through the Gallic Wars (58 BCE to 41 BCE) and incorporated them into Roman provinces.

In 122BCE, consul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (an exceptionally common name for a consul) raised an army and marched to Massalia. The Saluvian chiefs fled to the Allobroges, so Bituitos sent envoys to Ahenobarbus to try and negotiate a peace treaty - but Ahenobarbus, intent on the glory through military conquest so overvalued by the Romans, refused to negotiate on the grounds that the Arverni were rivals of the Aedui, a Roman-affiliated tribe. As a result, the Arverni themselves were nearly wiped out by the Romans, and the kingship lost its religious significance and was abolished. Gaul soon afterwards broke once more into chaos, the fragile unity brought by Averni military supremacy now shattered.

Nevertheless, the Arverni soon recovered and with the help of the Sequani, began to challenge the power of the Roman backed Aedui. But even so the Arverni still suffered heavily, and they appeared to be losing the war. When the Sequani proposed inviting the Suebi to help them the chief of the Arverni, Celtillus, was vehement in his opposition. The Arverni and the Suebi hated each other, and Celtillus did not want their help. Nevertheless the Sequani invited them anyway, and brought disaster on themselves when the Suebi turned on the hand that paid them. Nevertheless, with the Aedui all but wiped out, and the Sequani beaten, the Arverni stood a good chance of regaining their former power. Celtillus began to develop dreams of grandeur, if he had not already, believing the path open to revive the office of Verrix. Thus he set out to unite Gaul. But his dreams were all cut short when his nobility assassinated him out of fear what a united Gaul would bring on them. 

The sudden rise of the Suebi raised fears of another mass migration of Celts into Italy, and so the consul Julius Caesar was sent to Gaul to forestall any sudden advances into the Italian peninsula. Caesar also wanted to invade Gaul, because he was heavily in debt and needed loot to pay off his creditors. His eventful journey north culminated in the Battle of Bibracte, which secured for Caesar two important elements for his continued campaign - local allies, headed by the Aedui, as well as a supply base for his troops. At first it was not clear who would win — both sides faced problems with logistics and treachery from their Celtic allies, but the Gallic Wars were settled once and for all with the Battle of Alesia.in 52BCE. The Arverni king, Vercingetorix, foolishly chose to station his army at the Gallic dun of Alesia which while highly defensible, couldn't supply all his army at once. Caesar immediately lay siege to the fortress, and beat back many counterattacks and breakout attempts, eventually forcing Vercingetorix to surrender.

With Vercingetorix' surrender and eventual murder in Rome, all significant resistance to Roman rule collapsed, but it did not end with the extinction of the Gauls - many of them soon found new lives as auxiliae in the Roman army. In 48 CE, the Roman Emperor Claudius began admitting Gallic nobles into the Roman senate. He encouraged the Gauls into Emperor-worship, and in turn incorporated Celtic pagan beliefs into Roman religion.

The Dark Ages (500CE-1300)Edit

By the end of the 5th century, a new wave of Germanic tribes including the Vandals, Visigoths, Alamani, Burgundians and the Franks wrested control of Gaul from the Romans. One of the Frankish tribes, the Merovingians, however managed to unify the Franks and eventually conquered most of Gaul. This established what is now known as the Merovingian dynasty. After the adoption of Christianity, the Frankish Empire reached its zenith under the rule of Charlemagne (768–814). He established the Carolingian dynasty and formed what was called the Holy Roman Empire, after wars with the Saxons to the East, Saracens to the south across the sea, and the Moors in southern Spain.

The story of the Holy Roman Empire begins when the Franks, a Germanic tribe, settled in Gaul (France) and conquered the other tribes in Northwestern Europe, establishing the Merovingian Dynasty from 500 to 751. It is during this time that the Germans adopted Christianity. The Frankish Kingdom continued to expand gaining more power, reaching its zenith under the rule of Charlemagne (768-814). He established the Carolingian dynasty and formed what was called the Holy Roman Empire, spanning territory from the Spanish marches into central Germany and south into the Northern half of Italy.

After Charlemagne's death the Empire broke up into three parts: the West Franks, which became France; the East Franks, which became Germany; and the Middle Kingdom which was the territory between the two. However, pressures from invading Vikings and Magyars caused the Eastern Frankish Kingdom to break up into a number of small kingdoms and city-states. These polities were loosely affiliated and elected a King, Conrad I (911-918) from the Duchy of Saxony. He established the Saxon dynasty and his grandson Otto I the Great managed to halt the Magyars westward expansion and even absorbed the Middle Kingdom.

He then took the title Holy Roman Emperor. However this move also caused the German Kings, who were still elected by the nobility, to spend too much involved with Italian politics and to neglect the governing of Germany itself. The Saxon dynasty ended in 1024 and power passed to a Frankish tribe, who established the Salian dynasty (1024-1125) This period saw the various duchies grow in power and a breakdown in relationship between the King and the Church, which further weakened an already ineffectual monarchy.

Unfortunately, Charlemagne's strong and wise rule, which saw the invention of lower-case letters to increase literacy, and the beginning of a jury system and responsible government did not last. His feuding descendants eventually broke the Empire apart, and so by the middle of the 9th century the Holy Roman Empire was divided into several kingdoms; most notable were that of Western Francia and the various German Duchies of Eastern Francia. This was the birth of modern France.

Through the Middle Ages, France participated in the numerous Christian Crusades (from 1096 to 1291) against the Islamic empires in the Middle East. It also saw the establishment of the order of the Templar Knights in 1119. While these enterprises failed in the goal of taking control of the Holy lands from the Muslims, they did achieve a sense of worldliness in the minds of the European kingdoms.

The Forge of War: Disunion and Unification (1300-1555)Edit

Despite all these feats, however, France remained a disunited nation well into the 17th century. Although Charlemagne attempted to create a single unified trans-European imperium, geographic and economic concerns would doom that vision, and by the onset of the 10th century AD, Western Francia was as good as separate from the rest of the Empire, which would remain a going concern dubbed the so-called "Holy Roman Empire". Western Francia in turn was not united, her nobles having their own projects. With vast amounts of arable land and Frankish feudal customs, the military aristocracy was highly independent and were not merely content to remain vassals of their kings, and some of these warlords even founded their own dynasties in other nations. The lords of Anjou, Normandy, and Burgundy were responsible for the conquest and creation of new nations and kingdoms stretching from Ireland and Iberia all the way to Greece and the Middle East.

The seeds for unification as a single nation, culminating in the centralising influences of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire, were not sown by the French themselves, but by the English. For many centuries, the king of France had to compete for power with the lords of Normandy and Anjou (by the mid-12th century, Anjou could claim to rule more land than Paris did, comprising of present-day England, Ireland and western France), and although Phillipe II Auguste would reduce English prossessions in France and foil Imperial designs on his demesnes in the 13th century, it would not be until the close of Hundred Years' War of 1337–1453 that a French national identity could be established. In the late Mediaeval period, France became embroiled in a series of regional and dynastic conflicts with England. French forces were met with sounding defeats at the hands of the English at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, cementing English control over the north and west, then again at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. English claims to the French throne looked all but assured.

Yet, in these dark moments, there were two events that were going to change it all — France was inspired by the patriotism of a certain Jeanne, nicknamed "La Pucelle" but better known to the English-speaking world as Joan of Arc. Despite being a woman, Jeanne lead the Dauphin and his army through a series of rapid victories, before being betrayed by jealous nobles to the English and sent to burn at the stake at Rouen in 1431. The battle of Chastillon was the last battle fought on French soil in the war and the first major conflict involving widespread use of gunpowder artillery, and resulted in the French crown retaking almost all of the territories lost to the English. The then Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of all France. This has instilled a sense of intense patriotism in France against foreign incursions since then, and in subsequent centuries would lay down the cornerstones of France's national identity and aspirations — during the Second World War, the so-called "Cross of Lorraine", a symbol associated with Joan of Arc was used as a rallying symbol for the so-called Free French forces fighting against Nazi German occupation of their nation.

The Rise of Kings (1555-1640)Edit

For two centuries after final victory over the English at Castillon, the kings of France would strive to obtain supremacy and dominance of Europe, first by attempting to influence the Italian city-states, and then by political intervention in Spain and Germany. Countless wars with the British, the heirs of the English, would eventually sap the kingdom of its vitality and lead to its rulers' downfall in the French revolution, but the French nation would eventually rise up stronger again, with French schools and industry paving the way for scientific and cultural progress well until the First World War.

Although the French had managed to regain possession of nearly all of France at the close of the 15th century from the English, conditions at home could only be best as described as far from satisfactory. In an Europe dominated by the Habsburgs in Iberia on the Atlantic and Central Europe, France was a nation being torn apart by religious-related unrest, an extremely inefficient military, and economic ruin. France was plagued by financial difficulties. Taxes were an especially difficult task for the government. Taxes were actually collected by citizens, called "tax farmers", who would pay for their job as tax farmer, and were hired to collect the taxes for the government. Multiple taxes (much like those levied on the American colonials in the 1770s) had to be levied to gather sufficient revenue for the operation and maintenance of the Empire. Wars in Italy and Germany did naught but bleed the French economy dry. The upper middle-class citizens helped raise large sums of money to aid the King and his wars, of course, they paid little or nothing in taxes to the Crown for their support. The Reformation also did nothing to ease the pressure on France. By the 1530s, the ideas of John Calvin took hold of many of the lower class people in France. Huguenotism began, that is, French Calvinism. The tension between the Huguenots and Roman Catholics continued to mount until it erupted in March of 1562, when a congregation of Huguenots was slaughtered at Vassy, ushering in the Wars of Religion between the French Protestants and French Catholics. It was only with great difficulty and great cost of life that these wars could be brought to an end, and it would take a man of great skill and luck to do so: Cardinal Richelieu.

From a family of five, Richelieu rose in the ranks of the clergy to become bishop at age twenty-two and was made Cardinal in 1619. Richelieu was not merely active as a religious figure: Louis XIII, King of France (1610-1643) made him the "first minister", one of the most powerful posts in France. One of the first moves of Richelieu was to suppress the nobles who staged several revolts between 1625 and 1627. He then went on and crushed Huguenot military forts, thus ending any military threat from within. Richelieu helped direct the construction of a better French navy and continued colonial expansion for France in the Americas and Indies. France became involved in the War of Mantuan Succession and the Thirty Years' War during this time. These conflicts ended in favorable terms for France. He had helped shape France for the better during his career. His passing away in 1642 left another cardinal, Jules Mazarin, to take over the helm of the state, now fairly stable, with all power centralised in Paris.

The Sun King: Golden Twilight of the Monarchy (1640-1780)Edit

Louis XIV, the Sun King, is one of France's most celebrated leaders. His extremely lengthy rule, 1643-1715, is the longest in French history. In an effort to unify and rally an already fragmented and politically instable nation, Louis established a High Council of ministers who helped him rule the nation with efficiency. The Sun King stepped up efforts to eradicate and hinder Protestantism and various religious organisations outside of the Roman Catholic faith. He ordered the construction of Versailles, the vast palace that is a hallmark of French history.

It cannot be said however that the Sun King did it all alone. His Minister of War, Louvois, helped reorganise and bring the French army up from a small sixteenth century force, to a national army of fully four hundred thousand troops. This new army set out to enlarge France's "natural frontiers" (the Rhine, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Alps, Pyrenees, and the English Channel) via war with the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs. Although initially successful, France's fortunes nosedived when it entered the War of the Grand Alliance in 1688 by invading Germany. This invasion backfired as the whole of Europe suddenly turned on Louis and although the French won several victories, they were unable to make anything of them. By 1697, a movement for peace was made and accepted. It proved, short-lived however.

Another war provided a means to extend French influence. In 1700, the War of the Spanish Succession broke out as Charles II died heirless and left the throne to the ascension of Philip (V), Louis XIV's grandson. The English, Dutch, Austrians and some German states signed an alliance in 1701 to oppose Philip V and the ambitions of Louis. The armies of France were repeatedly defeated in all the theaters of the conflict, the Rhine, Italy, the Lower Counties. The ambitions of the new Emperor Charles of Austria and the Holy Roman Empire, however, frightened Britain, and so the House of Bourbon was allowed to be established in Spain under Philip V and peace was concluded in 1713 and 1714. The emerging power of Britain over Continental affairs and the gradual decline of the Spanish and French colonial empires was becoming apparent.

In 1715, Louis XIV passed away. His successor, Louis XV was not the great man his grandfather Louis XIV had been. During his reign, (1715–1774), France became involved in increasingly unsuccessful military campaigns in both the Old World and the New World. Although France still had the largest army and population in Europe, she was starting to totter, from the inside and with the Sevenh Years' War was shorn of all of her North American possessions.

The French Revolutions and the Napoleons (1780-1848)Edit

The next king to ascend the throne was Louis XVI. The first international event to affect his reign was the conflict that began in the Thirteen British Colonies. It was to France's great delight to see the American colonies rebel from the British crown, yet the success France achieved from this campaign could only be best described as a Pyrrhic victory.

As the 1780s rolled on, trouble began to brew in France. The eve of arguably the most earth-shaking event in history had dawned. The aristocrats continued playing their power cards during the 1780s, hindering the monarchy and the already weakening government. Financing the American revolution also strained the budget. By 1789, things had worsened, with state bankruptcy, food shortages and crop failures aggravating the already mounting tension. Thus, it was in May of 1789, that the Estates-General were convened. The Estates-General were divided into three separate Estates: the Nobility represented the First, the Clergy the Second, and the rest of the people, the Third. With King Louis XVI too slow to take any action, the Third Estate "rebelled" after being refused the right to sit with the other Estates, declaring itself the National Assembly.

Fearful of the National Assembly, Louis XVI began to bring troops into Paris for security. In response, the citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille on July 14 and a National Guard was formed by the citizens to protect the Assembly. Unwisely, Louis XVI and his family attempted to flee Paris, but were soon placed under arrest. Austria and Prussia sent forces into France, but this merely resulted in the king's deposition. Louis XVI, now merely called "Citizen Capet" was subsequently convicted of treason, and sent to the guillotine.

In retaliation, the German monarchs formally organised the First Coalition and pushed the Republican armies back into France. Rebellions arose and France degenerated into a state composed of mob rule, ushering in the Reign of Terror in 1793. Thousands of people were arrested, imprisoned, or executed in a ruthless purge throughout France. In 1795, the First Coalition began to fall apart and the National Convention disbanded in turn leading to the creation of the Directorate.

It was during the reign of the Directorate that a young general began his glorious rise to fame and power: Napoleon Bonaparte, who first shot to fame by his putting down a royalist mob in Paris. Subsequent military adventures in Italy and Egypt soon brought him success and fame, and by the close of the 18th century Napoleon was the most powerful man in all of France, and was soon crowned emperor following a popular referendum.

The writer HG Wells generally summed up Napoleon's imperial career as having given France "ten years of glory and the humiliation of final defeat". For a brief while, almost all of Europe west of Russia was French territory, but eventually the tide reversed at two points. British sea power and economic strength would play a key role in his downfall, allowing for men and supplies to be delivered to the continent unhindered. By 1812, the French were steadily losing the fight in the Iberian peninsula to the Anglo-Luso-Spanish coallition, while tensions with Russia over French ties with Turkey conquest led to a botched invasion of Russia. Moscow was reached, but the Russians refused to surrender, and eventually Napoleon was forced to withdraw with heavy losses. After further defeats, Napoleon was sent into exile but returned in 1815 for what is known as the "Hundred Days" when a renewed alliance defeated his army at the Battle of Waterloo in present-day Belgium. A new king was found for France by the victorious allies, but in 1848 the king, Louis-Philippe, was forced to abdicate and flee to Britain.

The Third Napoleon and the Third Republic (1848-1914)Edit

Although Napoleon and his regime had been effectively overthrown, Europe was still far away from peace. Ever since the National Convention and the Terror of the 1790s, the country flirted occasionally with charismatic regimes a number of times, waffling between dictatorial rule and democracy. The turmoil continued in France as it was embroiled in more wars and civil strife for the century. However, during this period it saw France drew closer to its former adversary Britain, as the continental ambitions of Germany for French territory proved too much for France to handle alone.

With the monarchy gone in 1848, history repeated itself once more. Shortly after the abdication of Louis-Philippe, elections were held, and elected a relative of the great Napoleon as president. This was Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte. Bonaparte however was not content with being president, and in 1851 launched a coup d'etat, installing himself as Napoleon III of France. He would be the last emperor the French would ever see. Although Napoleon III worked hard to modernise France and brought stability to the nation, his military adventurism and lack of diplomatic tact worked against him and eventually led to how downfall. At first, Napoleon III's military adventures paid off, reasserting France as a global power with military expeditions all over the world: Annam was seized from China, while French adventures across the Mediterranean in Algeria would grant future generations a foothold in Africa. However, all this was dismantled in the Franco-Prussian War, when Napoleon III unwisely tried to invade Prussia in 1870. Humiliated and bloodied, the French declared a republic and forced Napoleon III into exile in England, where, already suffering from a variety of illnesses prior to the war, he died a broken man in 1873. Yet, against this backdrop many artists, writers and other visionaries drew inspiration. Attracting renowned artists from all around Western Europe, such notables as Monet, Rodin, Degas, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and later Picasso flocked to France to create their masterpieces. Literature flourished too with names such as Hugo, Dumas and Flaubert, whose works would even capture the imagination of France's traditional foil, the British people. Science and technology, too, was not neglected. The battles of the North American Civil War and the Boshin War in Japan were fought using French-designed weapons. Additionally, the French also pioneered steamships, with the first ironclad, La Gloire. In France herself, a visionary French engineer, Gustav Eiffel built the Eiffel tower in 1889, foreshadowing the mass usage of metal in construction. An author, Oscar Wilde, once commented that "when good Americans die they go to Paris". In the heyday of the Third French Republic, France was now enjoying a time of relative peace, prosperity and optimism, dubbed La Belle Époque, or the Beautiful Era in France.

ReferencesEdit

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