Total Area: 176,460 sq. mi. (slightly less than twice the size of Colorado)
Monetary Unit: Euro
President: Nikolas Sarkozy (since 2007)
Religion: 88% Catholic, 10% Muslim, 2% Protestant, 1% Jewish
Archaeological evidence suggests that people have lived in what is now France for over 100,000 years. The oldest known cultures are those of the Paleolithic Age (50,000 BC - 8,000 BC), the most famous of which left elaborate cave paintings at Lascaux. Contact with Mediterranean culture was established when Greek colonists explored the western Mediterranean in the 7th Century BC, establishing a town at Marseille, and trading with the interior by way of the Rhone River.
In 121 BC the Roman Empire took over the Greek colonies in Franvce (then known as Gaul). Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul several decades later, between 58 and 51 BC. Gaul became a prosperous province of the Roman Empire, and Christianity was introduced in the 1st century AD.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the area was overrun by Barbarian tribes. In 468 Clovis, chief of the Franks, unified the country by accepting Christianity. Soon France was invaded by Muslim Saracens, who were defeated by Charles Martel in 732. His grandson, Charlemagne, was crowned Emperor of the West in 800 after defeating the Lombards in Italy. Charlemagne expanded the kingdom of France, established a vast administrative system, and is generally considered one of the finest rulers of the Middle Ages.
Unfortunately, soon after Charlemagne's death, the area was invaded again, this time by Vikings from Scandinavia. This weakened the power of the French monarchy, but established the territory of Normandy which conquered Britain and intertwined he cultures of France and England.
During the 14th Century Black Plague, peasant rebellions, and the Hundred Years' War (with England) further weakened the French monarchy. England's king Henry III claimed that he was the true king of France, sparking a long and bitter war in which France experienced repeated losses until the tide was turned by Joan of Arc in 1429. By 1453 the English lost all their territory on the continent except for Calais.
Economic and social recovery accompanied the political recovery. The strength of the economy and size of the population returned to their pre-plague levels, as King Louis XI (r. 1461-83) consolidated royal authority over the country, effectively ending the system of feudalism which characterized the Middle Ages.
The king's absolute power reached its apogee in Louis XIV. He organized councils to advise him and carry out his orders, and he staffed them with able men who were completely dependent on him for position and income. The power of Parliament to veto royal decrees was effectively silenced. The power to appoint bishops gave the king a firm grip on the hierarchy of the church. He ruled as the representative of God on earth, and an obedient clergy gave theological justification of this divine right. The great palace that Louis XIV built at Versailles remains unmatched in size and magnificence.
Louis' successors were well-intentioned rulers who lacked the abilities needed to adapt their country's institutions to the changing conditions of the 18th century. The government's financial problems were made worse by the renewal of costly wars, which resulted in the loss of France's colonies in India and America. In 1789, 1200 deputies elected to the Estates-General declared themselves the National Assembly of France. When the government moved to disperse the Assembly by force, the people of Paris rebelled, seizing the royal fortress of the Bastille, and forcing the king to accept the National Assembly. A peasant revolt spread across the countryside, ending the privileges of aristocracy and causing the execution of thousand of nobles and clergy.
In the chaos that followed the French Revolution, a number of men in key positions saw the need for a more effective government, and they selected the young general Napoleon Bonaparte to stage a coup d'etat.In 1799 he and his supporters overthrew the Revolutionary government and established the French Empire. In the next few years he defeated Austria, Prussia, and Russia and made himself master of most of Europe.His efforts to invade Spain and blockade England led to his undoing. After the destruction of his army in 1814, he abdicated and went into exile on the tiny island of Elba.
After World War II, France drafted a new Constitution in 1958. President Charles De Gaulle was determined to raise France's international prestige and to restore its independence in foreign affairs. He worked for a strong Europe, strengthening the country's commitment to the European economic community. Working with West Germany's chancellor, he virtually ended the centuries of hatred between France and Germany.
France has produced many world famous painters, including the impressionists, and is renowned for its great Gothic churches and outstanding Baroque buildings. French education has had a far-reaching influence, beginning with the French universities of the Middle Ages, particualrly the University of Paris, founded in the 12th Century. Among the French educators who had notable influence are Peter Abelard in the 12th century and Jean Jacques Rosseau in the 18th.
The famous Eiffel Tower has become a global icon of France, and is one of the most famous monuments in the world, visited by more than 200,000,000 people since its construction for the World's Fair in 1889.
Whew! I'll have to pick an easier country next time!
For my previous posts on Nations of the World, click here.