History of France
days. In ancient times, tribes of Celts and other peoples lived in what is
now France. The Romans called the region Gallia (Gaul). Roman armies began
to invade Gaul in about 200 B.C. By 121 B.C., Rome controlled the Gallic
land along the Mediterranean Sea and in the Rhone Valley. Julius Caesar
conquered the entire region between 58 and 51 B.C. The people, called
Gauls, soon adopted Roman ways of life. They used the Latin language of
the invaders. Gaul prospered under Roman rule for hundreds of years, in
spite of barbarian invasions during the A.D. 200's and 300's.
Victory of the Franks. The border defences of the West Roman Empire began
to crumble in the A.D. 400's. Germanic tribes from the east, including
Burgundians, Franks, and Visigoths, crossed the Rhine River and entered
Gaul. They killed many Gauls and drove others west into what is now
Brittany. Clovis, the king of the Salian Franks, defeated the Roman
governor of Gaul in 486 at Soissons. Clovis then defeated other Germanic
tribes in Gaul, and extended his kingdom. He founded the Merovingian
dynasty (a series of rulers from the same family), and adopted
The rise of manorialism and feudalism. From the 600's to the 1000's,
during the chaotic years of the early Middle Ages, manors covered much of
France. Manors were large estates governed by owners called landlords or
lords, who offered military protection to peasants called serfs.
Manorialism was a system of organizing agricultural labour.
A political and military system called feudalism began to appear in the
700's. A feudal lord gave his subjects land in return for military and
other services. Both the lord and his subjects, called vassals, were
aristocrats. The land granted by a lord was called a fief. Some small
fiefs supported only one vassal. Other fiefs were quite large, such as the
province of Normandy. Manorialism and feudalism thrived until the 1100's.
The Carolingian dynasty. By the mid-600's, the Merovingian kings had
become weak rulers, interested mainly in personal pleasures. Pepin of
Herstal, the chief royal adviser, gradually took over most of the royal
powers. His son, Charles Martel, extended the family's power. He received
the title of Martel (the Hammer) after defeating an invading Arab army in
732. The battle began near Tours and ended near Poitiers. Charles Martel
became king of the Franks in all but title.
Charles Martel's son, Pepin the Short, overthrew the last Merovingian
ruler and became king of the Franks in 751. He founded the Carolingian
dynasty, and enlarged the Frankish kingdom. Pepin also helped develop the
political power of the pope by giving Pope Stephen II a large gift of land
north of Rome.
Pepin's son, Charlemagne, was one of the mightiest conquerors of all time.
After Charlemagne became king of the Franks, he went on more than 50
military campaigns and expanded his kingdom far beyond the borders of what
is now France. He also extended the pope's lands. In 800, Pope Leo III
crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans. For the story of Charlemagne.
Charlemagne died in 814, and his three grandsons later fought among
themselves for control of his huge empire. They divided it into three
kingdoms in 843. In the Treaty of Verdun, one grandson, Charles the Bald,
received most of what is now France. The second kingdom consisted of much
that is now Germany. The third kingdom lay between the other two. It
consisted of a strip of land extending from the North Sea to central
Italy. The middle kingdom north of Italy was divided between the other two
The Capetian dynasty. By the late 900's, the Carolingian kings had lost
much of their former power, and the strength of the nobles had greatly
increased. The kings had become little more than great feudal lords chosen
by the other feudal nobles to lead them in time of war. But in peacetime,
most of a king's authority extended over only his personal estates. In
987, the nobles ended the Carolingian line of kings and chose Hugh Capet
as their new king. Capet started the Capetian dynasty. Many historians
mark the beginning of the French nation from the coronation of Hugh Capet.
For many years, the Capetian kings controlled only their royal domain
(land), between Paris and Orleans. The great feudal nobles ruled their own
domains almost independently. The dukes of Normandy were the most powerful
of these nobles. Normandy became the most unified and best administered
feudal state in Europe. In 1066, the Norman Duke William, later called
William the Conqueror, invaded England and became king.
Growth of royal power. The Capetian kings gradually added more territory
to their personal lands, and became stronger than any of their rivals. In
addition, every Capetian king for over 300 years had a son to succeed him
on the throne. As a result, the nobles' power to select kings died out.
The nobles were further weakened because many of them left France between
1100 and 1300 on crusades to capture the Holy Land from the Muslims.
Philip II, called Philip Augustus, was the first great Capetian king.
After he came to the throne in 1180, he more than doubled the royal
domain, and tightened his control over the nobles. Philip built up a large
body of government officials, many of them from the middle classes in the
towns. He also developed Paris as a permanent, expanding capital.
The handsome Philip IV, called Philip the Fair, rebelled against the
pope's authority. He taxed church officials, and arrested a bishop and
even Pope Boniface VIII. Philip won public approval for his actions in the
first Estates-General, a body of Frenchmen that he called together in
1302. This group was the ancestor of the French Parliament. In 1305,
through Philip's influence, a French archbishop was elected pope and
became Pope Clement V. In 1309, Clement moved the pope's court from Rome
to Avignon, where it remained until 1377.
Social conditions in Capetian France. By the 1100's, an economic revival
in Europe had put money back into use. Towns, which had lost their
importance under manorialism and feudalism, sprang up near main trade
routes. At first, towns were self-governing. Merchants and craftworkers
settled in the towns and formed organizations called guilds. Guilds played
an important role in town government. As royal government grew, towns
became judicial and administrative centres, as well as manufacturing and
Although many people moved to the towns in search of jobs, much of the
population stayed in the countryside. Agricultural methods were too
primitive to support more than a very small nonagricultural population.
Thus, people were still needed on farms to produce food. In both towns and
the country, life expectancy was short. Many children died before reaching
the age of five.
A period of wars. The last king of the Capetian dynasty, Charles IV, died
in 1328 without a male heir. A cousin succeeded him as Philip VI and
started the Valois dynasty. King Edward III of England, a nephew of the
last Capetian king, also claimed the French throne. In 1337, Edward landed
an army in Normandy. This invasion started a series of wars between France
and England known as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). The English won
most of the battles. But the French, after their victory at Orleans under
Joan of Arc, drove the English out of most of France.
Louis XI laid the foundations for absolute rule by French kings. During
the Hundred Years' War, the kings had lost much of their power to the
French nobles. Louis regained this power. His greatest rival was Charles
the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Charles died in battle in 1477 while trying to
conquer the city of Nancy, and Louis seized most of his vast lands.
Francis I invaded northern Italy, and captured Milan in 1515. In a later
Italian campaign, Francis was defeated by Charles V of the Holy Roman
Empire. French wars against the Holy Roman Empire continued into the reign
of Henry II. The Empire and England were allies. In 1558, this alliance
gave Henry an excuse to seize the port city of Calais, England's last
possession in France.
Religious wars. During the early 1500's, a religious movement called the
Reformation developed Protestantism in Europe. Many French people became
Protestants. They followed the teachings of John Calvin, and were called
Huguenots. After 1540, the government persecuted the Huguenots severely,
but they grew in number and political strength. In the late 1500's, French
Roman Catholics and the Huguenots fought a series of civil wars that
lasted over 30 years. In 1572, thousands of Huguenots were killed during
the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day.
Henry III died in 1589 without a male heir. He was followed by Henry of
Navarre, who became Henry IV and started the Bourbon dynasty. But Roman
Catholic forces prevented him from entering Paris because he was the
leader of the Huguenots. In 1593, Henry became a Roman Catholic to achieve
peace. He entered the capital the next year. In 1598, Henry signed the
Edict of Nantes, which granted limited freedom of worship to the
The age of absolutism. The power of the kings and their ministers (high
government officials) grew steadily from the 1500's to the 1700's. France
became strong, largely through the efforts of these ministers. The first
important minister was Maximilien de Bethune, Duke of Sully, who served
Henry IV. Sully promoted agriculture and such public works as roads and
canals. He reduced the taille, the chief tax on the common people. The
actual ruler behind Louis XIII was his prime minister, Armand Jean du
Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu increased royal power more than any
Louis XIV was the outstanding example of the absolute French king. He is
said to have boasted: "I am the State." After his prime minister died in
1661, Louis declared that he would be his own prime minister. In 1685,
Louis cancelled the Edict of Nantes and began to persecute the Huguenots
savagely. About 200,000 Huguenots fled France, which weakened the
country's economy. Louis' minister of finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert,
promoted a strong economy. But the construction of Louis' magnificent
palace at Versailles and a series of major wars drained France's finances.
Louis tried to rule supreme in Europe. He was stopped by military
alliances that included England, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and other
The gathering storm. By the 1700's, a government bureaucracy had developed
to manage a large standing royal army, as well as to collect taxes. Royal
courts upheld law and order. Lawyers and jurists bought their offices from
the king at very high prices. The king allowed those who bought the
highest judicial offices to call themselves nobles, and he granted them
This burdensome system worked well enough to allow remarkable economic and
population growth in the 1700's. But the population growth exceeded
agriculture's production capacities, and food shortages and famines became
common. Such growth also strained the guild system that governed the
activities of merchants and craftworkers in the towns.
Burdened by the needs of the military and unable to tax nobles or church
lands, the government was forced to borrow heavily. In 1786, the
government proposed a new land tax in order to avoid bankruptcy. Many
urban lawyers, merchants, clerks, and craftworkers, as well as some
aristocrats, opposed any new taxes. The French Revolution was born out of
The French Revolution. To win support for new taxes, King Louis XVI called
a meeting of the Estates-General. The Estates-General was made up of
representatives from the three estates, or classes--the clergy, the
nobility, and the commoners. It opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, near
Paris. In June 1789, members of the third estate--the commoners--declared
themselves a National Assembly, with full power to write a new
constitution for France. The third estate had as many representatives as
the other two estates combined.
At first, Louis XVI delayed taking action and began gathering troops
around Paris to break up the Assembly. However, many French people
organized an armed resistance movement in Paris. On July 14, 1789, a huge
crowd of Parisians captured the royal fortress called the Bastille. Louis
XVI was forced to give in.
By September 1791, the Assembly had drafted a new constitution that made
France a constitutional, or limited, monarchy, with a one-house
The new government did not last long. In April 1792, France went to war
against Austria and Prussia. These countries wished to restore the king to
his former position. In the summer of 1792, as foreign armies marched on
Paris, revolutionaries imprisoned Louis XVI and his family and overthrew
the monarchy. A National Convention, chosen through an election open to
almost all adult French males, opened on Sept. 21, 1792, and declared
France a republic.
Civil and foreign wars pushed the new republican government to extreme and
violent measures. Radical leaders such as Maximilien Robespierre gained
power. They said that terror was necessary to preserve liberty. Thus,
while the revolution survived under radical leadership, it also sentenced
many "enemies of the republic" to death. Thousands of people were
executed. In time, the radicals began to struggle for power among
themselves. Robespierre was condemned by his enemies and executed. His
death marked the end of the period called the Reign of Terror. See
In 1795, a new constitution was adopted that formed a government called
the Directory. The Directory, a five-man board, governed France from 1795
to 1799, during the last half of the French Revolution. For more details
on the causes, violence, and reforms of the French Revolution.
Napoleon. During the French Revolution, a young officer named Napoleon
Bonaparte rose through the ranks of the army. He was named a general in
1793, and his power grew rapidly. In 1799, Napoleon overthrew the
revolutionary French government and seized control of France. Napoleon was
an excellent administrator. He created a strong, efficient central
government and revised and organized French law. He was also a military
genius with great ambition. By 1812, Napoleon's forces had conquered most
of western and central Europe. But maintaining control over this vast
empire eventually overextended French power, and Napoleon was forced to
give up his throne in 1814. He returned to rule France again for about
three months in 1815 before his final defeat at Waterloo. For the story of
The revolutions of 1830 and 1848. The Bourbon dynasty returned to power
after Napoleon's downfall. Charles X, who became king in 1824, tried to
reestablish the total power of the earlier French kings. He was overthrown
in the July Revolution of 1830.
The revolutionaries placed Louis Philippe on the throne. He belonged to
the Orleans branch of the Bourbon family. France was peaceful and
prosperous during Louis Philippe's reign. But the poorer classes became
dissatisfied because only the wealthy could vote or hold public office.
The February Revolution of 1848 overthrew the government and established
the Second Republic. All Frenchmen received the right to vote.
The voters elected Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, a nephew of Napoleon, to a
four-year term as president in 1848. He seized greater power illegally in
1851, and declared himself president for 10 years. In 1852, he established
the Second Empire and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III.
The Franco-Prussian War. During the 1860's, France became alarmed over the
growing strength of Prussia. France feared that a united Germany under
Prussian leadership would upset Europe's balance of power. After a series
of disputes, France declared war on Prussia in 1870. Prussia defeated
France the next year. In the peace treaty following the war, France was
forced to give almost all of Alsace and part of Lorraine to the new German
The Third Republic. After Prussian victories in 1870, the French revolted
against Napoleon III. They established a provisional (temporary) republic,
which became known as the Third Republic, and in 1871 elected a National
Assembly. In 1875, the Assembly voted to continue the republic, and wrote
a new constitution.
French strength and prosperity grew until World War I began in 1914.
French explorers and soldiers won a vast colonial empire in Africa and
Asia. Only Great Britain had a larger overseas empire. France strengthened
its army, and formed a military alliance with Russia in 1894 and the
Entente Cordiale (cordial understanding) with Great Britain in 1904.
French industries expanded steadily, especially after 1895.
By the 1890's, most French people were reconciled to the Third Republic,
but few were deeply committed to it. An incident known as the Dreyfus
affair finally forced the nation to take sides on this issue. On Oct. 15,
1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer, was arrested on
suspicion of spying for Germany. In December, a military court found him
guilty. Evidence of his innocence slowly trickled out and eventually
attracted much attention. Many people began to rally to Dreyfus' side.
They included Socialists representing the French working class, moderate
republicans, and other people with no political background.
These people believed that the French army had acted arbitrarily in
convicting Dreyfus and feared that the republic was endangered. They made
Dreyfus a symbol of civil liberties and republican virtues and worked to
get him a new trial. Opponents of republican government and army
supporters came together and denounced Dreyfus and his supporters as
antipatriotic. A fight followed that resulted in a strengthening of
support for the republic. In 1906, France's highest court reviewed the
Dreyfus case and declared Dreyfus innocent.
World War I. During the early 1900's, France and Germany had disagreements
over colonial territories, and each country feared an attack by the other.
In 1907, France established a diplomatic agreement called the Triple
Entente with Great Britain and Russia. The French prepared for war. Soon
after the start of World War I (1914-1918), Germany invaded France. The
Germans hoped to defeat France quickly. But by late 1914, the French army
had halted the German advance. For 31/2 years, the opposing forces fought
from trenches that stretched across northeastern France and Belgium.
The worst fighting faced by the French army during the war took place
around the city of Verdun in 1916. In February, the German army launched a
major attack to take Verdun. For five months, intense fighting involved
hundreds of thousands of troops. At first, the Germans made rapid
progress. But they were slowly rolled back. In July, the Germans halted
their unsuccessful attack.
The Battle of Verdun became a symbol of France's will to resist. But the
battle had also drained the country. From the middle of 1917, France's
allies began handling most of the war's major battles. The war produced
enormously high casualties, partly as a result of the destructive powers
of new weapons such as the machine gun and poison gas. Millions of French
servicemen were killed or wounded. For more on the story of France in the
Between the World Wars. In the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919,
France recovered Alsace and the German part of Lorraine from Germany.
France and other Allied nations also were awarded reparations (payments
for war damages) from Germany. Germany fell behind in making these
payments. As a result, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr Valley
of Germany in 1923. After Germany agreed to keep up the payments, the
troops were withdrawn in 1925.
The French did much to reestablish good relations with Germany. France
joined other Allied nations and Germany in the Rhineland Security Pact of
1925. This agreement in part guaranteed the security of the French-German
border. France reduced Germany's reparations, and dropped various controls
over Germany set up by the Treaty of Versailles. Suggestions by Aristide
Briand, the French foreign minister, led to the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact
of 1928 . It was signed by France, Germany, and 13 other countries. But in
1929, France began building the Maginot Line as a fortified defence
During the 1930's, the worldwide economic depression and the rise of
fascist leader Adolf Hitler in Germany caused serious political unrest in
France. In 1936, at a time of widespread strikes, a government called the
Popular Front came to power in France. It made many promises to striking
workers and tried to establish a strong position against fascism. But in
1938, the government began to give in to the demands of Nazi Germany. As
part of this policy of appeasement, France signed the Munich Agreement,
which forced Czechoslovakia to give territory to Germany.
World War II began when Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Two days
later, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. On May 10, 1940,
the Germans attacked Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. They
invaded France through Belgium on May 12, passing northwest of the Maginot
Line. The Germans launched a major attack to the south on June 5, and
entered Paris on June 14. On June 22, France signed an armistice with
Germany. The Germans occupied the northern two-thirds of France, and
southern France remained under French control. Southern France was
governed at Vichy by Marshal Henri Philippe Petain, who largely cooperated
with the Germans.
After France fell, General Charles de Gaulle fled to London. He invited
all French patriots to join a movement called Free France, and continue
fighting the Germans. This resistance movement spread throughout France.
Some groups of French people called Maquis hid in hilly areas and fought
the Germans. After Allied troops landed in French North Africa in November
1942, German troops also occupied southern France. The Germans tried to
seize the French fleet at Toulon. But the French sank most of the fleet's
ships to prevent them from being captured by the Germans.
On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed in France at Normandy. They landed in
southern France on August 15. After fierce fighting and heavy loss of
lives, the Allied troops entered Paris on August 25. De Gaulle soon formed
a provisional government and became its president. In 1945, France became
a charter member of the United Nations. For the story of France in the
The Fourth Republic. In October 1945, the French people voted to have the
National Assembly write a new constitution creating the Fourth Republic.
In this election, French women voted for the first time. De Gaulle
resigned as president in January 1946, over disagreements with the
Assembly. The new constitution, much like that of the Third Republic, went
into effect in October 1946. De Gaulle opposed it because it did not
provide strong executive powers.
France received considerable aid from the United States, and rebuilt its
cities and industries, which had been badly damaged during the war. But
political troubles at home and colonial revolts overseas slowed the
country's economic recovery. France played an important part in the Cold
War between the Communist countries and the Western countries. The
Communist Party was one of the largest in France after the war, and it
controlled the chief trade unions. Communist-led strikes in 1947 and 1948
crippled production across the country. But in 1949, France became a
charter member of the anti-Communist North Atlantic Treaty Organization
The first revolt by a French colony began in Indochina in 1946. Indochina
was eventually divided into Cambodia, Laos, and North and South Vietnam.
The French withdrew from Indochina in 1954 after heavy losses.
Later in 1954, revolution broke out in the French territory of Algeria. To
prevent revolutions in Morocco and Tunisia, France made them independent
in 1956. Other French colonies in Africa received independence later. But
France refused to give up Algeria, the home of almost a million French
settlers. France gradually built up its army in Algeria to about 500,000
men, and the war continued throughout the 1950's. See ALGERIA (The
In spite of the costly colonial wars, France's economy grew rapidly. By
the late 1950's, it had broken all French production records. The boom
developed with U.S. aid and a series of national economic plans begun in
1946. French businessmen and government officials were determined to prove
that France's greatness had not disappeared. Between 1947 and 1958, France
helped form several economic organizations that were important steps
toward a European confederation. For discussions of these organizations,
The Fifth Republic. By 1958, large numbers of French people thought it was
useless to continue fighting in Algeria. But the idea of giving up Algeria
angered many French army leaders and settlers in the colony. They rebelled
in May 1958 and threatened to overthrow the French government by force
unless it continued fighting. In a compromise solution, de Gaulle was
called back to power as prime minister, with emergency powers for six
months. His government prepared a new constitution, which the voters
approved on Sept. 28, 1958. This constitution, which established the Fifth
Republic, gave the president greater power than ever before and sharply
reduced the power of Parliament. In December, the Electoral College
elected de Gaulle to a seven-year term as president.
France under de Gaulle. De Gaulle's government continued the war in
Algeria, hoping the Algerians would agree to a compromise settlement that
provided some French control. By 1961, however, the government realized
that only Algerian independence would end the rebellion. Peace talks began
in 1961 and ended with a cease-fire in March 1962. At de Gaulle's urging,
French voters approved Algerian independence in April. Algeria became
independent on July 3, 1962.
Algerian independence set off a wave of bombings and murders in France and
Algeria by the Secret Army Organization (OAS). This group, which included
many army officers, accused de Gaulle of betraying France by ending the
war. The OAS tried several times to kill de Gaulle. Its leaders were
After the Algerian crisis, some French politicians tried to weaken de
Gaulle's strong rule. They wanted to reestablish the former power of
Parliament and reduce that of the president. But de Gaulle made the
presidency even stronger. He declared that the president should have
nationwide support and be elected by the people, not by the Electoral
College. In 1962, the voters approved a constitutional amendment that
provided for such elections.
De Gaulle was reelected to a second seven-year term in 1965. French
foreign policy became his main interest. De Gaulle declared that the
French were "a race created for brilliant deeds," but that they could not
achieve greatness with their "destiny in the hands of foreigners." He
hoped to make France the leader of an alliance of Western European
countries. This alliance would be free of U.S. or Soviet influence.
Instead of relying on American protection through NATO, de Gaulle
developed an independent French nuclear-weapons programme. In 1966, de
Gaulle removed all French troops from NATO. He also declared that all NATO
military bases and troops had to be removed from France by April 1967.
France withdrew from NATO militarily, but it remained a member
In the 1950's, France had helped form the European Coal and Steel
Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Economic
Community (EEC). These agencies later became known as the European
Community (EC), and, in 1993, the EC became incorporated into the European
Union, which works for economic and political cooperation among its
De Gaulle believed France could work within the EEC to become stronger and
more influential in Western Europe. In 1963, he prevented Britain from
joining the Common Market. He considered Britain a rival for leadership in
Western Europe. De Gaulle also believed Britain's ties with the United
States would give America too much influence on Europe's economy.
In the late 1960's, many French people became dissatisfied with de
Gaulle's government. This dissatisfaction led to a severe national crisis
in May 1968. Students staged demonstrations in Paris, some of which
erupted into violent clashes with the police. Demonstrations, many
accompanied by violence, spread throughout France, and millions of workers
joined in by going on strike. The country was paralysed for more than two
weeks, and many people expected the overthrow of de Gaulle's government
and possible civil war. But de Gaulle managed to bring the situation under
control by the end of May. He called a general election in June, and his
supporters won more than 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament. However,
de Gaulle's reputation as a leader had been seriously damaged by what the
French called the "events of May." In April 1969, de Gaulle asked for
minor constitutional reforms and said he would resign if the voters did
not approve them. The French people voted against the reforms, and de
France after de Gaulle. Georges Pompidou was elected president in June
1969. He had been de Gaulle's prime minister, and he promised to continue
de Gaulle's policies. But Pompidou changed de Gaulle's foreign policy by
cooperating more closely with the United States. He also improved
relations with Britain.
At home, Pompidou's government faced economic problems. The country's
industrial growth began to slow down, unemployment increased, and
inflation rose to a high level. Part of the economic trouble resulted from
the worldwide oil crisis in 1973. Oil-producing countries raised the price
of oil sharply, and France was seriously affected because it imports most
of its petroleum.
Pompidou died in April 1974. The Gaullist Party, which had supported de
Gaulle and Pompidou, split into a number of separate groups in the
presidential election that followed in May. These groups supported various
candidates. As a result, the Gaullist Party was weakened. Valery Giscard
d'Estaing, head of the Independent Republican Party, was elected
The Gaullists and a group of parties that supported Giscard won a majority
of the seats in French parliamentary elections held in 1978. Those parties
formed a coalition government. The leftist Socialist and Communist parties
were their main opponents.
The loss of most of its colonial empire has relieved France of the cost of
governing and developing the colonies. However, France still gives
economic, technical, and military aid to many of its former colonies.
Socialists win power. Politically, France moved sharply to the left in
1981. The voters elected Francois Mitterrand of the Socialist Party as
president. In addition, the Socialists won a majority of the seats in
parliamentary elections held in 1981. The elections gave France its first
leftist government since 1958. Moderates and conservatives had controlled
all the governments since then. Under the moderates and conservatives, the
government owned some French businesses. The new Socialist leaders greatly
increased government ownership of businesses.
From the time of Napoleon I, France's departments were administered by
prefects--officials appointed by, and responsible to, the national
government. But the Socialist government gave locally elected councils
responsibility for the departments. In 1982, the government changed the
title prefect to commissioner.
The 1981 elections resulted in a sharp decline in the number of
parliamentary seats held by Communists. But the Communists had supported
Mitterrand in the presidential race. He appointed Communists to four minor
posts in the 44-member cabinet, marking the first Communist participation
in the cabinet since 1947. In 1984, the Communists resigned after
disagreements with the government over economic policies.
The Socialists lost their parliamentary majority in the 1986 elections.
Conservatives gained control of parliament. Mitterrand remained president,
but he named Jacques Chirac, a conservative, as prime minister. Chirac
gained much influence in the government. In 1988, Chirac ran for
president, but Mitterrand won a second term as president.
Shortly after his election, Mitterrand dissolved the National Assembly. In
new legislative elections, the Socialists and their allies won a slight
majority. As a result, in 1988, Mitterrand appointed Michel Rocard, a
Socialist, to replace Jacques Chirac as prime minister.
Recent developments. Michel Rocard resigned as prime minister in May 1991,
and Mitterrand appointed Edith Cresson, a Socialist, to the post. Cresson
became France's first woman prime minister. However, she was an unpopular
choice, and she resigned in April 1992. She was succeeded by Pierre
The general election held in March 1993 resulted in an overwhelming
victory for the conservatives. The neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic
Party (RPR) and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) together
took 484 seats in the 577-seat French parliament. Socialist representation
was reduced to 70 seats. Former finance minister Edouard Balladur, a
Gaullist, succeeded Beregovoy as prime minister.
In 1995, Jacques Chirac again ran for president, and this time he was
victorious. He promised he would try to reduce France's high unemployment
rate. Chirac, a member and the founder of the RPR, named RPR member Alain
Juppe as prime minister. Also in 1995, Chirac announced that France would
resume active participation in NATO's military wing. In 1997, the
Socialist Party won the majority of seats in the parliamentary elections.
Socialist leader Lionel Jospin replaced Juppe as prime minister.
Like all modern countries, France has economic and social problems that
remain unsolved. Large numbers of immigrants from Africa and southern
Europe live in crowded city slums and in large apartment blocks on the
outskirts of cities. Elderly people on fixed incomes, and farmers whose
farms are too small to modernize, barely manage to make ends meet in times
Despite its economic problems, however, France's overall standard of
living is higher today than ever before. Most French people own such
material goods as cars, refrigerators, telephones, and washing machines.
Social security laws give workers some protection against unemployment,
illness, and old age.
France is a world leader in total industrial production and in the export
of agricultural products. Nuclear power plants are being built to relieve
France from dependence on imported fuels. The army has been modernized,
and France has its own nuclear weapons.