History of France
Early 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
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 in 870.
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,
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 trading centres.
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 Huguenots.
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 other individual.
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 countries.
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 tax exemptions.
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 this crisis.
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
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 Napoleon's life,
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
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
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 Empire.
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
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 war.
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 against Germany.
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 war.
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 (NATO).
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
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 Algerian Revolution).
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 eventually imprisoned.
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 members.
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
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 president.
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
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
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
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
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
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 Beregovoy.
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 of inflation.
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.