French History: some milestones (#1)

See also :

 French historical anecdotes   Deepest downs in French history

The French National Saga : Each country has its legend. In the USA, it is the Founding Fathers, the Manifest Destiny and the invention of Liberty and Democracy. In France it is the "Roman National" (the National Saga). This story was fashioned at the end of the 19th by the recently (re)born Republic to re-unite the country and to illustrate a national legend which is, in short, as follows.

"Born in the Barbarian times with the Gauls, which have the national (supposed) virtues (courage, a gift for pleasure and culture, but no sense of organization) the country builds itself through valiant kings (Charlemagne, Saint Louis, Louis XI, Louis XIV the Sun King, Napoleon) and national heroes (Joan of Arc, Duguesclin, etc.) to become a strong state. Its culture gives it a world leadership (in the Renaissance, in the Enlightenment). Its great Revolution brings to the world universal and eternal values (the Rights of Man, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, Secularism) bringing to quasi-perfection "the values of the Republic". Through a wise and disinterested colonization, France shares these values with less lucky countries. Of course, the other countries are jealous and they attack France on a regular basis. We have ups and downs but, in the end, we always win."

It looks and it is ridiculous, but when you think about it, all countries have the same kind of saga for themselves.

Do you know that all French 5th grade students are familiar with these (little) historical facts :

  • Vercingetorix became the leader of the Gallic tribes when Julius Caesar invaded Gaul (in 56 B.C.).

    A valiant warrior, he won the battle of Gergovia but, later, his army was besieged in Alésia (in Burgundy) and he had to surrender to Caesar. The picture of the noble Gaul throwing his sword at the feet of Caesar is in all children's history books. He was strangled in a Roman jail.  (credit)

    Read a few quotes about the Roman vision of the Gauls !

  • Vercingetorix was taken to Rome and strangled. In French mythology, this event is associated with the idea that it is more classy to lose with "grandeur" than to win with efficiency, like the boring Romans did. Read about Asterix, the national comic strip hero...By the way, we might mention that the Webmaster was born in Paris rue Vercingetorix and his sister lives rue d'Alésia!

  • Do you know who broke the Soissons vase ? The answer is : Clovis, the first King of France. In 486, after a victory in Soissons, and during the allotment of the pillage, one of his soldiers wanted the vase that he, Clovis, wanted as well and he deliberately broke it so that the King would not have it. Several years later, while inspecting the troops, Clovis recognized him, asked him to check his shoes, and broke his skull as he was bending his head, admonishing him to "Remember the Soissons vase". For the French this anecdote illustrates that either "the King is always right" or "Kings never forget."


There have been many downs in the history of France, when the country was defeated, ruined and hopeless and after a few years came back to life. Among them:

  • The " Hundred Year War " against England, between 1337 to 1453, included disasters such as the king of France (Jean le Bon) being kept prisoner in London for years, another king (Charles VI) becoming crazy, a terrible defeat in Azincourt (1415) but, finally, came Jeanne d'Arc (1429) and the final victory

  • After Waterloo (June 18, 1815), France was crushed by a large coalition, Paris occupied, Napoleon exiled ; in spite of the huge losses of 20 years of wars, the country recovered within a few years.

  • The lost war against Prussia in 1870, with two provinces (Alsace and Lorraine) annexed by Germany and a huge indemnity to pay but, finally, " la Belle Epoque " and decades of prosperity and artistic creation

  • WW1 was a victory at the cost of many defeats (1,4 million men killed) and it took ten years for the country to recover. See comparative figures.

  • The defeat in 1940 and more than four years of occupation, humiliation and a shameful regime. What was the project of Hitler for France ? It was to turn it into a giant brothel for the new German Europe (read about it). Life was very difficult during the German occupation and the major concern was food : see why (and read about a new novel by Harriet Welty which takes place in occupied France and When Paris Went Dark by R. Rosbottom for more). The country was deeply humiliated and severely destroyed but, finally, came " les Trente Glorieuses " (the Thirty Prosperous) (1950-1980) with the spectacular modernization of the French society and economy and the country catching up with its time under the presidency of de Gaulle.

  • And what about today ? It seems to be a "down" : wait for the next "up" !

  • More to come ? (I hope not)

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? The French like to refer to the famous quote "Ceux qui ne connaissent pas l'Histoire sont condamnés à la revivre" ("Those who do not know History are condemned to relive it"). In France, the present is seen as a link between the past and the future : in a speech , in a report or an article, even in business, it is frequent to start with a historical background. As W.Faulkner wrote : "The past is never dead. It's not even past".

Are the French masochists ?
In her history, France went through approximately as many defeats as victories (otherwise she would either dominate the whole world or she would have disappeared). However, there are defeats more celebrated than victories of equal importance. Among the most famous lost battles : Alesia (52 b.c.) when Julius Caesar defeated and captured Vercingetorix, Poitiers (1356) when King Jean II was taken prisoner by the English, Waterloo (1815) when Wellington defeated Napoleon.
Supreme wisdom or masochism? Or rather : a long historical experience taught them that, for a country like for a person, there are ups and downs . . .

  • Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, was escorting the rear-guard of the army of the (not yet) Emperor, retreating from Spain in 778. He was attacked by the Basques in the mountain pass of Roncevaux and even though he blew his olifant (horn), the army did not rescue him. He tried to break his sword, named Durandal on a rock and waited to be killed, praying God and praising Charlemagne. Moral of the story : love your King, good or not so good.

  • Jeanne d'Arc (1412-1431) is always shown either listening to the voices of angels telling her to go see the King and help him expel the English from France, or dying burned at the stake by the same English in 1431. Hardly any mention is made that she was betrayed by her compatriots. Morality of the story : beware of the English.

  • Colbert (1619-1683), the Prime Minister of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, was a good minister and a hard worker. He is the very symbol of the omnipresence of the State in the economy. He is always shown entering his office and rubbing his hands with joy at the view of the paperwork piled on his desk. French kids do not like this image...

  • Pasteur (1822-1895) was an illustrious chemist who made major discoveries about germs (the English attribute vaccination to Jenner) and what is now called pasteurization. Think of that when you drink pasteurized milk. He had this idea of injecting antibodies to treat rabies; all French kids have seen the scene in which he is shown injecting a young Alsatian shepherd and saving his life. I suspect that part of his popularity among the French comes from his famous statement : "Wine is the healthiest and the most hygienic beverage". Read about the Institut Pasteur he founded and an anecdote about him and money.

  • The battle of Verdun : in Feb.1916, the Germans attacked the French at the city of Verdun. After ten months of a horrendous butchery on a few square miles, the toll for both armies (allied troops were not involved) was 300,000 killed and 400,000 wounded but the Germans pulled back in December. A strong element of national pride,Verdun is a major symbol and a landmark for the French. This terrible battle generated a huge prestige for Marschal Philippe Petain, the winner, and a no-less-huge fear or another bloodbath. Both are among the major reasons for the coming of the shameful regime of Vichy, twenty-four years later.
  • Other stories include :

    • Charlemagne visiting a school he founded,
    • King Saint Louis making legal decisions under an oak tree,
    • Napoleon pinching the earlobe of a soldier (who seems to enjoy it...),
    • the six Bourgeois de Calais (burghers of Calais) bare-footed and half-naked surrendering to the English (again!) to save their fellow citizens,
    • etc...
  • More to come (read about some French attitudes which are deeply rooted in history).
DID YOU KNOW THAT .... If you know two words in French, you know the word "merde" but do you know why, when a French person wants to refer to it without saying the word itself, he/she uses the formula "mot de Cambronne" ? This is because in the battle of Waterloo, lost by Napoleon, the general Cambronne, who commanded the imperial guard, used it when the English asked him to surrender !

The dates that all French kids know (or should...)

  • 52 BC : Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar at Alesia
  • 496 : Clovis, the first king, is baptised
  • 732 : Charles Martel stops the Arab invasion near Poitiers
  • 800 : Charlemagne is crowned Emperor in Rome
  • 1331 : begining of the Hundred Years War between France and England
  • 1453 : the French victory in Castillon which ended the Hundred Years War
  • 1515 : François 1rst wins the battle of Marignano, in Italy
  • 1610 : the good king Henri IV is stabbed by Ravaillac
  • 1789 : the beginning of the French Revolution (Bastille)
  • 1870 : the Franco-Prussian war and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine
  • 1914-1918 : WW1 (for the USA, it is only 1917-1918)
  • 1936 : the Front Populaire (Socialist government)
  • 1939-1945 : WW2 (for the USA, it is only 1941-1945)
  • 1957 the Treaty of Roma founds the European Union
  • 1958 : Charles de Gaulle back to power
  • 1962 : end of the French colonial empire
  • 1968 : student riots
  • More to come
This page concerns the history of France : imagine how complicated is the history of Europe ! Now that European countries have decided to write a new page of their history by building together a Europe without wars (read about the building of Europe), how do they see their own history ? Read more about this issue (click on history and histories).


Controversies about history ...

  • Masochism? Slavery, colonialism, the Vichy government, etc are an important part of the (mandatory) national programs for History in schools. There is an endless controversy about the proportion between these negative sides and the more positive aspects of French history. Read more about it.

  • Obliterated memory ? An American myth : the French refuse to look at their (ugly) past ! Is it true or is just what the New York Times likes to believe ? Read more.

DID YOU KNOW THAT ….? Why the name France? After the fall of the Roman Empire, in the 5th Century, the Roman Gaul was invaded by various Germanic tribes no longer contained by the Roman army. Some of them crossed the country and went to North Africa through Spain or to Italy (Vandals or Wisigoths). Other tribes settled, for instance the Burgondes (who created Burgundy) and the Franks, who settled between what is now Belgium and what is now Paris. Around Paris, the small kingdom of the Franks took the name of Francie or France (this is why the name of the Region around Paris is "Ile-de-France"). Then the minor kings of France progressively conquered what, previously, was the Roman Gaul until they reached the mountains of Pyrenees or the Alps, or the Rhine. Later, the currency of the kingdom took the name of the country, the Franc. The Germanic root of the name Frank is "free".

 French history in a nutshell    Top French national heroes
  • A strong state (l'Etat): French history is the history of the building of the state, which was the persistent action of the kings, from the small warlike Franc kings (a small tribe, north of what is now Paris) to the Sun King or Napoleon. The country was rich and populated, exposed to dangerous neighbours : the German world, England, the Mediterranean world, not to mention Viking or Arab invasions. The constant policy of the kings was to develop a strong state to protect the country from invasions. At the peaks of its power (XIIIth Century or XVIIIth Century), France was the most populated and the most powerful power in Europe. Read about the state and about its civil servants. Today, the Prefect is the representant of the State in each of the 100 "Départements" : he is appointed by the government (and not elected) and his powers and his prestige are huge. By American standards, France is an incredibly centralized country.

  • A conservative country : in the XVIth Century, France (la fille ainée de l'Eglise) chose to reject the Reformation ; the Church and the kings kept control over all sources of new ideas. Many aspects of French society result from this choice (in particular the extreme difficulties to introduce reforms progressively and the country progressing through riots and revolutions). The French fear change : see Peyrefitte ("Le Mal Français") and Marseille ("du bon usage de la guerre civile en France")

  • Art and culture come first : the country being rich and tightly controlled by kings and nobility, huge resources could be allocated to art for pleasure and for the glory of God and the king. See Braudel. and read about "l'exception culturelle". See how the styles (in buildings, furniture, etc) reflect the history of the country.

  • Clovis, the first king, who became Christian
  • Charlemagne (who is also a German national hero)
  • Jeanne d'Arc who saved the French from the English...
  • King Henri IV because he re-established peace after the War of Religion and he cared for the people (everyone knows he said :"I want every family to put a chicken in the pot every Sunday") ; a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism, saying "Paris is worth a mass".
  • Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), the very symbol of a great Prime Minister
  • Louis XIV (the Sun King) because of "grandeur" : read about the meaning of the castle of Versailles
  • Napoleon, because of glory and because he organized the country with structures which still exist (the Code Civil, the educational system, the prefects, etc..)
  • Louis Pasteur, the image of the good scientist.
  • Victor Hugo, poet and writer read worldwide, political opponent to Napoleon 3rd
  • Jean Jaures, murdered in 1914, the icon of the Left (but not only)
  • Charles de Gaulle who rebuilt French national pride after WW2 and ended the Algerian war and colonization
  • More to come (read more about kings)

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? Names of streets give a good idea of some of the (more recent) national heroes and some of them have a street named after them in a majority if not all French cities : Jean Jaurès (a socialist leader murdered just before WWI as he was trying to avoid it breaking out), Emile Zola (the illustrious writer of the life of the working class at the end of the XIXth century), Louis Pasteur and Victor Hugo (see above), heroes of the Resistance in WW II (Pierre-Brossolette, Vailland-Couturier, Jean Moulin,...), and now General de Gaulle, etc... See a list of the most frequent names of streets in France and read more ...

  • A split country : since France has a rather limited culture of consensus (this is an understatement...), the whole history of France is the history of one half against the other half : the Armagnacs vs the Bourguignons (15th century), the Catholics vs the Protestants (16th century), the Anciens vs the Modernes (17th century), the Girondins vs the Montagnards (1790s), the Republicans vs the Royalists (end 19th century), Secular vs Catholics (begining 20th century), now the Right vs the Left, etc... Each national vote illustrates the existence of two Frances, a typical example being the May 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. There is also a strong North-South split. Read how it impacts France's European policy the French policy always hesitate between been a North European state (and not the most serious) or a South European state (and the leader of the others).

  • A country with a mission (l'universalisme) : due to its strong state, its large population and its place in the center of Europe, France has developed the ambition to carry to the world a universal message (the Rights of Man, Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité, the motto of the French Republic, etc) ; Napoleon and his army were sincerely convinced they were bringing liberty and democracy to Europe. He used the words "Our armies will bring to the world Liberty and the Rights of Man ". Doesn't it sound familiar ? The same words George W.Bush used ! In the days of colonialism, it is interesting to observe how different it was between English colonization ("we respect local cultures because they are and they will always be different") and French colonization ("they are lucky, they will become like us"). This also sounds familiar.... This is why France maintains a huge diplomatic and cultural network, compared to her size : read more about it. Read about de Gaulle and about French possessions.

  • Read about historical Paris

  • More to come..


 The chauvinistic section

Read a rather grandiose and lyric vision of France by Charles de Gaulle, in the very first page of his War Memoirs :

"All my life, I have thought of France in a certain way. This is inspired by sentiment as much as by reason. The emotional side of me tends to imagine France, like the princess in the fairy stories or the Madonna in the frescoes, as dedicated to an exalted and exceptional destiny. Instinctively I have the feeling that Providence has created her either for complete successes or for exemplary misfortunes. If, in spite of this, mediocrity shows in her acts and deeds, it strikes me as an absurd anomaly, to be imputed to the faults of the Frenchmen, not to the genius of the land. But the positive side of my mind also assures me that France is not really herself unless in the front rank ; that only vast entreprises are capable of counterbalancing the ferments of dispersal which are inherent in her people ; that our country, as it is, surrounded by the others, as they are, must aim high and hold itself straight, on pain of mortal danger. In short, to my mind, France cannot be France without greatness."

More about de Gaulle and America.

French inventions : The French have the reputation of being very chauvinist (the word itself comes from a character in a XIXth century play, a fellow named Chauvin who was a soldier of Napoleon). To reinforce this reputation, here is a list of "do you know who invented ...?" : the cinema, the sardine can, etc.. and who discovered the HIV virus ? Click here for the answer.

 A more serious section...

A historian vision : what is France ?

Who are really the French ? What to they have in common that grounds their national identity ? Which episodes of their national history are keys to understand their vision of their own country ? etc. An authoritative serie of books about these questions is Les lieux de memoire by illustrious historian Pierre Nora, who coordinated the work of tenths of the best French historians to product more than three thousand pages on the subject ! It is a serie of essays, some of them extremely brilliant on such various subjects as : Left and Right, The persecution of the Protestants, The French Academy, The forest, and two or three hundred of others. (Realms of Memory. Rethinking the French Past, Columbia University Press, 1996). A must to understand France from an academic viewpoint.

A short bibliography of some of the books I like :

  • Fernand BRAUDEL, L'identité de la France, Arthaud, 1986 (The identity of France, Harpers & Collins, 1988) (this book is definitely a must!)
  • Jean FAVIER, Paris- 2000 ans d'histoire, Fayard, Paris, 1997
  • Pierre NORA, Realms of memory - The Construction of the French Past, Columbia Univ. Press, 1996 (a key book to understand the French identity)
  • Robert PAXTON, Vichy France, Columbia University Press, New York, 1974
  • Alain PEYREFITTE, Le Mal Français, Plon, Paris 1976 (a very clear-sighted book on the major weakness of the French society : the inability to progress by reforming smoothly) ; in English : The Trouble with France, Random House, 1981.
  • Ronald ROSBOTTOM, When Paris Went Dark. The City of Light Under German Occupation 1940-1944, Little, Brown & Co, 2014
  • Michel WINOCK, Histoire de l'Extreme-Droite en France, Seuil, 2015
  • Alain PEYREFITTE, C'était de Gaulle, Paris, Fayard, 1994 (2 vol.) (after having worked closely for de Gaulle, a mine of extraodinary quotes about France, the French, the Americans... read some of them)
  • Alan RIDING, And the show went on - cultural life in Nazi-occupied Paris, A.Knopf, 2010
  • Barbara TUCHMAN, A Distant Mirror-The Calamitous 14th Century, A.Knopf, New York, 1978
  • Barbara TUCHMAN, The Guns of August, Bantam, 1976
  • Eugen WEBER, Ma France, Fayard, 2000
  • Gordon WRIGHT, France in Modern Times, Norton,1987
  • Theodore ZELDIN, France 1848-1945 Intellect and Pride, Oxford 1980
  • More to come...

  And also :

  • Michel CARMONA, Hausmann : his Life and Times and the Making of Modern Paris, Ivan R.Dee Pub, 2002 (in French : Haussmann, Fayard, 2000)
  • Ina CARO, The Road from the Past - Traveling Through History in France, A Harvest Book, 1994
  • Stephen CLARKE, 1000 years of annoying the French, Transworld Pub., 2010 : a funny chronicle of centuries of love/hate relations between France and UK
  • Robert DARNTON, The Great Cat Massacre, Vintage, New York, 1984
  • Laura Dee DOWNS & Stephane GERSON, Why France ? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination, Cornell University Press, 2007 (American historians tell why they decided to study French history)
  • Nancy MITFORD, Madame de Pompadour, Sphere Books, New York, 1968
  • Ronald TIERSKY, François Mitterrand - The Last French President, St.Martin's, New York, 2000
  • More to come...

 More :

  • For more bibliography, click here and see some questions about the French and history.
  • "What is it to be French?" : read about the controversy on "national identity"
To related pages : history of Franco-American relations(#2), getting mixed up with all these kings? (#5), to more French history(#3), to the Gallic roots (#4), French styles (in furniture, castles, etc), French taboos, etc...

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..) and on speeches by Harriet and/or by Philippe Rochefort

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