Some of the earliest anthropological and archaeological remains in Europe have been found in France, yet little is known of France before the Roman conquest (1st cent. BC). The country was known to the Romans as Gaul. It was inhabited largely by Celts, or Gauls, who had mingled with still older populations, and by Basques in what became the region of Gascony. Some of the Gallic tribes undoubtedly were Germanic. Settlements on the Mediterranean coast, notably Marseilles, were established by Greek and Phoenician traders (c.600 BC), and Provence was colonized by Rome in the 2d cent. BC The conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar (58–51 BC; see Gallic Wars) became final with the defeat of Vercingetorix. Early in the course of the following five centuries of Roman rule Gaul accepted Latin speech and Roman law, developed a distinct Gallo-Roman civilization, and produced many large and prosperous cities. Lugdunum (Lyons) was the Roman capital.
Christianity, introduced in the 1st cent. AD, spread rapidly. From the 3d cent., however, the internal decline of the Roman Empire invited barbarian incursions. Among the Germanic tribes that descended upon fertile Gaul, the Visigoths, Franks, and Burgundii were the most important. Rome and its governors in Gaul sought, by alliances, to play the barbarians off against each other. Thus Aetius defeated (AD 451) the Huns under Attila with the help of the Franks. But in 486 (10 years after the traditional date for the fall of Rome) the Franks, under Clovis I, routed Syagrius, last Roman governor of Gaul. Clovis, who had made himself ruler of all the Franks, then defeated the Visigoths and, after accepting Christianity (496), conquered the Alemanni. He extinguished the Arian heresy (see Arianism) and founded the dynasty of the Merovingians—but he failed to provide for the unity of Gaul when, as was customary, he divided his lands among his sons at his death.
Throughout the 6th and 7th cent., Gaul was torn by fratricidal strife between the Merovingian kings of Neustria and of Austrasia, the two realms that ultimately emerged from Clovis's division and were united only for brief periods under a sole ruler. Especially after Dagobert I (d. 639), Merovingian rule sank into indolence, cruelty, and dissipation. Gaul was depopulated, the cities were left in ruins, commerce was destroyed, and the arts and sciences were ignored. In the 8th cent. the only remnant of Roman civilization, the church, was threatened by extinction when the Saracens invaded Gaul.
In the meantime a more rigorous dynasty, the Carolingians, had come to rule Austrasia as mayors of the palace in the name of the decadent Merovingian kings, and had united (687) Austrasia with Neustria. In 732, the Carolingian Charles Martel decisively defeated the Saracens between Poitiers and Tours. His son, Pepin the Short, dethroned the last Merovingian in 751 and proclaimed himself king with the sanction of the pope. Pepin's son was Charlemagne.
Crowned emperor of the West in 800, Charlemagne expanded his lands by conquest. He gave his subjects an efficient administration, created an admirable legal system, and labored for the rebirth of learning, piety, and the arts. But his son, Emperor Louis I, could not maintain the empire he inherited. At Louis's death (840), his three sons were fighting each other. In 843 the brothers, Charles II (Charles the Bald), king of the West Franks, Louis the German, and Emperor Lothair I, redivided their territories (see Verdun, Treaty of). Charles was recognized as the ruler of the lands that are now France.
The Carolingians had only superficially transcended the economic, social, and political fragmentation of the land. The weakness of central authority was a major reason for the development of feudalism and the manorial system. Raids by Norsemen, beginning in the late 8th cent., contributed to the decline of royal authority; in 885–86, the Norsemen even besieged Paris. The authority of the kings was increasingly usurped by feudal lords. Among the most powerful of these were the dukes of Aquitaine and of Burgundy and the counts of Flanders, of Toulouse, of Blois, and of Anjou. In 911 the Norse leader Rollo was recognized as duke of Normandy.
When the Carolingian dynasty died out in France, the nobles chose (987) Hugh Capet as king. It is from this date that the history of France as a separate kingdom is generally reckoned (see table entitled Rulers of France since 987 for a listing of the kings of France and subsequent French leaders). The early Capetians were dukes of Francia, a small territory around Paris, and were without power in the rest of France. By unremitting effort they gradually extended their domain, razed the castles of robber barons, and held their own against the great feudatories. Louis VI (reigned 1108–37) brought this process into full force, and it was continued by Louis VII (1137–80).
In the 11th cent. the towns had begun regaining population and wealth. Drawing together for their common defense (see commune), the townspeople won increasingly advantageous charters from the king and from their feudal lords. Commerce revived, and the great fairs of Champagne made France a meeting place for European merchants. The Cluniac order and the revival of theological learning at Paris (which was to make the Sorbonne the fountainhead of scholasticism) gave France tremendous prestige in Christendom. This rebirth reached its height in the 13th cent. and was aided by the leading role that France played in the Crusades. The crusaders established the French ideal of chivalry—personified in Louis IX (St. Louis)—in most of Europe. French courtly poetry and manners became European models.
In England, French manners and culture also predominated among the nobles because of the Norman Conquest (1066). The fact that the Norman English kings were also French nobles, holding or claiming vast fiefs in France, brought the two nations into centuries of conflict. When Henry II, king of England and duke of Normandy, married (1152) Eleanor of Aquitaine, the divorced wife of Louis VII of France, Eleanor brought as her dowry extensive areas in France. Louis's successor, Philip II (Philip Augustus; 1180–1223), clashed repeatedly with Henry's sons, Richard I and John. Defeating John in 1204 and again, resoundingly, at Bouvines (1214), Philip soundly established the military prestige of France.
During Philip's reign a greater France emerged. The crusade against the Albigenses (begun 1208) netted the crown the huge fiefs of the counts of Toulouse in S France, and the royal domain (directly subject to the king) now formed the larger part of the kingdom. Philip made the royal authority felt throughout the land. Paris was rebuilt. Louis IX (1226–70) organized an efficient and equitable civil and judicial system. Under Philip IV (1285–1314), the royal administration was improved even more. Philip failed to incorporate Flanders into his holdings, as the Flemish crushed the French at Courtrai (1302). To meet his revenue needs Philip taxed the clergy, summoning the first national States-General (1302) to support his policy. He also destroyed the wealthy Knights Templars. Papal objections to these moves led to the Babylonian Captivity (1309–77) of the popes (see papacy).
Philip's son, Louis X, ruled briefly (1314–16); he was succeeded by two brothers, Philip V (1317–22) and Charles IV (1322–28). Within a few years after the death of Charles IV, who was also without a male heir, progress toward national unification was halted, and for more than a century France was rent by warfare and internal upheaval.
In 1328, Philip VI (1328–50), of the house of Valois, a younger branch of the Capetians, succeeded to the throne. The succession was contested by Philip's remote cousin, Edward III of England (grandson of Philip IV), who in 1337 proclaimed himself king of France. Thus began the dynastic struggle known as the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), actually a series of wars and truces. It was complicated by many secondary issues, notably civil troubles in Flanders and the War of the Breton Succession.
The French defeats at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), the epidemic of the Black Death, the Parisian insurrection under Étienne Marcel (1357–58), the Jacquerie (peasant revolt) of 1358, and the pillaging bands of écorcheurs plunged France into anarchy and forced John II (1350–64) to accept the humiliating Treaty of Brétigny (1360). Under Charles V (1364–80), however, Bertrand Du Guesclin recovered (1369–73) all lost territories except Calais and the Bordeaux region. Charles VI (1380–1422) became insane in 1392, although he had lucid intervals. Rivalry for power at court led to the terrible strife between Armagnacs and Burgundians. In 1415, Henry V of England revived the English claim, renewed the war, and crushed the French—unaided by the Burgundians—at Agincourt. In 1420, Charles VI made Henry V his heir, disinheriting his son, the dauphin, later Charles VII (see Troyes, Treaty of). The dauphin nevertheless assumed the royal title in 1422, but his authority extended over only a small area.
The English now held most of France, including Paris. Powerful Burgundy, under Philip the Good, was allied with England. In 1428 the English besieged the key city of Orléans. At this hour appeared Joan of Arc, who helped relieve Orléans, rallied the dauphin's followers, and in 1429 stood by the dauphin's side as he was crowned at Reims. In 1435, Burgundy, although exacting exorbitant concessions, allied itself with France (see Arras, Treaty of). In 1453 the English lost their last hold on French soil outside Calais.
It was left for Louis XI (1461–83) to destroy the power of the last great feudal lords and to incorporate into the royal domain almost all of present France. He was aided by the downfall (1477) of Charles the Bold of Burgundy and by the extinction of the Angevin dynasty. Brittany was united with France shortly afterward (see Anne of Brittany), and the larger part of the fiefs held by the Bourbon family was confiscated in 1527.
Under the reigns (1483–1560) of Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I, Henry II, and Francis II, France proved its amazing recuperative powers despite the heavy drain imposed on its resources by the Italian Wars (1494–1559). The superficially brilliant reign of Francis I (1515–47) was taken up with almost constant warfare against the Hapsburg Charles V; however, this period also saw the spread of the Italian Renaissance into France (see French art; French literature). The first phase of the struggle between France and the house of Hapsburg ended with the triumph of Hapsburg Spain in the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559).
Beginning in the reign of Francis I, the Reformation gained many adherents in France (see Huguenots). In 1560 religious conflict flared up in the first of the ferocious civil wars (see Religion, Wars of) that tore France asunder during the reigns (1560–89) of the last Valois kings, Charles IX and Henry III. The Catholics, led by the ambitious Guise family, eventually formed the Catholic League and obtained Spanish support against the Protestant Henry of Navarre, the legal heir of Henry III. Navarre was supported by some moderate Catholics as well as by the Protestants. He defeated the League but had to accept Catholicism before being allowed to enter (1594) Paris. Ruling as Henry IV, he became the first Bourbon king of France. With his great minister, Sully, he made France prosperous once again and encouraged French explorers in Canada.
Religious freedom and political security for Protestants were promulgated in the Edict of Nantes (1598; see Nantes, Edict of), but after Henry's assassination (1610) by a Catholic fanatic the rights of the Huguenots were steadily reduced. Under his successor, Louis XIII (1610–43), and in the minority of Louis XIV, two great statesmen successively shaped the destiny of the kingdom—Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin. They led France to victory in the Thirty Years War (1618–48), which France entered openly in 1635, joining the Protestant allies against the Hapsburg powers, Austria and Spain. Austria was defeated in 1648 (see Westphalia, Peace of), Spain in 1659 (see Pyrenees, Peace of the). At home, Richelieu destroyed the political power of the Huguenots, and Mazarin overcame the nobles in the wars of the Fronde.
Louis XIV (1643–1715), aided by the genius of Jean Baptiste Colbert (d. 1683) and François Louvois, completed Richelieu's and Mazarin's work of centralization. Raising the position of the king to a dignity and prestige hitherto unknown in France, Louis XIV made France the first power in Europe and his court at Versailles the cynosure of Europe. But his many wars undermined French finances, and his persecution of the Huguenots (the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685) caused serious harm to the economy as thousands of merchants and skilled workers left France. His successes in the War of Devolution (1667–68) against Spain and the Dutch War (see Dutch Wars) of 1672–78 inspired all Europe with fear of French hegemony and resulted in the diplomatic isolation of France. The War of the Grand Alliance (1688–97) against Louis XIV began to turn the tide; the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), although it did not end with a clear victory over France, marked the end of French expansion in Europe. The reign of Louis XIV saw the height of French power in America. France, at the end of Louis's reign, was exhausted from its attempt at primacy; yet its latent strength and wealth were so great that it recovered prosperity within a few years.
Louis XV (1715–74) inherited a unified France, but a France still burdened by the remnants of feudalism. The
absolute power of the king was hedged in by a stupendous multitude of dusty charters and special privileges—often granted to remove the recipients from national politics—held by families, guilds, monopolies, communes, and provinces, and by the clergy and nobles. Taxes, although onerous, were raised inefficiently and inequitably, partly by the farmers general (see farming, in taxation), partly by the state. Commerce, based on mercantilism, was hampered by restrictive regulations, monopolies, and internal tariff barriers. Rural overpopulation outstripped the stagnant agricultural productivity. Colbert had reorganized the administration by curtailing the power of the provincial governors and by reestablishing the administrative units called intendancies, originated by Richelieu. The intendants were trusted civil servants who carried out the policies of the central government, but their capacity to break down local privilege was limited. In several provinces, notably Brittany, the local assemblies of the three estates retained the power to thwart reforms.
A more significant stronghold of aristocratic privilege and vested interests was the parlement; the parlements skillfully related their special interests to the still popular ideal of local liberty. The ever-expanding bourgeoisie as well as the large body of landowning farmers, however, were finding the remnants of feudal dues, services, and other customs increasingly intolerable. Economic reform became the rallying cry of the physiocrats and their disciples such as Turgot. Many philosophers of the Enlightenment, notably Voltaire, looked hopefully to the monarchy for administrative rationalization, but the crown's sporadic attempts at reform, particularly of finances, were hindered by the parlements. Operating under a system of outworn privilege, the wealthiest country in Europe was ruled by a government perennially on the verge of bankruptcy.
The honest administration (1726–43) of Cardinal Fleury had barely extricated France from the disastrous failure of the Mississippi Scheme (1720), when Louis XV plunged into the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48) and the Seven Years War (1756–63). Not only was the treasury drained, but France lost its empire in India and North America. Turgot's reforms, instituted early in the reign of Louis XVI (1774–92), were cut short in 1776, when he was dismissed. Seeking to avenge its defeat by Britain in the Seven Years War, France supported the American Revolution (1775–83). Financially, however, the war was a disaster for France.
In 1788, after neither Calonne nor Loménie de Brienne could get the necessary financial measures enacted, Necker was called back to office to attempt to repair the irreparable, and the States-General were convoked for the first time since 1614. Thus began the upheaval that shook Europe from 1789 to 1815 (see French Revolution; French Revolutionary Wars; Directory; Consulate; Napoleon I). The States-General were transformed into the National Assembly (1789); a constitutional monarchy was created (1791); war with much of Europe began, accompanied by violence and the growth of radical factions in France (1792); the king and queen were beheaded (1793); Robespierre presided over the Reign of Terror (1793–94) until his own execution.
A reaction ushered in the Directory (1795–99), terminated by Napoleon Bonaparte's coup. Napoleon made himself emperor (1804) and led his armies as far as Moscow. After his defeat at Waterloo (1815) virtually nothing remained for France from the Napoleonic conquests except the basis for a powerful legend. But Napoleonic administration and law (see Code Napoléon) left a permanent impact on France. From the ancien régime there reemerged the church (1801 Concordat with the Vatican) and an aristocracy less affluent and shorn of its feudal privileges but still influential.
The French Revolution and Napoleon established a uniform, modern administrative system, gave land tenure to the peasants, and left to the bourgeoisie a political heritage that they quickly reclaimed. The Congress of Vienna (1814–15; see Vienna, Congress of) restored the borders of 1790 and recognized Louis XVIII as France's legitimate sovereign. The king granted a moderately liberal charter but took France into the reactionary Holy Alliance. His successor, Charles X (1824–30), was the champion of the ultraroyalists.
Charles's efforts to restore absolutism led to the July Revolution of 1830, which enthroned Louis Philippe. The July Monarchy was a frank plutocracy run by the upper bourgeoisie. Under the
citizen king, France conquered Algeria (1830–38). The regime became increasingly autocratic, disregarding the plight of the new urban proletariat. Brought low by the unpopularity of the ministry of Guizot and by economic depression (1846–47), it fell in the February Revolution of 1848. The revolution was at first distinctly radical, but the bourgeoisie triumphed in the June Days.
In Dec., 1848, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I, was elected president of the Second Republic. In 1852, by a coup, he extended his term and then proclaimed himself emperor as Napoleon III. He emulated his uncle's autocratic regime at home and carried on a confused foreign policy with unrewarding wars (in Russia, Italy, and Mexico). The Second Empire was, however, a period of colonial expansion (in Senegal and Indochina) and of material prosperity. In 1869, Napoleon instituted a more liberal regime with a parliamentary government. But the empire ended disastrously in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), in which Alsace and Lorraine were lost to Germany until 1918.
The Third Republic (1870–1940) was proclaimed after Napoleon III was captured by the Prussians. After the bloody suppression of the Commune of Paris (1871) by the right-wing provisional government under Adolphe Thiers, Marshal MacMahon, a royalist sympathizer, was elected president (1873). But for the intransigence of Henri, comte de Chambord (the legitimist pretender), France might again have become a monarchy. A republican constitution was finally adopted in 1875. As the various parties combined, separated, and recombined into political blocs, new cabinets followed in quick succession.
The 1880s witnessed the expansion of railroads and public education; the latter revived the age-old quarrel in France between church and state. In 1905, after other issues had been added to the dispute, church and state were separated by law. After the rapid rise and fall (1888–89) of General Boulanger, the stability of France was once more shaken by the Dreyfus Affair (begun 1894), which discredited monarchists and reactionaries and brought anticlerical, moderate leftists to power. Socialism, led by Guesde and Jaurès, was now a major political force but was weakened by internal dissensions. In foreign policy the years before 1914 were marked by continued colonial expansion in Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, West Africa, Madagascar) and Indochina, bringing conflict with Great Britain (see Fashoda Incident) and with Germany (see Morocco). Eventually, France, England, and Russia allied themselves to balance the German-Austrian-Italian combination (see Triple Alliance and Triple Entente).
In World War I, France bore the brunt of the ground fighting in the west. Clemenceau was France's outstanding leader. At the Paris Peace Conference (see Versailles, Treaty of) France obtained heavy German reparations and the right to occupy the left bank of the Rhine for 15 years. When reparations payments were defaulted, France occupied the Ruhr (1923–25).
Outstanding among French political figures of the 1920s were Poincaré, Herriot, and Briand. By the middle of the decade relations with Germany had improved (see Locarno Pact). The depression of the 1930s was aggravated by the immobile economic policies of the government, and political complacency was rocked by the Stavisky Affair (1934). The Popular Front, a coalition led by Léon Blum, of Socialists, Radical Socialists, and Communists, won the elections of 1936; Popular Front governments (1936–38) enacted important social and labor reforms before being overturned by conservative opposition.
After Blum's fall, Édouard Daladier assented to the appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Spain favored by Britain and made France a party to the Munich Pact (1938). After the outbreak (1939) of World War II he was replaced by Paul Reynaud. In May–June, 1940, France was ignominiously defeated by Germany. Marshal Pétain became head of the Vichy government (see under Vichy) of unoccupied France (other Vichy leaders were Laval and Darlan), which became a German tool, while Gen. Charles de Gaulle proclaimed, from London, the continued resistance of the
Free French. The Allied invasion (Nov., 1942) of North Africa resulted (1943) in the establishment of a provisional Free French government at Algiers and in the complete German occupation of metropolitan France. De Gaulle's government moved to Paris after the city was liberated (Aug., 1944).
By the end of 1944 the Allies, with heroic aid from the French resistance, had expelled the Germans from France. German occupation had been costly and oppressive. Thousands had been executed and hundreds of thousands made slave laborers in Germany. The liberation campaign itself caused much destruction. Although reduced in power and prestige, France became one of the five great powers in the United Nations and shared in the occupation of Germany. De Gaulle became provisional president.
The Fourth Republic was officially proclaimed in 1946; the new constitution reorganized the empire as the French Union and was otherwise quite similar to that of the Third Republic. In the immediate postwar years the Communists, notably Maurice Thorez, a major figure in the PCF and a fixture in government throughout the Fourth Republic and into the Fifth, the moderate Mouvement Républicain Populaire, founded by Georges Bidault, and the Socialists were the strongest of the many political parties; the pattern of short-lived coalitions reappeared. Banks and major industries were nationalized. American aid (see Marshall Plan) helped rebuild the shattered economy. To further economic recovery and begin the political integration of Europe, France participated in creating the institutions of what has become the European Union, most notably the European Economic Community (Common Market).
French military resources were committed to the West by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). France sent thousands of soldiers to Indochina in an attempt to defeat the nationalist-Communist movement led by the Vietnamese Ho Chi Minh. The effort collapsed with the French defeat at Dienbienphu (May, 1954). Pierre Mendès-France came to power, determined to end French involvement. French withdrawal from Indochina was agreed upon at the Geneva Conference. Subsequently Morocco and Tunisia also achieved independence. But the war for independence in Algeria destroyed the Fourth Republic. When a right-wing French military coup in Algeria (1958) threatened to spread to metropolitan France, de Gaulle was invited back to power.
De Gaulle established the Fifth Republic and became its first president in Dec., 1958. The French Union was transformed into the French Community, and most of France's African holdings became independent by 1960. Algerian independence was negotiated despite a terrorist campaign by the Secret Army Organization (OAS) of extremist French soldiers. De Gaulle aimed at restoring France's prestige in world affairs. France became a nuclear power (1960). France blocked Britain's entrance into the European Economic Community and for a time (1965) boycotted the Market's meetings. Diplomatic recognition was extended (1964) to Communist China. In 1966, de Gaulle withdrew French forces from the integrated command of NATO and forced all U.S. and NATO forces to leave France, although he proclaimed adherence in the event of an
In the spring of 1968 widespread student demonstrations against France's obsolete educational system were joined by striking workers and farmers. De Gaulle dissolved the national assembly and, blaming the Communists for the disorders, won a great electoral victory (June, 1968). The Gaullist party won the first absolute majority in the assembly in French history. But de Gaulle resigned in Apr., 1969, after his proposals for regional reorganization and for revision of the senate were defeated in a referendum.
Georges Pompidou, a Gaullist, was elected president in June, 1969. He preserved de Gaulle's independent foreign policy but made innovations domestically, especially in devaluing the franc. In 1971, he reversed French policy and declared support for Britain's entrance into the European Community. Pompidou died suddenly in 1974 and was succeeded as president by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, his finance minister, who defeated Socialist leader François Mitterrand in a close presidential runoff election. Discontent with inflation and unemployment, dissension within the right wing between Giscard and RPR leader Jacques Chirac, and austerity measures imposed by Giscard combined to aid the Socialist party, and Mitterrand won the 1981 presidential election.
Mitterrand quickly dissolved the national assembly, and it became predominantly Socialist after new elections. To placate the Communist party, with which the Socialists had been allied since 1977, four Communist ministers were added to the cabinet. Many large industries (steel, nuclear energy, armaments), private banks, and insurance companies were nationalized, and minimum wage and social security benefits were increased. However, by 1982 the economic situation had worsened, in part because of decreased exports and pressure on the franc; the government devalued the franc, imposed a wage and price freeze, and granted tax concessions to business. In 1984 Mitterrand re-formed the government, excluding the Communists.
In 1986 a right-wing coalition won a majority in Parliament, and Jacques Chirac was appointed premier. He began a policy of privatizing state-owned companies. In the 1988 presidential election a right-wing candidate, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ran on an extreme anti-immigration platform and won a significant portion of first-round votes. Mitterrand, however, was reelected in the second round, defeating Chirac.
In 1991 France agreed to sign the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Mitterrand turned increasingly to foreign affairs and pursued a more moderate economic program. Nonetheless, in the 1993 elections, with the Socialists devastated by rising unemployment and corruption scandals, conservative parties captured nearly 85% of the seats in the national assembly, and Édouard Balladur, a Gaullist, became premier. The new government slashed interest rates and followed other policies aimed at stemming France's continuing recession. In 1995, Chirac was elected president, defeating Balladur and a Socialist candidate; he appointed Alain Juppé as premier.
France was beset by a host of problems in 1995, including severe floods and terror bombings; the government faced international criticism for its nuclear testing in the South Pacific, which it resumed after a three-year moratorium; and the country was paralyzed late in the year by a long transportation workers strike. The strike action was one of many that followed the announcement by Premier Juppé of a comprehensive plan to overhaul the massive social security system and to raise taxes—actions aimed at helping to reduce the budget deficit and enable France to qualify for European monetary union, which was achieved in 1999 (see European Monetary System). Chirac ended nuclear testing in 1996 and announced plans for scaling back French military deployment and phasing in an all-volunteer force.
Following parliamentary elections in 1997, Socialist Lionel Jospin became premier. In late 2000, Chirac was accused of involvement in a 1980s kickback scheme that provided funds for political parties when he was mayor of Paris, but he denied any knowledge of the scheme. The charges created political difficulties for Chirac but did not greatly affect his popularity. The Socialist parliament in 2001 approved a bill giving Corsica limited autonomy. The move was originally intended to end separatist violence there, but the year actually saw an increase in attacks, and the law was subsequently ruled in large part to be unconstitutional.
In the 2002 presidential and parliamentary elections Chirac won a resounding victory. Jospin, who ran against Chirac for the presidency, failed to make it into the runoff, where Chirac's opponent was the right-wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Jospin resigned as premier, and Chirac went on the win the presidency. The Socialists suffered a further setback in the national assembly elections, when the center-right alliance, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP; subsequently the Union for a Popular Movement), won three fifths of the seats. Jean-Pierre Raffarin was appointed premier by Chirac.
In 2002–3, as the Bush administration pushed for the abandonment of UN weapons inspections in Iraq and for the UN approval of the use of force to oust Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and disarm Iraq, President Chirac became one of the strongest international opponents of war. France threatened to veto any resolution that explicitly authorized the use of force, which led to acrimonious relations with the United States and Great Britain. France's strong stand, which was also supported by Germany, also led to divisions in the European Union and NATO, whose member governments disagreed on whether to use force against Iraq.
A referendum in July, 2003, calling for approval of a new Corsican assembly with limited autonomy (made possible by amendments to the constitution) failed to pass; the government had supported the measure in hopes of undercutting Corsican separatists. The following month an estimated 11,000 people, largely elderly, died as a result of a persistent heatwave in which temperatures in parts of the country rose to above 104°C (40°C).
Local and regional elections in Mar., 2004, resulted in a clear victory for the Socialists. The vote was seen as rejection of the government's moves to make changes in the French social welfare system, with its generous welfare, health-care, and pension benefits. The government subsequently also suffered losses in the September elections for the senate. In May, 2005, voters rejected the proposed new constitution for the European Union, resulting in a further embarrassment for the government, and Premier Raffarin resigned. Dominique de Villepin, who had been interior minister, succeeded Raffarin as premier.
In Oct., 2005, following strident comments by Interior Minister Sarkozy on urban violence linked to immigrants, and the accidental deaths of two black youths who were trying to hide from the police, nighttime riots by persons of African and Arab descent occurred in suburbs of Paris, spread to other Parisian suburbs, and in November spread to many other places in France. The government declared a state of emergency, which lasted for the rest of 2005, but provocative comments by some officials continued to feed immigrant resentment. The riots, which highlighted the alienation and poverty of the French of non-European descent, did not end until after mid-November.
A new national crisis arose in early 2006 when Villepin pushed through changes to French labor law that would make it easier to fire workers under age 26 during their first two years with a company. A series of demonstrations and strikes against the law occurred in Mar.–Apr., 2006. Although the law was enacted, in a setback for Villepin, he subsequently announced that it would be replaced by new legislation designed to reduce youth unemployment. Charges that Villepin had targeted (2004) Sarkozy for investigation by the secret service in an attempt to smear his party rival brought calls for Villepin to resign, but Chirac continued to support the premier. (Villepin was acquitted of the charges in 2010.)
Sarkozy secured the UMP nomination for president in Jan., 2007, while the Socialists had earlier nominated Ségolène Royal, the first woman to be a major party candidate for the office. Sarkozy led the crowded field after the first round in Apr., 2007, and soundly defeated Royal in the runoff in May. After taking office, Sarkozy appointed François Fillon, a former education and labor minister, as premier.
The UMP was expected to gain seats in the subsequent June parliamentary elections, but the party actually lost seats. It nonetheless retained a solid majority in the National Assembly. Proposed pension benefit changes and civil service job cuts led to a nine-day transport workers strike and shorter walkouts by other workers in Nov., 2007. Disenchantment with the economy and with Sarkozy's personal style and his very public divorce and remarriage since becoming president contributed to Socialist gains in the Mar., 2008, local elections.
Sarkozy won parliamentary approval in July, 2008, for constitutional amendments that limiting a person to two terms as president and increasing some of parliament's powers. In 2009, France decided to return its forces (except its nuclear forces) to NATO's military command. Though France weathered the 2008–9 global recession better than most European nations, the weak French economy and increasing unemployment contributed to a significant Socialist-led coalition win in regional elections in Mar., 2010. In October the government secured legislation changing the pension system (including raising the retirement age, a measure that was partially reversed in 2012) in order to reduce public deficits and debt; the changes sparked months of protests that culminated in October with a series of crippling strikes and protests.
The recession at times strained relations with Germany when the two leading eurozone nations disagreed over how to respond to its effects (both initially and in the early 2010s when soaring budget deficits affected Greece and some other eurozone nations), but Sarkozy generally supported the reliance on government austerities as a response to the eurozone fiscal crisis. The Socialists and their allies did well again in the Mar., 2011, local elections, largely repeating their 2010 success, and in September they won control of the French Senate for the first time since the Fifth Republic was established. The 2012 presidential elections resulted in a victory for the Socialists as François Hollande defeated Sarkozy after a runoff (May); Hollande named Socialist Jean-Marc Ayrault premier. In the June legislative elections, the Socialists and their allies won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly. In mid-2013 the new government enacted a number of labor reforms; a modest overhaul of the pension system's funding was passed in late 2013. A poor showing by the Socialists in the Mar., 2014, local elections led to Ayrault's resignation, and Hollande named Interior Minister Manuel Valls to succeed him. The Socialists also fared poorly in the Mar., 2015, local elections.
A Jan., 2015, an deadly attack in Paris, on a satirical magazine notorious for its cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and on a kosher grocery store, was claimed by Al Qaeda. A coordinated series of bombings and attacks in Paris on November 13, by terrorists associated with the Islamic State, killed 130 persons and injured several hundred. A state of emergency was declared (and subsequently continued into 2017) while security forces sought those terrorists who had escaped and also raided sites associated with the perpetrators and planners. In the first round of the subsequent regional elections (Dec., 2015), the National Front made record gains, but the party placed third after the final round of voting, which was won by the Republicans (the renamed UMP). July, 2016, saw another attack in which dozens were killed and hundreds injured, as a Tunisian man drove a truck through a Bastille Day crowd in Nice. That same month the government forced a further labor reform bill through the parliament; the law was opposed by many labor unions and had sparked several weeks of strikes.
Valls resigned as premier in Dec., 2016, to run for president; Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve was appointed to succeed him. In the 2017 presidential election, Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and finance minister in Hollande's government who ran as an independent, won April's first round, and the National Front's Marine Le Pen placed second; Macron easily defeated Le Pen in the May runoff, receiving two thirds of the vote. Macron appointed Édouard Philippe, a member of the Republican party, as premier. Macron's Republic Forward! movement and the allied Democratic Movement subsequently won a majority in the June National Assembly elections, but voter turnout was historically low. The September Senate elections left that body in control of the Republicans; that same month Macron enacted significant changes to France's labor laws by decree. Proposed changes to laws privileging workers in the national rail system led to strikes in 2018, but were enacted in June.
Opposition to planned increases in the fuel tax led to recurring public protests nationwide beginning in November. As the demonstrations continued (into 2019), they became more focused on the effects of the cost of living on poorer families, but were also marked by decreasing size and increasing violence. In response, the government halted the fuel tax rise, and later increased the minimum wage and adopted other measures, but it rejected a tax increases on the highest incomes, as many demonstrators sought. In late 2019 a proposed reorganization of the pension system led to strikes and protests that continued into early 2020; the changes were enacted by decree in Mar., 2020.
France was one of the European nations most severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, which caused a significant economic contraction. Dissatisfaction with the generally conservative approach of Macron's government led to his party's loss of its parliamentary majority through defections in May, and Green candidates experienced a surge in voter support in local elections in June. In July, Macron reorganized his cabinet, naming Jean Castex, a center-right technocrat, as premier, and generally giving the government a more conservative cast.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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