Prehistory (before the 6th century BC)
The oldest traces of human life in what is now France date from approximately 1.8 million years ago. Humans were then confronted by a harsh and variable climate, marked by several glacial eras. Early homonids led a nomadic hunter-gatherer life. France has a large number of decorated caves from the upper Palaeolithic era, including one of the most famous and best preserved: Lascaux (approximately 18,000 BC).
At the end of the last glacial period (10,000 BC), the climate became milder; from approximately 7,000 BC, this part of Western Europe entered the Neolithic era and its inhabitants became sedentary. After strong demographic and agricultural development between the 4th and 3rd millennia, metallurgy appeared at the end of the 3rd millennium, initially working gold, copper and bronze, and later iron. France has numerous megalithic sites from the Neolithic period, including the exceptionally dense Carnac stones site (approximately 3,300 BC).
Antiquity (6th century BC–5th century AD)
The concept of Gaul emerged at that time; it corresponds to the territories of Celtic settlement ranging between the Rhine, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. The borders of modern France are roughly the same as those of ancient Gaul, which was inhabited by Celtic Gauls. Gaul was then a prosperous country, of which the southernmost part was heavily subject to Greek and Roman cultural and economic influences.
Around 390 BC the Gallic chieftain Brennus and his troops made their way to Italy through the Alps, defeated the Romans in the Battle of the Allia, and besieged and ransomed Rome. The Gallic invasion left Rome weakened, and the Gauls continued to harass the region until 345 BC when they entered into a formal peace treaty with Rome. But the Romans and the Gauls would remain adversaries for the next several centuries, and the Gauls would continue to be a threat in Italia.
Around 125 BC, the south of Gaul was conquered by the Romans, who called this region Provincia Nostra ("Our Province"), which over time evolved into the name Provence in French. Julius Caesar conquered the remainder of Gaul and overcame a revolt carried out by the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix in 52 BC. Gaul was divided by Augustus into Roman provinces. Many cities were founded during the Gallo-Roman period, including Lugdunum (present-day Lyon), which is considered the capital of the Gauls. These cities were built in traditional Roman style, with a forum, a theatre, a circus, an amphitheatre and thermal baths. The Gauls mixed with Roman settlers and eventually adopted Roman culture and Roman speech (Latin, from which the French language evolved). The Roman polytheism merged with the Gallic paganism into the same syncretism.
From the 250s to the 280s AD, Roman Gaul suffered a serious crisis with its fortified borders being attacked on several occasions by barbarians. Nevertheless, the situation improved in the first half of the 4th century, which was a period of revival and prosperity for Roman Gaul. In 312, the emperor Constantin I converted to Christianity. Subsequently, Christians, who had been persecuted until then, increased rapidly across the entire Roman Empire. But, from the beginning of the 5th century, the Barbarian Invasions resumed, and Germanic tribes, such as the Vandals, Suebi and Alans crossed the Rhine and settled in Gaul, Spain and other parts of the collapsing Roman Empire.
Early Middle Ages (5th century–10th century)
The pagan Franks, from whom the ancient name of "Francie" was derived, originally settled the north part of Gaul, but under Clovis I conquered most of the other kingdoms in northern and central Gaul. In 498, Clovis I was the first Germanic conqueror after the fall of the Roman Empire to convert to Catholic Christianity, rather than Arianism; thus France was given the title "Eldest daughter of the Church" (French: La fille aînée de l'Église) by the papacy, and French kings would be called "the Most Christian Kings of France" (Rex Christianissimus).
The Franks embraced the Christian Gallo-Roman culture and ancient Gaul was eventually renamed Francia ("Land of the Franks"). The Germanic Franks adopted Romanic languages, except in northern Gaul where Roman settlements were less dense and where Germanic languages emerged. Clovis made Paris his capital and established the Merovingian dynasty, but his kingdom would not survive his death. The Franks treated land purely as a private possession and divided it among their heirs, so four kingdoms emerged from Clovis's: Paris, Orléans, Soissons, and Rheims. The last Merovingian kings lost power to their mayors of the palace (head of household). One mayor of the palace, Charles Martel, defeated an Islamic invasion of Gaul at the Battle of Tours (732) and earned respect and power within the Frankish kingdoms. His son, Pepin the Short, seized the crown of Francia from the weakened Merovingians and founded the Carolingian dynasty. Pepin's son, Charlemagne, reunited the Frankish kingdoms and built a vast empire across Western and Central Europe.
Proclaimed Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III and thus establishing in earnest the French government's longtime historical association with the Catholic Church, Charlemagne tried to revive the Western Roman Empire and its cultural grandeur. Charlemagne's son, Louis I (emperor 814–840), kept the empire united; however, this Carolingian Empire would not survive his death. In 843, under the Treaty of Verdun, the empire was divided between Louis' three sons, with East Francia going to Louis the German, Middle Francia to Lothair I, and West Francia to Charles the Bald. West Francia approximated the area occupied by, and was the precursor, to modern France.
During the 9th and 10th centuries, continually threatened by Viking invasions, France became a very decentralised state: the nobility's titles and lands became hereditary, and the authority of the king became more religious than secular and thus was less effective and constantly challenged by powerful noblemen. Thus was established feudalism in France. Over time, some of the king's vassals would grow so powerful that they often posed a threat to the king. For example, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror added "King of England" to his titles, becoming both the vassal to (as Duke of Normandy) and the equal of (as king of England) the king of France, creating recurring tensions.
Late Middle Ages (10th century–15th century)
The Carolingian dynasty ruled France until 987, when Hugh Capet, Duke of France and Count of Paris, was crowned King of the Franks. His descendants—the Capetians, the House of Valois, and the House of Bourbon—progressively unified the country through wars and dynastic inheritance into the Kingdom of France, which was fully declared in 1190 by Philip II Augustus. The French nobility played a prominent role in most Crusades in order to restore Christian access to the Holy Land. French knights made up the bulk of the steady flow of reinforcements throughout the two-hundred-year span of the Crusades, in such a fashion that the Arabs uniformly referred to the crusaders as Franj caring little whether they really came from France. The French Crusaders also imported the French language into the Levant, making French the base of the lingua franca (litt. "Frankish language") of the Crusader states. French knights also comprised the majority in both the Hospital and the Temple orders. The latter, in particular, held numerous properties throughout France and by the 13th century were the principal bankers for the French crown, until Philip IV annihilated the order in 1307. The Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209 to eliminate the heretical Cathars in the southwestern area of modern-day France. In the end, the Cathars were exterminated and the autonomous County of Toulouse was annexed into the kingdom of France. Later kings expanded their domain to cover over half of modern continental France, including most of the north, centre and west of France. Meanwhile, the royal authority became more and more assertive, centred on a hierarchically conceived society distinguishing nobility, clergy, and commoners.
Charles IV the Fair died without an heir in 1328. Under the rules of the Salic law the crown of France could not pass to a woman nor could the line of kingship pass through the female line. Accordingly, the crown passed to Philip of Valois, a cousin of Charles, rather than through the female line to Charles' nephew, Edward, who would soon become Edward III of England. During the reign of Philip of Valois, the French monarchy reached the height of its medieval power. Philip's seat on the throne was contested by Edward III of England and in 1337, on the eve of the first wave of the Black Death, England and France went to war in what would become known as the Hundred Years' War. The exact boundaries changed greatly with time, but French landholdings of the English Kings remained extensive for decades. With charismatic leaders, such as Joan of Arc and La Hire, strong French counterattacks won back English continental territories. Like the rest of Europe, France was struck by the Black Death; half of the 17 million population of France died.
Early modern period (15th century–1789)
The French Renaissance saw a spectacular cultural development and the first standardisation of the French language, which would become the official language of France and the language of Europe's aristocracy. It also saw a long set of wars, known as the Italian Wars, between the Kingdom of France and the powerful Holy Roman Empire. French explorers, such as Jacques Cartier or Samuel de Champlain, claimed lands in the Americas for France, paving the way for the expansion of the First French colonial empire. The rise of Protestantism in Europe led France to a civil war known as the French Wars of Religion, where, in the most notorious incident, thousands of Huguenots were murdered in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572. The Wars of Religion were ended by Henry IV's Edict of Nantes, which granted some freedom of religion to the Huguenots.
Under Louis XIII, the energetic Cardinal Richelieu reinforced the centralisation of the state, royal power and French dominance in Europe, foreshadowing the reign of Louis XIV. During Louis XIV's minority and the regency of Queen Anne and Cardinal Mazarin, a period of trouble known as the Fronde occurred in France, which was at that time at war with Spain. This rebellion was driven by the great feudal lords and sovereign courts as a reaction to the rise of royal power in France.
Versailles, Louis XIV's personal power became unchallenged. Remembered for his numerous wars, he made France the leading European power. France became the most populous country in Europe and had tremendous influence over European politics, economy, and culture. French became the most-used language in diplomacy, science, literature and international affairs, and remained so until the 20th century. France obtained many overseas possessions in the Americas, Africa and Asia. Louis XIV also revoked the Edict of Nantes, forcing thousands of Huguenots into exile.
Under Louis XV, Louis XIV's grandson, France lost New France and most of its Indian possessions after its defeat in the Seven Years' War, which ended in 1763. Its European territory kept growing, however, with notable acquisitions such as Lorraine (1766) and Corsica (1770). An unpopular king, Louis XV's weak rule, his ill-advised financial, political and military decisions – as well as the debauchery of his court– discredited the monarchy, which arguably paved the way for the French Revolution 15 years after his death.
Louis XVI, Louis XV's grandson, actively supported the Americans, who were seeking their independence from Great Britain (realised in the Treaty of Paris (1783)). The financial crisis that followed France's involvement in the American Revolutionary War was one of many contributing factors to the French Revolution. Much of the Enlightenment occurred in French intellectual circles, and major scientific breakthroughs and inventions, such as the discovery of oxygen (1778) and the first hot air balloon carrying passengers (1783), were achieved by French scientists. French explorers, such as Bougainville and Lapérouse, took part in the voyages of scientific exploration through maritime expeditions around the globe. The Enlightenment philosophy, in which reason is advocated as the primary source for legitimacy and authority, undermined the power of and support for the monarchy and helped pave the way for the French Revolution.
Modern period (1789–1914)
Facing financial troubles, Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General (gathering the three Estates of the realm) in May 1789 to propose solutions to his government. As it came to an impasse, the representatives of the Third Estate formed into a National Assembly, signalling the outbreak of the French Revolution. Fearing that the king would suppress the newly created National Assembly, insurgents stormed the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a date which would become France's National Day.
The absolute monarchy was subsequently replaced by a constitutional monarchy. Through the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, France established fundamental rights for men. The Declaration affirms "the natural and imprescriptible rights of man" to "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression". Freedom of speech and press were declared, and arbitrary arrests outlawed. It called for the destruction of aristocratic privileges and proclaimed freedom and equal rights for all men, as well as access to public office based on talent rather than birth. While Louis XVI, as a constitutional king, enjoyed popularity among the population, his disastrous flight to Varennes seemed to justify rumours he had tied his hopes of political salvation to the prospects of foreign invasion. His credibility was so deeply undermined that the abolition of the monarchy and establishment of a republic became an increasing possibility.
European monarchies gathered against the new régime, to restore the French absolute monarchy. The foreign threat exacerbated France's political turmoil and deepened the sense of urgency among the various factions and war was declared against Austria on 20 April 1792. Mob violence occurred during the insurrection of 10 August 1792 and the following month. As a result of this violence and the political instability of the constitutional monarchy, the Republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792.
Louis XVI was convicted of treason and guillotined in 1793. Facing increasing pressure from European monarchies, internal guerrilla wars and counterrevolutions (such as the War in the Vendée or the Chouannerie), the young Republic fell into the Reign of Terror. Between 1793 and 1794, between 16,000 and 40,000 people were executed. In Western France, the civil war between the Bleus ("Blues", supporters of the Revolution) and the Blancs ("Whites", supporters of the Monarchy) lasted from 1793 to 1796 and led to the loss of between 200,000 and 450,000 lives. Both foreign armies and French counter-revolutionaries were crushed and the French Republic survived. Furthermore, it extended greatly its boundaries and established "Sister Republics" in the surrounding countries. As the threat of a foreign invasion receded and France became mostly pacified, the Thermidorian Reaction put an end to Robespierre's rule and to the Terror. The abolition of slavery and male universal suffrage, enacted during this radical phase of the revolution, were cancelled by subsequent governments.
After a short-lived governmental scheme, Napoleon Bonaparte seized control of the Republic in 1799 becoming First Consul and later Emperor of the French Empire (1804–1814/1815). As a continuation of the wars sparked by the European monarchies against the French Republic, changing sets of European Coalitions declared wars on Napoleon's Empire. His armies conquered most of continental Europe with swift victories such as the battles of Jena-Auerstadt or Austerlitz. He redrew the European political map, while members of the Bonaparte family were appointed as monarchs in some of the newly established kingdoms. These victories led to the worldwide expansion of French revolutionary ideals and reforms, such as the Metric system, the Napoleonic Code and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. After the catastrophic Russian campaign, and the ensuing uprising of European monarchies against his rule, Napoleon was defeated and the Bourbon monarchy restored. About a million Frenchmen died during the Napoleonic Wars.
Contemporary period (1914–present)
In 1940 France was invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany. Metropolitan France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and Vichy France, a newly established authoritarian regime collaborating with Germany, in the south, while Free France, the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle, was set up in London. From 1942 to 1944, about 160,000 French citizens, including around 75,000 Jews, were deported to death camps and concentration camps in Germany and Poland. On 6 June 1944 the Allies invaded Normandy and in August they invaded Provence. Over the following year the Allies and the French Resistance emerged victorious over the Axis powers and French sovereignty was restored with the establishment of the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF). This interim government, established by de Gaulle, aimed to continue to wage war against Germany and to purge collaborators from office. It also made several important reforms (suffrage extended to women, creation of a social security system).
The GPRF laid the groundwork for a new constitutional order that resulted in the Fourth Republic, which saw spectacular economic growth (les Trente Glorieuses). France was one of the founding members of NATO (1949). France attempted to regain control of French Indochina but was defeated by the Viet Minh in 1954 at the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. Only months later, France faced another anti-colonialist conflict in Algeria. Torture and illegal executions were perpetrated by both sides and the debate over whether or not to keep control of Algeria, then home to over one million European settlers, wracked the country and nearly led to a coup and civil war.
In 1958, the weak and unstable Fourth Republic gave way to the Fifth Republic, which included a strengthened Presidency. In the latter role, Charles de Gaulle managed to keep the country together while taking steps to end the war. The Algerian War was concluded with the Évian Accords in 1962 that led to Algerian independence. A vestige of the colonial empire are the French overseas departments and territories.
In the context of the Cold War, de Gaulle pursued a policy of "national independence" towards the Western and Eastern blocs. To this end, he withdrew from NATO's military integrated command, he launched a nuclear development programme and made France the fourth nuclear power. He restored cordial Franco-German relations in order to create a European counterweight between the American and Soviet spheres of influence. However, he opposed any development of a supranational Europe, favouring a Europe of sovereign Nations. In the wake of the series of worldwide protests of 1968, the revolt of May 1968 had an enormous social impact. In France, it is considered to be the watershed moment when a conservative moral ideal (religion, patriotism, respect for authority) shifted towards a more liberal moral ideal (secularism, individualism, sexual revolution). Although the revolt was a political failure (as the Gaullist party emerged even stronger than before) it announced a split between the French people and de Gaulle who resigned shortly after.
In the post-Gaullist era, France remained one of the most developed economies in the World, but faced several economic crises that resulted in high unemployment rates and increasing public debt. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries France has been at the forefront of the development of a supranational European Union, notably by signing the Maastricht Treaty (which created the European Union) in 1992, establishing the Eurozone in 1999, and signing the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. France has also gradually but fully reintegrated into NATO and has since participated in most NATO sponsored wars.
Since the 19th century France has received many immigrants. These have been mostly male foreign workers from European Catholic countries who generally returned home when not employed. During the 1970s France faced economic crisis and allowed new immigrants (mostly from the Maghreb) to permanently settle in France with their families and to acquire French citizenship. It resulted in hundreds of thousands of Muslims (especially in the larger cities) living in subsidised public housing and suffering from very high unemployment rates. Simultaneously France renounced the assimilation of immigrants, where they were expected to adhere to French traditional values and cultural norms. They were encouraged to retain their distinctive cultures and traditions and required merely to integrate.
Since the 1995 Paris Métro and RER bombings, France has been sporadically targeted by Islamist organisations, notably the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 which provoked the largest public rallies in French history, gathering 4.4 million people, the November 2015 Paris attacks which resulted in 130 deaths, the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II, and the deadliest in the European Union since the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the 2016 Nice attack which caused 87 deaths during Bastille Day celebrations.