Many thousands of centuries BC, cave dwellers inhabited the territory of present-day France. Traces of successive early civilisations have been discovered all over France, and the megalithic monuments from the Stone Age are great tourist attractions. Brittany is especially noted for its standing stones, where the alignments at Carnac, consisting of over 3,000 stones erected between 5,000-2,000BC, form the largest and most famous megalithic site anywhere in the world.
A lot of sights and history
The Celts and Druids arrived some 800 years BC, introducing the Celtic language, which is the basic root of today’s Breton language. The next arrivals were the Phoenicians, who built Nice, Antibes, Marseilles and other cities in southern France that are now popular holiday destinations. During the last century BC, the Romans conquered Gaul, bringing the area of present-day France, Belgium, and Switzerland within their growing Empire and dividing it into provinces. Some impressive public buildings and structures erected by the Romans have survived, such as the Pont du Gard near Nîmes, which attracts more than a million visitors each year.
By the end of the 5th century AD, the Roman Empire was disintegrating, and the Franks occupied Gaul. The western part, named Frankia, had its own king and eventually its own language. The Vikings or Norsemen, the ancestors of today’s Normans, invaded the northern part of Frankia around 820, and Normandy became an independent state. In 1066 the Norman king William the Conqueror conquered England, and thereafter Anglo-French politics developed into something of a power struggle that continued for centuries. One of the famous figures to emerge towards the end of this conflict was the Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc. She inspired the French armies to victory in battle, but her outrageous claims led to her being burned at stake as a heretic. Two decades after Joan’s death, England gave up its claim to France, ending the Hundred Years’ War.
During the Middle Ages a distinct French culture had evolved. Troubadours were encouraged at the court Eleanor of Aquitaine in the second half of the 12th century, before the onset of the Hundred Years War, and music, poetry and literature had become an important part of mediaeval life in France. The tradition of courtly love, upon which the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are based, is believed to have started at Eleanor’s court in Poitiers.
With peace restored in 1451, France re-established itself and many residential châteaux were built. The Italian Renaissance style was widely adopted in France. The Renaissance was based upon a revival of classical values and traditions, and this is reflected in French music, literature, painting, and architecture of the period. Châteaux built in the Loire Valley during the reign of François I, with their elaborate pillars and ornate decorative motifs, are admired by tourists from all over the world.
In the second half of the 16th century, the Wars of Religion raged in France. Fighting continued between Catholics and Protestants or Huguenots until a truce was called in 1598. The century that followed is sometimes called the ‘grand siècle’ or the great century. National pride was high, French society became increasingly sophisticated and intellectual pursuits came to the fore. Famous French playwrights including Racine, Molière and Corneille emerged during the 17th century. The palace of Versailles was built during this period.
However, the widening gulf between the nobility in their chateaux and the lower classes who were close to starvation eventually led to revolution. Set in motion in 1789, the French Revolution resulted in the abolition of the monarchy and a republican government was established, founded on the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Napoleon I, famous for his empire-building campaigns, became France’s first Emperor in 1800. The success of the French Revolution is celebrated every year on 14th July, a public holiday in France when festivals, concerts, and firework displays take place all over the country.
The 19th century was characterised by industrialisation in France. During the 20th century, France was involved in the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 world wars; these events are well documented in war museums, particularly in northern France. In 1957 France was a founder member of the European Economic Community, adopting the euro in 2002. France and the UK co-operated on two of the 20th century’s most outstanding engineering achievements: Concorde, the supersonic aircraft in service from 1976 to 2003, and the Channel Tunnel, which opened in 1994 and has been a great boon to cross-Channel travellers ever since. Currently Mister François Hollande is the President of France.