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Overview of the history of France


George Clemenceau in France
George Clemenceau in France

France has enjoyed a clear sense of its own identity in the modern period, but this identity took a very long time to develop. The term France did not refer uniquely to the territory now identified with the French nation until the end of the Middle Ages. The French language took a standardized form only in the 17th century. As late as the 19th century, a quarter of the population residing in France did not speak standard French. Roman Catholicism, the religion of the vast majority of French people today, was also adopted very slowly. Some historians argue that the majority of French people did not practice Catholic rituals and accept Catholic doctrines in their orthodox form before the 18th century. The French state took centuries to build. Until 1789 the French people lived under some 400 separate codes of civil law. They were better described as subjects of a king than as citizens of a nation. Similarly, not until the 19th century did a true national economy form out of several regional ones. The history of France, then, is not the story of a fixed entity over thousands of years. Rather, it is the history of many processes that, more by coincidence than plan, turned an increasing number of people into Frenchmen and Frenchwomen in the last few centuries.

Geography has played a major role in the development of the nation. France, today referred to as the “hexagon” because of the country’s roughly hexagonal shape, is located at the western end of Eurasia. France is the only European nation that borders on both the Mediterranean Sea and the northern edge of Europe, and it is the only one that faces both central Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. All these exposures have influenced the development of France’s economy, government, and culture. Its location has forced France to protect itself on both land and sea. For this reason, it developed a strong army and, in modern times, a respectably sized navy.

France’s long coastlines and several long navigable rivers allowed easy access to many parts of the hexagon long before the coming of rail transportation. The absence of high mountain ranges within the interior also facilitated political and economic unification.

Yet the history of the French nation cannot be reduced to its geography. Natural forces were less important in cementing together the French hexagon than were cultural and, especially, political forces. France was effectively unified for the first time by the ancient Romans. The Romans incorporated it, along with other bordering territories, as Gaul within their sprawling empire in the 1st century bc. Once the Roman Empire disintegrated in the 5th century ad, the region was united to the rest of western and central Europe by its growing attachment to the Roman Catholic Church. In the Middle Ages, a series of royal dynasties laid claim to what would become France. But they could not back their claims with an effective administration for many centuries. The Valois and Bourbon dynasties in the early modern period developed a larger military and civilian bureaucracy, which enabled the monarchy to pacify the region and extend

France’s boundaries. As part of their efforts to build a state, these dynasties helped establish a specifically French culture. In 1789 the monarchy was overthrown in one of the world’s greatest revolutions. The French Revolution opened up a century and a half of political instability as defenders battled opponents of the revolutionary heritage. Despite this internal strife, the nation remained robust enough to develop a modern industrial economy, build and lose a vast colonial empire, fight in two world wars, become a nuclear power, and establish itself as a major center of the arts and sciences. France is now negotiating to integrate itself politically and economically with the rest of Europe as it has not done since antiquity. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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