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About this book

Few modern countries can boast of such a lengthy history as France, whose distinctive shape has been a key feature of the successive stages of European history during the past millennium. This engaging narrative seamlessly weaves together the complex tale of French history since the year 1000.

Bringing together political, religious, social and cultural developments, A History of France provides an insightful and readable overview of the country's history as it moved from a dominant position within Europe – with an empire stretching across the continents – to one in which it was invaded and occupied by its largest neighbour. Through revolution, war and peace, Joseph Bergin explores how the Frankland of 1000 CE has mutated into the France we know today.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
If the past is a foreign country where things are done differently, then what is it that makes a country ‘foreign’ except its past? Neither isolation nor distance alone can explain it, as the numerous differences between those nearest of neighbours, England and France, suggest. Endlessly commented upon, yet never quite clarified, the centuries-old friction between them has notoriously been a breeding ground for xenophobic or nationalist sentiments on both sides of the Channel. The presence of France has been so familiar on the map of Europe for the past millennium that it can feel like a simple fact of nature. Its shape — a subject to which we shall return later — seems no less ‘obvious’, but on examination it proves a far more complex question. Of course, it helped that, apart from England (or Britain), France did not have enduringly ‘noisy’, let alone dangerous, neighbours until the mid-nineteenth century. The Habsburg empire of the early modern period is often considered as such. But formidable as it was in its time, that empire’s loose, composite structure and its internal problems ensured that its efforts to ‘encircle’ France, which were much exaggerated at the time, never produced invasions remotely like those of 1870, 1914, or 1940.
Joseph Bergin

1. Capetian Beginnings

Abstract
Anyone searching for an unarguable birth-date for the entity that would become known as France in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman empire is likely to be severely frustrated. During the half-millennium or more after the invasion and settlement of Germanic peoples across Roman Gaul, successive kingdoms rose and fell, partly because their rulers all shared an imperative habit of sub-dividing their territories among their surviving sons. The numerous partitions of these lands show scarcely any wider logic or continuity beyond dynastic considerations. The tripartite division of Charlemagne’s vast empire in 843, which many have seen as a key moment precisely because its western kingdom came close to resembling the France of later centuries, was no exception. If anything, notions of territorial continuity weakened even further because of the numerous partitions made and unmade after 843.
Joseph Bergin

2. A Society and Polity in Crisis and Recovery

Abstract
Around 1320, few could have foreseen that Philip the Fair’s formidable kingdom, which had recently faced down the papacy and brought it submissively to reside in Avignon, would shortly be plunged into an apparently interminable war that was both ‘civil’ and ‘external’, or that epidemics and their associates would prove no less destructive (see Map 2). Crucially, these deadly horsemen of the Apocalypse often struck simultaneously, thus multiplying each other’s individual effects. Not until the 1450s approximately would they be sufficiently overcome to inaugurate a long century of renaissance. This rebirth should not be seen in a narrow artistic or literary perspective, important as that was. The challenges of the 1300s and 1400s led to social and political changes that would only become fully visible by the early 1500s. France’s revival was such that in 1519, its king, Francis I, only narrowly failed in his attempt to become Holy Roman Emperor and thus a new Charlemagne. That failure may have been a blessing in disguise, as it sparked a considerable effort to elevate the monarchy and nation of France above its European neighbours.
Joseph Bergin

3. The Ancien Régime in the Making

Abstract
Until the late 1550s, it seemed that France and the Spanish lands (the Netherlands included) had avoided the upheavals of the Protestant reformations in neighbouring countries. Since the 1520s, France had its own circles of active humanist reformers, led by disciples of the cosmopolitan Erasmus, who sought orderly reform ‘from above’. By contrast, Lutheran ideas made little headway, and their adherents were easily contained. By the 1550s, however, the landscape had changed. A younger generation of determined reformers was increasingly inspired by John Calvin, who fled during the 1530s from Paris to Strasbourg and Geneva, where he had painfully established a reformed church that was deeply hostile to Catholicism, and even to Lutheranism. From 1534 to 1557, royal legislation to root out heresy and to identify it with political sedition grew ever more draconian, forcing many ‘heretics’ into exile. Despite the risks of being executed if caught, many returned clandestinely to France as itinerant preachers and, once the new ‘Genevan’ churches had been established there, as their pastors. The impetus seemed increasingly with the reformers, though, who by 1561 claimed to have 2,000 churches (more than double the real number) and, by 1565, perhaps two million adherents, the great majority of whom were town-dwellers. Repression had failed, as the royal law-courts proved either unwilling or incapable of containing the growing threat of religious ‘sedition’.
Joseph Bergin

4. From Enlightenment to Empire

Abstract
For generations the Enlightenment was considered a French phenomenon that naturally migrated across Europe as part of France’s continent-wide cultural and intellectual dominance. As proof, it sufficed to cite the names of a handful of its best-known philosophes — Voltaire and Diderot — and their extensive connections and influence, especially among ‘enlightened’ rulers across Europe. It was no less firmly believed that the French Revolution and the wider modernity that it engendered were the direct offspring of the same intellectual explosion; the quip that ‘the Revolution was Voltaire’s fault’ itself dates from the early 1790s. Such a causal construction has been questioned, even rejected, in more recent times, with several accounts of the Enlightenment finding its origins and main inspirations elsewhere — in Scotland, England, or the Dutch republic. In these accounts, France’s ‘lights’ appear alongside other ‘national’ ones, but not as the originators of radically new ideas. However, the French Enlightenment and its impact has never been a purely intellectual matter. Endlessly scrutinised, celebrated, or denounced, its precise role in the most radical upheaval of the age, the Revolution, remains as intriguing as ever. If more radical ideas circulated elsewhere before 1789, there is little evidence that they produced proportionately radical change. Rather than ‘causing’ the Revolution, the Enlightenment proved invaluable to revolutionaries searching for ideas to legitimate their innovations.
Joseph Bergin

5. Obstructed Paths

Abstract
The question of the ‘true’ impact of the French Revolution — was it economic, social, political, or cultural? — will doubtless continue to exercise historians, but it will not affect its wider significance as a major break in French history. For much of the nineteenth century its legacy was too immediate and divisive for such detached consideration. With some exceptions, such as the ban on associations, its main legal, social, and economic changes were widely accepted, but the threat (or fear) that they might be reversed remained alive during the generation after 1815. This chapter begins by exploring the politics of a society that, despite its profound conservatism, continued to experience revolutionary upheavals that both revived such fears and expectations and generated new political alignments and ideologies.
Joseph Bergin

6. Dangers and Difficulties

Abstract
The impact of the upheavals that punctuated French history from the fall of one Napoleon to another is most obvious within the political sphere. Each violent change of regime added to the existing roster of disgruntled, defeated ‘parties’ biding their time until the moment of their return to power arrived. However, as the early years of the Third Republic show, most of them had to swallow, often reluctantly, compromises with groups they thoroughly disliked in order to stave off the outcomes they feared most. Such behaviour and choices finally made a republic the lowest common denominator, but with so many supporting it faute de mieux, political life was also bound to remain deeply fractious, which in turn was exacerbated by the absence of real party-political organisations. Contemporaries were, to use their own vocabulary, acutely aware of the gap between the pays légal (the political world) and the pays réel (French society), behind which lay the still unresolved and bitterly disputed legacy of the Revolution itself. But political affiliations were closely entangled with many other questions, which meant rival and shifting approaches to subjects like economic development, education, the press, religion, poverty, social protest, and so on. With German unification, France’s historic position as Europe’s most imposing nation-state, whose past inspired nationalists and radicals across the continent, was rudely challenged. By comparison, Napoleon III’s efforts to restore its past imperial glory were chimerical, and ended with France being more effectively surrounded on all sides than at any time in previous centuries.
Joseph Bergin

7. Two Wars and a Peace

Abstract
There has never been any doubt in France as to which of the two world wars was the ‘great war’. The passage of time has not altered the fact that between 11 November 1918 and 8 May 1945 there is really no competition, as was tacitly admitted by Giscard d’Estaing’s abortive attempt in the late 1970s to roll the two dates into one (11 November) for commemorative purposes. Despite its satisfactory outcome, France’s participation in the 1939–45 war was brief and largely inglorious by comparison with 1914–18, when it was the key theatre of operations from beginning to end. That experience would dominate public life and popular attitudes for the entire inter-war period, whereas even now the legacy of 1939–45 remains confused and contested. The France that went so unwillingly to war in 1939 was still traumatised by the impact of the great war. This is hardly surprising: the price paid for averting a repeat of the debacle of 1870 in 1914–18 was, by any standards, exceptional.
Joseph Bergin

8. The Trente glorieuses and After

Abstract
During the victory promenade on the Champs-Elysées in August 1944, de Gaulle famously refused a call to ‘proclaim the Republic’. He rejected such a pronunciamento on the grounds that the Republic had never been abolished and Vichy was merely an illegitimate parenthesis that could now be closed. For all its consistency and political necessity, this stance could not resolve the practical problems at hand. There was widespread support for political changes that would remedy the Third Republic’s long-acknowledged defects. De Gaulle himself was known to favour a much stronger executive within the political system. The rapidity with which he closed down potential rivals (resistance councils, military groups, and so on) to state institutions in 1944 was designed both to prevent civil strife and accelerate orderly political change. An unusually elaborate political consultation followed and was only completed in November 1946. French voters, who included women for the first time, went to the polls no fewer than eight times during 1945–6, before a new constitution and republic — the fourth — were finalised and became operational in January 1947.
Joseph Bergin

Epilogue

Abstract
When Jacques Chirac finally made it to the Elysée in the 1995 presidential elections, he was emulating his long-time rival and predecessor, Mitterrand, who had also been elected at his third attempt; and like Mitterrand, he went on to serve a second term, though one of five rather than, as hitherto, seven years. Both presidents benefited from having the biggest, best structured, and most disciplined parties at their disposal. In order to distance himself from the Mitterrand regime, Chirac campaigned energetically on the theme of France as a fractured society needing reform. Such a strategy was risky because the promises he made were bound to raise popular expectations almost in inverse proportion to their lack of specific detail. Crucially, the need for belt-tightening in order to meet the Maastricht criteria in preparation for the arrival in 1999 of the new currency, the euro, soon clashed with, and then took precedence over, reform. Very quickly, individual plans (e.g. reform the social security system, reduce budget deficits) and particular actions (e.g. against illegal immigrants) made the government led by Alain Juppé extremely unpopular. Within just six months, the biggest wave of strikes and protests since 1968 crippled the country and dominated public life for weeks (Nov.–Dec. 1995). In early 1997, Chirac finally concluded that only early parliamentary elections could extricate the government from creeping paralysis and deliver a renewed mandate for reform.
Joseph Bergin
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