France has been inhabited for a very long time – since the members of the genus Homo entered the area hundreds of thousands of years ago, while the first modern Homo sapiens, the Cro-Magnons, arrived about 40,000 years ago. The large number of important archaeological sites in the country testifies to the continuous habitation by modern humans from as early as the Upper Paleolithic Era. The history of France can be divided into three simple and distinct time periods:
Prehistory and Antiquity
France’s oldest traces of human life date back approximately 1,800,000 years ago. In that time, men and women were confronted by a hard and variable climate, marked by several glacial eras which changed their way of life and led them to a nomadic lifestyle. France contains a large number of decorated caves from the upper Paleolithic era – the most famous and best preserved being Lascaux.
In the late Bronze Age, France was part of a maritime trading-network called the Atlantic Bronze Age – including Ireland, Britain, and the Iberian Peninsula. The first historical records appear in the Iron Age: in which what is now known as France was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans as Gaul. The Gauls were a Celtic people and spoke what is known as the Gaulish language. In the later stages of the Roman Empire, Gaul was subject to barbarian raids and migration – mostly by the Germanic Franks.
At the end of the Antiquity period, Gaul was split into different Germanic kingdoms and a remaining Gallo-Roman territory, known as the Kingdom of Syagrius.
Middle Ages and Revolution
During the French Renaissance, the people of “France” witnessed a long set of wars, known as the Italian Wars, between the kingdom of France and the powerful holy Roman empire. The middle ages and the revolution period also saw the first standardization of the French language – which would later become (and is today) the official language of France. Also during this time period, many French explorers (e.g., Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain) claimed lands in the Americas – driving the expansion of the first French colonial empire.
It was under Louis XIII that the centralization of the state was reinforced. The monarchy that was established reached its peak during the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV – whose personal power was unchallenged in the state. Louis XIV was responsible for a number of wars that made France the leading European power at the time – at which point, France had the largest population in Europe and had enormous influence over European politics, economy, and culture.
During the revolution, French became the most recognized language in diplomacy, science, literature and international fairs; and remained that way until the 20th century.
Monarchy to Republic
On the 14th of July, 1789, the previously acknowledged absolute monarchy was abolished and a constitutional monarchy was set in place. During this shift, France established fundamental rights of its citizens and all men through the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” The declaration (much like the United States constitution) affirmed “the natural and imprescriptible rights of man” to “liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.” Additionally, the declaration called for the destruction of any and all aristocratic privileges by decreeing an end to exemptions from taxes, freedom and equal rights, and access to public office based on talent rather than birth.
Obviously, the monarchy was extremely restricted and all citizens of France now possessed the right to take part in the legislative process. Also, freedom of speech and press were now openly acknowledged and indiscriminate arrests were outlawed. The greatest changes brought about by the declaration were the principles of popular sovereignty, as opposed to the previous divine right of kings (characteristic of the French monarchy) – this eliminated the privileges of the nobility and clergy.