France at a Glance

Where did it all go wrong?

Your step-by-step guide to the history, heroes and legends of France, from 25,000 BC to 2000, that made the country what it is today.

28,000 BC: Cro-Magnon notation, possibly of phases of the moon, carved onto bone, discovered at Blanchard, France. 

2,500-50 BC: Celtic Bronze Age. France is populated by tribes of brutish, finger-sniffing Celts. Life is so miserable the only fun is invading the neighbours. In 390 BC, one tribe under Brennus pops over the Alps and sacks Rome.


Brennus: The Sore Winner "Quintus Sulpicius conferred with the Gallic chieftain Brennus and together they agreed upon the price, one-thousand-pounds weight of gold – the price of a nation soon to rule the world. Insult was added to what was already sufficiently disgraceful, for the weights which the Gauls brought for weighing the metal were heavier than standard, and when the Roman commander objected, the insolent barbarian flung his sword into the scale, saying 'Vae Victis’ (Woe to the vanquished!’) Livy, Ab Urbe Condita


52 BC: Lutetia is built, the future Paris.

58-51 BC The Gallic Wars: With 43,000 men, Julius Caesar overruns the place, conquering 800 towns, subduing 300 tribes and selling one million people into slavery. Finally, he defeats a union of Gauls, under Vercingetorix at Alesia. Gaul is inducted into the Roman Empire.


Vercingetorix: The Main Feature Chieftain of the Arverni Gauls, led the great Gallic revolt against the Romans in 53-52 BC. Breaking a previously given allegiance to Rome, he unified the tribes with a dramatic new strategy - systematic retreat from fortification to fortification after burning towns and crops before the Romans’ advance. Caesar eventually caught up with him at Alesia. Vercingetorix surrendered and was imprisoned in Rome for five years, before being publicly displayed at Caesar's triumph in 46 BC. As a show-stopping climax to the celebrations, Caesar had him strangled.


AD 400: With the Roman Empire in decline, Gaul suffers raids from tribes over the Rhine. One set of tribes, the Franks, beats off competition from Vandals, Visigoths and Huns to claim the place. Merovingian king Clovis weans the inhabitants from worshipping rivers and sacred pigs to Christianity.


Clovis: Don’t Cross Me “The soldiers had borne away from a church, with all the other ornaments of the holy ministry, a vase of marvellous size and beauty... The king pointed to this vase, and said: "I ask you, O most valiant warriors, not to refuse to me the vase in addition to my rightful part.”… One of the soldiers raised his battle-axe aloft and crushed the vase with it, crying, "Thou shalt receive nothing of this unless a just lot give it to thee"… When a year had passed he ordered the whole army to come fully equipped to the Campus Martius... The king came to the breaker of the vase, and said to him, "No one bears his arms so clumsily as thou" And seizing his axe, he cast it on the ground. And when the soldier had bent a little to pick it up the king raised his hands and crushed his head with his own axe. "Thus”, he said, "didst thou to the vase at Soissons." Geoffery of Tours, History of the Franks.


751: Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, elected first Carolingian king. Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, becomes king in 768 AD and, running against the entire grain of French history, successfully invades Germany.


Pepin II ("Pepin the Short"): Little Man, Big Tool Frankish monarch, mayor (741-751) and king of the Franks (751–768). “Perhaps surprisingly, Pepin the Short (Charlemagne's father) was a mighty warrior. Though only 3'6" tall, Pepin carried a two-handed sword which measured six feet in length.” Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts (1985)


800: France is raided by Vikings who burn Paris. Charles the Simple pays them off by giving them Normandy. Becoming Normans, they invade England, becoming English. The English reinvade France. Only when Richard I of England decides invading the Holy Land is more of a challenge than invading France does France’s Philip II get his country back.


Charles The Simple Pays off the Normans “Rollo the Dane refused to kiss the foot of Charles when he received from him the duchy of Normandy. "He who receives such a gift”, said the bishops to him, "ought to kiss the foot of the king." "Never”, replied he, "will I bend the knee to anyone, or kiss anybody's foot." Nevertheless, impelled by the entreaties of the Franks, he ordered one of his warriors to perform the act in his stead. This man seized the foot of the king and lifted it to his lips, kissing it without bending and so causing the king to tumble over backwards. At that there was a loud burst of laughter and a great commotion in the crowd of onlookers.” The Chronicle of St. Denis Based on Dudo and William of Jumièges.


1209: Pope Innocent III launches the Albigensian Crusade in southern France to destroy the heresy that the earth is just as bad as hell. 500,000 dead later, he wins without necessarily proving his point.

1305-1378: Avignon Papacy. French King Philippe IV accuses Pope Boniface VIII of sodomy and goes to war with the Church until he gets a Frenchman, Clement V, elected. The papacy is moved from Rome to Avignon, and the next six popes are all French.

1337-1443: The Hundred Years War: The English invade France, not having done it for a while. Humiliating French defeats follow at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). France's bacon saved by the Lorraine teen proto-Goth Joan of Arc, who breaks the English siege of Orléans. The English leave, pausing only to burn Joan at the stake.


Joan of Arc: Mother of Anglophobia "Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there.”


1572-89: Wars of Religion between Catholic French (under Henry  III)  and Protestant French (under the Duc de Guise) triggered by the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Parisian Protestants. Both Henry and the Duc De Guise get each other assassinated. The warring factions unite around a compromise candidate - Henry IV, who is assassinated in 1603.

1617: Louis XIII crowned at the age of 17. He starts a fashion for wearing wigs by wearing one himself to conceal his baldness.

1624: Cardinal Richelieu becomes principal minister.


Cardinal Richelieu: Minister of Death "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”


1642: Blaise Pascal invents the Pascaline – an automatic calculator.

1643-1715: Aged 4, Louis XIV becomes king with Cardinal Mazarin, his mother’s boyfriend, as principal minister.


Louis XIV: The Sun King Unextinguished “How many baths did France's King Louis XIV take? Three: the first when baptized, the second when a mistress insisted, and the third when a doctor lanced a sore on his bottom and ordered him to soak the wound in a tub of water. Louis XIV also suffered from phimosis – an abnormal growth of foreskin – which made erections painful. After refusing to have an operation on religious grounds, Louis eventually consented to surgery and his marriage was consummated (after seven years) on his 23rd birthday.” Wallechinsky and Wallace The Book of Lists (1993)


1667-1714: Louis loses the War of Devolution (1667-1668) to the Spanish; the Dutch War (1672–1678) to the Spanish, the Austrians and the Dutch; the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-1697) to the Spanish, the Austrians, the Dutch, the English, the Portuguese, the Swedish and the German princes; and the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) to the Austrians... etc. Overall, France loses most of its possessions in America, India, Italy and the Low Countries and is left bankrupt.


Louis XIV: Bigger than God?  “In August 1704, news was brought to Louis XIV of the French army's brutal defeat by Marlborough's forces in the Battle of Blenheim. “How could God do this to me”, he cried, "after all that I have done for him!?" L. Norton, Saint-Simon at Versailles.


1682: Royal court moves to Versailles which takes forty years and one billion livres to construct, and costs 25% of France’s annual income in upkeep.

1683: Louis demands that all women in France must give birth lying down on a table with “stirrups”.

1685: Louis revokes the Edict of Nantes to please his pious mistress, Madame de Pompadour. 200,000 Huguenots leave the country.

1715: Louis XIV dies in bed of gangrene, fully dressed and in a three-foot-long wig.

1762: Rousseau's Social Contract published.

1789: French Revolution, storming of La Bastille. 40,000 die in a wave of massacres to enforce “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” if necessary at the point of the guillotine. 


Maximilien Robespierre: The Biter Bit “Pity is treason,” said Maximilien Robespierre in a speech to the National Convention in February 1794 to justify the wave of executions he ordered during the Reign of Terror. The next time he heard the words were when they were repeated to him on the way to his own execution in July.


1794: Robespierre overthrown and end of Reign of Terror.

1799-1815: The Revolution ends when Napoleon Bonaparte enters Paris and becomes First Consul. In 1804 he makes himself Emperor, creating a powerful central administration in France and extending his empire throughout Western Europe. Rebuffed in Russia, Napoleon is defeated at Leipzig in 1814. 


The Worship of Napoleons "So long as men worship the Caesars and Napoleons, Caesars and Napoleons will duly arise and make them miserable" Aldous Huxley, English writer


1815: Escaping from imprisonment on Elba, Napoleon re-enters Paris, the beginning of the "100 Days". Defeated at Waterloo, he is exiled to Santa Helena, an island off the coast of Africa.


Napoleon: Blindsided "The curious incident of the shooting party... Napoleon, who was a better hand with a field-gun than with a fowling-piece, accidentally shot Marshal Massena in the eye. With characteristic readiness, the emperor put the blame of the accident on Marshal Berthier, who, with characteristic readiness, accepted the blame, while Massena, who lost his eye, with characteristic tact accepted the transference of blame." AG Macdonnell, Napoleon and His Marshals (1934)


1852: Napoleon I's nephew crowned as Emperor Napoleon III.

1870: France declares war on Prussia to prevent the unification of Germany, and is crushed. The Prussians capture Paris and annex Alsace and Lorraine. Napoleon III abdicates and the Third Republic is inaugurated. 

1889: Eiffel Tower built.

1914-18: World War I – Massive casualties in trench wars in North-Eastern France (1,350,000 killed). With British and American assistance, France fends off the German invasion.

1939-4: World War II – Germany occupies France. Vichy regime established. General de Gaulle, Under-Secretary of War, establishes government-in-exile in London. 

1944:  Allied forces land at Normandy leading to liberation of France. De Gaulle sets up provisional government. Purge against former collaborators.

1946-58: Fourth Republic: marked by economic reconstruction and potential civil war after France loses wars in both Indochina and Vietnam. 

1958: De Gaulle returns to power and founds the Fifth Republic. 

1968 May: Parisian student protests escalate into national strike.

1981: Socialist candidate François Mitterrand is elected president. 

1995: Jacques Chirac elected president, ending 14 years of socialist presidency. 

1996: France attracts international condemnation by conducting a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific.  

2002 January: Euro replaces Franc, first minted in 1360. 

2002 May: Jacques Chirac re-elected president, trouncing National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of voting. Le Pen's showing in the first round sends shockwaves across France and Europe and galvanises French voters into mass street demonstrations.



Vote for the Crook not the Racist’, unofficial campaign slogan of Jacques Chirac’s 2002 election campaign in which he won over 80% of the popular vote.


2005 January: France rejects the new European Constitution on the grounds that it will dilute France’s dominance over the twenty-four members of the European Union.

2006 June: After an abysmal start, needing to defeat old colonial foe Togo to proceed, France make the World Cup final. Beating Spain and Brazil en route to facing Italy, Zinedine Zidane is their top goalscorer and penalty specialist. Zidane is sent off moments before the end of extra-time after deciding to head butt an opponent. France loses 5:4 on penalties.

2007 May: 23rd President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy is elected. He immediately raises his own salary from €101,000 to €240,000. He further heightens his powers with shoe raises.

2007 November: Colonel Gaddafi and a 400-strong entourage welcomed at the Elysee.

2010 March: Cyclone Xynthia hits central Europe. 51 die in Aiguillon-sur-Mer after a 200 year old Napoleonic sea wall collapses. Local regulations had allowed a caravan park to be located behind it.

2012 May: Sarkozy loses re-election for Presidency to François Hollande by 3.2%, a margin by which Sarkozy was exactly shorter than Napoleon. A 75% super-tax is imposed on the rich. This drives out one actor from the country.

2013 February: Hollande gets the worst-ever rating for an incumbent President. France invades Northern Mali.


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