The History of Modern France

history-of-modern-franceHaving visited France regularly for over 40 years, I really felt that, although I’ve picked up a fair mount along the way, I didn’t really understand much about how modern France came into being after the Revolution of 1789. This recently published book by Jonathan Fenby seemed to offer just what I needed, so I read it.

I found it very good, with details right up to early 2016. But there is perhaps a bit too much detail on the toing and froing of various governments and politicians over the years. France certainly has a turbulent history, with regular revolutionary periods, dominant leaders, wars and much more.

Strikingly, many of today’s themes, such as immigration, xenophobia, and the close relationship with Germany, have their roots in these earlier events.

Do read it if you want to know more about this subject. If you’re interested, it has inspired my own very brief history of modern France in the following.

First Republic

1789 The Revolution changes everything. Old Europe doesn’t like it and there is war. The First Republic is established. King Louise XVI is guillotined, and the Terror proceeds between the different factions.

First Empire

1799 Napoleon Bonaparte takes over after a coup, and after military victories soon becomes Emperor. Napoleon overstretches by invading Russia. Abdicates in 1814, exiled in Elba.


1814 Restoration of monarchy under Louis XVIII. Napoleon escapes and almost comes back, (just) being defeated at Waterloo. Abdicates again in 1815, and exiled to St Helena. France is re-integrated into the European system.

1824 Charles X tries to turn the clock back to monarchic rule, unpopular.  As a diversion, invades Algeria.

1830 Charles tries to govern by decree. People take to the barricades. Charles abdicates in favour of Louis-Philippe. Various governments. Paris booms, but there is growing inequality and a series of scandals.

Second Republic

1848 Protests and new barricades are followed by a crackdown, then abdication of Louise-Philippe.The Second Republic is proclaimed, with a new constitution. Prince Louis-Napoleon (Bonaparte’s nephew) wins the election. There is disarray in parliament.

Second Empire

1851 Louise Napoleon stages a coup, establishes another constitution with 10 year president. 1852 After rigged elections, the Second Empire is proclaimed – characterised by patronage, laissez faire, economic growth, recurrent wars, colonial conquests.

Third Republic

1870 After an argument over Spanish succession orchestrated by Bismark, Louis Napoleon declares war on Prussia, and loses. An uprising declares the Third Republic. Peace means loss of Alsace-Lorraine.

1871 An election shows Paris divided from conservative France. The Paris Commune seen as a war against Paris. The new constitution has a senate with veto powers. There is rapid economic recovery, artistic flowering, but recurrent political crises. Declining population growth leads to more immigrants, xenophobia, anti-semitism, illustrated by the Dreyfus Affair.

1905 A law separates church and state – the secular republic. Alliance with Russia and England.

1914 War. Belated military buildup.War of attrition. Marshall Pétain leads defence at Verdun. Clemenceau leader. War is won when the Americans pile in. Alsace-Lorraine recovered. The Versailles agreement demands reparations. There is financial crisis, changing governments. While Hitler is rising, there is the first government of the left in 1936, with nationalisation of industries.

1939 War again. French army disintegrates and northern France is occupied, in the south the Vichy régime is led by Pétain, with unlimited powers. De Gaulle establishes the Free French.

1944 As the Allies advance, the Pétain regime evaporates. 1945 swing to left under De Gaulle.

Fourth Republic

1946 The new assembly has supremacy of the legislature. De Gaulle can’t get on with it and leaves for sake of the country. Rapid changes of government. Colonial problems – Vietnam, 1956 Suez.

1957 The Treaty of Rome creates EEC. Algeria problems lead to near civil war. De Gaulle has returned and asks for special powers as PM.

Fifth Republic

1958 The new constitution has a strengthened presidency, and in 1959 de Gaulle is proclaimed president. An impressive first term sees Algerian independence, economic growth and, in 1963 the Franco-German friendship treaty.

1968 student protests. His proposals rejected, De Gaulle resigns in 1969. Since then no president has lived up to his stature. Fenby recounts some of the unsavoury details, characterising an ‘abdication of leadership’.

Mitterrand oversees integration into European Union: 1986 Single European Act, 1990 establishment of the euro is his price for agreeing to German reunification, 1992 Maastricht Treaty.


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