The important players in France's history


Cultural Heritage

Paris Tourist Office / Daniel Thierry
© Paris Tourist Office / Daniel Thierry

Reading time: 0 minPublished on 15 March 2024

We've all heard of the great men and women who have marked the history of France. Still, perhaps you'd like to learn a little more about these legendary leaders, like Joan of Arc, Louis XIV or, closer to us, Georges Pompidou... Historical trails, museums, memorials, and even chateaux and gardens take us back in time to the lives of these emblematic figures.

From the Gallo-Roman era to the Middle Ages

Vercingetorix, the most famous Gallic leader, was born in Auvergne in approximately 80 BC. After heading multiple battles to unify Gaul, he beat Caesar in Gergovie in 52 BC before leading his troops to Alesia. Relive these Gallic Wars today at the MuseoParc Alésia in Burgundy. Another great unifying force, Charles the First (known as Charlemagne) was praised for having restored the great Western Empire and for decreeing a free school system. In one of France's most beautiful villages, Poitou, a trail retracing Charlemagne's life stops at Charroux Abbey, where the King's octagonal tower still stands. The influence of the church was even greater under King Louis IX, who was known as Saint-Louis. In 1248, he inaugurated the Sainte-Chapelle on Paris' Île de la Cité, a sacred lieu destined to house the holy relics of Jesus acquired by the King. Two centuries later, in 1425, a young peasant in Lorraine received a message from Archangel Michael. He bid her to lead the Dauphin to Reims to have him crowned, and to push the English out of France. Tenacious and determined, Joan of Arc joined Charles VII in Chinon in 1429: this mythical meeting was a decisive turning point in the Hundred Years War. At the Royal Fortress of Chinon today, look back on the epic legend of Joan of Arc, from her youth in Domrémy to the stake on which she was burned, in Rouen.

From the Renaissance to the French Revolution

In 1515, François the First became King of France. Choosing the salamander as his emblem, the reptile can today be found on the ceilings and walls of the Chambord Chateau in the Loire Valley. He reigned over a powerful kingdom and, after his victory over the Milanese in Marignan, sent Jacques Cartier to explore the Saint Laurence River in Quebec, and substituted Latin for French as the administration's official language. In 1533, King François' second son, Henri, married Catherine de Médicis, who became regent. Fond of grand parties and luxury, Charles IX's mother played the role of a true Renaissance princess and, along with her husband's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, influenced the Chenonceau Chateau's gardens à la française. She attempted to relieve the kingdom of its troubles during the religious wars, yet it was only with the advent of Henri de Navarre that France grew pacific.

The future Henri IV was born at the Chateau of Pau, which today houses a National Museum on "the good King Henri," displaying the famous turtle shell that once served as his crib. Henri IV founded the Bourbon dynasty before being assassinated by Ravaillac in 1610, and ruled over France very authoritatively, in a manner that paved the way for the Absolutism of his grandson, Louis XIV. Throughout his 72-year reign, Louis XIV, or the Sun King, continuously expanded his home at Versailles, the castle being the ultimate symbol of power, and had extravagant gardens built by Le Nôtre. He worked towards the unification and centralization of the administration, and was a fervent protector of literature and the arts, inviting artists and writers like Le Brun, Racine, and Molière to court... A century later, Louis XVI's wife, Marie-Antoinette, also fell under the charm of the Versailles estate. Fond of entertaining, she organised theatre events and revived the grand balls. She spent more and more time at the Petit Trianon, which was offered to her by the King, then at the Queen's Hamlet, a picturesque little village she had built where, surrounded by her lady companions, she enjoyed the charms of country life. Executed in 1793 during the French Revolution, Marie-Antoinette's remains were placed in the Saint-Denis Basilica's royal crypt in 1815.

19th century: the two Empires

"He was above Europe like an extraordinary vision." This is how Victor Hugo paid tribute to Napoleon the First during his acceptance speech at the Académie française. Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Ajaccio in Corsica, was crowned Emperor of France on December 2, 1804. His reign was marked by a long series of wars, now immortalised in the names of Parisian avenues: d'Iéna, d’Eylau, de Friedland… After the French defeat of the invasion of Russia, Napoleon abdicated in 1814. He was sent to exile on the Isle of Elba, from where he escaped back to Paris to regain his power. Today, still, the Napoleon route between the Juan Gulf on the Riviera and Grenoble in the Alps is the same circuit taken by the Emperor in 1815. It was only after the Restoration, the July Monarchy and the IIe République that Louis-Napoleon, Napoleon's nephew, became the first president of the Republic, and this, to universal approval. Crowned Emperor after a coup d'État in 1852, Napoleon III contributed to France's economic and industrial revolution, notably with the railways he had built. In the meantime, while Baron Haussmann was transforming Paris into a modern capital, Ferdinand de Lesseps was in Egypt overseeing the cutting of the Suez Canal.

Under the Fifth Republic in the 20th century

A symbol of the resistance during the Second World War and a major player in the establishment of the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle embodied France for many years. The Charles de Gaulle Memorial, inaugurated in 2008 in Colombey-les-deux-églises, is a veritable history lesson on the 20th-century, and, being so close to his home, an intimate encounter with the General himself. Following de Gaulle's resignation in 1969, Georges Pompidou took his place at the Palais de l'Elysée. Pompidou's presidency marks the last breath of the Glorious Thirty, just before the first oil crisis, and during a press conference, he began with this description of France: "Fine dining, Les Folies Bergères, haute couture... It's all over! France has begun an industrial revolution!" And so came about projects like Airbus, Ariane, Concorde... A great lover of art as well, he dreamed of building a cultural institution devoted to modern and contemporary creation in the heart of the Capital. Thus was born the Centre Pompidou, inaugurated in 1977 and considered an emblematic buildings of the 20th century. Culture was also highly esteemed by François Mitterrand, who, during his two seven-year terms in office, established the Fête de la Musique (held each year on June 21), along with other major Parisian institutions: the Geode at Villette Park, the Musée d’Orsay, the Arab World Institute, the Grand Louvre, the Bastille Opera House, France's National Library (today the François Mitterrand Library). He also promoted contemporary architecture with the building of the Grande Arche de la Défense and the Louvre Pyramid.

© Art Gallery of New South Wales — Matisse: Life & Spirit, Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou, Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

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