World travelers visiting France will come across a country with a history that goes back to the prehistoric days. The areas north and south of the Pyrenees (at what’s now modern-day France and Spain) were occupied from about 30,000 years ago by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who made good use of its many caves. Such cave-dwellers left astonishing signs of their presence, and of their sophistication, in the paintings with which they decorate the walls. Near the French estate of Lascaux (that country’s Dordogne region), fascinating cave paintings were found there. With such paintings determined to be over 17,000 years old, the Lascaux caves were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Aside from Lascaux, many recall France’s status as an outpost of the Roman Empire when that country was known as Gaul. With the South of France being the first part of France to be annexed by the Romans, the rest would later be conquered by Julius Caesar. To this day, certain reminders of the Roman presence can be found at Nîmes (which still has an amphitheater built during that historic period), while the town of Arles boasts the Musée Départemental de l’Arles Antique (which is dedicated to the Roman presence in ancient Gaul), and the Pont du Gard aqueduct located 24 miles north of Arles (the highest Roman bridge-aqueduct in the world – carrying water from the regional town of Uzès to Nimês).
The modern nation of France was first formed by the Frankish king Clovis I – who united most of Gaul under his domain in the 5th century (with Frankish power at its apex under Charlemagne). From Charlemagne’s western branch of his empire, the Kingdom of France was established in the 1400s (a by-product of the Hundreds Years War that was fought between French and English forces) – with French heroine Joan of Arc playing a role in promoting French nationalism.
Visitors of the famed Versailles Palace outside of Paris are walking into a structure built during the 17th century, when it was the center of political power under French monarch Louis XIV. A century after, the French Revolution would abolish the country’s long-standing monarchy (resulting in the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), only to become an empire under French leader Napoleon (conquering much of Western Europe during the early 1800s). With Napoleon crowned Emperor by the French Senate in 1804, his empire would last until his defeat at Waterloo (Belgium) in 1815 by a multi-national force led by the Duke of Wellington.
With post-Napoleon France having its political ups and downs during the remainder of the 19th century (which included his nephew, Napoleon III, ruling the country between 1852-1870, and was credited with modernizing France – including urban planning of Paris and other major French cities). France also got involved in the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) – which resulted in France’s loss of the eastern provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. By the end of the 19th century, France, which competed for colonies overseas like other European powers, became the second-largest colonial empire (after the British). Although France established – and lost land in areas like India, North America and the Caribbean, by the early 20th century, France has control of 1/10th of the earth’s mass (consisting mainly of colonies in North, Central and West Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific).
France found itself being engulfed in both World War I and II – with France regaining the provinces of Alsace & Lorraine from the Germans, and expanding its colonies into the Middle East (by taking control over Syria and Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire – which was reduced significantly by the end of World War I). France – which bore the brunt of the fighting of World War I against the Germans, would do so again in World War II (with Hitler taking over Paris and eventually 3/5 of France). The rest of France was administered by “Vichy France” (in effect, a puppet government controlled by the Germans). At that time, the French colonies were under the control of the “Free France” government controlled by French general Charles de Gaulle (who ran that government in exile from London and Algeria).
The famed Allied invasion of France in June 1944 triggered the collapse of Vichy France – with de Gaulle emerging as the head of the country’s provisional government from that year until the year after the end of World War II (1946). De Gaulle, who since was held in high regard by his countrymen, would become Prime Minister of France from 1959-1969.
The post-World War II period resulted in France significantly scaling down its colonies overseas: by the early 1960s, Central and West African countries (from Senegal to the Central African Republic), as well as North African colonies (Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) and its Far East outposts (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), become independent. Meanwhile, French Guiana (South America), Martinique and Guadeloupe (Caribbean), and Reunion and Mayotte (Indian Ocean) became overseas departments of France – similar in legal status to American states like Alaska and Hawaii.
With the French economy being robust enough to accommodate foreign workers, especially during the 1960s, the country went through waves of immigration at that time from its former colonies (especially from Algeria, west & central African countries, as well as its Caribbean territories like Martinique and Guadeloupe). 21st century France now has significant minorities from such countries in most of its major cities. First-time visitors to France will come across one of the most multi-ethnic nations on the planet (uniting such individuals, from countries as far-flung as Madagascar and Vietnam, in their everyday use of the French language, as well as various levels of acculturation of the French culture). Of course, along with respecting France’s history (evident at Parisian sites such as the Eiffel Tower, and the l’Arc de Triomphe), many visitors are attracted to French culture, fashion, and cuisine.
With France being a nuclear power (politically aligned to the west during the Cold War years as a member of NATO), it became one of the leading members of the “Euro zone” when that currency became legal tender throughout much of Europe. France is also an active member of the European Space Agency (ESA), with its Spaceport located in Kourou, French Guiana (launching satellites for not only the European Union countries, but for industries in USA, Japan, Canada, India and Brazil).