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Considering its many contributions to world culture, it is fitting that the earliest evidence of France’s birth was discovered with the Lascaux cave paintings, which date back 25,000 years. One might also argue that the France we know today was born on Christmas Day, AD 800, when Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope in Rome. This inspired a unified national spirit across all of France. Although Charlemagne's empire was not long-lasting, it left an indelible imprint upon the French consciousness. In AD 987, however, the French nobility elected Hugh Capet king of France, and from this point, French national history is generally agreed to begin.
During the twelfth and 13th centuries, trade prospered, craft guilds were founded, and new towns cropped up. Paris grew in stature as France’s royal city—and Europe’s intellectual mecca. Intellectuals flocked to the city; after the Sarbonne opened its doors in 1257, it drew such teachers, lecturers, and philosophers as Abelard, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Valois and Bourbon kings continued to fortify the royal authority, moving the country toward absolute monarchy. The ironclad rule of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin (1624-61) set the stage for their splendid successor, Louis XIV, whose reign was probably unequaled in the history of Europe for its elaborate and magnificent style. He established the Baroque power base of Versailles and introduced Europe to a gloriously gilded France—so resplendent that it earned him the title of the “Sun King.”
Ironically, the very splendor of the French monarchy helped precipitate its downfall, for it was expensive to maintain and someone had to pay for it. The major cause of the French Revolution was a system of special privileges that exempted nobles and clergy from the taxes paid by the peasants and the middle class. In 1789, these latter groups rebelled against the monarchy, guillotined both King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, and established the short-lived First Republic. The chaos that followed the revolution resulted in the rise of Napoleon, who proclaimed himself emperor in 1804 and, though a dictator, undertook to spread the ideal of liberty to the world through his conquests.
In the 19th century, France alternated between democracy and dictatorship and was characterized by the steady growth of a new French Empire. From 1914-18, France fought with the Allies in World War I. Afterwards, with the Treaty of Versailles (1919), France regained the areas of Alsace and Lorraine. Between wars, France nourished major artistic and philosophical movements: Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Existentialism.
At the beginning of World War II, France sided with the Allies until it was invaded and defeated by Germany in 1940. The French government, under Marshal Philippe Petain, a World War I hero, established a puppet government in the Vichy. On D-Day—June 6, 1944—the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy and successfully invaded France. Additional Allied forces landed in Provence. Paris was liberated in August 1944, and France immediately declared full allegiance to the Allies.