Celtic tribes were the original inhabitants of the territory known as Gaul. Two hundred years before Christ, the Romans conquered the Mediterranean coast, colonized long before by Phoenicians and Greeks. Julius Caesar successfully conquered all of Gaul between 58 and 51 B.C., making the region a province of the Roman empire. Christianity quickly reached Gaul in the first century A.D. Visigoths, Franks, and Burgundii, barbarian invaders all, arrived in the fifth century and by 486, the Franks had unified the country, become Christians, and established the Merovingian line. Saracens attacked in the 600s but in 732, they were defeated by Charles Martel, whose grandson was Charlemagne. The Pope declared Charlemagne ruler of the West in 800. As a result of waves of Viking assaults in the ninth century, France was broken up into regions that were ruled by nobles -- some were actually independent states, more or less, such as Aquitaine, Burgundy, Flanders, Anjou, and Blois. After continually ravaging France's Atlantic coast, the Vikings set up the duchy of Normandy in 911. The Carolingians died out and were replaced by the Capetians who ruled from Paris and made that city a great church and university center, as well as a trade hub. Louis IX, also known as St. Louis, the Crusader-king, made France an international power as well. The Hundred Years War with England (1337-1453) weakened the French monarchy. England tried to take over France once and for all, but the French regrouped and drove the English out in 1453. They retained only a small bit of territory at Calais. France continued to develop as a center of culture and commerce, even with periodic disruptions for religious conflicts due to the Reformation. France under Louis XIII and Louis XIV pursued a foreign policy dominated by the powerful clergymen, Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin. The defeat of the Habsburgs in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) served to further enhance France's stature in Europe. The palace of Versailles demonstrated that Louis XIV's was the richest and most dominant monarchy on the continent. Though France did not make much headway in land acquisition close to home, it became a colonial power around the world. France took the side of the nascent United States in its struggle with Britain which cost the country dearly in monetary terms and later in public discontent with the monarchy and what was viewed as its excesses. The French Revolution began in 1789; the King and Queen (Marie Antoinette) were guillotined in 1793 and before the Reign of Terror ceased in 1794, thousands met their end on the block. Napoleon named himself emperor of France in 1804. He expanded the empire in Europe and the Middle East but was ultimately defeated by the British (at Waterloo) and the Russians, leading to the collapse of the French empire. Though the monarchy was briefly restored,the French decided to do away with the institution in 1848. Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Bonaparte, became president of the Second Republic and in 1852 declared it the Second Empire and ruled as Napoleon III. The Second Empire came to an inglorious end after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). The Third Republic, famed for the belle epoque, lasted from 1871-1914. In 1907, in answer to the Triple Alliance, France, Great Britain, and Russia came together in the Triple Entente. France suffered tremendous casualties in the First World War and its role in world affairs diminished. In 1938, France sealed its own fate by participating in the Munich Agreement. Hitler's forces swept through France, occupying the north and assisting in the establishment of the Vichy collaborationist regime in the south. Charles de Gaulle rallied the Free French and after Liberation, he declared the Fourth French Republic. Post-war, France helped organize the EEC and also was a founding member of NATO. Problems with soon-to-be former colonies arose at this time, as well (Indochina, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco). France followed its own path in foreign affairs under de Gaulle, refusing to sign the nuclear test-ban and nonproliferation treaties, recognizing the People's Republic of China and eventually withdrawing French forces from the NATO command. After de Gaulle came a series of leaders, but none could match the charisma of the old general. Pompidou, Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterand, and Chirac all worked to preserve France's stature as a world power.

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