France - History
Cave paintings and engravings, the most famous of them at Lascaux, near Montignac in the southwest, attest to human habitation in France as early as 30,000 years ago. Relics from the period between 4000 and 1800 BC include some 4,500 dolmens (structures consisting of two vertical stones capped by a horizontal stone), nearly 1,000 of them in Brittany alone, and more than 6,000 menhirs (single vertical stones), 1.5–21.3 m (5– 70 ft) high and weighing up to 350 tons. There may already have been 2–3 million people in France when Phoenician and Greek colonists founded cities on the southern coast around 600 BC .
Detailed knowledge of French history begins with the conquest of the region (58–51 BC ) by Julius Caesar. The country was largely inhabited by Celtic tribes known to the Romans as Gauls. Under Roman rule the Gallic provinces were among the most prosperous and civilized of the empire. Roman roads, traces of which still may be seen, traversed the land. Numerous cities were founded. Latin superseded the Celtic dialects. Christianity spread rapidly in Roman Gaul after its introduction there in the 1st century, and by the time the empire began to disintegrate a few hundred years later, the Gauls were a thoroughly Romanized and Christianized people. Early in the 5th century, Teutonic tribes invaded the region from Germany, the Visigoths settling in the southwest, the Burgundians along the Rhône River Valley, and the Franks (from whom the French take their name) in the north. The Germanic invaders probably never constituted more than a dominant minority of the population.
The first leader to make himself king of all the Franks was Clovis (466–511), who began his reign in 481, routing the last forces of the Roman governors of the province in 486. Clovis claimed that he would be baptized a Christian in the event of his victory against the Visigoths, which was said to have guaranteed the battle. Clovis conquered the southwest from the Visigoths, was baptized in 496 and made himself master of western Germany, but after his death the kingdom disintegrated and its population declined under the Merovingian dynasty. In 732, Charles Martel was able to rally the eastern Franks to inflict a decisive defeat on the Saracens—Muslim invaders who already controlled the Iberian Peninsula—between Poitiers and Tours. He spawned the Carolingian family, as well as his grandson, Charlemagne (r.768–814), who was the greatest of the early Frankish rulers. Ruling "by the sword and the cross," he gave the kingdom an efficient administration, created an excellent legal system, and encouraged the revival of learning, piety, and the arts. He added to the territories under his rule through wide conquests, eventually reigning over an area corresponding to present-day France, the FRG, the Low Countries, and northern Italy. On Christmas Day in the year 800, he was crowned emperor of the West and ruler of the 1st Holy Roman Empire by the pope in Rome.
After the death of Charlemagne, the vast Carolingian Empire broke up during a century of feuding, the title of emperor passing to German rulers in the east. The territory of what is now France was invaded anew, this time by pagan tribes from Scandinavia and the north, and the region that later became known as Normandy was ceded to the Northmen in 911 by Charles III ("the Simple," r.898–923). At the end of the century, Hugh Capet (r.987–996) founded the line of French kings that, including its collateral branches, was to rule the country for the next 800 years. Feudalism was by now a well-established system. The French kings were the dukes and feudal overlords of the Île de France, centered on Paris and extending roughly three days' march around the city. At first, their feudal overlordship over the other provinces of France was almost entirely nominal. Some of the largest of these, like the Duchy of Brittany, were practically independent kingdoms. The Duchy of Normandy grew in power when William II, duke of Normandy, engaged in the Norman Conquest of England (1066–70) and became king as William I ("the Conqueror"), introducing the French language and culture to England. The powers of the French monarchy were gradually extended in the course of the 11th and early 12th centuries, particularly by Louis VI, who died in 1137. The power of his son Louis VII (r.1137–80) was challenged by Henry of Anjou, who, upon his accession to the English throne as Henry II in 1154, was feudal master of a greater part of the territory of France, including Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, and Aquitaine. Henry's sons, Richard and John, were unable to hold these far-flung territories against the vigorous assaults of Louis's son Philip Augustus (r.1180–1223). By 1215, Philip had not only reestablished the French crown's control over the former Angevin holdings in the north and west but also had firmly consolidated the crown's power in Languedoc and Toulouse. Philip's grandson Louis IX (St. Louis), in a long reign (1226–70), firmly established the strength of the monarchy through his vigorous administration of the royal powers. The reign of Louis's grandson Philip IV ("the Fair," 1285–1314) marks the apogee of French royal power in the medieval period. He quarreled with the papacy over fiscal control of the French clergy and other aspects of sovereignty. His emissaries arrested Pope Boniface VIII and after his death removed the seat of the papacy to Avignon, where the popes resided under French dominance (the so-called Babylonian Captivity) until 1377.
It is estimated that between 1348 and 1400 the population dropped from 16 million to 11 million, mainly from a series of epidemics, beginning with the Black Death (bubonic plague) of 1348–50. In 1415, Henry V of England; taking advantage of civil war between the Gascons and Armagnacs, and the growing insanity of Charles VI; launched a new invasion of France and won a decisive victory at Agincourt. Charles VI (r.1380–1422) was compelled under the Treaty of Troyes (1420) to marry his daughter Catherine to Henry and to declare the latter and his descendants heirs to the French crown. Upon Henry's death in 1422, his infant son Henry VI was crowned king of both France and England, but in the same year, Charles's son, the dauphin of France, reasserted his claim, formally assumed the royal title, and slowly began the reconquest.
Philip the Fair was succeeded by three sons, who reigned briefly and who left no direct male heirs, ending the Capetian dynasty. In 1328, his nephew Philip VI (in accordance with the so-called Salic Law, under which succession could pass through a male line only) mounted the throne as the first of the Valois kings. The new king's title to the throne was challenged by Edward III of England, whose mother was the daughter of Philip the Fair. In 1337, Edward asserted a formal claim to the French crown, shortly thereafter quartering the lilies of France on his shield. The struggle that lasted from 1337 to 1453 over these rival claims is known as the Hundred Years' War. Actually it consisted of a series of shorter wars and skirmishes punctuated by periods of truce. Edward won a notable victory at Crécy in 1346, in a battle that showed the superiority of English ground troops and longbows against the French knights in armor. In 1356, the French royal forces were routed by the Prince of Wales at Poitiers, where the French king, John II, was taken prisoner. By terms of the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), the kingdom of France was dismembered, the southwest being formally ceded to the king of England. Under Charles V (r.1364–80), also called "Charles the Wise," however, the great French soldier Bertrand du Guesclin, through a tenaciously conducted series of skirmishes, succeeded in driving the English from all French territory except Calais and the Bordeaux region.
The first part of the Hundred Years' War was essentially a dynastic rather than a national struggle. The English armies themselves were commanded by French-speaking nobles and a French-speaking king. Although the legitimate succession to the French crown was the ostensible issue throughout the war, the emerging forces of modern nationalism came into play with the campaign launched by Henry V, whose everyday language was English and who, after Agincourt, became an English national hero. France owed no small measure of its eventual success to the sentiment of nationalism that was arising throughout the country and that found its personification in the figure of Joan of Arc. Early in 1429, this young woman of surprising military genius, confident that she had a divinely inspired mission to save France, gained the confidence of the dauphin. She succeeded in raising the siege of Orléans and had the dauphin crowned Charles VII at Reims. Joan fell into English hands and at Rouen in 1431 was burned at the stake as a heretic, but the French armies continued to advance. Paris was retaken in 1436, and Rouen in 1453; by 1461, when Charles died, the English had been driven from all French territory except Calais, which was recaptured in 1558.
Louis XI (r.1461–83), with the support of the commercial towns, which regarded the king as their natural ally, set France on a course that eventually destroyed the power of the great feudal lords. His most formidable antagonist, Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, who ruled virtually as an independent monarch, commanded for many years far more resources than the king of France himself. But after the duke was defeated and killed in a battle against the Swiss in 1477, Louis was able to reunite Burgundy with France. When Louis's son Charles VIII united Brittany, the last remaining quasi-independent province, with the royal domain by his marriage to Anne of Brittany, the consolidation of the kingdom under one rule was complete.
Under Charles VIII (r.1483–98) and Louis XII (r.1498–1515), France embarked on a series of Italian wars, which were continued under Francis I (r.1515–47) and Henry II (r.1547–59). These wars developed into the first phase of a protracted imperialistic struggle between France and the house of Habsburg. Although the Italian wars ended in a French defeat, they served to introduce the artistic and cultural influences of the Italian Renaissance into France on a large scale. Meanwhile, as the Reformation gained an increasing following in France, a bitter enmity developed between the great families that had espoused the Protestant or Huguenot cause and those that had remained Catholic. The policy of the French monarchy was in general to suppress Protestantism at home while supporting it abroad as a counterpoise to Habsburg power. Under the last of the Valois kings, Charles IX (r.1560–74) and Henry III (r.1574–89), a series of eight fierce civil wars devastated France, called The Wars of Religion. Paris remained a stronghold of Catholicism, and on 23– 24 August 1572, a militia led by the Duke of Guise slaughtered thousands of Protestants in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. The Protestant Henry of Navarre was spared because of his royal status and eventually, on the death of Henry III, he acceded to the throne, beginning the Bourbon dynasty. Unable to capture Paris by force, Henry embraced Catholicism in 1593 and entered the city peacefully the following year. In 1598, he signed the Edict of Nantes, which guaranteed religious freedom to the Huguenots. With the aid of his minister Sully, Henry succeeded in restoring prosperity to France.
Assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic after nineteen attempts on his life, Henry IV was succeeded by his young son Louis XIII, with the queen mother, Marie de Médicis, acting as regent in the early years of his reign. Later, the affairs of state were directed almost exclusively by Cardinal Richelieu, the king's minister. Richelieu followed a systematic policy that entailed enhancing the crown's absolute rule at home and combating the power of the Habsburgs abroad. In pursuit of the first of these objectives, Richelieu destroyed the political power of the Protestants by strictly monitoring the press and French language through the Academie Francaise; in pursuit of the second he led France in 1635 into the Thirty Years' War, then raging in Germany, on the side of the Protestants and against the Austrians and the Spanish. Richelieu died in 1642, and Louis XIII died a few months later. His successor, Louis XIV, was five years old, and during the regency of his mother, Anne of Austria, France's policy was largely guided by her adviser Cardinal Mazarin. The generalship of the prince de Condé and the vicomte de Turenne brought France striking victories. The Peace of Westphalia(1648), which ended the Thirty Years' War, and the Peace of the Pyrenees (1659) marked the end of Habsburg hegemony and established France as the dominant power on the European continent. The last attempt of the French nobles in the Paris Parliament to rise against the crown, called the Fronde (1648–53), was successfully repressed by Mazarin even though the movement had the support of Condé and Turenne.
The active reign of Louis XIV began in 1661, the year of Mazarin's death, and lasted until his own death in 1715. Louis XIV had served in the French army against Spain before his accession, and married the daughter of the King of Spain in order to bring peace to the region, despite his love for Mazarin's niece. Assisted by his able ministers Colbert and Louvois, he completed Mazarin's work of domestic centralization and transformed the French state into an absolute monarchy based on the so-called divine right of kings. Industry and commerce were encouraged by mercantilist policies, and great overseas empires were carved out in India, Canada, and Louisiana. By transforming the nobles into perennial courtiers, financially dependent on the crown, the king clipped their wings. Lavish display marked the early period of his reign, when the great palace at Versailles was built, beginning the era of French Classicism.
The reign of Louis XIV marked the high point in the prestige of the French monarchy. It was a golden age for French culture as well, and French fashions and manners set the standard for all Europe. Nevertheless, the Sun King, as he was styled, left the country in a weaker position than he had found it. In 1672, he invaded the Protestant Netherlands with his cousin Charles I of England, defeating Spain and the Holy Roman Empire as well in 1678. In 1685, he revoked the Edict of Nantes, and an estimated 200,000 Huguenots fled the country to escape persecution. Whole provinces were depopulated, and the economy was severely affected by the loss of many skilled and industrious workers. Louis undertook a long series of foreign wars, culminating in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), in which England, the Netherlands, and most of the German states were arrayed against France, Spain, Bavaria, Portugal, and Savoy. In the end, little territory was lost, but the military primacy of the country was broken and its economic strength seriously sapped.
The reign of Louis XV (1715–74) and that of his successor, Louis XVI (1774–93), which was terminated by the French Revolution, showed the same lavish display of royal power and elegance that had been inaugurated by the Sun King. At the same time, the economic crisis that Louis XIV left as his legacy continued to grow more serious. A series of foreign wars cost France its Indian and Canadian colonies and bankrupted the country, including the French and Indian War (1755–1760). Meanwhile, the locus of the economic power in the kingdom had shifted to the hands of the upper bourgeoisie in the Enlightenment, who resented the almost wholly unproductive ruling class that espoused Classicism. The intellectual currents of the so-called Age of Reason were basically opposed to the old order. Voltaire attacked the Church and the principle of absolutism alike; Diderot advocated scientific materialism; Jean-Jacques Rousseau preached popular sovereignty. The writer changed from a royal servant into a revolutionary force.
In 1789, faced with an unmanageable public debt, Louis XVI convened, for the first time since the reign of Louis XIII, the States-General, the national legislative body, to consider certain fiscal reforms. The representatives of the third estate, the Commons, met separately on 17 June and proclaimed themselves the National Assembly. This action, strictly speaking, marked the beginning of the French Revolution, although the act that best symbolized the power of the revolution was the storming of the Bastille, a royal prison, by a Paris mob on 14 July—an event still commemorated as a national holiday. With the support of the mob, which forced the king, his wife Marie Antoinette, and his family from the palace at Versailles into virtual imprisonment in the Tuilerie in Paris; the Assembly was able to force Louis to accept a new constitution including The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, providing for a limited monarchy, the secularization of the state, and the seizure of Church lands. War with Austria, which wished to intervene to restore the status quo ante in France, broke out in 1792. The Assembly's successor, the National Convention, elected in September 1792, proclaimed the First French Republic. Louis XVI was convicted of treason and executed. The radical group of Jacobins under Maximilien Robespierre's leadership exercised strict control through committees of public welfare and a revolutionary tribunal. The Jacobins attempted to remake France in the image of an egalitarian republic. Their excesses led to a Reign of Terror (1793–94), carried out indiscriminately against royalists and such moderate republican groups as the Girondins. Manifold opposition to the Jacobins and specifically to Robespierre combined to end their reign in the summer of 1794. In 1795, a new constitution of moderate character was introduced, and executive power was vested in a Directory of five men. The Directory, weakened by inefficient administration and military reverses, fell in turn in 1799, when the military hero Napoleon Bonaparte engineered a coup and established the Consulate. Ruling autocratically as the first consul, Bonaparte established domestic stability and decisively defeated the Austrian-British coalition arrayed against France. In 1804, he had himself proclaimed emperor as Napoleon I and, until his downfall in 1814, he ruled France in that capacity.
Capitalizing on the newly awakened patriotic nationalism of France, Napoleon led his imperial armies to a striking series of victories over the dynastic powers of Europe. By 1808, he was the master of all Europe west of Russia with the exception of the British Isles. That year, however, the revolt in Spain—upon whose throne Napoleon had placed his brother Joseph—began to tax French military reserves. Napoleon's ill-fated attempt to conquer Russia in 1812 was followed by the consolidation of a powerful alliance against him, consisting of Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Sweden. The allies defeated Napoleon at Leipzig in 1813 and captured Paris in the spring of 1814. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, just off the northwest coast of Italy, and Louis XVIII, a brother of Louis XVI, was placed on the French throne. In March 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba, rallied France behind him, and reentered Paris in triumph behind the fleeing Louis XVIII. He was, however, finally and utterly crushed by the British and Prussian forces at Waterloo (18 June 1815) and spent the remaining years of his life as a British prisoner of war on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
After the final fall of Napoleon, Louis XVIII ruled as a moderate and peaceful monarch until 1824, when he was succeeded by his brother Charles X, an ultra royalist. Charles attempted to restore the absolute powers of the monarchy and the supremacy of the Catholic Church. In 1830, he was ousted after a three-day revolution in which the upper bourgeoisie allied itself with the forces of the left. Louis Philippe of the house of Orléans was placed on the throne as "citizen-king," with the understanding that he would be ruled by the desires of the rising industrial plutocracy. In 1848, his regime was overthrown in the name of the Second Republic. Four years later, however, its first president, Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon I, engineered a coup and had himself proclaimed emperor under the title Napoleon III. The Second Empire, as the period 1852–71 is known, was characterized by colonial expansion and great material prosperity. The emperor's aggressive foreign policy eventually led to the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which ended in a crushing defeat for France and the downfall of Napoleon III. France was stripped of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine (which once belonged to the Holy Roman Empire) and was forced to agree to an enormous indemnity. A provisional government proclaimed a republic on 4 September 1870 and took over the responsibility for law and order until a National Assembly was elected in February 1871. Angered at the rapid capitulation to Prussia by the provisionals and the conservative National Assembly, the national guard and radical elements of Paris seized the city in March and set up the Commune. During the "Bloody Week" of 21–28 May, the Commune was savagely dispatched by government troops.
Democratic government finally triumphed in France under the Third Republic, whose constitution was adopted in 1875. Royalist sentiment had been strong, but the factions backing different branches of the royal house had been unable to agree on a candidate for the throne. The Third Republic confirmed freedom of speech, the press, and association. It enforced complete separation of church and state. Social legislation guaranteeing the rights of trade unions was passed, and elections were held on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. The Third Republic, however, was characterized by an extremely weak executive. A long succession of cabinets was placed in power and shortly thereafter removed from office by the all-powerful lower house of the national legislature. Nevertheless, the republic was strong enough to weather an attempt on the part of the highly popular Gen. Georges Boulanger to overthrow the regime in the late 1880s, as well as the bitter dispute between the left-wing and right-wing parties occasioned by the trumped-up arrest and long imprisonment of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a scandal in which Dreyfus's being Jewish was as much an issue as the treason he had allegedly committed. The eventual vindication of Dreyfus went hand in hand with the decisive defeat of the monarchists and the emergence of a progressive governing coalition, with Socialist representation.
The Twentieth Century
During World War I (1914–18), the forces of France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and, from 1917, the United States were locked in a protracted struggle with those of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. Although France, under the leadership of Georges Clemenceau, could claim a major share in the final Allied victory, it was in many respects a Pyrrhic victory for France. Almost all the bitter fighting in the west was conducted on French soil, and among the Allies French casualties—including nearly 1,400,000 war dead—were second only to those sustained by Russia. The heavily industrialized provinces of Alsace and Lorraine were restored to France under the Treaty of Versailles (1919), and Germany was ordered to pay heavy war reparations. Nevertheless, the French economy, plagued by recurrent crises, was unable to achieve great prosperity in the 1920s, and the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s (exacerbated in France by the cessation of German reparations payments) was accompanied in France by inflation, widespread unemployment, and profound social unrest. Right- and extreme left-wing elements caused major disturbances on 6 February 1934. In 1936, the left-wing parties carried the parliamentary elections and installed a so-called Popular Front government under a Socialist, Léon Blum. Blum nationalized certain war industries, carried out agricultural reforms, and made the 40-hour week mandatory in industry. Increasing conservative opposition forced the Popular Front government from power, however, and in the face of the growing menace of Adolf Hitler's Germany, the leftists accepted the conservative government of Édouard Daladier in 1938. In a futile attempt to secure peace, Daladier acquiesced in British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement toward Hitler. Hitler was not to be appeased, however, and when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, France joined the United Kingdom in declaring war on Germany.
On 10 May 1940, the Germans launched a great invasion of the west through the Low Countries and the heavily wooded and sparsely defended Ardennes region. In less than a month, German forces outflanked the French Maginot Line fortifications and routed the French armies between the Belgian frontier and Paris. Marshal Pétain, the aged hero of World War I, hastily formed a government and sued for peace. With the exception of a triangular zone with its northern apex near Vichy, all France was placed under the direct occupation of the Germans. The Vichy regime ended the Third Republic and proclaimed a constitution based on the slogan "labor, family, fatherland," as opposed to the traditional republican "liberty, equality, fraternity." While the Vichy government did its best to accommodate itself to the German victory, French resistance gathered overseas around Gen. Charles de Gaulle, a brilliant career officer who had escaped to London on 18 June 1940 to declare that France had "lost a battle, not the war." De Gaulle organized the Provisional French National Committee, and this committee of the Free French later exercised all the powers of a wartime government in the French territories where resistance to the Germans continued. The Free French forces took part in the fighting that followed the Allied invasion of North Africa in 1942, and in 1943 a provisional French government was established at Algiers. Regular French units and resistance fighters alike fought in the 1944 campaign that drove the Germans from France, and shortly after the liberation of Paris, de Gaulle's provisional government moved from Algiers to the capital. It was officially recognized by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the former USSR in October 1944.
France's postwar vicissitudes have been political rather than economic. De Gaulle resigned as head of the government early in 1946 over the issue of executive powers, and in spite of his efforts the Fourth Republic, under a constitution that came into effect in December 1946, was launched with most of the weaknesses of the Third Republic. Almost all powers were concentrated in the hands of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, and there were numerous warring political parties.
Although the people of metropolitan France overwhelmingly approved de Gaulle's program for eventual Algerian independence, some French army officers and units attempted to overthrow the government by terrorism, which de Gaulle suppressed by temporarily assuming emergency powers. Peace negotiations were successfully concluded with Algerian rebel leaders, and Algeria gained independence on 1 July 1962. By then, nearly all of France's former African territories had attained independence. France has continued to provide economic assistance, and its ties with most of the former colonies have remained close.Almost continuous fighting overseas in French colonies, first in Indochina, which was lost in 1954, and later in Algeria, the scene of a nationalist rebellion among the Muslims, placed a heavy burden on France and led, especially after the Suez expedition of 1956, to disillusionment on the part of elements in the French army, which felt that its work was being undermined by a series of vacillating parliamentary governments. In May 1958, extremists among the French settlers in Algeria, acting with a group of army officers, seized control of Algiers. Sympathetic movements in Corsica and in metropolitan France raised the specter of a right-wing coup. The government found itself powerless to deal with the situation, and on 1 June, Gen. de Gaulle, regarded as the only leader capable of rallying the nation, was installed as premier. He ended the threat peaceably, and in the fall of 1958, he submitted to a national referendum a new constitution providing for a strong presidency; the constitution won overwhelming approval. Elections held in November swept candidates pledged to support de Gaulle into office, and in December 1958, he was officially named the first president of the Fifth Republic.
During the mid-1960s, de Gaulle sought to distance France from the Anglo-American alliance. France developed its own atomic weapons and withdrew its forces from the NATO command; in addition, de Gaulle steadfastly opposed the admission of the United Kingdom to the EEC, of which France had been a founding member in 1957. The Treaty of Rome in 1957 created the original European Economic Community that consisted of Germany, Belgium, France, Italy and The Netherlands, and formed EURATOM, which created an open forum for scientific exchange and nuclear arms regulation on the continent.
The political stability of the mid-1960s ended in the spring of 1968, with student riots and a month-long general strike that severely weakened the Gaullist regime. In April 1969, Gen. de Gaulle resigned following a defeat, by national referendum, of a Gaullist plan to reorganize the Senate and regional government. In June, Georges Pompidou, a former premier in de Gaulle's government, was elected the second president of the Fifth Republic. Between 1969 and 1973, the Gaullist grip on the French populace continued to weaken, at the end of which time de Gaulle was forced to accept the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark into the EC, and to work within the economic constraints of the "Snake Mechanism" which, starting in 1972, linked EC currencies. In 1974, after President Pompidou died in office, an Independent Republican, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, narrowly won a national runoff election (with Gaullist help) and became the third president of the Fifth Republic. Giscard strengthened relations with the United States but continued to ply a middle course between the superpowers in world affairs. The ECU, or European Currency Unit was born in 1979 from the economic stresses of the seventies, leading eventually to Monetary Union at the millennium with the Euro.
Although Giscard's center-right coalition held firm in the March 1978 legislative elections, a Socialist, François Mitterrand, was elected president in May 1981, and the Socialists captured a parliamentary majority in June. Mitterrand launched a program of economic reforms, including the nationalization of many industrial companies and most major banks. However, three devaluations of the franc, high unemployment, and rising inflation led to the announcement of an austerity program in March 1983. In foreign policy, Mitterrand took an activist stance, opposing the US attempt in 1982 to halt construction of a natural gas pipeline between the former USSR and Western Europe, committing French troops to a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, and aiding the Chadian government against domestic insurgents and their Libyan backers.
In July 1984, Mitterrand accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy and named Laurent Fabius to replace him, signaling his intention to stress economic austerity and modernization of industry. In foreign affairs, the government attempted some retrenchment during 1984, withdrawing peacekeeping troops from Lebanon and announcing a "total and simultaneous" withdrawal of French and Libyan troops from Chad. However, Libyan troops did not actually withdraw as envisioned, and fighting there prompted a return of French troops in 1986. A major scandal was the disclosure in 1985 that French agents were responsible for the destruction in New Zealand, with the loss of a life, of a ship owned by an environmentalist group protesting French nuclear tests in the South Pacific.
In March 1986 elections, the Socialists lost their majority in the National Assembly, and Mitterrand had to appoint a conservative prime minister, Jacques Chirac, to head a new center-right cabinet. This unprecedented "cohabitation" between a Socialist president and a conservative government led to legislative conflict, as Chirac, with backing from the National Assembly, successfully instituted a program, opposed by Mitterrand, to denationalize 65 state-owned companies. Chirac encountered less success late in 1986 as he sought to deal with a wave of terrorist violence in Paris. In 1988, Chirac challenged Mitterand for the presidency, but in the May runoff election, Mitterand won a commanding 54% of the vote and a second seven-year term. Chirac then resigned, and Mitterand formed a minority Socialist government.
Economic and social problems as well as government scandals strained relations between the Socialist Mitterrand, the Conservative PM Eduard Balladur in the second cohabitation, and a center-right government. Unemployment remained high and new legislation increased police powers to combat illegal immigration. Several prominent politicians were the subject of corruption charges and in 1993 legal proceedings were instituted against former primer minister, Laurent Fabius, related to an HIV-infected blood scandal. A prominent Socialist prime minister, Pierre Beregovoy, committed suicide in May 1993 over media allegations of financial improprieties.
In May 1995, Jacques Chirac was elected president, winning 52.64% of the popular vote, compared to 47.36% for socialist Lionel Jospin, and Alain Juppé was appointed prime minister. The National Assembly had elected an RPR-Gaullist majority in 1993, setting the country firmly in the grips of the type of conservatism that had been ousting socialist and Social Democrats in much of western Europe during the mid-to-late 1980s. Chirac immediately set about instituting austerity measures to rein in government spending in the hope of meeting certain rigid monetary guidelines so that France would be ready to join the European Monetary Union (EMU) in 1999. The EMU would create a single European currency, the "euro," to replace member countries' individual currencies. The idea of a monetary union had never been widely popular in France and the Maastricht Treaty, which set down conditions for EMU membership passed by only a slim margin.
Many of Chirac's attempts to reduce public spending and limit—or even erode—France's welfare state met with stern resistance. With the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997, Chirac sensed the need for a reaffirmation of his commitment to meet austerity measures for EMU membership. Chirac dissolved the National Assembly, calling for parliamentary elections in 1997, one year earlier than constitutionally mandated. In doing so, the French president believed he would demonstrate that the majority of the population believed in responsible cutbacks in government spending and anti-inflammatory monetary policy, despite the adverse effects they might have on the country's already quite high inflation. In May and June of 1997, elections were held and Chirac's plan badly backfired with the Socialists winning a commanding majority, along with the Communists. After the elections, a demoralized Chirac appointed Socialist leader Lionel Jospin prime minister, beginning the third cohabitation government. Jospin, a halfhearted supporter of monetary union, called for a program of increased government spending to create 700,000 jobs, a reduction in the work week from 39 to 35 hours, and made a broad pledge to protect the welfare state. The euro was successfully launched in 1999, and the currency was circulated in January 2002.
Presidential elections were held on 21 April and 5 May 2002. In the first round, Chirac won 19.9% of the vote, National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second with 16.9%, and Prime Minister Jospin finished third with 16.2% of the vote. The strong showing by Le Pen sent shock waves throughout France and Europe, as his extreme right-wing, anti-immigrant, xenophobic party demonstrated its popularity. Jospin announced he was retiring from politics; for the first time since 1969 the Socialists did not have a candidate in a presidential runoff, marking a major defeat for the French left. In the second round of voting, Chirac overwhelmingly defeated Le Pen, taking 82.2% of the vote to Le Pen's 17.8%. It was the largest majority since direct presidential elections were first introduced, and was preceded by a major popular campaign against Le Pen. Chirac named centrist Jean-Pierre Raffarin to be prime minister. In elections for the National Assembly held in June 2002, the center-right coalition Union for the Presidential Majority (consisting of Chirac's Rally for the Republic and the Liberal Democracy party) won a landslide victory, taking 33.7% of the vote and 357 of 577 seats in parliament. The Socialist Party finished second with 24.1% and 140 seats. Le Pen's National Front failed to win a single seat.
In 2002–03, France was confronted with a major foreign policy dilemma. Throughout 2002, the United States and United Kingdom were committing troops to the Persian Gulf region, positioning themselves against Iraq and accusing its leader, Saddam Hussein, of possessing weapons of mass destruction. In the event that Iraq would not disarm itself of any weapons of mass destruction it might possess, it was evident that the United States and United Kingdom might use those troops to force a regime change in Iraq. The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1441 on 8 November 2002, calling upon Iraq to disarm itself of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons or weapons capabilities, to allow the immediate return of UN and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) weapons inspectors, and to comply with all previous UN resolutions regarding the country since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The United States and United Kingdom indicated that if Iraq would not comply with the resolution, "serious consequences" might result, meaning military action. The other three permanent members of the Security Council, France, Russia, and China, expressed their reservations with that position. France was the most vocal opponent of war, and threatened to use its veto power in the Security Council if another Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force would be called for. The United States and United Kingdom abandoned diplomatic efforts at conflict resolution in March 2003, and on 19 March, the coalition went to war in Iraq. Once coalition forces defeated Iraq and plans for reconstruction of the country were being discussed in April, France stressed the need for a strong role to be played by the UN in a post-war Iraq.