Milestones in French History

Historical Milestones for French Language, Culture and Society – les points de repère

Timeline: 2070 years ago

Vercingétorix (82 BCE-46 BCE) – united the tribes of Gaul against Julius Caesar. Captured at the Siege of Alésia in 52 BCE. His life coincides with that of Cleopatra, he was about 12 years older than her. In 1959 Astérix the Gaul, a cartoon character was invented by Goscinny and Uderzo based on this period of Gaul’s history. The comic books have been translated into many languages, including Latin. In 2013 the 35th volume was published. 12 films have been made, showing how this part of French culture, its resistance to outside takeover, is still an important part of the public imagination. The site of the siege was also turned into a visitor centre, with a 12 year design project, led by Bernard Tschumi (who used to be a lecturer at Portsmouth). Parc Alésia was opened in 2012.

The Gauls would be speaking Gaulish, Julius Cæsar tells us in his (52BCE) Commentaries on the Gallic War. Gaulish, the French call it, le gaulois, leaves about 150 loan words in modern French, the highest number for any of the Romance, or post-Latin languages. Most of French develops from Latin, and so does not have that intervention of Anglo-Saxon that the English language has. The Gaulish words are often easy to find, though, take the infinitive verb ‘to go’, which is aller in modern French, Gaulish is ‘allu’, quite close to Cornish ‘ellev’, spoken here in South Devon, which means: ‘that I may go’, whilst Old English is very different ‘ic genge’ I go, and Latin ambulare, from which English has amble.

Paris became a Roman city called Lutetia in Latin, with a cardo, a main axis road, which crossed the city from the south along the line of today’s rue Saint-Jacques. In my photograph below of rue Soufflot, the rue Saint-Jacques cuts across this street. On the hill of Sainte Geneviève at the top of rue Soufflot stands Le Panthéon. It is a temple to the great scientists and writers of France built in a neo-classicist style between 1758 and 1790. The roman part of the city was centred on this hill and stretched down to the river Seine on the north-facing slope.

Remember that the Left Bank of the Seine, the university area (also called the Latin Quarter) is on the south of the river but the bank slopes down north-eastwards from the Panthéon and the Sorbonne University buildings so it can feel confusing. Walk down north-east to the river!

Timeline: 1200 years ago

842 The Strasbourg Oaths is the oldest document written in a prototype form of Old French as it grew away from the Latin language. It was a pledge of allegiance and cooperation between the kingdoms of East and West Francia; Charles the Bald (823-877) was King of the Franks and ruled West Francia which would become France.

Timeline: 950 years ago

1066 Norman Conquest of Britain. William I of England was a Norman from Caen in France who defeated the Anglo-Saxon, Harold I of England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the promises made between the Saxons and the Normans before 1066, and the ensuing invasion of England. The new Norman aristocracy brought with it the French language which was used in legal, courtly and literary works until as late as the 1400s. It meant that the new ruling class of England could now speak French with their continental neighbours and rivals in France. The Normans also built motte and bailey forts to subdue the Saxon burgh towns. Here in Devon, Totnes is a very good example with its bailey or fenced yard area. In Barnstaple, too, the motte or mound is still very striking and can be climbed by agile tourists.

In 1362 in England, The Pleading in English Act changed the language of spoken legal proceedings from what was called Law French into English. The outcome of the judgement though was then written down in the rolls in Latin. However, it took until the reign of King Henry V of England (1413-1422) before official government language was changed from French Chancery Standard to English. Henry V was regent and heir-apparent of France from 1420 so it is not surprising that government business was in French.

What did Middle French look like during Henry V’s reign? I worked on a major research project to digitise the manuscript of Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430) who lived in Paris. Christine wrote in Middle French, and has left us this manuscript from 600 years ago. It is now housed in the British Library in London. Christine is pictured on folio 95r on the right handing her book to the Duke of Orléans. Here is a sample of her writing:

Of Orléans, Duke Louis of great renown
Son of Charles, King 5th of that name.
duc = Duke
Filz = fils = son roy = roi = king
quint = fifth
Middle French had no accented characters, nor any punctuation such as the apostrophe of elision for D’Orliens. Notice how the letter r looks like the letter z at first glance in Orliens.

Joan of Arc (c.1412-1431) is a key figure still used in French culture today. She supported King Charles VII of France in the Hundred Years’ War. The war was between Scotland allied with France on one side and Burgundy allied with England on the other. Joan of Arc’s intervention helped bring the war to an end with a victory for Scotland and France but she was burned at the stake by the English and Burgundian group.

1534 Finding French America – François I sends Jacques Cartier with 2 ships to find a route through to the Pacific Ocean, the elusive northwest passage. Cartier thinks the St Lawrence river may be the channel through America and begins to establish fur trading to bring back pelts for France. Samuel de Champlain, another French explorer, establishes Montreal and Quebec and works with the Huron people. In 1627 Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) forms the Company of New France, although New France is considered to last from 1608-1671.

1539 in France, Villers-Cotterêts Ordinance from Latin to French in courts in France, 1958 Constitution re-asserts this.

In 1682 Robert de La Salle claims the entire area of America drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries for France, naming it Louisiana after King Louis XIV of France.

1760 Quebec falls to the British army under James Wolfe and in 1763 the whole of French Canada is signed over to the British. French and First Nation peoples are still living there but now become British subjects. Even today Elizabeth II holds the title Élisabeth II, reine du Canada. Montreal and the whole of Quebec remain French-speaking.

The French Revolution was the culmination of the changes in thought brought about by the Age of Enlightenment. The Revolution took a decade to work through but the key years used to set it in a timescale are the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, a date still celebrated as a national holiday in France, the proclaiming of a republic in September 1792 and the execution of Louis XVI on 21 January 1793. Between 1799 and 1804 Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power as First Consul until on 2nd December 1804 he was crowned First Emperor of France. The First French Empire was to last a decade and reached 2.1 million square kms in extent across Europe.

Historical Milestones after Napoleon

Algeria: ‘Monday, 14 June 1830 The invasion had begun in the early hours of the morning at Sidi-Ferruch […] 30 km west of Algiers’ (Evans 2013, 7) within 21 days the French commander, General Bourmont was in control of the capital. Charles X was the current king of France; he would be overthrown in Paris in Three Glorious Days, the July Revolution of 1830. Now fast-forward 51 years: ‘Friday, 26 August 1881. On this day the French government, led by arch colonialist Jules Ferry, announced a momentous step to the National Assembly. Henceforth Algeria would be administered as an integral part of France under the Third Republic’s 1875 constitution’ (Evans 2013, 19).

Napoleon’s nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became the first elected president of, what came to be called the Second Republic. He kept that role from 1848-1852, then after a coup or seizure of power, he became Emperor Napoleon III of the Second French Empire from 1852-1870.

Rail Travel: In the UK a rail link from Liverpool to Manchester was in place by 1830 using a 1.435 metre gauge track width, this gauge was adopted by France. It was only in 1842 that railway building began in earnest in France, helped by the Department of Ponts et Chaussées doing the engineering and planning work, and often acquiring the land. Napoleon III extended the private leases on rail companies so that total nationalisation did not take place until 1938. The national system was named La Société nationale des chemins de fer français (SNCF). In the 1970s Alstom, the French engineering company, developed Le TGV, le train à grande vitesse. In 1994 the British and French rail networks were connected by the opening of the Channel Tunnel. La gare de Saint-Lazare opened in 1837 and la gare du Havre in 1847 228 kilometres of railway track connecting Paris to the coast on so on by ship to America.

In 1914, as World War I unfolded the German army moved across Belgium and Luxembourg and the Western Front was established in north-eastern France. The invading forces on French soil came within 60 kilometres of the capital but did not enter Paris. With allied support from Britain and the United States, the German forces were driven back and the war ended in 1918. Both Belgium’s and France’s coal and steel production were severely damaged by the war and the deliberate destruction of mines by the retreating German forces.

World War II (1939-45) did result in German occupation of France. Germany began its attack on France in May 1940 then Italy invaded France on 10th June 1940. Paris fell on 14th June 1940 to the German forces and on 22nd June France surrendered to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Paris was liberated on 25th August 1944 by the French resistance fighters and the Free French forces. Under pressure from the Soviet Union, the Western Allies had begun an invasion of recovery on D-Day, 6th June 1944, in northern France. Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) emerged as a key figure for France during World War II. De Gaulle created the Free French as a government in exile, from a secure position in London during the German occupation. He remained in office until 1946 but became president of the new Fifth Republic from 1958-1969 after the Algerian crisis brought him back into public life.

The Palais Bourbon in Paris is where France’s 577 deputies, MPs, sit in the National Assembly, l’Assemblée nationale. The equivalent of Britain’s House of Commons. The Fifth Republic gave more powers to this house, the National Assembly.

Emerging swiftly from World War II thanks in part to the Marshal Plan France enjoyed its thirty glorious years of growth and prosperity; these are called Les trente glorieuses: 1945-1975. As the oil producing and exporting countries began to increase their oil prices though this prosperity slowed down. We study the period of Les trente glorieuses in Stage 3 in LCS300C. Lectures are available on my web-site here at under the heading Communiqué.

President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing instituted what came to be called, Les Grands projets, by beginning to build the Grande Arche de La Défense and Parc de la Villette. When François Mitterrand came into office he added six more cultural building projects, these are the Louvre Pyramid, the conversion of Musee d’Orsay railway station, the Institute of the Arab World, the new Opéra building at the Bastille, the Ministry of Finance and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, symbolised by the four open-book towers of the new Tolbiac site on the Seine with a forest below street level, officially opened in 1995.

1970 OIF La francophonie established to bring together French-speaking countries worldwide.

1977 Last execution by guillotine in France. Capital punishment abolished in France in 1981. Countries that still use the death penalty include: North Korea, Yemen and the United States.

1982 Minitel networked text system, compare with 23 August 1991 for the Internet, which was 9 years later.

1984 TV Monde worldwide French language television channel launched.

1992 Arte, a French and German cultural television channel launched.

1994 Toubon Law number 94-665 on French Language means that French has to be used by law in: official government publications, advertisements, workplaces, contracts, all government-financed schools. Linked to this law are radio quotas for playing French music (Drake 155).

2011 The French Institute, L’institut français was launched for soft diplomacy of French language and culture.

2014 National Centre for Monuments, Cnm celebrate 100 years


On 4th October 1958 the Fifth Republic of France was officially established with a new constitution which introduced the new role of President of the French Republic who would appoint a prime-minister and then govern the country in consultation with the prime-minister. One of the reasons for change from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic was that prime-ministers in the older parliamentary system were not making decisions and were changing too often. The other main reason was the move to independence of Algeria from France. Charles de Gaulle, who had been in retirement since the war years, came back into politics and was elected first president of the new Fifth Republic. Currently the ninth president of the Fifth Republic is in power, François Hollande.

However, in this Work Out your party want to address one of the key points from the Constitution of 4 October 1958:

Article 1: Statutes shall promote equal access by women and men to elective offices and posts as well as to professional and social positions.

Choose or design, then draw a set of symbols from events, symbolism, music and famous figures from the historical milestones of France and the French language to start a Sixth Republic in which women are equally represented 50:50 in government and a female president and prime-minister must be appointed in alternate elections. Be ready to talk through your rationale for your new designs.

To Cite this page in your References:

Mansfield, C. (2020) ‘Milestones in French History’ Patrimoine – The French Heritage Papers [online] Available at [Accessed date].