France's Struggle



With Europe’s second largest economy and population, France is a key player in the region and the world. As a member of both the European Union and NATO, France's power and influence shapes policies far beyond its borders. Join Active Minds as we explore the rich history of France, both politically and culturally, and place it within the current context of evolving European and global concerns.

Key Lecture Points

  • France has had a strong cultural, economic, military and political influence on Europe and the world.  France’s history begins with early inhabitants like the Cro-Magnons who left paintings in the caves of Dordogne, starting a long tradition of the arts in France.  Important rulers in the history of France include Clovis I who united all the Franks under one rule, Charlemagne who became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 800, Francois I who began France’s colonial imperial reach and initiated the French Renaissance, and Louis XIV who brought absolute monarchy to its height.
  • The French Revolution began in 1789, ending absolute monarchy in France and spreading the ideals of liberty and nationalism across Europe.  Rising to power during the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte became Emperor of France in 1804.  The Napoleonic Wars made France the most powerful country in Europe until Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia in 1812 led to his defeat.
  • Having lost or sold most of its colonial territory, France began to build a second colonial empire with its invasion of Algeria in 1830.  By 1914, France’s empire was second only to Britain’s, stretching from Indochina (Vietnam) to Morocco.
  • France has a long history of immigration, dating back to its industrialization in the 19th century when workers were needed for the new factories.  During WWI, immigration from its North African colonies provided soldiers for the army and factory workers to replace the soldiers at the front.  After the destruction of WWII, France again looked to its colonies for the manpower to rebuild.
  • As Algeria and other North African colonies became independent in the 1960s, many of their nationals immigrated to France, fleeing political upheaval and seeking opportunity. These immigrants, mostly Muslim, often faced social and economic difficulties and even generations later, many have not totally assimilated.  Terrorist attacks in 2015 raised concerns about the radicalization of French-born Muslims.  In the aftermath of the attacks, France grappled with how to balance its cherished ideals of liberty, tolerance and secularity with national security.
  • Since the end of WWI, France’s cooperation with Germany has been central to the creation of the EU and the adoption of the Euro in 1999.  France has the second largest economy in the Eurozone but, like all of the EU, has struggled to emerge from the 2008 and the recent economic upheaval brought on by a global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
  • Emmanuel Macron was re-elected President of France for a second term in April 2022 after a challenge from the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.  Macron has emerged as one of the most influential leaders in the EU.  Macron has bolstered France’s role in the EU and NATO to support Ukraine with military and humanitarian aid in its fight against Russian aggression.

Exploration Questions

  • Name three major French historical figures and how they contributed to French history.
  • Describe the key elements of the French Revolution.  How does it continue to influence French history and society?

Reflective Questions

  • How are French immigration issues similar and different from the US immigration debate?
  • Have you traveled to France?  If so what impressed you?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Doyle, William.  The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.  Oxford University Press USA, 2001. 135 pages.  Concise exploration of what caused the French Revolution and its legacy.
    Click here to order
  • Hugo, Victor. Les Miserables.  Simon & Schuster, 2005, 656 pages. This epic novel of injustice, heroism and love is told through the life of Jean Valjean, an escaped criminal determined to put his past behind him.  The novel shows us what life was like in France from the end of the Napoleonic era to the July Revolution of 1830.
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  • Roberts, Andrew. Napoleon: A Life. Viking Adult, 2014. 976 pages. This sweeping biography of Napoleon makes use of 33,000 letters written by Napoleon, dispelling some myths and adding new insights.
    Click here to order