French History : some milestones (#5)
 French revolutions    Getting mixed up with all those kings ?

The USA had one Revolution but the French had several, some of them very violent and bloody. Why? One could say that the national inability to change progressively and the reluctance to consensus (read more about the French and change) makes change unavoidable other than through violent leaps. In the French collective memory, each of these revolutions is associated with a major progress or a lost paradise (and not only on the Left-Wing political side). After these major dramas, the French society is very similar, by all standards, to the other European countries which did not go through this kind of ordeal but the French sincerely believe that without these revolutions, they would not enjoy what they consider important (democracy, protection, vacations, etc...). Among these revolutions :

  • "La Fronde" (literally : the sling) in 1648 is the first French urban revolution, to be followed by several others. It largely explains the haughty and autoritarian attitude of Sun King Louis 14th who went through it as a child.

  • "The" big French Revolution started with the storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789) ; after two years, the attempt to build a constitutional monarchy (like in England) failed, due to the stupidity of poor king Louis 16th and the intransigence of the revolutionary "Jacobins" ; the king (and a few thousands others) was beheaded, the war was declared on Europe, the "Convention" put an end to the old society and established the bases of the republic ; after a year of craziness in the name of liberty and purity (the "Terreur") under Robespierre "the Uncorruptible", a calmer (and corrupt) government (the "Directoire") was established in 1794 and most French citizens were happy to see a young and brilliant general, Napoleon Bonaparte, re-establish order and peace in 1799. Then he too became crazy and attacked the whole of Europe, but this is another story. It is a fact that most of French democracy comes from the Revolution, whatever its excesses.

  • The July Revolution : After Napoleon, the kings came back with the two brothers of poor Louis 16th : Louis 18th (1814) then (1824) Charles 10th who was so stupidly reactionary that a brief revolution in July 1830 ("les Trois Glorieuses") replaced him by King Louis-Philippe 1rst who tried, once again to build a constitutional monarchy similar to England's where he had lived in exile.

  • The 1848 Revolution : in 1848, the ideas of republic and socialism were flourishing all over Europe : the king was banished and replaced by the (second) French republic ; the nephew of Napoleon was elected president and two years later after a coup, he became Emperor under the name Napoleon 3rd.


When touring in France, you may get confused with all those Louis and Charles. Here are a few facts to help you situate roughly what century they belong to and what they are known for !

  • Remarkably enough, France had only three dynasties of kings over a period of 15 centuries : the Mérovingiens (from Clovis, who became Christian in 496 and who is the very first French king) then the Carolingiens (from Pépin le Bref, i.e. The Short, crowned in 752) and finally the Capétiens (from Hugues Capet who became king in 987 : this dynasty lasted until 1848).

  • Almost all of these kings were buried in the Basilique Royale de Saint-Denis, near Paris, which is definitely worth a visit.

  • Napoleon tried to found a dynasty, but only his nephew became emperor in 1852 (after a coup) and was booted out in 1870

  • More to come

Question : why does the current Constitution refer to "the Fifth Republic" ? The First Republic was founded by the Revolution and King Louis XVI was dismissed, then came Napoleon and later a Restoration of Royalty ; in 1848 (another revolution) the Second Republic was established and disappeared with a coup by Napoleon III ; in 1870, the Third republic was proclaimed after the war was lost against Germany, it collapsed in 1940 after another lost war against Germany ; the Fourth Republic, founded in 1944, was succeeded by the Fifth Republic after a major constitutional change conceived by Charles de Gaulle who was recalled to put an end to the Algerian war.

Question : what was the relation between the kings and Paris ? Since the very beginning, the history of France is the history of kings trying to unite its very diverse elements into a unified nation ; this why the state is still so strong and this is also why Paris has so many prestigious monuments to illustrate the glory of the king and the power of the state (see historical Paris). The kings were afraid of the population of Paris and its frequent riots and they often decided to live outside Paris (Loire chateaux, Versailles, Fontainebleau).






Fourteen kings to remember


The guillotine (credit)

DID YOU KNOW THAT .... The guillotine was invented in 1790 by a humanist, free-mason and philanthropist, Doctor Guillottin, who wanted to put and end to the very cruel and inhuman treatments then used for executions, with a very quick and more efficient process...

 Name of the king  Reigned  Major achievement (or failure)  Typical monuments of the style of each king
 Charles Irst Charlemagne Le Grand  768-814  The first "European Statesman", founder of the Holy Empire, he is also a German hero  Saint Philibert de Grand-Lieu (near Nantes), Sainte Radegonde (Poitiers)
 Louis IX Saint Louis  1226-1270  The greatest king of Middle Age, he died in Tunis on his way to the Crusade  Sainte Chapelle (Paris), Notre-Dame (Paris), the walled city of Carcassonne,...
 Philippe IV Le Bel  1285-1314  Famous for destroying the Order of Temple  The Conciergerie (Paris)
  • The Commune in 1871: a modern sovereign for domestic affairs, Napoleon 3rd was obsessed with the desire to emulate his uncle Napoleon in his foreign policy which was very adventurous (see the stupid war in Mexico 1862-1867) and led to a defeat against Germany in 1870 ; after the war, some idealistic socialists wanted to build a perfect Communist society in Paris ; it was the Commune de Paris, which lasted three months and ended into a blood bath. The Sacre Coeur Basilica in Montmartre was built by the Right Wing regime which followed "in expiation of the sins of La Commune". The Commune is associated with one of the most beautiful French songs, Le Temps des Cerises : listen to it and read about the Marseillaise and the Internationale.

  • The Front Populaire in 1936 is considered the origin of social modernity in France ; after the victory of the Left in the elections and huge strikes all over the country, it established the obligation for employers to grant paid vacations and pay for pensions and other social benefits ; most European countries enjoy these benefits as well, getting them through simple parliamentary processes, but this way is considered boring by the French....

  • The May 1968 Movement is a soft form of revolution which led, after two months of strikes and demonstrations to some major changes in the French society and an adaptation to modern times (divorce, abortion, relation between the young and their elders, etc) ; here again, why millions of strikers and demonstrators?

  • More recently, a movement like the "Yellow Vest" (Nov.2018-March 2019) created huge demonstrations, riots and destruction in the whole country with the full support of the population (70 to 80% at the beginning) : read about it. Ultra-left political leaders like Olivier Besancenot and others (5% of the vote), who say they want to abolish capitalism are not sent to an insane asylum but invited to TV talk shows ....Read more about the riots.

 Charles VII  1422-1461  Jeanne d'Arc, by restoring hope for France in the long Franco-English war, gave him access to the throne  Chinon Castle, ...
 Louis XI  1461-1483  Through ruse and briberies, he built France almost to her present size, after a long fight with the Duke of Burgundy  Hospices de Beaune
 François Ist  1515-1547  Protector of the artists (including Leonardo da Vinci), the illustration of the Renaissance king  Chambord, Blois and many of the Renaissance castles in the Loire Valley
 Henri IV  1589-1610  After his own conversion to catholicism, he put an end to the war between the Catholics and the Protestants, probably the most popular of all French kings ; he had countless love affairs  The Pont-Neuf (Paris), ...


Landmarks of the French revolution

  • July 14, 1789 : the storming of La Bastille
  • August 4, 1790 : the abolition of the privileges of nobility and church
  • August 26,1789 : Declaration des Droits de l'Homme (Bill of Rights)
  • July 14,1790 : Fete de la Federation and Lafayette a national heroe
  • June 21,1791 : King Louis 16 tries to escape and is arrested in Varenne
  • September 20, 1792 : victory of Valmy against a coalition of European monarchies
  • September 21, 1792 : abolition of Monarchy and proclamation of the Republic
  • January 21, 1793 : Louis 16 executed
  • June 2, 1793 : beginning of the "Terreur" (the execution of thousands of moderate opponents)
  • July 27-28, 1794 : "9 Thermidor", Robespierre and the leaders of the Terreur governement executed
  • November 9, 1799 : "18 Brumaire", Napoleon Bonaparte takes power, end of the Revolution.


A few examples of ultra-conservative or quasi-revolutionnary surges ...

In 2014, the local, then the European elections, with a spectacular progression of the Extreme-Right party Front National (to 25-30% of the votes), created a shock in France and in other European countries. Will a party with dangerous quasi-fascist roots, such a selfish vision of the country and such absolutely stupid economic ideas be in a position where it would have access to power in a modern democracy? A quick look in the rear-view mirror shows that such phenomena are not unfrequent but, thankfully, do not last long :

  • In the 1880s, the republican regime was still weak and a very popular general, General Boulanger, became such a strong political figure that it looked like he and his millions of followers (the Boulangistes) would found a new regime but he fell in love, refused a coup d'Etat, fled abroad and ultimately killed himself on the grave of his beloved mistress ;
  • In the 1930s, veterans of WW1 created movements ("les Ligues"), with millions of members, against the parliamentary Republic ; after the attack of the Chamber of Deputy in the February 6, 1934 riot, where dozens of rioters and police were killed, they were dissolved and disappeared ;
  • In the early 1950s, a party created by Pierre Poujade, a shop-keeper in a small town, represented almost 10% of ther Chamber (the Poujadistes) ; the party was created and disappeared in 4 or 5 years ;
  • Today (2016) the Extreme-Right party Front National with almost one third of the vote is considered by many a major threat to democracy;
  • More to come ...
 Louis XIII  1610-1643  Known for his Prime Minister, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu  Place des Vosges (Paris), Luxembourg Palace (Paris),...
 Louis XIV Le Roi Soleil (The Sun King)  1643-1715  The very symbol of "Grandeur", he subdued the nobility by transforming its members into his puppets in Versailles  Versailles Castle, Place Vendôme (Paris), the Invalides (Paris), ...
 Louis XV Le Bien Aimé  1715-1774  The king of the XVIIIth Century arts which spread all over Europe, he lost the American possessions of France (Canada)  Place de la Concorde (Paris), any XVIIIth Century palace, ...
 Louis XVI  1774-1791  A nice fellow but a poor king, he was beheaded and his wife Marie Antoinette too  Parc Monceau (Paris), ...
 Napoleon Irst (Bonaparte)  1804-1815  The most prestigious of all, he modernized France after the Revolution, he won many battles and lost the final one at Waterloo ; he sold Louisiana (a poor deal for France!)  The (most recent part of the) Louvre (Paris), Arch of Triumph (Paris)
 Louis-Philippe Irst  1830-1848  The only attempt (and failure) of a Constitutional king in France  The "galeries" (malls) off the Grands Boulevards (Paris), ...
 Napoleon IIIrd  1852-1870  The nephew of Bonaparte, he was elected President of the Republic and proclaimed himself Emperor two years later  Opéra Garnier (Paris), the total renovation of Paris by Baron Haussmann, who transformed a medieval city into the city we have now,...


See the style in furniture and in castles associated to some of those kings. 

DID YOU KNOW THAT....? American historian Steven Englund observed in Le Monde, December 2, 2004, that even after two centuries, English and French historians still do not agree about Napoleon. On one side, Anglo-Saxon detractors are incapable of understanding what was unique about Napoleon's power and the good he did ; on the other side, the French have elevated him to a cult figure while underestimating the mud and spilled blood. What is lacking on both sides, (particularly the Anglo-Saxon side), says Englund, is the ability to admit ambivalence and ambiguity.

See related pages : History 1.01 (#1), Franco-US relations (#2), colonies (#3), the Gallic genes (#4), etc

To table of contents

To top of the page

Back to home page

Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books:

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

More on Harriet's books (excerpts, upcoming events, testimonials, etc..)

To email me

 If you like this site, please bookmark it or create a link!