Who's who in France .... (#2) To understand a country you should know some people who are very well known by everyone in the country, even if their fame has not crossed the border. Here are some examples :
 Historical heroes    

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) : philosopher and mathematician. The author of "The Discourse on the Method", he is largely considered the origin of the French passion for logic (see Hazareesingh). If a Frenchman says to you "Let's be Cartesian", be ready for a hard moment.

Jules Ferry (1832-1893) is associated with the development, in the Republican regime which succeeded the Empire, of a modern educational system: free, mandatory, secular, equally open to girls, etc... He launched the colonial expansion of France in Africa and Far-East he was one of the leaders of the Left but, at that time, the Left was pro-colonization !). He is one of the most-revered French historical heroes and hundreds of schools and streets are named after him.

Général de Gaulle (1890 - 1970) : probably the most well - known of all the French Presidents, Charles de Gaulle dominated French political life for thirty years.
Before WW2, de Gaulle wrote influential books on political history and military strategy ; after Maréchal Petain formed his collaborationist government, de Gaulle founded a government in exile and launched his famous "appel du 18 juin" (1940) from London, in which he called on Frenchmen to resist and join the allies.  Charles de Gaulle in 1960 (credit)
Although initially treated with suspicion by Churchill and (particularly) by Roosevelt, de Gaulle imposed himself as leader of France after the Allied landing in Normandy and the liberation of Paris ; he advocated a new constitution and resigned in 1946 when it was unsuccessful ; he was called back to power during the Algerian War ; with the independence of France in mind and wings given to him by the new constitution he had proned, de Gaulle took full advantage of his presidential powers by successfully achieving the decolonization process, then taking France out of the military command of NATO in 1966, furnishing France with atomic weapons, and ruffling feathers abroad by declaring "Vive le Québec Libre" ; after the May 1968 riots and a " non " vote to his government in a popular referendum, de Gaulle resigned from the Presidency and retired to his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Read a quote from de Gaulle and about his alleged anti-Americanism. Now de Gaulle is admired by a large majority of the French and is clearly one of the French totems.


 Jean Jaures (1859-1914) is one of the most popular French heroes, with thousand of streets and school named after him. He has all the traits the French admire the most : an " intellectuel ", a political thinker who, in fact, never reached the power, a martyr. A brilliant philosophy professor, he became one of the leaders of the Socialist party ; vigourously opposed to colonialism and to war, he was murdered by a right-wing fanatic three days before WW1 broke out. More about French Socialism.

Jean Monnet (1888-1979) is considered one of the (if not the) founding fathers of united Europe,along with Robert Schumann (France), Konrad Ademauer (Germany), Alcide de Gasperi (Italy) and Paul-Henri Spaak (Belgium).
Active in organizing and coordinating supply programs in WWII (Head of the Coordinating Committte of the Allied War Efforts), he devoted his efforts after the war to create the conditions which would make wars impossible in Europe.  Jean Monnet (left) with Robert Schumann (credit)
The key concept was to put in common coal and steel (Communauté Européenne du Charbon et de l'Acier CECA, declaration May 9, 1950) and later the Comité d'Action pour les Etats Unis d'Europe (Committee for the United States of Europe), 1955. More about Europe.

Jean Moulin (1899-1943) was given by Charles de Gaulle the task of unifying the many movements of the French Resistance and was parachuted in France in 1942. Betrayed, he was captured by the Nazis and died under torture without having spoken.

Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a key-personality of the French intelligentsia between 1950 and 1980. In addition to his philosophical and literary works, which are brilliant, he was the political guru of a whole generation. His disputes with Albert Camus, who had more heart, and with Raymond Aron, who had no illusion about communism, are famous and created major splits among his followers. In my opinion, he was right about anti-colonialism but by protecting violent extreme-left movements, he was a dangerous dogmatist and he reinforced many of the weaknesses of the French society. More about the influence of the "intellectuels" in France.

Other names suggested by visitors include : Raymond Aron, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Jean Mermoz, etc...

To related pages : Who's Who in France (#1), past glories (#3), headlines in the French media, schools namedafter famous people, etc...

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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

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