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The France Historic Collections Exhibition
The history of France goes back to the arrival of the earliest human being in what is now France. Members of the genus Homo entered the area hundreds of thousands of years ago, while the first modern homo sapiens, the Cro-Magnons, arrived around 40,000 years ago. A number of important archaeological sites have been discovered in the country, testifying to continuous habitation by modern humans from the Upper Palaeolithic.
According to John T. Koch and others, France in the Late Bronze Age was part of a maritime trading-networked culture called the Atlantic Bronze Age that also included Ireland, Britain, Spain and Portugal where Celtic languages developed.
The first historical records appear in the Iron Age, when what is now France made up the bulk of the region known as Gaul to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Greek and Roman writers noted the presence of three main ethno-linguistic groups in the area, the Gauls, the Aquitani, and the Belgae. The Gauls, the largest and best attested group, were a Celtic people speaking what is known as the Gaulish language. Over the course of the first millennium BC the Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians established colonies on the Mediterranean coast and the offshore islands. The Roman Republic annexed southern Gaul as the province of Gallia Narbonensis in the late 2nd century BC, and Roman forces under Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul in the Gallic Wars of 58–51 BC. Afterward a Gallo-Roman culture emerged and Gaul was increasingly integrated into the Roman Empire.
In the later stages of the Roman Empire, Gaul was subject to barbarian raids and migration, most importantly by the Germanic Franks. The Frankish king Clovis I united most of Gaul under his rule in the late 5th century, setting the stage for Frankish dominance in the region for hundreds of years. Frankish power reached its fullest extent under Charlemagne. The medieval Kingdom of France emerged out of the western part of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire, known as West Francia, and achieved increasing prominence under the rule of the House of Capet, founded by Hugh Capet in 987. A succession crisis following the death of the last Capetian monarch in 1337 led to the series of conflicts known as the Hundred Years War between the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet. The wars ended with a Valois victory in 1453, solidifying the power of the Ancien Régime as a highly centralized absolute monarchy. During the next centuries, France experienced the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, as well as recurring religious conflicts and wars with other powers. In the late 18th century the monarchy and associated institutions were overthrown in the French Revolution, which forever changed French and world history. The country was governed for a period as a Republic, until the French Empire was declared by Napoleon Bonaparte. Following Napoleon’s defeat in the Napoleonic Wars France went through several further regime changes, being ruled as a monarchy, then briefly as a republic, and then as a Second Empire, until a more lasting Third French Republic was established in 1870.
France was one of the Triple Entente powers in World War I, fighting alongside the United Kingdom, Russia, and their allies against the Central Powers. It was one of the Allied Powers in World War II, but was conquered by Nazi Germany within two months. The Third Republic was dismantled, and most of the country was controlled directly by the Axis Powers, while the south was controlled by the collaborationist Vichy government. Following liberation, a Fourth Republic was established; this was succeeded by the French Fifth Republic in 1958, the country’s current government. After the war decolonization saw most of the French colonial empire become independent, while other parts were incorporated into the French state as overseas departments and collectivities. Since World War II France has been a leading member in the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, and remains a strong economic, cultural, military and political influence in the 21st century.
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