The area that is now France was inhabited by a variety of tribal confederations, mostly of Celtic origin. These were then conquered by Julius Caesar between 58 BC and 50 BC and Roman Gaul was formed. Over the following 500 years, the various tribes mixed with Roman settlers and started speaking a modified form of Latin (from which the French language is largely derived) and adapted many Roman cultural traits.
After Rome fell, Gaul was invaded by numerous Germanic tribes - most notably the Franks, for whom France is named. This started a transitional period, in which numerous small Frankish kingdoms gradually coalesced into a more unified group. This process continued until the end of the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charlemagne became the first emperor in western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Often known as the ‘Father of Europe’, Charlemagne united most of Western Europe. After his death, his kingdom was divided amongst his sons; this eventually led to the formation of modern France and Germany.
The Carolingian dynasty fell in 987, and the Kingdom of France was subsequently ruled by the Capetian, Valois, and Bourbon dynasties. At first it was merely a loose arrangement of territories which owed allegiance to the king. Slowly, however, from around 1100, the monarchy started to gain real power and influence. By 1300, France was truly a nation, and the pre-eminent one in Europe. Nevertheless, France only recovered all of her original territory in 1453 at the end of the Hundred Years’ War with England. The French civilisation was at its apex in the 17th century, during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. At this point, France was the world's dominant power and had pervasive cultural influence.
Like the other Western European nations, France gained an overseas empire, partcularly in North America and the Caribbean. Defeat by the British in the Seven Years' War (1756-63) and the subsequent loss of much France's mainland North American territory caused the Ancien Régime (the ruling structure at this time) to suffer an economic crisis. Public discontentment grew, and, fuelled by contemporary Enlightenment ideals, the French erupted in Revolution in 1789. In the turbulent years that followed, France was transformed from a feudal, aristocratic, religious society, to a democratic, liberal and secular one. From the power vacuum, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as leader. He was a military genius and proceeded to conquer most of Europe, though he was defeated by a consolidated allied force at Waterloo in 1815.
Since the revolution, France has undergone numerous periods of war, and has changed from being a republic to an empire to a monarchy and back to a republic again, though many notions that arose from the revolution are still held dear by the French people. These are best exemplified by the national motto, first proclaimed in revolutionary times - Liberté, égalité, fraternité.
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