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May 6, 2023

Has France ever had a civil war?

Has France ever had a civil war?

We examine what wars could be considered 'French Civil Wars'


            If you ask an American about The Civil War they’ll tell you about the 1861-1865 conflict between the Northern and Southern states over the issues of slavery and states’ rights. If you ask an English person about The Civil War they’ll talk about the mid-17th century conflict between king and Parliament over political power. If you ask an Irish person about The Civil War they’ll tell you about the early 20th century fight between the pro-treaty side and the radical republicans. If you ask a Chinese person about The Civil War they’ll tell you about the 1929-1949 battle between republicans and communists. If you ask a French person about The Civil War they’ll ask, “why are you talking to me?” and go back on break.

            France does not have a clearly-defined ‘Civil War,’ however there are multiple conflicts in French history that could qualify as a civil war. First, let’s define our terms. As far as civil wars go there are two broad archetypes: social civil wars and political civil wars. Social civil wars are broad-scale violence between different ethnic, cultural or religious groups within one country. Political civil wars constitute large-scale violence between two or more clearly-defined political groups over power within a country. These definitions are archetypes whose attributes often crossover as ethnolinguistic or religious groups form political blocs to acquire power.

            The first contender for a French Civil War is the Albigensian Crusade between 1209 and 1229. In the late 12th century a religious movement known as Catharism radically reinterpreted Christianity. Cathars believed that there were two gods: the god of the Old Testament was an all-evil god due to his frequent atrocities and harsh laws. In contrast, the New Testament god was an all-good god due to his redemption of humanity and mercy. As you can imagine their views were not well-received by the Catholic Church which considered them heretical for their reinterpretation of Scripture and pagan due to their belief in two separate gods. In 1209 Pope Innocent III called for a crusade to destroy the Cathar heresy, the first time that a crusade was invoked against Christians.

French king Philippe II, his son and successor Louis VIII and many northern nobles leapt at the opportunity to assault the south. The Pope had essentially given the northern lords license to seize wealth and territory in a nearby region. This was particularly important for the monarchy. The Capetians had always been based in the north. The first handful of Capetian monarchs had virtually no power in the south and spent their time fighting against powerful northern rivals, such as Normandy, Blois and Anjou. During his reign Philippe II conquered Normandy, making him well-established in the north. The call to crusade in the south was just the opportunity for the King of France to expand his power over the entire country he claimed to rule.

The Albigensian Crusade was utterly brutal. The Catholics showed no mercy to the southerners. Massacres were common. On 22 July 1209 the crusaders entered the city of Béziers where they slaughtered roughly 20,000 people according to the official record. When the townsfolk took sanctuary in their churches the Catholics set them on fire. According to one source, when a crusader asked the leader Arnaud Amalric how to distinguish between Cathars and Catholics, the papal legate replied, “Kill them all. The Lord knows those that are his own.”

The northern lords seized territory expanding their personal power and tying the south closer to the north. Moreover, southern culture declined as northerners imposed their own. This was an important moment in the history of France because under the early Capetians the country had many regions that were virtually autonomous, each with their own unique culture. The brutal subjugation of the south meant that France was more unified politically, religiously, linguistically and culturally, though this came at incredible cost. By the end of the Crusade between 200,000 to one million people were killed in southern France. The Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who coined the term ‘genocide’ called the Albigensian Crusade "one of the most conclusive cases of genocide.”

The Albigensian Crusade is a strong contender for a French civil war given that it pitted an entire major region of France against another. It was a political struggle that saw the monarchy’s authority expand southward. French culture became more unified at the expense of Occitan and Provençal. It certainly had the body count required of a civil war. The total population of the country was around 13 million people. If between 200,000 and one million people were killed that would mean between 1 out of every 65 people in France or 1 out of 13 were brutally slaughtered during the war.

The next possible civil war in French history was the Hundred Years’ War. The war was actually a series of interconnected conflicts that lasted 116 years between 1337 and 1453. It began when French king Charles IV died without an heir. King Edward III of England claimed that the French throne was rightfully his. Most French aristocrats did not want an English ruler and so they uplifted the deceased king’s cousin Philippe VI who became the first Valois monarch. Edward III wasn’t going to let a silly thing like the people’s will stop him from getting what he wanted and he launched an invasion.

Popular conceptions of the Hundred Years’ War cast it as a fight between the English and French. It is true that the English noble houses rallied behind their kings while the majority of the French aristocracy rallied behind the Valois. However, not all French fought on the same side. The English throne controlled Gascony at the time, meaning that many Gascons fought on their side. Edward III gained Breton support when he supported Jean de Montfort in the War of the Breton Succession. The Burgundians initially allied with the English and played a crucial role in their victory over the north. While the Hundred Years’ War started due to English invasion it pitted French nobles against each other. Another reason this might qualify as a civil war was that fighting took place across the country rather than in one or several regions.

While there are reasons to believe that there was a civil war within the Hundred Years’ War, some factors should be considered. Today countries are clearly defined but this was not the case in the medieval period. A country in the 14th century was often a loosely-defined assemblage of territories under noble control that owed fealty to a central monarch. Fealty could be divided between several lords, complicating the issue. Furthermore, France in the 1300s and 1400s was not the same as it is today, as it did not include Burgundy; thus the Burgundians’ role in the war might be seen as foreign intervention rather than a war between like peoples.

The most obvious contender for a French Civil War were the French Wars of Religion. Taking place between 1562 and 1598, the French Wars of Religion were a series of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The Protestant Reformation posed a significant challenge to Catholicism’s monopoly on Western and Central Europe as anti-Catholic theologians claimed that the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned Christian teaching. These thinkers argued that the church had imposed unnecessary additions to church dogma. They rejected everything but the Bible and claimed that individuals could form their own relationship with God without the need of a priest to serve as an intermediary. The majority of people in Scandinavia, northern Germany and the Netherlands converted to Lutheranism within a generation. In France, the teachings of Jean Cauvin, in English ‘John Calvin,’ spread rapidly, until 1 out of 6 French people were Protestant.

As if religious tension wasn’t bad enough there were also political divisions within France. After a period of strong kings in 1560 Charles IX became the new monarch at the age of 9. His mother and regent Catherine de’ Medici struggled to hold the country together against the House of Guise who led a powerful noble faction of ardent Catholics. In January 1562 de’ Medici issued the Edict of Saint-Germain which granted some religious freedoms to Protestants. On 1 March the Duke of Guise travelled to Wassy where he massacred dozens of Protestants during a peaceful worship service. This event inspired more anti-Protestant massacres. In response, Louis Prince of Condé led Protestants to seize cities and prepare a defense against Catholic aggression.

The Wars of Religion were an utterly devastating series of on-and-off conflicts. They became even more deadly as other countries joined sympathetic factions. England, Scotland, Navarre and the Netherlands joined the Protestants while Spain, the Papal States, Portugal, The Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Duchy of Savoy joined the Catholic side. The war easily qualifies as a political civil war given that it saw clearly-defined political factions vie for power. Over the course of the war the Valois dynasty fell to be replaced by the Bourbon. Meanwhile the House of Guise and the Catholic League which they led was defeated. The French Wars of Religion also qualify as a social civil war given that neighbors across the country killed each other over religion. Between 2-4 million people were killed. In a country with a population around 16 million this means that between 1 out of 8 or 1 out of 4 people died in the wars.

The French Wars of Religion established a new order in the country. They ended in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes which granted tolerance to Protestants. Moreover, the Bourbon monarchs consolidated power over their troublesome aristocrats. Thus, the French Wars of Religion were arguably the last time that the aristocracy seriously challenged the monarch. By the time Louis XIV created Versailles the nobility came firmly under the king’s power and never again seriously threatened to overthrow the king. Having subjugated their traditional rival for power the French kings probably became too overconfident as they failed to recognize the rising power of the masses.  

Exactly 50 years after the Wars of Religion were a series of insurrectionary movements known to history as The Fronde. Before, France had been involved in the Thirty Years’ War, one of the deadliest wars in European history at the time. The country had entered the conflict on the side of the Protestants in order to curb the power of the Hapsburgs. Beating the Hapsburgs outweighed duty to God, apparently. As the war neared its end in 1648 the government, under Cardinal Mazarin and the regent Queen Anne of Austria, raised taxes, largely on urban merchants. The parlement of Paris rejected these moves, leading Mazarin to arrest its leaders. In response, leading notables led the city to revolt. At first the royal government could only watch as they did not have an available army. Then, on 24 October 1648 officials signed the Treaty of Münster, ending their involvement in the eastern war. The peace freed the French military and a royal force besieged Paris. On 11 March 1649 the city surrendered in exchange for some concessions.

In 1650 a new phase known as ‘The Second Fronde’ began. Unlike the First Fronde, which was led by the urban merchants over feudal rights, the Second’s leaders were primarily nobles with personal grievances. On 14 January 1650 Mazarin ordered the arrest of a number of high-ranking aristocrats. Louis the Grand Condé was the most notable figure, famous for winning the Battle of Rocroi 1643 which saw France emerge as the great land power of Europe over Spain. Parisians still upset by tax increases formed an armed crowd and stormed into the palace where Louis XIV was staying to demand justice. When they broke into the 12-year-old king’s bedchamber he pretended to sleep until they decided to leave. While the royal family did not suffer injury Queen Anne was understandably spooked and led the court to flee to the countryside. The royals gathered an army and retook the city.

In the south Henri, Viscount of Turenne led an armed rebellion. He was initially supported by the Spanish but after several failures they abandoned the campaign. Royalist forces met Turenne’s and defeated him, quickly ending the rebellion. The rebels were pardoned and peace followed.

War flared up one last time in early 1652 when the Prince of Condé led a force in Guyenne and the Loire. This time Turenne became the royalist champion who led the king’s forces against those of Condé. Meanwhile a rebellion broke out in Champagne with Spanish backing. On 2 July Turenne and Condé’s armies fought to a standstill in front of Paris. Yet, the Parisians opened the gates for Condé’s forces and he occupied the city. The occupation was short-lived. The country was widely opposed to the actions of the princes and he fled for Spanish refuge. The Parisians welcomed King Louis XIV back the next month and serious rebellion ended.

The Fronde has often been called a civil war but it was something of a complex affair. The Fronde was not a singular conflict but several interrelated ones based on opposition to royal overreach. Violence only occurred in several regions across the country and actual battles were rare. For these reasons the Fronde can possibly be better classified as a series of insurrections rather than a full-scale civil war.

            The next contender for French Civil War was the inter-French conflict that occurred during the French Revolutionary Wars. The French Revolutionary Wars primarily pitted France against the other powers of Europe. However, there was a significant amount of violence between French people during this time. By 1793 many French Catholic royalists rose up against the increasingly radical anti-clerical republican government. In fact, Napoleon Bonaparte first came to prominence by defeating royalist forces backed by the British, Spanish and Italians at the Siege of Toulon. It was then in mid-1793 that he was promoted from captain to brigadier general and rapidly rose to power.

Fighting between republican and royalist forces occurred across France but nowhere was it stronger than in the Vendée. Around 200,000 people were killed in three years just within that region, roughly 1/5th or 1/4th of the entire population. Meanwhile, French aristocrats who had fled the revolution formed the Émigrés armies to retake the country. While these were never large they represent yet another theater of war where one French political bloc fought another.

Much like the Hundred Years’ War, whether or not this counts as a civil war depends on whether we consider the inter-French violence its own war or whether it is treated as a front within a larger international conflict.

At this point it’s worth mentioning the Paris Commune as our next possible civil war, although we have to put a big asterisk on it given that it was just Paris vs the rest of France. In early 1871 Parisian socialist and anarchist leaders declared the city its own independent commune and refused to recognize the authority of the national French government. Between 21-28 May 1871 the national government entered the city and defeated the rebellious forces within one week. This conflict involved clearly-defined political sides contesting power. Moreover, Paris is a large and important city, which represented 1 out of every 36 people in France at the time. However, Paris is not France, and considering the conflict was limited to one city and only lasted a week it’s hard to consider this a civil war. Ultimately, whether you consider it a civil war or not depends on just how important you think the City of Lights is.

The next major contender for a French Civil War was the inter-French conflict within World War 2. On 25 June 1940 France and Germany enacted an armistice. The ceasefire involved Germans seizing the north and all territory bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Mainland France was left as a rump state in the south with its operating capital at the spa town of Vichy. Under Marshall Philippe Pétain the French government attempted to remain neutral so they could recover from their recent defeat and avoid a costly war. But peace was never an option.

Outside of the French mainland General Charles de Gaulle created France Libre, in English ‘Free France.’ De Gaulle refused to acknowledge the Vichy-controlled French State as the legitimate government of France and vowed to fight on until Nazi Germany was completely removed from the country. France Libre forces fought alongside their allies for control of the French Empire which brought them into conflict with forces loyal to Vichy. Between 1940-1942 the two Frances fought each other in Africa and the Middle East. France Libre was supported by Allied forces while Germany limited Vichy’s forces, meaning that Vichy almost continuously lost ground until November 1942 when Germany occupied the entire mainland.

As the war progressed there was also significant violence within mainland France. After the Battle of France the French people settled into their new existence, trusting Pétain to maintain peace. While French people resented the German occupation of the north they also wanted to avoid a costly war, especially as 1.8 million French soldiers were being held captive by Nazi Germany. With little other option most tried to live their lives under the new regime.

Pétain first made enemies by trying to bring uniformity and peace to his country. He banned communist and other far-left organizations, which drove them underground. He then banned all trade unions in favor of state-controlled replacements. This drove left-wingers underground where they began to organize resistance to the state. In 1940 there was little sympathy for the Resistance movements and little action on their part. However, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in mid-1941 proved a major boon to the Resistance. On the one hand, many French recognized that a war with the Soviet Union would be extremely costly, thus providing them with the opportunity to rise up against Germany and its puppet government. Moreover, many left-wingers sympathized with the Soviets and cast their struggle as an international one between them and fascists.

As time progressed the state became increasingly repressive, particularly against Jews. In 1942 Jews had to identify with a Star of David sewed onto their clothing. It was in that same year that Jews were rounded up and deported to concentration camps in the east. Facing extermination, Jews either fled the country or joined the Resistance, alongside those French who sympathized with them.

Economic requisitioning by Germany spread misery across the country. When Germany occupied all of mainland France it meant that the Resistance wasn’t primarily fighting against the French state per se, but against Nazi Germany and its puppets. This turned more of the country towards Resistance and armed groups openly fought with Germans and with the French State’s Groupe mobile de réserve.

Inter-French violence increased in 1943 with the formation of la Milice, the Militia. The Militia was an utterly brutal organization that regularly tortured and executed suspected resistance members as it worked alongside the Gestapo and SS. The Militia lasted until the Liberation of Paris in which France Libre, the Resistance and a number of allies took the capital.

Between 1940-1945 France Libre and the Resistance fought The French State for control of France’s mainland and the empire. Tens of thousands were killed outright. Far more were killed through deportations to the east, which were abetted by The French State and opposed by resistors. Roughly 86,000 French citizens were deported to eastern concentration camps without racial motive, meaning primarily anti-Vichy political deportees.

 The final contender for a French civil war was the inter-French conflict during the last three years of the Algerian War of Independence. By 1954 Algeria’s northern coastline was home to 1 million ethnic Europeans while another 8 million who lived primarily in the interior were Berbers and Arabs. On 1 August 1954 France officially admitted defeat in the First Indochina War, at which point Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos won their independence. Anti-colonial victory in the east inspired Algerians to push for their own independence. The French government responded with increasingly brutal crackdowns which prompted even more violence. By 1956 Algerian resistors engaged in guerilla warfare against the 400,000 French troops stationed in the country. Tens to hundreds of thousands were killed, 2 million people were forcibly relocated from their homes and the French state admitted to using torture. Brutality by the French military only confirmed Algerian resistors of the necessity of their cause and the war dragged on.

By early 1958 the Algerian War was threatening to tear France apart. Many on the left-wing supported the Algerian struggle for independence. Those in the center increasingly tired of another costly, bloody war which had no apparent end in sight or chance of victory. Conservatives were more supportive of the war, claiming that Algeria was not just a colony but legally a part of France. Moreover, one million white Europeans lived along the coast, who feared reprisals if indigenous Algerians assumed power.

Disunity in France’s Fourth Republic ensured that there was no solution to the crisis one way or another. Its multiparty system prevented any one group from taking the power required for bold action, whether it be peace or an expansion of the war. Parliamentary paralysis inspired members of the French military to plan a coup to overthrow the Fourth Republic. General Jacques Massau seized power in Algiers. He and his fellows ordered French paratroopers to take Corsica. Next, they threatened to assault Paris and make the retired General Charles de Gaulle a military dictator. Recognizing the military was openly plotting a coup, French President René Coty called de Gaulle out of retirement to assume power and write a new constitution. De Gaulle led the creation of the Fifth Republic in October 1958 and became its first president.

De Gaulle initially supported the military continuation of the war but by 1959 he realized that it was a lost cause. On 16 September de Gaulle openly called for Algerian self-determination and an end to the conflict. De Gaulle’s about-face stunned the generals who had launched a coup on his behalf for the express purpose of continuing the war. On 24 January 1960 French ultranationalists set up barricades in Algiers hoping that the French military would join their cause. However, most of the military remained loyal to de Gaulle and fought with the insurrectionists, killing 20.

            In early 1961, as Algerian independence loomed, leading French military figures formed the Organisation Armée Secrète, the Secret Armed Organization. The OAS was a terrorist organization that attempted to assassinate de Gaulle, his ministers and prominent anti-war figures such as philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. When they weren’t trying to kill pro-peace French they were engaged in violence against Algerians as part of a brutal attempt to terrify them into complacence. The OAS terror campaign killed over 2,000 people within a year and led to a whole new era in the Algerian War. Essentially, the war became a three-sided affair with French national forces on one side, Algerian separatists on the other and the ultranationalist French on their own.

            The inter-French conflict at the end of the Algerian War certainly has some attributes of a civil war. There were clearly-defined political sides with the ultranationalists even overthrowing the government before being marginalized later on. Whether or not this counts as a full-scale civil war really depends on if the size of the conflict was large enough. France had a population in the tens of millions so a few thousand killed is relatively small. However, we should keep in mind that aside from outright violence there was notable civil discord both between French citizens living within France and between those in northern Algeria. Finally, one million ethnic Europeans fled northern Algeria, mostly for France, following the end of the war. This ethnic cleansing is its own form of violence and an outcome of the French national government defeating the ultranationalist camp.

            In its long history France has had two wars that clearly fit the definition of a ‘civil war.’ The Albigensian Crusade and the French Wars of Religion were two wars involving clearly-defined political sides leading their aligned social groups to fight for political, religious and cultural dominance over another. The other possible civil wars were fronts within the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolutionary War, World War 2 and the Algerian War. During each of these conflicts France was involved in a major international war, one which exacerbated tensions between different groups within the country leading to inter-French fighting. Two other conflicts could be described as civil wars: The Fronde and the conflict between the national government and the Paris Commune. However, fighting was incredibly limited, meaning that these may be better classified as insurrections than civil wars.