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France was one of the earliest countries to progress from feudalism to the nation-state. Its monarchs surrounded themselves with capable ministers, and French armies were among the most innovative, disciplined, and professional of their day. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), France was the dominant power in Europe. But overly ambitious projects and military campaigns of Louis and his successors led to chronic financial problems in the 18th Century. Deteriorating economic conditions and popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted the nobility and clerics were among the principal causes of the French Revolution (1789-94). Although the revolutionaries advocated republican and egalitarian principles of government, France reverted to forms of absolute rule or constitutional monarchy four times--the Empire of Napoleon, the Restoration of Louis XVIII, the reign of Louis-Philippe, and the Second Empire of Napoleon III. After the Franco-Prussian War (1870), the Third Republic was established and lasted until the military defeat of 1940.
World War I (1914-18) brought great losses of troops and materiel. In the 1920s, France established an elaborate system of border defenses (the Maginot Line) and alliances to offset resurgent German strength. France was defeated early in World War II, however, and was occupied in June 1940. In July, the country was divided into two: one section being ruled directly by the Germans, and a second controlled by the French ("Vichy" France) and which the Germans did not occupy. German and Italian forces occupied all of France, including the "Vichy" zone, following the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942. The "Vichy" government largely acquiesced to German plans, namely in the plunder of French resources and the forceful deportations of tens of thousands of French Jews living in France to concentration camps across Europe, and was even more completely under German control following the German military occupation of November 1942. Economically, a full one-half of France's public sector revenue was appropriated by Germany. After 4 years of occupation and strife, Allied forces liberated France in 1944.
France emerged from World War II to face a series of new problems. After a short period of provisional government initially led by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the Fourth Republic was set up by a new constitution and established as a parliamentary form of government controlled by a series of coalitions. The mixed nature of the coalitions and a consequent lack of agreement on measures for dealing with Indochina and Algeria caused successive cabinet crises and changes of government.