In the first century BC the Roman Empire conquers Gaul, present-day France. Gaul remains part of the Roman Empire until the fifth century. In 486 Clovis I, leader of the germanic tribe of the Franks, conquers the Roman territory between the Loire and the Somme, subsequently unites most of northern and central France under his rule and adopts roman catholicism as the main religion. The Frankish Realm includes also large parts of what is now includes large parts of Gaul and what is now Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland. In 751 the Carolingian dynasty comes to power with Pepin the Short, but his succesor, Charlemagne reunites in 771 the Frankish domains. Charlemagne is crowned Emperor of the Romans, or Roman Emperor in the West, by Pope Leo III in 800. This empire is divided in 843 into the West Frankish Kingdom, the Middle Frankish Empire and the East Frankish Kingdom.

The imperial title ceases to be held in the western part which is to form the basis of France. The Kingdom of France becomes a fact in 987. France develops into a feudal kingdom and large parts are from 1187 under de facto English rule. Eastern parts of the country are more or less independent as Burgundy. In 1453 the Engliosh are driven out of France and from that moment France can develop into an absolute monarchy.

Deteriorating economic conditions and popular resentment against the complicated system of privileges granted to the nobility and clerics are among the principal causes of the French Revolution (1789-94). Although the revolutionaries advocate republican and egalitarian principles of government, the initially quite moderate, but increasing radical revolutionary regime leads to a terror regime that ends the monarchy in 1792 by establishing the French Republic. The government develops into a dictatorship, from 1799 under Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1804 he proclaims himself emperor, but until 1809 France keeps the name French Republic. In 1809 France is renamed French Empire. The empire invades and occupies many states in Europe but is defeated in 1814. The Kingdom of France is then shortly restored but in 1815 Napoleon regains power and the Empire is restored. Later that year Napoleon is finally defeated and the kingdom is restored again.

France becomes a constitutional monarchy after a revolution in 1830. After a third revolution France becomes a democratic republic as the French Republic in 1848. Louis Napoléon becomes president, but he stages in 1851 a military coup. His dictatorship develops in 1852 into the (second) French Empire. During the empire efforts were made to establish a parliamentary government. When France loses the French-German war, this leads in 1871 to the third French Republic, a republican parliamentary democracy. In the republic governments collaps with regularity, rarely lasting more than a couple of months, as radicals, socialists, liberals, conservatives, republicans and monarchists all fight for control. Throughout its seventy-year history, the Third Republic stumbles from crisis to crisis, from collapsing governments. Dominant parties after 1900 are the conservative Fédération Républicaine, later Union Républicaine Démocratique (Republican Federation, FR/Republican Democratic Union, URD), the conservative liberal Parti Démocratique Républicaine (et Social) ((Social and) Republican Democratic Party, PDR, later PDRS), the liberal democrat Parti Radical et Radical-Socialiste (Radical and Radical Socialist Party, Parti Radical), the social-democratic Parti Républicain Socialiste (Republican Socialist Party, PRS), the socialist Section Français de l'Internationale Ouvrière (French Section of the Workers International) and the communist Parti Communiste Française (French COmmunist Party, PCF). Some prime ministers are longer in office. So can be mentioned in the period after 1900: Émile Combes (Parti Radical, 1902-1905), Georges Clemenceau (Parti Radical, 1906-1909, 1917-1920), Aristide Briand (SFIO, 1909-1911, PRS, 1913, 1915-1917, 1921-1922, 1925-1926, 1929), Raymond Poincaré (PDR/PDRS, 1912-1913, 1922-1924, 1926-1929), Paul Painlevé (PRS, 1917), Édouard Herriot (Parti Radical, 1924-1925, 1926, 1932), Camille Chautemps (Parti Radical, 1930, 1933-1934, 1937-1938) Pierre Laval (1931-1932, 1935-1936), Édouard Daladier (Parti Radical, 1933, 1934, 1938-1940) and Léon Blum (SFIO, 1936-1937, 1938).

After an interim period of Paul Reynaud (PDRS), Philippe Pétain becomes prime minister. During his government France is largely occupied by Germany. In the south of France a collaborationist state, the French State or Vichy France, under Pétain is established. He is succeeded in 1942 by Pierre Laval. On the other hand, those who refuse defeat and collaboration with Germany, the Free French, organise resistance movements in occupied and Vichy France and the Free French Forces. The Free French Forces are led by Charles de Gaulle.

After four years of occupation and the allied forces, including the Free French, liberate France in 1944. The fourth French Republic becomes a fact: again a parliamentary republic with unstable governments. Dominant parties are the Parti Radical, the conservative Centre National des Indépendants et Paysans (National Centre of Independents and Farmers, CNIP) the christian-democratic Mouvement Républicain Populaire (Republican Popular Movement, MRP), the SFIO and the communist Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party, PCF) After some interim governments the following prime ministers have been in officie for longer periods: Paul Ramadier (SFIO, 1947), Robert Schuman (MRP, 1947-1948, 1948) Henri Queuille (Parti Radical, 1948-1949, 1949, 1951) René Pleven (Union Démocratique et Socialiste de la Résistance (Democratic and Socialist Union of the Resistance, UDSR) 1950-1951, 1951-1952), Edgard Faure (Parti Radical, 1952, 1955-1956), Joseph Laniel (CNIP, 1953-1954), Pierre Mendès-France (Parti Radical, 1954-1955) and Guy Mollet (SFIO, 1956-1957).

1958 is the year of a big politcial crisis: the Algerian War which pitts Algerian colonists, the army, and the far right, against the left and those who wanted peace. To deal with this problem France turns Charles de Gaulle who assumes power under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency. This fifth republic is a presidential democratic republic based on a strong president. His gaullist movement, originally named Union pour la Nouvelle République (Union for the New Republic, UNR), becomes under different names the dominant political force in France. France is a co-founder of the European Communities in 1957 (renamed European Union in 1993). When he resigns in 1969 De Gaulle is succeeded in 1969 by the gaullist Georges Pompidou, leader of the Union des Démocrates pour la République (Union of Democrats for the Republic, UDR).

In 1974 the conservative Valery Giscard d'Estaing of the moderate conservative Républicains Indépendants (Independent Republicans, RI, later Parti Républicain, Republican Party, PR) is elected president. He is defeated in 1981 by the François Mitterand of the socialist Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party, PS), who remains president until 1995. The gaullist regain the presidency in 1995, when Jacques Chirac of the Rassemblement pour la République (Rally for the Republic, RPR) is elected president. During the legislative elections of 1997, the Parti Socialiste wins a majority in the Assembly, and Lionel Jospin becomes prime minister. This right-left "cohabitation" arrangement, which ended with Jospin's resignation following his defeat in the first round of the May 2002 presidential elections, is the longest lasting government in the history of the Fifth Republic. Chirac is re-elected in 2002 with the support of the left-wing parties in the second round against the nationalist leader Jean-Marie le Pen of the Front National (National Front, FN). Chirac reorganizes the right-wing and centrist parties that win the 2002 legislative elections into the Union pour la Mouvement Populaire (Union of the Popular Movement, UMP).