France is a country known for its extraordinary history – a glorious history driven by some of the most extraordinary people.

France borders the English Channel to the North, Germany to the East, and Spain and the Mediterranean Sea on its southern coast. France is a nation of proud citizens who fought to defend their country and establish their nation's power. 

Through the ages, the nation defended its lands and established its empire, all the while becoming famous for its rich culture that was founded by its many artists, writers and philosophers throughout time.

When we look back at history we find many of these prominent French figures who have contributed to the rich tapestry of French history and culture. Who are these people? What role did they play in the building of the French nation?

Here is our list of the Top 18 Most Important French figures through history. 

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1.     Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

Joan of Arc is one of France's most famous citizens, best known for her contribution to the end of the Hundred Years War. She secured the French victory over the English and successfully reclaimed French lands.

Joan of Arc’s actions were motivated by her religious devotion, and notably her holy visions of St Michael and St Catherine, encouraging her to lead in battle with the holy pronouncements that she would be the saviour of France.

Following the instruction of the saints, Joan led several battles alongside the Dauphin Charles the heir to the French throne, and thereby resulting in France regaining control of its lands from the English.

Victorious in battle, Charles was crowned the King of France in the Cathedral of Reims in 1429, becoming Charles VII. However, despite the French having taken back their throne, the ongoing conflict with the English resulted in  Joan being sold to them as a hostage by the Burgundians. She was charged with witchcraft and heresy and burnt at the stake. She is to this day the Patron Saint of France and her statues are found throughout the country in veneration of the maiden who brought France to victory.

2.     King Louis XIV (1638-1715)

The Sun King is arguably France's most famous monarch. King Louis XIV of France was crowned King of France at the age of just 4 years old,  following the death of his father. He is best known for his elaborate construction of the Chateau de Versailles, and the opulence of his reign known as  "Le Grand Siecle" of French classicism.

King Louis’ XIV's Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin assisted in the running of the country while Louis was still a child. After the Cardinal's death in 1661, Louis became the absolute and divine monarch at the age of 23, believing he was ruling France directly on God’s behalf. During his reign, he engaged in many wars and battles through Europe waring with Spain, Flanders and the Habsbourg dynasties. It was during King Louis XIV reign that the first French colonies in "Nouvelle France"  were established, with its first colony in Quebec, Canada and stretching to some lands further south to Louisiana. The Sun King would be the longest-reigning monarch of France and Europe, reigning for 72 years until his death at the age of 76 due to complications of gangrene.

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The Palace of Versailles can still be visted today
King Louis XIV  most famous for building the opulent Palace of Versailles, becoming the centre of French political and aristocratic life ¦ source: Visualhunt - papposilene

3.     Voltaire (1694-1778)

The 18th-century French writer Voltaire was famous for his works that were representative of the philosophic and cultural movement during the Age of Enlightenment, a period that took place in Europe in the 1700’s.

Known for his criticism of Christianity throughout his satirical works, Voltaire also fully supported the separation of church and state. Voltaire wrote all manner of literary works throughout his lifetime. His most notable work, Candide (1759),  criticises the unfounded optimism of religion.

Voltaire had spent time in prison for his attacks on religion and the government in his work La Henriade (1723). He exiled himself across the channel to the English town of Ferney, (on the French-Swiss border, now known as Ferney-Voltaire) to avoid spending time in jail for his critical writings.

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4.     Marie Antoinette (1755-1793)

Marie Antoinette was an Austrian Archduchess born in Vienna in 1755. At the age of 14, she married the heir of the French throne Louis-Auguste, who would become King Louis XVI. Queen Marie Antoinette and King Louis the XVI would be the last king and queen of France.

During her reign as Queen of France, Marie Antoinette was at first highly regarded by the French people, however, as the monarchy became increasingly criticized for its decadence and lavish spending, the public opinion of the queen drastically plummeted. The discontent grew to a fever pitch when the angry citizens of Paris stormed Versailles.

Marie Antoinette is perhaps best known for the infamous saying "Let them eat cake", upon hearing that the citizens of Paris could no longer afford to buy bread sometime during the period before the French Revolution when a majority of the French people were living in dire poverty. Apparently what she had meant to imply was that if there was indeed no bread, that they should eat brioche instead. Although it was a callous rumour that spread rapidly, many historians maintain that there is no real proof that Marie Antoinette had indeed proclaimed these words.

The French people's negative opinion of Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI is often cited as a contributing factor in the French revolution. Marie Antoinette would eventually meet her death by guillotine on the 16 October 1793 at the Place de la Concorde in Paris at the age of 38, her hair having turned completely white during her incarceration and terror trials.

5.     Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

Perhaps one of the most famous generals is the French General and Conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. Born on the island of Corsica in 1769, Napoleon was a member of the French military during the Revolution rising quickly through the French Military as a brilliant strategist. He expanded the empire, conquering most of Western Europe while seizing political power and proclaiming himself Emperor of France.

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The Napoleonic Wars marked a period of colonial expansion for France
Napoleon is regarded as one of the West’s best military leaders and was the namesake of an array of wars in which he led France at the beginning of the 19th century ¦ source: Visualhunt

Also famous for his contribution to French codified law, part of Napoleon’s legacy the Napoleonic Code, which was drafted to replace the complex pre-revolution system. The Napoleonic Code still exists to this day and covers everything from the rights of individuals, family inheritance on property laws and the management of colonies.

6.     Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

Most famous for his novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), Victor Hugo was a celebrated French writer famous for his poems, novels and plays. Hugo’s works were part of the Romantic era, the artistic period where artists focused on nature as an inspiration expressed through his art and literature.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the first of many semi-political works written by Victor Hugo. The story revolved around a disfigured orphan who was mistreated by the people of the town. It was later adapted to film as well as an animated Disney film released in 1996.

Les Misérables, set in 1845, was an immense hit when first published in 1862 making him hugely popular not only in France but around the world following its translation in a number of different languages. It follows the life of a man imprisoned for 19 years, for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. It was a brilliant novel, exposing the many flaws of post-revolutionary French society and the struggle between good and evil.

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7.     Marie Curie (1867-1934)

The first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize, Marie Curie would be the first to win the award more than once for her discovery of radium and polonium. Curie dedicated her life to researching radioactive materials and is credited for coining the term "radioactive" due to her discoveries.

Along with her research in physics and chemistry, she also worked with the French government in implementing the use of portable x-ray machines for wounded soldiers on the battlefields of World War I.

Due to her exposure to radioactive materials, she died at the age of 66 from aplastic anaemia or radiation sickness caused by her exposure throughout her research. As a tribute to her years to research in radiation, Marie Curie paid the ultimate price for her years of service to science.

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8.     Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935)

Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer during the First World War. He was convicted of treason in 1894 and stripped of his military title even after proclaiming his innocence and continued fighting to be reinstated in the French military. Evidence that would have proved his innocence was suppressed and he was imprisoned for life.

However, because of Dreyfus’ Jewish faith and suspicion of anti-Semitism within the French military at the time, it brought forth the debate for religious freedom of French citizens into the public domain.

With Dreyfus locked up even after a retrial, it was still the popular opinion that he was innocent. There was another series of public outcries that eventually led to his pardon and release. He was reinstated into the army and given his due promotions and recognition for his military service.

9.     Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)

Charles de Gaulle was a military leader in the Second World War, who self-exiled to London for three years during the German occupation of Paris. He later rallied the French Resistance forces along with the British Secret Services to help liberate Paris in 1944 from the occupying forces, he later became the President of France.

De Gaulle's military and political career was marked by radical events and changes in the French government.

De Gaulle returned to Paris following the liberation of Paris. However, when his desire to form a new government failed in 1953, he retired for a period. He returned to governing France after the Algerian Independence movement in 1958 and was president of France until 1969.

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Charles de Gaulle International airport honours Charles de Gaulle's contribution to France
Charles de Gaulle has been recognised for his duties with an airport named in his honour ¦ source: Pixabay - 12019
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10.    Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher, most notable for his anti-colonialist views. He is famous for his work on the theory of existentialism.

Sartre published a number of reputable political works, plays and essays. The most famous include his existentialist play No Exit in which all of the characters are trapped in a room together with no escape as well as the philosophical book Being and Nothingness where Satre develops his theory of existentialism and addresses topics such as consciousness, perception and free will.

Sartre famously refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, insisting that an author or writer should not allow themselves to be turned into an institution.

11.    Claude Monet (1840-1926)

Claude Monet is the most famous French Impressionist painter. He is known as one of the founders of the French Impressionist movement. Monet was disillusioned with the traditional painting ethos and together with his friends, Sisley, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro,  shared new approaches to painting outdoors.  With the new perception of light and shorter brush strokes used in his paintings, this new style became known as Impressionism.

Monet was famous for his series of works featuring locations like the London River Thames, Rouen Cathedral or his own gardens in Giverny,  all depicted in a series of paintings that captured the different illuminations of the day. Monet's works remain a popular attraction to this day and are featured in art galleries and art exhibitions around the world.

12.     Gustave Eiffel (1832 - 1922)

Perhaps France's most famous landmark and tourist attraction, the Eiffel Tower is the most visited landmark in Paris. Gustave Eiffel was the French engineer specialising in metal works and responsible for the tower's construction for the Universal Exposition of 1889. Eiffel endured criticism from the artistic elite of his day for the feasibility of the construction and the "barbaric bulk" black structure of the tower looming over the romantic city of Paris.

The Eiffel tower proved to be an iconic structure of Paris despite the controversy during its construction. Gustave's extraordinary career was in part also due to his contributions to the structural design component of the equally unforgettable Statue of Liberty, among many other ingenious constructions including railroads, bridges and buildings all over the world. The Statue of Liberty was entirely constructed in Paris before being dismantled and shipped to America. His last and reigning legacy continues to be what became a symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower.

13.     Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Claude Debussy was a French composer born in Saint Germain En Laye in the suburbs of Paris. Debussy's lyrical melodies evoked dreamlike states and emotions. He was often referred to as the impressionist composer of the day, much to his dismay given his disproval of the title. Nevertheless, he is considered one of the most influential composers of the 19th and 20th centuries and his name and music still resonate today. The composer developed a unique musical structure and harmonies known worldwide and he inspired many musicians of his time.

His major works include the famous "Clair de lune" (“Moonlight,” in Suite Bergamasque, 1890–1905), "Prélude à l’Après-Midi D’un Faune" (1894; "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun") and "La Mer" (1905; “The Sea”). Many of his compositions evoked nature and so it is no wonder that they compared his music to the impressionist paintings that his melodies conjured.

14.     Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900-1944)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry the French aviator, poet, author and journalist, famously documented his travels and exciting adventures as a pilot in his written works. He served in the French Air Force and also as a commercial pilot for early aero-postal services. After the German Armistice in 1940, he self-exiled to the United States, where he wrote his most famous novella Le Petite Prince or The Little Prince, that was first published in America, both in English and French.

Although he won several literary prizes for his works, Night Flight (1931) and his memoir Wind, Sand, and Stars (1939), his literary endeavours culminated with the 1943 publication of The Little Prince, considered a classic and written while he was in New York advocating for American intervention in the War against the Nazi regime.

He would later return to France, to fight alongside the Allies with a Mediterranean-based squadron in 1943. He disappeared July 31 1944, during a reconnaissance mission in his P38 unarmed plane, while mapping out German locations in the Rhone valley. His disappearance would remain a mystery until fragments of his plane were identified in 2004 off the coast of Marseille. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's memory continues to live on in The Little Prince.

15.     Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

"Fashion changes, but style endures" - Coco Chanel

The house of Chanel is the quintessential symbol of French elegance and fashion. The founder Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel is considered the most famous French fashion designer best known for her haute couture creations, trademark suits and dresses, accessories,  perfumes, and of course the little black dress. Chanel would become an iconic French Brand.

She was orphaned at the age of 12 when her mother died and she went on to spend six years in an orphanage. The austere life in the Abby would eventually have a strong influence on her designs, with the signature black and white colours of her creations, and from the stain glass windows of the Abby that later influenced the creation of her intertwined CC brand logo for Chanel.

Chanel first started selling hats to the wealthy and fashionable elites, offering them simple and elegant styles. She liberated the female form after the Great War due to the shortages of fabrics, by eliminating corsets and waistlines in favour of looser dresses in jersey fabrics. She was considered avant-garde for her simple and more practical silhouettes with masculine tones. Chanel would become a huge style icon despite her simple yet sophisticated appearance and seldom made a public appearance without her signature pearls.

16.     Edith Piaf (1915 - 1963)

The most iconic of French songs known around the world is "La Vie en Rose",  made famous by the acclaimed French singer Edith Piaf. Born in Paris in 1915, Edith had a difficult childhood marred with illness and poverty. She was first discovered singing in the streets of Paris and began singing in the Great Music Halls including Moulin Rouge. She had many close friends in the theatre, music and art world and became more famous throughout France with her songs playing on Radio France.

She continued with her concerts during the German occupation and became famous worldwide after the war, eventually playing at Carnegie Hall in New York City. She would return to Paris, amid health and financial problems, as well as alcoholism due to her chronic pain. She was admired for her original musical interpretations and moving and emotional renditions, especially for her most famous songs such as "Mon Dieu" in memory of her lover Marcel Cerdan who was killed in a plane crash on his way to meet her in New York.  She will always be remembered for her legendary French song "La Vie en Rose".

17.     Auguste  Rodin (1840 - 1917)

One of the most famous sculptures "The Thinker", was by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Born in Paris in 1940, Rodin was considered one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 19th and the 20th century and recognised as the father of modern sculptures. His works were a cross between impressionism and romanticism, and between light and form. He was inspired by his time in Italy during which he studied the sculptures of Michelangelo and Donatello and his own works in marble and bronze in sensual forms were considered novel for his time.

He had several iconic pieces of sculptures in addition, like "The Kiss", and the statues of the famous French poet Honoré de Balzac and author Victor Hugo. His haunting statue "Les Bourgeois de Calais" at the Palace of Westminster in London is one of several copies of Rodin's statues that he frequently replicated in different dimensions. His lover and fellow sculptress, Camille Claudel was instrumental in the construction and composition of his pieces. The sculpture entitled "L'Eternelle Printemps" is a work of great eroticism and sensuality and was thought to be inspired by his 10-year love affair with Claudel. Rodin will eternally be remembered for his sculptures in all their sensual and romantic forms.

18.     Camille Claudel (1864 - 1943)

Auguste Rodin's infamous and tumultuous love affair with his student, model and fellow sculptor Camille Claudel 24 years his junior was a great source of inspiration for both artists. Rodin was enamoured by her talent, creativity and beauty upon meeting her for the first time when she was only 19.  She was a talented sculptor, studying at the Academy Colarossi in Paris with her first mentor Alfred Boucher, also a brilliant sculptor. Her bronze sculpture "La Valse" is famous for capturing the sensuality and fluidity of two lovers caught dancing in an embrace. Her work "The Mature Age" now on display at the Rodin Museum in Paris depicts the 3 stages of life and the pull between, Youth, Old Age and Death.

During her lifetime, it was nearly impossible for a woman to get any recognition or survive in a profession as an artist and Rodin took care of her until their separation. She would only be recognised for her own works many years after her death. Her works were considered avant-garde especially for a woman of her time, exhibiting sensuality with strength, yet lyricism in her marble and bronze sculptures. Her passionate romance with Rodin would be a great source of frustration, not only because of her financial dependency but also emotionally because of his refusal to marry her. Sadly, Claudel spent the last 30 years of her life in a mental institution.

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More Famous French Figures through History

This list is far from exhaustive! There are countless other French figures such as the feminist author Simone de Beauvoir, the famous actress Brigitte Bardot, politicians such as Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac, actresses Catherine Deneuve and Marion Cotillard, or singers Johnny Hallyday and Serge Gainsbourg, but it is virtually impossible to include every renowned French figure in just one single list. You may have your own favourite French person in mind who you feel has had a real impact on French society. If so, let us know in the comments as we would love to make their acquaintance and reference them in our article!

If you are interested in learning more about French culture and history, check out our article on the important historical events in France.

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