Napoléon Bonaparte
Napoléon Bonaparte. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

It’s a question that’s impossible to answer. How do you define greatness? How do you compare a king to a scientist to a philosopher?

This hasn’t stopped people from trying. In 2005, a French television survey asked viewers this question, with dubious results — for example, Charlemagne was ranked behind a soccer player! A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified the best known French, but fame is not the same as greatness. And then there are the various lists of top French kings, French inventors, French writers, etc.

For my list, I considered who has had the greatest influence on France—usually positive, but sometimes negative. I combined the resources above with an informal survey of French friends, including business people, professors, scientists, and artists.

And voilà! Here is my Top 10, in alphabetical order.

Napoléon Bonaparte

One of the most celebrated and controversial political figures in history, Napoléon rose to prominence during the French Revolution and dominated European affairs for more than a decade. A brilliant military commander, he built a vast empire that ruled over continental Europe until that unfortunate business at Waterloo. He brought liberal reforms to many of the territories he conquered, abolishing feudalism and implementing the Napoleonic Code, “the greatest codification of laws since the Roman Empire.”

Marie Curie
Marie Curie. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Marie Curie

Born in Poland and later naturalized as a French citizen, Marie Curie conducted pioneering work on “radioactivity” — a term she coined. She discovered two new elements and established mobile X-ray units during the First World War. She is the only person to have received a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields — physics and chemistry — and is the first woman laid to rest in the French Panthéon on her own merits.

René Descartes
René Descartes. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

René Descartes

One of history’s great thinkers, Descartes is best known for cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am.) He was a philosopher, mathematician, and scientist and is considered one of the founders of modern philosophy. Along with other arch-rationalists like Spinoza, he gave the Age of Reason its place in history. In mathematics, he developed the Cartesian coordinate system and is the father of analytic geometry.

Jules Ferry
Jules Ferry. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Jules Ferry

Named for the prime minister in the late 1800s, the Jules Ferry Laws established France’s system of free and compulsory public education. Until then, much education in France had been provided by the Catholic Church, so these laws laid important groundwork for the eventual separation of church and state. The Laws required the use of French for instruction, which helped to unify the nation around a single language, but nearly wiped out regional languages like Breton and Provençal. Ferry was also a driving force behind expansion of the French colonial empire, with devastating consequences around the world.

Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Charles de Gaulle

The towering figure of 20th century France, Le Grand Charles played many roles. As the organiser of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, he ensured that France sat at the table of power after the war. He then retired but was called back to service during the Algerian Crisis of 1958. He led a transitional French government, rewrote the country’s constitution, and was elected the first president of the Fifth Republic. General, president, constitutionalist, diplomat … few in French history have worn so many hats so well.

King Henry IV
King Henry IV. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

King Henry IV

Known as Good King Henry, he ruled France from 1589 to 1610. Raised as a Protestant, he later converted to Catholicism and had an understandably tolerant view of religion. His greatest achievement was the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted substantial religious freedom to Protestants and put an end to the French Wars of Religion, which had killed millions in the preceding four decades.

Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Joan of Arc

It is hard to determine where the facts end and the myth begins when it comes to the Maid of Orleans. An illiterate peasant teenager claims to receive holy visions that instruct her to recover France from English domination. She becomes a confidante of the French king and wins battles that lead to victory in the Hundred Years War. She is martyred by the British and later made a saint. Today Joan of Arc holds a place in the French national imagination like no one else.

Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Louis Pasteur

A biologist, microbiologist and chemist, Pasteur is considered the father of bacteriology. He made important discoveries in the areas of vaccination, microbial fermentation, and pasteurisation — a process named after him — and his discoveries have saved countless lives. His work provided important evidence for the germ theory of disease and helped lead to its worldwide acceptance.

Voltaire
Voltaire. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Voltaire

A major figure of the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire was a writer, historian, and philosopher. He was a vigorous advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the separation of church and state, and his thinking deeply influenced both the French and American revolutions. His works like Candide and A Treatise on Tolerance are still widely read in France.

Émile Zola
Émile Zola. Photo credit © Wikipedia, Public Domain

Émile Zola

One of the greatest authors of 19th century France, Zola stands above the others for a political act — his role in the Dreyfus Affair. After Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been falsely convicted of treason, Zola risked his career and more by publishing an open letter that accused the highest levels of the army of obstruction of justice and antisemitism. The resulting uproar eventually led to Dreyfus’s acquittal and major changes in French society —some call it the last great battle of the French Revolution. Zola died several years later under suspicious circumstances, leading many to believe that he had been assassinated.

So, that’s my Top 10. Who would you add to this list?

17 COMMENTS

  1. Such a great list of interesting characters that shaped France, thank you for this beautiful article. I love the brief description of what made you choose these “grands hommes” et I enjoyed the pictures, some I had never seen before (a young Zola!)

  2. Joan of Arc ended up as a nuisance to King Charles. She didn’t win the 100 years war for France as she was already dead. She was betrayed and tried by her countrymen who sold her to the English. I wonder what Churchill and Roosevelt would think of your portrayal of Charles de Gaulle?

  3. Thanks for the list, Keith. This is thoughtful and reflective work. I have to say that I dispute any list with Napoleon mentioned alongside the word “greatness” however defined. The man was a pro-slavery tyrant, and needs to be deleted from these kinds of canons. I would nominate Agnès Varda up there instead.

  4. Edith PIAF

    Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie commonly known as General Thomas Alexandre Dumas (father of Alexandre Dumas)
    THE BLACK COUNT Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and The Real Count of Monte Cristo
    Tom Reiss
    WINNER OF THE 2013 PULITZER PRIZE FOR BIOGRAPHY
    Crown/ Broadway Books; Reprint Edition (May 14, 2013)
    https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/140278/the-black-count-by-tom-reiss/

    Le Chevalier de Saint-George
    MONSIEUR DE SAINT-GEORGE, Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary
    Alain GUÉDÉ
    Picadore
    amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Monsieur-Saint-George-American-Alain-Gu%C3%A9d%C3%A9/dp/0312310285

    Toussaint l’Ouverture
    The Black Jacobins Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution
    Amazon.com: https://www.amazon.com/Black-Jacobins-Toussaint-LOuverture-Revolution/dp/0679724672

  5. What about the man who is always referred to as the greatest King of France? Le Roi Soleil Louis XIV? That King was never defeated in any war and, unlike others, did not die in custody.

    • I’d agree only if one was forced to nominate one King of France. But not for the reasons you cite. His effect was indirect in that his outrageous ambitions, and his endless, very expensive and mostly pointless wars, demanded a huge improvement in the efficiency of government to both organise it and to fund it. He happened to be blessed by a Frenchman who deserves to be on this list, Louis’ tireless ‘minister of everything’ Jean-Baptiste Colbert who almost single-handedly created the beginnings of modern France. He created a recognisable civil service staffed with appropriately trained and competent people. While he was forced to fund the bottomless moneypit of Versailles he preferred to develop Paris which he believed to be the proper site of government and which he continued to develop, despite Louis’ aversion (due to his evacuation as an infant to escape the Frond, to St Germain-en-Laye and later Fontainebleau). Louis IV often gets the credit for Le Notre’s Tuleries and what became the Champs-Élysées but it was really Colbert who also greatly expanded the Louvre’s art and sculpture collection and the reason why it evolved from royal palace into people’s palace (Colbert had a Europe-wide network to alert him of deceased estates or great book collections for sale or which he could claim for the state).

      Colbert supported the arts and sciences (founding academies for: Sciences, 1666; Paris Observatory 1667; Opera, 1669; Architecture 1671; he pressed the Academie Francaise to create their first Dictionary), and regulated markets and manufacturing (eg. Gobelins factories to displace imports) and legal mandates on quality (this is the true origin of France’s obsession with quality in everything), created the merchant navy, built 5 major ports (which remain today) and a series of significant public works like roads and canals (Canal du Midi, 1666 linking the Med to the Atlantic for trade). He inherited the library and book-buying habits of his old boss Mazzarin, and left a legacy that became the Bibliotheque Royal/Nationale (next to his own house, today’s Hotel Colbert behind the Palais Royal). (Predating by a few centuries what Jefferson did for his Library of Congress which he began building during his years in France as ambassador). He understood that a more robust method of financing thru wider taxation was necessary to sustain a modern state, so he taxed the nobles and the church who had previously been exempt. Colbert was from the merchant class and never resided in the gilded cage of Versailles despite his king’s enticements.

      As Inès Murat’s writes in her biography Colbert (1980):
      “The king’s absence from Paris precipitated a development that contained hints of another age. The exercise of power required ever greater competence; the middle class had become indispensable in all of Europe’s leading countries. Yet bourgeois subjects were rarely received at Versailles. Shut out of the universe of the court, the Parisians developed the fashion of holding salons, where the middle-class business and administrative elite mingled with the nobility and the elite of the literary and artistic world. Such meetings were unthinkable at Versailles. They laid the groundwork for eighteenth-century thought. Parisians of intelligence and talent began to get into the habit of thinking without the king. In other words, they began to have a presentiment of a universe free of monarchical guardianship. Louis XIV was making an immense mistake. Already, ideas of political freedom, and even of free thought, were being experimented with.“

      Perhaps not exactly his intention Colbert prepared France for the Enlightenment whose beginnings are dated to the time of Colbert’s death. Despite intense dislike (by nobles, the church, other government functionaries) the real endorsement of Colbert and his changes was that they kept all of them after his death–because they so demonstrably worked. Again, he may have not agreed but the Revolution and civil law and rule look like direct extensions of much of his work. The so-called Napoleonic Code is actually mostly attributable to Colbert of more than a century earlier!

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