Throughout its long history when all of France really lay on a little island on the Seine River (where Notre-Dame Cathedral stands today), the Romans came and conquered. Of course over the long period of Roman occupation, the Latin language greatly influenced local dialects and we have the French language of today, sharing this heritage with Italy, Spain, Romania and even England as well as other countries, thus explaining how so many words from Latin have come down to us in our native language of English.
And over the centuries, France too has produced many great and outstanding personages. With so many to choose from for a list of only ten, the choice is not only difficult but obviously has to be somewhat biased. Here for your consideration is a list of ten of France’s most outstanding people, some from the mists of the past and some from within the lifetimes of many of us.
List of Top 10 Greatest French Persons of All Time in 2017
10. André the Giant 1946-1993
André René Roussinimoff was to become a professional wrestler and actor. Clearly unbeatable in the squared circle, André allowed Hulk Hogan to best him, and the Hulkster has openly talked about this magnanimous gesture by a guy who was not only big on the outside, but even bigger on the inside.
9. Jean Gabin 1904-1976
King of French film for a period some sixty years that included nearly 100 films, not only in France but during World War II, films in the US as well. Jean Gabin’s outstanding film story remains in the eternally enlightening and watchable 1937 World War I film from Jean Renoir, La grande illusion. Jean Gabin could be a really nice guy as in La grande illusion and a bad ass as in Pépé le Moko, that memorable film, later redone in the US as Algiers starring Charles Boyer. And as something of a madman in Le Bête humaine taken from the Zola novel. Of all the artists who portrayed prolific author Georges Simenon’s creation, Commissaire Jules Maigret over the years, M. Jean Gabin was arguably the best choice to portray this masterful detective on the screen. One of France’s most influential and import stars of cinema.
8. Louis Vuitton 1821-1892
M. Louis Vuitton was the innovator and founder of the highly upscale iconic signature Vuitton line of travel equipment. In his heyday, people didn’t travel on jet planes; they either traveled by rail or steamship. In any case, it was the custom for the wealthy to take an impressive wardrobe along with them. This meant huge trunks that were essentially portable closets with hangers for clothing, and drawers for all the smaller items, along with other assorted luggage; something for everyone. Custom orders became a Vuitfon specialty. Due to the growing reputation and popularity of his luggage, M. Vuitton came to the attention of royalty all over the world.
While the era of huge stackable steamer trunks has passed, many other items such as handbags, continue to fascinate.
Louis Vuitton’s iconic trademark (clearly an outstanding success because of the constant supply of knockoff Vuitton merchandise) means the name and the product is here to stay.
7. Marie Antoinette 1755-1993
Although Marie Antoinette was born in Austria in a palace almost, but not quite as sumptuous as Versailles, an arranged teen-age marriage between her and the Dauphin, Louis, brought this child to the French royal court where she and Louis, a shy young man were married.
Although a lively and capricious young woman, always looking for something to amuse her, Marie is thought never to have said those infamous words, “Let them eat cake”. Disliked, even hated by a great many people simply because she was of Austrian birth, all evidence indicates that she tried her best to be a good queen and wife to husband Louis XVI during their short reign. Even the infamous necklace from the house of Burma was a hateful hoax played out with the intention of damaging her already tarnished reputation.
6. Gabrielle Bonheur (Coco) Chanel 1883-1971
Coco Chanel certainly deserves a place in any list of famous French people. This fashion designer and businesswoman founded the eponymous company, Chanel. Aside from her clever and successful business acumen, Mme. Chanel became very active during World War I in helping to liberate women from the constraint of the times of wearing tight corsets, showing them the advantages of adopting a more casual feminine style. Coco not only designed clothing but handbags and of course the fragrance that would continue today keeping her name on the shelves of fine stores everywhere, her signature scent, Chanel № 5.
5. Émile Zola 1840-1902
M. Zola was much more than a successful novelist. His books not only entertained, but pointed up so many of the social injustices of the times as well as the dangers of addiction such as alcohol. In Germinal, he exposed in his great novel, the horrible living conditions and deadly dangers of working for and in the coal mines where even the horses that hauled coal were born and died without ever seeing the light of day. He wrote too about the failings of mankind and in the infamous case where a French-Jew, Dreyfus, was made the fall guy in a deadly espionage case, M. Zola wrote a now famous open letter to the president of France and to the media with the title, “J’accuse” (I accuse), in which he defended the injustice and lack of legal fairness. Although the letter failed to save M. Dreyfus, it did make the public aware of the many social injustices that continued to haunt this great country.
4. Édith Piaf 1915-1963
Dying at much too young an age, this unforgettable world-famed vocalist, Édith Piaf, known as La Môme Piaf (We call her The Little Sparrow), became arguably France’s most famous and beloved cabaret singer in all its storied history. Her most famous song, La Vie en Rose will live on forever when we hear it sung in her throaty plaintive voice, and is unmistakable.
3. Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) 1412-1431
Few people realize just how young Joan of Arc, now Saint Joan, was when “The Maid of Orléans” made such a lasting impact not only on the France of her day, but even today where a gilded statue of her sitting astride her palfrey near the Louvre continues to remind everyone of the impression she has left on the world. Executed at only the age of nineteen, this precocious young woman might have gone on to even greater things had she been allowed to live.
2. Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame) 1503-1566
Whether or not we choose to believe Nostradamus was able to make all the predictions attributed to him, his impact on not only France but the entire world lives on today and — in some circles — even thrives. Aside from his predictions, Nostradamus was a physician who spent a good deal of his earlier life trying to save lives, notably during the seasons of plague. Although born into a French-Jewish family, the difficulties of the times forced Nostradamus to convert to Catholicism, but even then, he had to be extremely careful with his predictions. Not a good time to speak out with too much frankness.
1. Napoléon Bonaparte 1769-1821
Although his birth name was Napoleone di Buonaparte, this great leader quickly established himself not only with a French version of his name but early on, showed the world his prowess on the battlefield.
At the time, it may be remembered, most peoples and countries held to the idea that “Might makes Right” and it was common for larger countries to swallow up smaller countries, especially if they had resources considered valuable to the larger, more powerful country.
It didn’t take Napoleon long to prove himself and while many may not agree with his methods or motives, he did create a good number of forward-thinking aspects, many of which remain active in France today. Notably, the Napoleonic Code which modernized military, civil, commercial and criminal codes. These laws were much more equitable and overrode old outdated and misunderstood laws of the past, many of which lacked uniformity as well.
Some of the world’s first “freeways” came from Napoleon’s employment of technicians who created many of the wide and straight boulevards that fill Paris today. His motives may not have been for ease of traffic for future French citizens, but rather for quick and easy deployment of military units, but we might say this innovation had positive side effects.
Although by today’s standards, the Emperor was a dictator, he was responsible for many of the modern innovations that the French peoples enjoy even today.
With its long and eventful history, France has produced so many famous as well as infamous characters that it would be nearly an impossible task to name them all. Those named above however, have to stand out as having made an indelible mark on the history of this great and sophisticated country, home to world-famous gastronomy and of course, the finest bread obtainable in the entire world.