France is a country with an extraordinary history – a history that has been driven by extraordinary people.

Making up a large part of Western Europe, with the English Channel to the North, Germany to the East, a Border with Spain and the Mediterranean Sea on its South coast, France has had to become a nation of people willing to defend their country as well as establish its power.

Through the defence of the land and the establishment of the empire, France has also become famous for its culture created by its artists, authors and philosophers.

Coming across French names is a common occurrence when studying any aspect of history, but who are these people? And what role did they play in the building of France?

This is Superprof’s top 20 important French figures.

1.      Joan of Arc (1412 - 1431)

Joan of Arc is most famous for her contribution to the end of the Hundred Years War when she secured a French victory over the English by reclaiming original French land.

Joan of Arc’s actions in the run-up to this triumph was down to her religious devotion which led her to have holy visions in which she was encouraged to take action by St Michael and St Catherine as she was to be, they said, her country’s saviour.

After she had sought an audience with the French heir, Charles, upon the instruction of the saints, Joan led several battles alongside the Dauphin which resulted in France regaining control of its land.

In 1429, Charles was crowned the King of France and became Charles VII. Although the French had taken back their own throne, there was still conflict with the English, and Joan was sold to them as a hostage by the Burgundians. She was later charged with counts of witchcraft and heresy and burnt at the stake.

2.      René Descartes (1596 - 1650)

René Descartes was a French philospher, mathematician and scientist. Descartes is considered to be one of the founders of modern philosophy, instrumental in a wave of "enlightenment" thinking in France around this period. He is largely seen as responsible for the increased attention given to Epistemology . Therefore he is worthy to be considered a father of modern science. His works are still studied all around the globe today in philosophy classes.

Interested in learning philosophy? 

Some of Descartes most famous quotes are:

I think, therefore I am.

The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.

Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.

3.      King Louis XIV (1638 - 1715)

King Louis XIV of France, also referred to as the Sun King, was crowned King of France at the age of just 4 years old following the death of his father.

Cardinal Mazarin, Louis’ chief minister had assisted in the running of the country while Louis was still a child, but after his death in 1661, Louis decided to rule alone as an absolute monarch, believing himself to be ruling directly on God’s behalf.

The Palace of Versailles can still be visted today
King Louis XIV is perhaps most famous for building the Palace of Versailles and making it a centre of French political and aristocratic life ¦ source: Visualhunt - papposilene

4.      Voltaire (1694 - 1778)

Voltaire was an 18th-century French writer whose works are representative of the philosophic and cultural movement of the Enlightenment which took place in Europe in the 1700’s.

Voltaire is known for his criticism of Christianity throughout his satirical works as well as his support for the separation of church and state.

Throughout his life, Voltaire wrote all manner of literary works, the most notable being Candide (1759), which criticises the unfounded optimism present in religion and the problems around the idea of finding true happiness.

During his life, Voltaire spent life in prison for his attacks on religion and the government in La Henriade (1723). He also exiled himself to England and the town of Ferney (on the French-Swiss border which is now known as Ferney-Voltaire) to flee more jail time for his writings.

Follow the link to read about France's complicated relationship with the UK!

5.      Marie Antoinette (1755 - 1793)

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

At the beginning of her reign as queen of France, Marie Antoinette was highly regarded by citizens of France, however, when she gained a reputation as a symbol of the monarchy’s lavish spending, opinion of her and of the centuries-old institution of the monarchy plummeted.

Marie Antoinette is reported to have said “let them eat cake” on hearing that the population had no access to bread at the beginning of the French Revolution, though there is no evidence for this.

The decline in opinion of Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI was a contributing factor to the French Revolution.

6.      Maximilien Robespierre (1758 - 1794)

Robespierre was a lawyer and politician and one of the most influention figures on the course of events that resulted in the French Revolution. During this turbulent period of French history, Robespierre was amongst the loudest voices to stand up against the monarchy and the feudal three-class system operating in France at the time.

His goal was to create a united and indivisible France, equality before the law (inlcuding voting rights for men of all classes), to abolish certain group privileges and to defend the direct prinicples of democracy.

Robespierre is best known for role as a member of the Committee of Public Safety, during the height of the "Reign of Terror", the politically motivated bloodshed which involved a copious usage of the guillotine.

To some, Robespierre embodies the spirit of the new democracy France was making, although for others he embodies the Terror, exemplified by his own be-heading. Either way, his name has been forever written into history books all across the world.

7.      Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 - 1821)

Eventually rising to the position of Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte started out as a member of the French military during the Revolution.

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

One of the most famous parts of Napoleon’s legacy is the Napoleonic Code. This was a new legal code for France which was drafted to replace the complex pre-revolution system. The Napoleonic code detailed everything from the rights of individuals and families to property and the management of colonies.

Though unpopular with some, Napoleon’s new code was adopted by several other countries, including those in South America as a template for their own civil codes.

8.      Victor Hugo (1802 - 1885)

Victor Hugo was a French writer famous for his poems, novels and plays. He is most famous for his novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), both of which enjoyed a second round of fame when they were transformed into a film and opera respectively.

Hugo’s works are regarded as belonging to the Romantic era, a period in which artists focussed on the poetic side of art and using nature as a springboard for creating meaningful works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the story of a man who is mistreated by the people of the town for the way he looks. This was the first semi-political work which would be followed by many more.

Set in 1845, Les Misérables follows the life of a man who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his niece during a period of hardship. This also contains many messages about the flaws of post-revolutionary French society.

9.      Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)

Originally from Poland, Marie Curie was the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize and the first to win the award more than once.

Curie dedicated her life to researching radioactive materials and is credited with the discovery of radium and polonium, as well as coining the term ‘radioactive’.

Curie’s efforts in the fields of physics and chemistry didn’t stop at research. She also worked alongside the government to implement the use of portable x-ray machines on wounded soldiers on the battlefields of the First World War.

Curie paid the ultimate price for her services to science. Her exposure to radioactive materials meant that she died at age 66 from aplastic anaemia caused by radiation.

10.      Alfred Dreyfus (1859 - 1935)

Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer during the First World War who was convicted of treason in 1894 after being suspected of informing German forces on French artillery.

After being stripped of his title as an army officer in public, Dreyfus exclaimed that he was innocent and worthy of serving in the French military.

While Dreyfus was serving his sentence of life imprisonment in French Guiana, new evidence came to light that Dreyfus was, in fact, innocent, however, the new findings were covered up until the story was given to the press.

Dreyfus’ Jewish faith and the suspicion of anti-Semitism in the French military brought the debate around the religious freedom of French citizens into the public eye. The popular opinion that Dreyfus was innocent meant that he was given a retrial, however, he was found guilty.

With Dreyfus locked up once more, there was another public outcry which led to his release and pardon.

Dreyfus was reinstated as an army officer and given significant promotions.

French history is fascinating! I learned all about it in my French classes in Melbourne...

11.      Charles de Gaulle (1890 - 1970)

Charles de Gaulle started out as a military leader in the Second World War and later became the President of France.

Throughout his military and political career, de Gaulle was at the centre of radical events and changes to the French government as well as the Algerian War of Independence in 1962.

As a military officer, de Gaulle was critical of the French government’s approach to the threat of German invasion and fled to London once Paris had been seized, where he formed the French government in exile as leader of Free France in 1940.

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

Following the liberation of Paris in 1944, de Gaulle returned to Paris with a desire to form a new government, however, when this failed in 1953, he retired. But this was not the end of de Gaulle’s power.

He returned to govern France following the independence movement in Algeria (a French colony at the time) in 1958 and was president of France until 1969.

12.       Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980)

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher and anticolonialist famous for his work on the theory of existentialism.

Sartre published a host of plays, essays and political works. The most famous of these include the play No Exit (1944), an existentialist play in which all of the characters are trapped in a room together with no escape.

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

13.       Claude Monet (1840 - 1926)

Claude Monet was a French artist and the founder of French impressionist painting.

He spent many years documenting the French countryside and developed his own way of painting that led to him becoming one of the most famous French artists. Even now, in the 21st century, Monet's works remain a popular attraction in art galleries across the planet and many also have prints of his artworks up in their houses.

Some of his most famous subjects are water lilies and a bridge.

14.      Gustave Eiffel (1832 - 1922)

Eiffel, a trained engineer, founded and developed a company that specialised in metal structural work, and which was responsible for constructing the Eiffel Tower, France's most famous landmark situated in the capital city of Paris.

His extraordinary career as a constructor is celebrated thanks to his work on the structure of the equally unforgettable Statue of Liberty, among other ingenious constructions across the world. His last and reigning moment was his work on the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

15.      Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918)

Claude Debussy was a French composer whose name and music still resonate today. The composer developed a unique system of harmony and musical structure and inspired many other musicians.

His major works include the wonderful 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), the opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), and La Mer (1905; “The Sea”). However, Debussy was responsible for many more classics.

You just have to listen to Classic FM to hear this great's name being spoken again and again!

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

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French aviator and author who became famous as he travelled and documented his exciting adventures as a pilot in his written works.

His literary endeavours culminated with the 1943 publication of The Little Prince, a classic in the eyes of many. For those who have been educated in France or who have studied the language in French class as part of an advanced course, this book will be one of those stories that they never forget.

Through The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's legacy lives on forever.

"The Little Prince". Just one of France's many historic literary works.
"The Little Prince" is the most famous work of well known French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

17.      Edith Piaf (1915 - 1963)

France's famous chanteuse Edith Piaf, is perhaps the most widely known French singer across the world. Her unique voice has trancended languages and is loved by all.

Piaf specialized in ballads, often autobiographical pieces about love, loss and sorrow. This is epitomized in her classic "Non, je ne regrette rien" from 1960. Her greatest strength was not so much in her technique, but in the raw and passionate power of her voice. This was especially notable given her small stature (of 1.47 meters)!

Her life was something of a legend, starting with her dramatic rise from the Parisienne streets to star of international fame. Along the way, she lost her only child at age three, overcame substance abuse, survived three car accidents, and fell into a seemingly endless stream of lovers, one of whom perished in a plane crash on his way to visit her. She oftened tutored men in their dreams to become recording artists themselves, then dropped them once her mentorship had served its purpose. By the time cancer claimed her life at age 47, Piaf had recorded a lengthy string of genre-defining classics -- "Mon Légionnaire," "La Vie en Rose," "L'Hymne à l'Amour," "Milord," and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" among them. Her music is still adored throughout the world today amassing millions of listens each year.

Want to sing like Edith Piaf? Find singing tutors here.

18.      Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Everyone has heard of Chanel, which is why we simply could not omit her from this list. She made such a mighty impact on the world of fashion throughout the years that her name has certainly gone down in history.

Fashion designer Coco Chanel became famous for her fashionable designs, including trademark suits and, of course, the LBD or little black dress.

If fame from her fashion endeavours wasn't enough, Chanel launched her perfume range in the 1920s and became an ambassador for producing attractive but comfortable clothing for women. She went on to become a huge style icon despite her simple yet sophisticated appearance. She would normally be seen wearing a string of pearls.

There are of course a lot of people (like the famous actress Brigitte Bardot, politicians Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac, and Pierre the famous French fighter pilot, as just some examples) who we like, love or loathe but couldn't include in this list of famous French figures at this time. You may even have your own favourite French person - an actor, an author, a philosopher, a football player or a food expert/chef - who you feel has made a real impact on French society. If so, tell us in the comments as we would love to make their acquaintance and reference them!

If this article was helpful, why not check out another one on important historical events in France?

19.      Simone Veil (1927-2017)

Simone Veil is one of the most prominent French figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Veil was brought up on the French Riviera in a Jewish family. She was taken by German authorities in 1944 with her mother and sister to Auchwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. As one of the only family members to survive the war and cultural genocide of Europe in the 1940's, Veil overcame her extremely tough younger years to become arguably the most famous lawyer in France during the 20th century. Most of her work was centred around the women's rights movement, and she was instrumental in achieving dual parental control of family legal matters and adoptive rights for women.

Her most renowned contribution to French society, however, is the legalisation of abortion in 1975. Her actions were part of a global movement in legalising abortion in many parts of the world in the 1970's. The rest of her working life was spent dedicated to improving the lives of others. As a staunch European Union supporter, she served in roles with the EU as well as with the French government. Her fields of work included public health, the environment, women's rights, and human rights.

Upon her death in 2017, Veil was honoured with a national ceremony in Les Invalids courtyard. Veil is now buried at the Pantheon, an impressive monument in Paris, dedicated to the great people of France. She joined several others in this list including Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Victor Hugo.

20.      Zinedine Zidane (1972 - )

This list wouldn't be complete without a current living legend of French culture. Zinedine Zidane was born in the northern suburbs of Marseille (a notoriously rough area), to Algerian parentage. He rose through the ranks of the football world, dazzling onlookers with his technique and nonchalant ability. Zidane is regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all-time, with a playing career spanning over 17 years at some of the biggest clubs in the world, including Juventus and Real Madrid. He won the Ballon D'Or, the World Cup, scored the most iconic goal in Champions League final history and famously retired after being sent-off for a headbutt in the final of the 2006 World Cup.

Since his achievments as a player weren't enough, Zidane's coaching career has been nothing short of exceptional. After only a couple of years coaching at junior level, Zidane took control of the Real Madrid senior men's side. In just a few seasons he managed to win the Champions League on three consecutive occasions, and a total of 11 trophies in under five years of management.

"Zizou" is one of the most iconic figures of the world game, and his style has inspired thousands of young kids around the world to rise out of poverty and reach the world stage.

In Summary:

20 Famous French People

NameBirth/DeathOccupation
Joan of Arc1412 - 1431Military Leader
René Descartes1596 - 1650Philospher, Mathematician, Scientist
King Louis XIV1638 - 1715King of France
Voltaire1694 - 1778Enlightenment Period Philosopher
Marie Antoinette1755 - 1793Queen of France
Maximilien Robespierre1758 - 1794Revolutionary Leader, Politician
Napoleon Bonaparte1769 - 1821French Emperor
Victor Hugo1802 - 1885Poet, Writer
Marie Curie1867 - 1934Scientist
Alfred Dreyfus1859 - 1935Military Officer
Charles de Gaulle1890 - 1970Military General, President of France
Jean Paul Sartre1905 - 1980Philosopher
Claude Monet1840 - 1926Painter
Gustave Eiffel1832 - 1922Engineer
Claude Debussy1862 - 1918Musical Composer
Antoine de Saint-Exupery1900 - 1944Author
Edith Piaf1915 - 1963Singer
Coco Chanel1883 – 1971Fashion Designer
Simone Veil1927-2017Lawyer, Politician
Zinedine Zidane1972 -Footballer
A list of the most famous French people thoughout history.
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Daniel

A student by trade, Daniel spends most of his time working on that essay that's due in a couple of days' time. When he's not working, he can be found working on his salsa steps, or in bed.