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France is commonly made fun of for not having won a war, for instance when they rejoined NATO and the daily mail made fun of them:

Why did the French celebrate their World Cup in 1998 so wildly?

It was their first time they won anything without outside help.

Why are the French afraid of war?

You would be, too, if you had never won one.

Are there any examples with clear French victories of war? A good example would be where conquered another nation, a large area of land without immediately losing it or gained a ceasefire/surrender through skill or force. War of alliances are fine as long as France is the main contributor and the military leader similar to how America is sometimes joined by much smaller contributions by other nations.

The French derived their name from the Franks which existed around 700AD, so that seem like a good starting point unless anyone feel like arguing that point.

  • 2
    Re. your quote from the Daily Mail. From a U.S. perspective, England and France have always interacted like siblings. – Mike Dunlavey Oct 3 '11 at 18:06
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    The starting point "Why did the French celebrate their World Cup in 1998 so wildly?" is wrong anyway, any football country that would win a world cup for the first time would celebrate as much, I'm not sure americans can get that since your main sports events are national not international – Guillaume86 Jul 10 '12 at 21:10
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    France did not emerge from nothing. The current boundaries are a result of gains and losses for 1200 years. France lost and won as many wars as necessary to still be a major country today. – Nikko Jul 10 '12 at 22:20
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    Have you ever heard of a man called Napoleon? – Zibbobz Apr 21 '15 at 17:22
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    @Guillaume86, it's a joke. – Paul Draper May 27 '15 at 17:38
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First of all, a concise yes/no answer heavily depends on:

  • What the timeframe was?

    Do you include pre-Roman Gauls? Frankish kings? Medieval period? Post-Westphalian nation state only? Modern era only? (e.g. post late 18th century)

  • How you define "French"?

    This is somewhat tied in with timeframe? Do you include only post-Westphalian-soveregnity nation state? Do you included decidedly non-French nationals leading French armies?

    Also, do you include wars where France was part of a winning alliance? and where do you draw the line? (on a spectre from Crimean war to WWII)

  • How you define "war"

    • Do you include only conflict among nation states? Or do you include "unfair" conflicts such as a colonial war against poorly armed militia? Technically the latter should be included - à la guerre comme à la guerre ;), but the deeper philosophical root of the original claim would not really be in tune with the asnwer that said "lost all wars except against these poorly equipped 10,000 sized rebel force" (that's like asking "did this boxer win any fights" and the answer is "Yes, if you include one with a 10 year old he he was 18" :)

    • Does winning a major battle count if the overall war was lost? Does winning a single war count if it was part of a coherent series of wars that were lost overall (the latter especially applies to Napoleonic era).

  • How you define "winning"

    • Do you include cases where most of the war was fought by other powers? Nominally, the French were part of the side that won WWII. How much that was attributable to French martial efforts is a different story.

    • Do you include a war that concluded in - effectively - a draw judging by the results of the war?


Thus, depending on your definitions:

  • NO, French never won a war against another major nation-state "without outside help" since 1648 (when the concept of nation states came into existence at the end of 30-year war and Peace of Westphalia).

  • YES, French won a "war" single-handedly between 1648 and 1860, if you count Napoleon's wins.

    • Napoleon Bonaparte won several sub-wars that were part of Napoleonic wars. But, strictly speaking, they shouldn't be counted because the Napoleonic wars as a whole were a loss for France in the end.
  • YES, French won at least major war single-handedly prior to 1648.

    • In a stunning reverse of the picture of Napoleonic Wars, they lost nearly every sub-war ay the start of 100 years war - but by the year 116 of that war, the overall conflict was won by the French. Extinguishing all English claims to French territory.

    • Another answer covered Charlemagne pretty well. Whether that counts as "French" depends on which timeframe you look at. Ditto Charles Martel.

  • YES, French did win a couple of wars as a major part of an alliance since 1638.

    How many of them counts depends heavily on the defined scope as discussed above. Only one of them was 100% clear win under any scope one can think of:

    • French won the second Italian War of Independence against Austria (e.g. Magenta) during Second Italian War of Independence. "The next year, in 1860, with French and British approval, the central Italian states — Duchy of Parma, Duchy of Modena, Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States — were annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia, and France would take its deferred reward, Savoy and Nice." Second Italian War of Independence.

    • Another war they won that may or may not be counted depending on your scope (they fought as a major part of larger alliance; and they got no tangible benefits from the win) was Crimean War.

    • However, I only included these for completeness of data. None of these counts towards the letter of the original claim that explicitly said "without outside help".

    • Some people prefer to include as "win" WWI or WWII - but both of them France effectively lost until USA and Britain (Battle of the Marne) intervened. And the same was true for every single time in the war that mattered - e.g. at Verdun, the French didn't start winning till Russian Brusilov offensive and British-dominated Somme offensive drew off German resources. But yes, they technically were among the winning allies in the end of the war (which does nothing to address the original claim's spirit or letter).

  • NO, French did not win any war that they fought against a major nation since 1860, with or without caveats.

    WWI/WWII don't count as French "win" under any reasonable interpretation of the claim being examined (see above for more details on WWI).

  • YES, French won numerous wars against rebels/natives in colonial conflicts, at various points in history including modernity.

    • Invasion of Algiers in 1830. I think that qualifies as unconditional victory. So strictly speaking the answer to your question is "yes". This can be padded by yet more colonial-type victories that I'm too lazy to copy/paste out of Wiki (IndoChina)

    • Malian Intervention was won by the French controlling all cities previously held by the guerrillas.

    • Technically speaking, these all count as "Winning a war" and thus satisfy the original claim being examined. The fact the opponents were severely outclassed and outnumbered and out-resourced is worth noting, however.

  • YES, non-French entities that lived in territory that of modern France won wars in the distant past, such as Viking-descended Normans winning Battle of Hastings and the whole Norman conquest of England.

  • YES, there were some other military victories. But none of them should really count as they all come with major caveats. E.g.

    • Battle of the Allia: Win. But that was Gauls, not really modern French. And Gauls lost the overall war to Rome.

And the list of military conflicts that they had lost is indeed much longer, though some of that list is humorous spin.


P.S. People seem to be questioning why I don't count WWI as being within the scope of the claim. I'll detail below:

  • The claim very specifically was:

    anything without outside help.

    ... War of alliances are fine as long as France is the main contributor and the military leader similar to how America is sometimes joined by much smaller contributions by other nations.

  • Based on those clarifications, the whole history of WWI leads to it not being even remotely in-scope.

    • First of all, Russian army and Britain combined provided more raw manpower than France (src); AND suffered more casualties combined (src).

    • Second, non-French participation was critical to France not losing to Germany in all 3 pivotal moments in the war:

      • France was very nearly 100% conquered in 1914, with the only 2 reasons that it didn't happen being (a) BEC's participation in the Battle on the Marne, where they were instrumental to breaking the German line and (b) Russian/Serbian wins over Austria (which caused Germans to shift divisions to Eastern front, which created the lack of troops that contributed to the break in the line to be exploited).

      • Even discounting that, we have similar situation in Verdun - where French weren't winning (admittedly, not losing either) until (a) British-led offensive on the Somme drew off some German troops from Verdan and (b) More importrantly, Brusilov offensive drew off even more German forces to the Eastern Front.

      • British naval blockade stacked the war economically against Germany (French Navy wasn't even close to preventing German trade with the rest of the world, especially USA)

      • As a bonus, Germany invested enormous resources into its navy which it couldn't use for anything productive in the end - which carried clear opportunity cost in terms of economic value of that investment.

    • Additional meaningful non-French contributions:

      • Americans financed British and French military capability heavily, both financially and through weapons sales.

      • American entry into the war after Russia was knocked out of revolution shouldn't be discounted either, though that's the weakest argument among these.

    Each of those contributions separately - and especially all of them conbined - far surpass the plank of "without outside help" or "joined by much smaller contributions by other nations"

  • 5
    Even so this answer is extremely biased and unfair. – Joze Nov 29 '11 at 15:42
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    I can't tell if this is meant to be tongue-in-cheek (?), but the suggestion that Napoleon Bonaparte was not French is rather ludicrous. Regardless of his family origins, he was born on French territory (as it happens, Corsica was officially reintegrated into France after a short bout of independence, on the very year Bonaparte was born), and he later went on to become a monarch of that very country: I think that would grant him "citizenship" had he needed it. – Dave Feb 10 '12 at 2:18
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    The whole discussion of what is “really” French is rather ludicrous and really not worthy of a site supposed to be about scientific skepticism. – Relaxed Jan 8 '14 at 15:46
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    I don't understand how after almost three full years this ludicrously French-bashing answer is still marked as the accepted one. Maybe can we, as a whole community, greatly improve this answer by adding bits and parts from the other answers below. In other words, rightfully claim that France was a major military power until 1871, lost its know-how and is now again on the very few armies able of projecting themselves, cf. Libya, Mali and RCA. They deployed 160k men in the Republic of Central Africa. That can't be neglected, can it? – ChrisR Mar 27 '14 at 11:32
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    In summary, "Excluding wars where they were on the winning side with allies, also excluding wars which they won alone against weaker foes (in the colonies), excluding the Napoleonic empire, and the colonial empires in North America, Africa, and south-east Asia, and modern 'peace-keeping' operations..." – ChrisW Apr 14 '15 at 16:02
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I agree with DVK's analysis that the question requires knowing (a) who are the French? and (b) what is winning?

Nonetheless, France was until its loss to the Prussians in 1870 the pre-eminent military power in Europe, which is why it generally fought alone against coalitions, and, also, why coalitions were formed to contain it. Until 1870, it was the French who had the reputation for being militaristic organizational geniuses and the Germans who had the reputation for being artists and philosophers, but militarily ineffective.

In terms of uncontested French wins, the French were victorious at the close of the 100 Years War, which resulted in the extinguishing of English claims to large swathes of French territory.

21

Tongue-in-cheek but true, this Cracked article pretty much sums it up

They've won 109, lost 49 and drawn (or as close as you can "draw" a war) 10 times.

And for references, there is this page on French military action

And some examples still unquoted here

  • The battle of Maregnano, and its legendary swiss-kickings
  • The French revolutionary wars, where France held its ground against pretty much everyone in Europe
  • The Western Front in WWI, was led by the French, and not by the US, despite what some Americans seem to believe. The US army entered only in April 1917, so no Verdun for them

Though, as TvTropes states

Even so, the French have a somewhat troublesome tendency to win battles but lose wars, as with Napoleon and Louis XIV

  • No doubt the French held the majority of the Western front but it was American troops that successfully attack the German lines and then held their positions in the Battle of Beaulieu Woods and other engagements. This proved to the German High Command that the Americans were not the soft, effete mercantile people they had assumed. However, the Americans had been trained by 20% survivors of the French Alpine troops so we went to war with infiltration tactics and no-nonsense throat slitting. – TechZen Jul 11 '12 at 18:50
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    technically there were a lot of wars they both won and lost, being civil wars (or wars between groups that are now all considered French, think tribal wars in Gaul). – jwenting Apr 14 '15 at 5:14
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    People tend to forget the revolutionary wars. – slebetman Apr 15 '15 at 2:47
  • @TechZen, the arrival of the American forces in WWI broke the combat near-stalemate on the Western Front, but various strategic factors (for example, the Germans were nearly out of horses to move supplies with) would have ensured German surrender within a year or two even in their absence. WWI was not a French victory because of extensive British assistance. – Mark Feb 27 at 2:10
18

France won the revolutionary/civil war in Algeria in the 1950s, before pulling out and granting the country its independence (you could consider that a loss, but they won a military victory if not a politicial one). That some 100 years after they initially conquered the place, which would also be a win.

Sources:

15

I would also add to France's victories the American Revolutionary War. France did not fight on its own for this war, but without the help of France, America would not be independent.

Indeed, France officially directly supported the war (Simms American Revolutionary war history book):

The Franco-American alliance refers to the 1778 alliance between Louis XVI's France and the United States, during the American Revolutionary War. It was a military pact in which France provided arms and money, and engaged in full-scale war with Britain.

Hence, many French colonels and military personnel left France to free the new world from the English and France sent over most of the arsenal for the US migrants to defend themselves (O.W. Stepenson, The supply of Gunpowder in 1776, published in 1925).

According to Wikipedia, there were at least nine infantry regiments and one dragoon legion.

  • 4
    @cwallenpoole Or, more accurately, the cost of supporting the emerging US rebels bankrupted the french state precipitating the revolution. – matt_black Jan 13 '12 at 17:11
  • @matt_black My understanding was that number of America's founders actually provided some financial backing to people opposed to the French monarchy. – cwallenpoole Jan 13 '12 at 18:37
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    @cwallenpoole What understanding? From what do you base that claim? Do you have a verifiable source? On the other hand there is plenty of proof that the french overspent themselves helping the US. Heck they even declared war on Britain. – Joze Feb 11 '12 at 14:05
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    they bankrupted themselves primarily during the 7 years war, helping out in the american revolution was on the cheaper side and done specifically to piss off the British. – Himarm Dec 24 '14 at 19:00
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    @Himarm, do you have a reference I can use to update my answer? Thanks. – ChrisR Jan 26 '15 at 15:57
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Well the OP Cited 700 AD as the starting point so that bring Charlemagne (The name given by later generations to Charles, King of the Franks), into contention.

Returning to his capital at Aachen, he began a series of fifty-three campaigns- nearly all led in person- designed to round out his empire by conquering and Christianizing Bavaria and Saxony, destroying the troublesome Avars, shielding Italy from the raiding Saracens, and strengthening the defenses of Francia against the expanding Moors of Spain. The Saxons on his eastern frontier were pagans; they had burned down a Christian church, and made occasional incursions into Gaul; these reasons sufficed Charlemagne for eighteen campaigns (772-804), waged with untiring ferocity on both sides. Charles gave the conquered Saxons a choice between baptism and death, and had 4500 Saxon rebels beheaded in one day; after which he proceeded to Thionville to celebrate the nativity of Christ.

This page chronicles French battles from almost 400BC

1

Another war were France was not part of a coalition yet got a clear victory was the Pastry War against Mexico in 1838-9.

French forces captured Veracruz by December 1838.

General Santa Anna lost a leg during the conflict.

Peace was restored in March 1839 when Mexico agreed to pay 600.000 pesos to France.

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protected by Sklivvz Jul 10 '12 at 22:08

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