Every nation has its history and every country has its own heritage, with some having a more global impact than others. Countries whose stories and histories extend beyond their geographical area are coincidentally some of the biggest and most important countries in the world today. In this regard, France is one of the biggest countries in the world not just in size, but in power and people too. It is also a country with great economic power and cultural influence. The country has been at the front and center of some of the biggest advancements in human history.
A country, however, is not just a space of land, it is a group of people who through war, diplomatic treaties, and geographical conditions have chosen to live together to build a society with an identity. What makes France so great isn’t its expanse of land or its economic wealth, it is her people, who at the moment are estimated to be 67.3 million. Among these people, over time, several great men and women have emerged, taking the French name to the top among the nations of the world. On this list, we take a look at 12 famous French people in history.
The Most Famous French People in History
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)
If there was a competition for the most popular French person in history, Napoleon would have a strong chance of coming first and that is why he is first on our list of famous French people. Besides his impact on France and other nations, he is so famous and relevant that he has become a widely used reference in English vocabulary. The French statesman who among many things was famous for his successful military campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars, was the Emperor of the country back when it was just an Empire.
His achievements on the battlefield resulted in French domination over the majority of Europe. Being great at what you do is nice, being so great at what you did that generations after you go to study about your accomplishments and your decisions is just being Napoleon Bonaparte. In hundreds of military schools around the globe, his wartime tactics are studied by aspiring soldiers who wish to one day lead their own group of brave men.
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431)
Today, bravery for women might be a lot of things, but back in the 1400s, bravery was the definition of the life of Joan of Arc. She lived for just nineteen years, but in that short time, she created a legacy that has been talked about to date. At her young age, after claiming to have received heavenly visions to support Charles VII, she led battles and sieges that helped Charles VII to the throne.
Unfortunately, her reputation and actions against the English led to her being burnt on a stake. She may not have lived to experience all the greatness of human life, but through her legacy, she is bound to live on forever and is named among the most famous French people in history.
Nostradamus (1503 – 1566)
You have probably heard someone get called “Nostradamus” after they made a prediction. It is a name that has come to be used either as a slur or praise depending on the situation. The language meaning was taken after a real-life French man, Michel de Nostredame, who for the non-French, is simply Nostradamus. He lived his life as a physician, but it was his other profession that made him into a global name of reference.
He was a seer so good that he wrote a book which he titled Les Propheties, a collection of 942 future predictions. Naturally, the book has remained in print to date since he published them even though the prophecies were deliberately vague and allowed them to fit into anything that actually happens. Of course, that did not stop him from amassing thousands of followers for his so-called power of sight.
Louis Vuitton (1821 – 1892)
France has been delivering citizens whose impacts had global ramifications since the beginning of time, and it continued into the modern day. In the 1800s, a small family welcomed into their home a son whom they named Louis Vuitton. That son would go on to create one of the biggest and most iconic fashion houses on the planet. He was a fashion designer, and his success started with the design of a stackable travel trunk but today, that fashion house established in 1854 now has in its catalog, accessories of expensive implications such as handbags, shoes, and books. Simply put, he created something that modern-day people are working day and night to be able to afford.
Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
One thing France has come to be known for is Paris, the capital city of love and fashion. That identity has been crafted over the years through the works of designers like Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, a fashion designer who created the fashion home that would be known as Coco Chanel. The double C logo is one of the most prestigious logos in the world of fashion and generally, owning things.
The influence and impact of the fashion home’s original designer, Gabrielle Chanel was so great that she was honored by Time magazine as one of the most influential people of the 20th century which has earned her a place on our list of famous French people. And if the brand’s prices are anything to go by, her’s is still one of the most influential brands in the 21st century.
Marie Antoinette (1755 – 1793)
If you watch Hollywood films or live among fancy people, you have probably heard about Marie Antoinette. She was the last Queen of France and she got a glorious exit from the French people, thanks to the French Revolution. Although she was not born French and only became a prominent French person through marriage, Marie has come to symbolize what could happen when wealthy people let the poor stew in their poverty for too long. Her end led to the abolition of the monarchy in France. It wasn’t a respectable end either. She was beheaded on a guillotine for high treason. Ouch!
Zinedine Zidane (1972 – present)
Zinedine Zidane would forever be remembered as one of the most famous French people because of his adventure with football. The footballer of Algerian descent is one of the blessings of the French Colonization that wasn’t about an economic and political benefit. The footballer during his playing days, was regarded as one of the best players on the planet and at the end of it, is regarded as one of the greatest persons to ever play the game of football. He took that exceptionalism to his coaching career where he has won three UEFA Champions League trophies as the coach of Real Madrid. He also won the World Cup as a player for the French National Team.
Andre the Giant (1946 – 1993)
The French have a lot of people in their history who have become global personalities. Their names feature in our regular conversations as references to some of the mundane in our lives. One of those famous French people or personalities is Andre Rene Roussimoff, who is more popularly known as Andre the Giant. He was a professional wrestler and an actor who starred in classic Hollywood film, The Princess Bride. During his time on earth, he was often referred to as the eighth wonder of the World, due to his incredible height which was a remarkable 7 feet and 4 inches. Other than featuring in The Princess Bride, he had a famous feud with retired professional wrestler, Hulk Hogan.
Marion Cotillard (1975 – present)
These days, Marion’s career may have gotten a little blemish with the controversy that she was a factor in the breakup of the beloved couple, Brangelina (an acronym for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie). Regardless, that does little to affect the greatness of a woman who did plenty to promote French cinema and planted the French flag on the global entertainment industry. She has to her name coveted awards like the Academy Award, Golden Globe, BAFTA. She is a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters and has a Lumieres Award.
Marion’s success as an actress comes from masterpieces like Taxi, a 1998 release and La Vie en Rose in 2007, the latter in particular won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. As an actress, she has portrayed the character of one of the famous French people on our list, Joan of Arc, playing the character on stage from 2005 to 2015 across many countries around the globe.
Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)
While France has certainly had plenty to say when it comes to Arts and Political power, either through diplomacy or warfare, the country has also had its significant contributions to the world through science, especially through Marie Curie, who was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in different categories. Her work on radioactivity, which unfortunately led to her untimely death has helped us better understand the subject.
She won her first Nobel in 1903 alongside her husband for Physics while her second Nobel Prize was won in 1911 for Chemistry. She is considered one of the greatest scientists to ever live and even though she was originally born Polish, she subsequently naturalized in France, becoming one of France’s most beloved heroes. She died in 1934 at the age of 66 due to aplastic anemia resulting from radioactive exposure.
Avril Lavigne (1984 – present)
When there are no more wars to fight and territories to conquer, becoming a global figure and respected national hero becomes a lot more complicated. Well, not when you are as talented as Avril Lavigne who has sold over 40 million albums and 50 million singles since she became a professional singer. Although the singer isn’t a natural born French citizen, she is French through her father, who is French. She currently lives in Paris.
Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650)
Rene Descartes completes our list of famous French people. He is one of the greatest philosophers to ever live and he was a French man. Back when life allowed men to be many things, he was a scientist, a mathematician, and a philosopher. His book, Meditations on First Philosophy is considered one of the greatest works of philosophy in history and to this day, is still a part of the modern curriculum.
He also developed the Cartesian coordinate system and is considered the father of analytical geometry. Not a bad achievement for a man who was expected to die after his mother died at birth.