Throughout the ages, numerous French women had to endure and overcome overwhelming adversities to often achieve simple rights that we today take for granted.
Some are well-known and written in history books, while for others, I had to dig deep to discover and acknowledge their achievements.
Some French women had to lay down their lives for freedom, suffering agonizing deaths.
Some became famous through their perseverance in sports, the arts, the sciences, academia, women’s rights, or just being drop-dead gorgeous. Some others just became controversial, despised, and infamous.
But whatever they did to place their mark upon this earth, I believe they must be remembered for what they were.
Heroines or villains, here is my list of famous French women. Some you will know, while others you may have never heard of them and may just surprise you with what they achieved. Just like they surprised me.
Famous French Women
1. Simone de Beauvoir
Regarded by many as the mother of feminism and the modern women’s movement, this controversial writer and philosopher put the cat amongst the pigeons by advocating “open relationships” and developing the concept of the changing nature of gender.
Born in Paris in 1908, she practiced what she preached, living in an “open relationship” with fellow French philosopher/playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, whom she met in 1929.
She engaged in numerous affairs outside her relationship with him, and this lifestyle suited him perfectly, too, as he regarded himself as a modern-day Casanova. However, his looks did not quite match his aspirations.
Simone published many works, none more controversial than her 1949 1000-page book “The Second Sex,” which was characterized as “x-rated” by some critics and banned by the Vatican. It is now regarded as one of the most critical works on women’s rights.
Simone never married or shared a home with Jean-Pal Sartre but maintained their open relationship for 51 years until he died in 1980.
She died in 1986, and they finally got to be together, sharing a grave in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris.
While seen as outright scandalous then, Simone described her relationship with Sartre as her most outstanding achievement.
2. Coco Chanel
Born in 1883, losing her mother at the tender age of 11 years and abandoned by her father, Gabrielle Chanel, was to overcome poverty, becoming the creator of one the most iconic fashion brands in history, making her one of the most celebrated personalities of France.
She earned her nickname of Coco from the 1878 romantic French song Qui qu’a vu Coco, which she sang in the cafes of Paris before she broke out into the fashion industry, and, as they say in the classics, the rest is history.
Opening her first store in the middle of WW1, her elegant designs soon took the fashion world by storm, ending the age of uncomfortable corsets and long cage-like petticoats of the 19th century.
This French designer’s incredible talents allowed her to venture into creating timeless fashion garments and accessories, the most famous being that bag, the little black dress, worn by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 Hollywood classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and, of course, her signature perfume, Chanel No.5, which women adore to this day.
One of her famous designs was the bright pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on the day her husband was assassinated in November 1963.
Unfortunately, not all about Coco Chanel was glitz and glamour. During WW2, she lived in the Ritz Hotel in Paris, striking a romantic relationship with a German intelligence officer, and records after the war revealed that Coco had been a German operative.
One of her missions was to convey a message to Churchill to negotiate a peace treaty with the German army.
After the war, she fled to Switzerland to avoid charges of collaborating with the German army. Still, many believe that she escaped prosecution due only to the intervention of her friend, Winston Churchill.
Nevertheless, she remains among the most celebrated French women in history.
3. Josephine Baker
Also born into poverty in 1906, Josephine Baker was an American-born French-naturalised singer, dancer, and actress who took Paris by storm during the “roaring twenties” performing her unique erotic dances in the Théâtre des Champs Elysées to packed audiences.
The fact that she wore practically nothing more than a few artificial bananas and a necklace catapulted her into a superstar across France.
She soon conquered Europe, adding drama to her already sensual routine by often performing with her pet cheetah, Chiquita, which frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, sending musicians in terror.
She was the first black woman to star in a major film in 1927 and became known as the “Bronze Venus,” “Black Pearl,” and the “Creole Goddess.”
Her personal life was also filled with drama and excitement. Married at 13 and again at 15 years of age, she ended up being married four times and had several sexual affairs, some of which were with women.
During WW2, she became an operative for the Allies, using her charms, delivering secret documents concealed in her underwear, and earning several medals of honor.
She supported civil rights movements post-war and refused to perform to segregated audiences. She influenced many stars, including Grace Kelly, who offered her refuge and financial assistance when she became bankrupt.
Josephine Baker died of a stroke in Paris in 1975, and her funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners and packed with celebrities. She is buried at the Monaco Cemetery.
She is honored around the world to this day, with Beyonce repeating her “banana dance” in Manhattan in 2006 and taking her rightful place in our list of famous French women.
4. Brigitte Bardot
What can one say about one of the most beautiful, desired, and sexiest women in the world that hasn’t been said already?
French actress, singer, supermodel, and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot stands as one of the most iconic French women who ever lived, being idolized by idols and who was once described by President Charles de Gaulle as “a French export as valuable as Renault cars!”
Born in Paris in 1934, she began acting before 18 years old and soon became the sex symbol of the 1950s, 60s, and 1970s.
By the time she retired, she had starred in 47 films, recorded 60 songs, inspired many other celebrities, had songs written about her, and was awarded the Legion of Honor.
She posed nude for Playboy magazine for her 40th birthday, making that publication a collector’s treasure to this day.
As we’ve come to expect from most of the world’s beautiful people, she was married no less than four times, with numerous love affairs sprinkled in between.
Always looking for passion and, in her words, “that’s why I was often unfaithful.”
5. Marie Antoinette
Maybe for the wrong reasons, but Marie Antoinette takes her spot among the most famous women from France despite losing her head during the French Revolution.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and his wife, Empress Maria Theresa, ruler of the Hapsburg Empire.
At just 14, she married the grandson of Louis XV of France, becoming queen of France five years later when her husband ascended to the throne as Louis XVI.
Living a life of reckless opulence, she soon became unpopular with the local population suffering poverty and misery.
Spending extravagantly on fashion, décor, and luxuries while France’s economy was descending into a crisis, she was rumored to have plastered the walls of her chateau in Versailles with diamonds and gold.
During the Flour War in 1775, she enquired why the people were rioting, and when told that they couldn’t afford bread, she was rumored to have made her infamous quote, “Let them eat cake.”
We’ll never know whether that was true or not, but we do learn that she became increasingly despised, and many blamed her for the country’s dire economic situation, leading to the French Revolution in 1789.
During the bloodiest period in French history, known as the “reign of terror, “ Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were tried and sentenced to death and executed by guillotine at Place de la Concorde, thus ending the French Monarchy.
6. Jeanne D’Arc
The story of Jeanne D’Arc is one of extreme bravery and unyielding faith, triumph and tragedy, and divine supernatural forces that remain unexplained today.
Also known as Joan of Arc, this 16-year-old peasant girl, claiming to have been guided by visions of the Archangel Michael, convinced Charles to allow her to lead the French army against the English, whom Charles’s father had earlier handed the French throne.
Prophesies circulating for years that an armored maiden would one-day rescue France may have contributed to Charles’s agreeing to appoint Jeanne D’Arc to head his army.
Riding her horse into battle in full armor and waving her banner, she lifted the spirit of her troops, defeating the English in the Battle of Orleans and freeing the besieged city.
The rejuvenated French army pursued the English, achieving another victory and opening the road to Reims, where Charles was eventually crowned king with Jeanne D’Arc at his side.
Regarded as the savior of France, her world was to come crashing down after several defeats where she was captured and handed to the English.
Tried and convicted for heresy and being under the control of demonic visions, she was burned at the stake. Her last wish was to view a crucifix in her dying moments.
One was brought and held in front of her face until the flames engulfed her, dying an agonizing death. She was barely 19 years old.
Fifteen years later, a court overturned the guilty verdict, and ever since, Jeanne D’Arc has been celebrated as a martyr and is a national symbol of France. Twenty-two years after her death, the English were finally expelled from France.
In 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized Jean D’Arc, and her feast day is celebrated each year on 30th May – the day of her execution.
A truly remarkable life of a peasant girl becoming one of the most honored French women ever.
7. Simone Veil
Having survived the Holocaust before she was 18 years old, Simone Veil was destined to become one of the most revered women from France, serving in many esteemed positions, including France’s Health Minister and being the first female President of the European Parliament.
She will also be remembered as promoting women’s rights and their access to contraception, as well as her determined fight to legalize abortion in 1975 – a law that became known in France as the Veil Act.
She achieved all that during her term as Health Minister. Her progressive views are a surprise, considering she was a center-right wing political party member.
During the final year of WW2, her entire family was arrested by the German army. Her parents and two siblings perished, but Simone and her one sister, Denise, managed to survive until the concentration camps were liberated in April 1945.
Her traumatic experiences in Auschwitz and Belsen as a child played a huge role in her desire to unify Europe, a cause she worked tirelessly to achieve throughout her life.
Among the many awards she received was becoming an honorary dame and receiving the highest order (grand cross) of the Legion of Honor.
Simone died at the ripe old age of 90 and was given a national ceremony and full military honors at Les Invalides and buried next to her husband at the Montparnasse Cemetery.
In 2018, she and her husband reburied at the Panthéon, which is reserved for icons in French history.
8. Marie Curie (naturalized French)
Born Marya Skłodowska in Warsaw in 1867, she dedicated her life to helping others by becoming a pioneer in science and radioactivity in particular, a term she and her French husband, Pierre, were the first to use.
They discovered radium and polonium, named after her native country, which was to kill her through overexposure to the deadly element eventually. She was to receive two Nobel Prizes, one for physics and one for chemistry.
During WW1, she created and delivered hundreds of X-ray machines to field hospitals, preventing many amputations and assisting doctors and wounded soldiers immensely.
She achieved numerous scientific breakthroughs during her life, becoming one of the most influential scientists and celebrated French women of all time. She was highly respected by none other than Albert Einstein.
Marie Curie died in 1934 at the age of 66 from radiation exposure, and her body was so radioactive that she had to be buried twice.
Hers and her husband’s remains were interred at the Panthéon in Paris, sealed in lead-lined caskets.
9. Catherine Deneuve
Acclaimed actress, singer, model, and film producer Catherine Deneuve is mainly revered for her elegant beauty.
Replacing Mireille Mathieu as Marianne, France’s national symbol of liberty, and being the face of Chanel No. 5 during the 1970s, she is considered one of the most beautiful French women ever.
Born in 1943, she began her acting career at 12, appearing in over 120 films, from romantic comedies, crime thrillers, dramas, and musicals to horror movies. She even portrayed a bisexual vampire alongside David Bowie and Susan Sarandon.
She has received nominations for Academy and Bafta awards and won many other acting awards.
As a model, she sent sales of Playboy magazine soaring when she appeared nude in 1963 and 1965 publications.
Although being married only once to photographer David Bailey, she has lived with several high-profile celebrities, including producer Roger Vadim and Italian actor and heartthrob Marcello Mastroianni.
Between these superstars, she has also dated numerous famous personalities, like John Travolta, Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero, Burt Reynolds, and Roman Polanski.
As Rod once said, “Some guys have all the luck.” It was recently claimed that she had been romantically involved with legendary singer Johnny Hallyday since 1961 until he died in 2017.
Catherine Deneuve still lives in Paris, and despite being 80 years old, she remains as elegant as ever, rightfully earning her spot on our list of famous French women.
10. Catherine De Medici
Born into the powerful and influential Medici family in Florence in 1519, Catherine had an eventful childhood.
Orphaned before she was a month old, her grandmother first raised her and a year later by her aunt, and then by her uncle, Pope Clement VII, until she was taken hostage at nine years old and sent to a convent and eventually to Rome. What a childhood!
The Pope arranged her marriage to Prince Henry, Duke of Orléans, who would later become King of France. They were both 14 years old.
To cut a long story short, after Henry’s death some 26 years later, Catherine was made regent and granted sweeping powers, which she used ruthlessly to keep her family on the throne at all costs.
Her life and the reigns of her three sons were fraught with constant conflict, wars, death, and destruction.
She was blamed for the persecution and death of thousands of French Protestants, including the infamous St Batholomew’s Day Massacre, during the Wars of Religion during the late 16th century.
She had been called the “Sinister Queen” and the “Black Queen”. She died probably of pleurisy at 69, and the Medici genes still exist among many of Europe’s royal families.
11. Edith Piaf
Another iconic personality of France with a tragic upbringing and an even more tragic life was Edith Piaf, who had a unique voice that made her one of the most recognizable artists in the world.
Born in 1915 and abandoned by her mother at birth, she spent the first few months of her life with her maternal grandmother until she was taken to her paternal grandmother when her father enlisted in the French army during WW1.
She spent the next few years living in a brothel in Normandy, owned by her grandmother, and was mostly cared for by prostitutes.
If that was not enough hardship for a child to endure, she was blind between the ages of three and seven.
She was rumored to have been miraculously cured after undertaking a religious pilgrimage paid for by the prostitutes.
First performed in the streets of Paris with her acrobat father until she was discovered by a nightclub owner who had her singing to mesmerized audiences in a black dress, which became her signature attire.
She soon became known as the “Little Sparrow”. She was tiny, just 4 foot 8 inches tall, and weighed a mere 90 pounds. The rest is history.
Performing across the world, she rose to be one of the most iconic French women of the 20th century, inspiring and launching many artists’ careers, including that of another French icon, Charles Aznavour.
Among the countless French songs she graced with her expressive voice, “Le Vie en Rose” remains her signature song to this day.
Suffering liver cancer, “the little sparrow” slipped into a coma and died in 1963 at the untimely age of just 47.
12. Saint Genevieve
Born around 420 AD, a few miles from the center of Paris, Genevieve displayed strong religious convictions from an early age, becoming a nun at 15 and dedicating her life to the Lord and helping others.
She practiced what she preached and was soon noted for her generous deeds of charity. She is often depicted holding out a loaf of bread in many religious paintings and sculptures.
She claimed to have had numerous prophetic visions and was rumored to have predicted the invasion of the Huns.
When Attila the Hun did invade, she led a prayer marathon, convincing the local population not to flee as God would protect them.
Attila chose to attack Orléans instead, where he was defeated, raising the popularity of the visionary nun.
This act of faith helped her gain the trust of many leaders, including Germanic King Childeric I, who had besieged the city in 464 AD.
She persuaded him to release many prisoners by collecting food and acting as a messenger between the besieged city and the King. Such was her influence on this mighty military leader.
She even got him to build a church over the tomb of St Dennis, the French patron Saint.
Saint Genevieve died around 500 AD and was buried in the Church of Holy Apostles, now known as the Church of Saint Genevieve.
During the French Revolution, her remains were burned, and her relics were moved to the Church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont.
Having influenced influential leaders during her life, Saint Genevieve is the Saint we need to pray to for leaders of any country.
With the world’s situation right now, I guess she has been receiving a lot of prayers lately.
13. Romy Schneider
Although German/Austrian by birth, Romy Schneider made her career mainly in France and is often considered one of the most revered and gorgeous personalities.
Born in Vienna in 1938, the year Germany annexed Austria to actor parents, Romy was inspired to become an actress and started her film career in Germany when she was barely 15.
After appearing in several German films, she worked with Alain Delon, fell in love with the French heartthrob, and moved to France. They were engaged in 1959.
Her career blossomed with numerous French, European, and Hollywood films, working with some of the biggest names in the industry.
Schneider and Delon divorced in 1963 but continued their friendship and worked together in several more films.
She married a German director and had a son who was tragically killed in a freak accident aged just 14, which led her to excessive drinking.
She had several love affairs with notable film personalities, later marrying for the third time, but that did not last too long.
It was later revealed that Romy had had sexual relationships with women as well, including her good friend, Simone Signoret.
On the 29th May 1982, Romy Schneider was found dead in her Paris apartment. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. She was not even 44 years old.
14. Vanessa Paradis
Born near Paris in 1972, Vanessa was discovered at a local television talent show when she was seven years old, but it took another five years before she released her first song.
Although it did not become a hit, it paved the way for her next song, “Joe le taxi,” which hit No. 1 in France, catapulting her into stardom in 1987 at just 14.
Since then, she has released six other albums containing many hits and worked with several music icons like Lenny Kravitz, whom she also dated.
Breaking into the film industry and starring in over 30 films, she worked alongside superstars, including acclaimed veteran actors Jen-Paul Belmondo, Gerrard Depardieu, and Alain Delon. Her acting career resulted in countless nominations and awards.
Her stunning classic beauty made her the face of the Chanel brand, appearing in many ads, including the iconic “birdcage” commercial, and has been featured on the covers of over 300 magazines.
Turning down Kelvin Klein, she indirectly launched Kate Moss’s career.
During her career, she has dated several high-profile celebs, including having a 14-year relationship with Johnny Depp, with whom she had two children, one of which being Lilly-Rose Depp, a splitting image of her mom and a most acclaimed actress and supermodel.
Being one of the most iconic French women of all time and an invaluable asset to France, Vanessa Paradis was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor.
15. Marion Cotillard
Mimicking Greta Garbo in her bedroom as a child, Marion Cotillard was destined for the stage and to become one of the most famous French women of modern times.
Born in Paris in 1975, she made her screen debut at the age of seven, and after that appeared in many French, European, and Hollywood films and television programs, playing alongside prominent name actors, receiving numerous nominations and awards.
Her talents and dedication to her profession led her to be cast as the iconic Edith Piaf in the blockbuster film “Le Vie en Rose”, for which she received an Oscar, a César, and a BAFTA award.
From then on, her career blossomed further, being cast in over 60 films performing alongside mega stars the likes of Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Meryl Streep, to name a few.
Her performances earned her numerous awards, and she has grossed close to $4 billion so far.
Marion Cotillard is also a committed philanthropist and environmentalist, being a spokesperson for Greenpeace.
She is also an accomplished musician, having released several singles and performed on several film soundtracks.
She has been the face of Dior and Chanel No. 5 perfume and has appeared on the covers of hundreds of magazines across the world.
Her contributions to the arts and France have also earned her the highest French accolade, named a Knight of the Legion of Honor. It doesn’t get bigger than this.
16. Cecile Debray
Born in 1966, Cecile’s passion for the arts began as a child while walking through the galleries of the Louvre with her mother on Saturday afternoons.
That ignited the desire to one day work in a museum. A desire that would become a reality, making her one of the most knowledgeable and respected experts in the arts.
She studied history and the history of art at various universities in Paris and Montreal.
Appointed as curator, scientific advisor, and director of various museums, including the National Museum of Modern-Art Center Pompidou, throughout her career, she is a renowned specialist in Henri Matisse and Picasso, designing exhibitions around the world.
In her hectic life, she manages to lecture on the history of art at the Ecole du Louvre, one of the most prestigious institutions in France and has published countless papers on various iconic artists and their works across all disciplines of art.
Respected by art historians across the world and being an intellectual of note, she is currently the Director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, situated next to the Place de la Concorde in Paris.
17. Marion Rousse
Born in 1991 in Saint-Saulve in northern France, cycling must have run deep in the genes of Marion Rousse, who had no less than three professional cycling cousins.
Continuing in the same vein, she grew up watching the world-famous Tour de France race on television and being inspired to take up the sport herself.
This led to her winning the National French Road Race title in 2012.
Also working as a sports pundit for Eurosport and French Television as well as holding a job at the Etampes Town Hall just south of Paris, she was forced to retire from cycling at the premature age of just 25 to concentrate on her television career.
After serving as deputy director of Tour de la Provence, she was appointed director of the Tour de France Femmes.
Christian Prudhomme, the Director of the Tour de France, described her as “the best ambassador of this sport,” since then, she has promoted cycling and inspired young girls to take up the sport.
Marion Rousse married fellow cyclist and Tour de France stage winner Tony Gallopin in 2014, but they divorced in 2019.
Two months later, she announced her relationship with another professional cyclist, Julian Alaphilippe, and that they were expecting a child. Their son was born in 2021.
18. Suzanne Borel
Born to a distinguished family in Toulon in 1904, at a time when diplomatic positions and most other jobs were reserved for men only, Suzanne Borel was going to be the one who would break these shackles and antiquated rules.
Armed with a degree in philosophy and having traveled to various French colonies in 1928, her mother sent her a newspaper clip stating that a decree had been issued allowing women to write the entrance examination for a diplomatic career.
She succeeded the second time around and was employed in the Foreign Ministry. However, she was still restricted to specific departments and forced to sign a document permitting her to work only in Paris.
She did not see that as an obstacle but a “half-open door” to sneak through.
During WW2, she joined the French Resistance and went into hiding to avoid being arrested by the German army.
After the war, she continued to work tirelessly until she was finally rewarded by being appointed to the private office of the Foreign Minister, George Bidault, whom she later married.
Suzanne Borel did not see herself as a feminist but as someone who believed in fairness and that women were just as capable as men and should be afforded the same opportunities.
By sneaking through the “half-open door,” she had, in fact, paved the way for women to follow.
She died in 1991, aged 91, after publishing her autobiography titled, you guessed it, “Through the Half-Open Door”.
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