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There are already great questions and answers about when to use an article before a country name, and what it implies, including « Je viens d'Allemagne » ou « je viens de l'Allemagne » ?

But I wasn't able to find a question on the historical angle: How did an article come to be used here in the first place?

This is mildly perplexing because the name of a country appears to be a proper name, no different from that of a person, rather than a common noun that might be definite or indefinite.

At least, that's how it's treated in most other languages I can try to evaluate. This includes Latin — naturally, since it has no article; French's sisters Spanish and Portuguese (though they do still mark gender in other ways); the Germanic languages English, German, and Swedish; and even the utterly unrelated Hebrew. There are exceptions, of course, such as the People's Republic of China, the Maldives, and die Schweiz.

I note that Italian uses the article:

Il Canada. La Francia. La Svizzera. La Spagna. Il Portogallo. La Romania. La Germania.

How did this situation come about in French?

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    As a sidenote, this is not specific to the proper names of places, there are some cases (at least regional, maybe of wider impact in some cases) where proper names of people are used with an article. It doesn't invalidate your question, in the contrary, let's say it might be taken into consideration. – RomainValeri Jul 26 '17 at 14:04
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    Quelques réflexions historiques dans cette thèse sur les noms de pays (1.1.2 sq) tout en sachant que ce n'est qu'en moyen français que l'usage de l'article défini s'est répandu en français. – Laure Jul 26 '17 at 16:23
  • @Laure Fascinating and very in-depth. An hour ago when I clicked that link I didn't expect to read 30 pages straight! And only then begin to get to the meat of the subject. ;) For anyone else curious, 1.1.2.2 has a summary of the most basic answer to this question and can be more or less read in isolation, but a fuller analysis involves reading much more (when I resume reading it'll be at 1.2.2.1). Later on, if no one else has done so by then, I'll synthesize the relevant sections into an answer. – Luke Sawczak Jul 26 '17 at 18:41
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Both Italian and French being romance languages (derived from Latin) and very close cousins, the mechanism of introduction of article is the same.

A justification could be that name of a country is derived from the name of people with the suffix -ie or -ique, as a substitute for "le pays des ...":

La Franc(i)e = le pays des Francs

La Tchéquie = le pays des Tchèques

L'Allemagne = l'Alémanie = le pays des Alamans / Allemands

La Belgique = le pays des Belges

Or from a characteristic of the place:

La Provence = la province (romaine)

Les Pays-Bas

Europe containing rather old places (in terms of documented human occupation), almost every name of valley, land, country can be traced to some reason.

The English language did not adopt this usage of the article but also adopted markers, such as the Germanic suffix -land, as in:

England, Scotland, Holland

Or the Latin a -ia suffix (more rarely -ium):

Anglia, Czechia, Britannia, Belgium, Latium

The opposite question is why cities and villages did not have an article in French. That's probably because, like persons, they acquired a personality of their own:

Paris, Rome, Nyons

On the other hand, some cities and villages have retained the article, when it was obviously derived from a feature:

Le Havre = the safe harbour

Le Marais = a neighborhood of Paris that was indeed a swamp

La Plagne = a flat place (akin to La Plaine)

The bottom line is perhaps that while Germanic languages (English, German) consider that "regions and countries have a soul", Italian and French don't?

... and the more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that countries have less "personality" in French than in English. One could perfectly write:

France did not reply to the diplomatic dispatch.

To mean the French government. It would be correct to say:

La France ne répondit pas à la dépêche diplomatique.

But it would sound a little hollow, and perhaps ambiguous (it that the French government or the French public opinion?). It would be much more vivid to say:

Paris ne répondit pas à la dépêche diplomatique.

In French, Paris does have a strong personality as itself (remember the famous "Paris outragé...Paris libéré par lui-même et par son peuple"?), while La France is either a collective of the French people ("la France qui se bat") or an abstract civilizational unit ("la France éternelle").

Actually, a French author could write:

Le Quai d'Orsay ne répondit pas à la dépêche diplomatique (= the seat of the Foreign Ministry)

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