The Culture, Traditions, and Heritage of FranceThe culture of France and French national identity is based on the historical origins of the nation, particularly its Celtic, Gallo-Roman, and Frankish cultures. The name "France" originally was used to refer to several peoples in the lower Rhineland. It gradually was introduced as a more widespread term to denote that territory, formerly known as Gaul, after the Frankish invasion and the retreat of the Romans. The name "Francia" was applied to various territorial units until the Middle Ages, when it came to signify the kingdom of the French sovereign.
The degree to which France is today a homogeneous nation is a highly contested topic. Political and linguistic unification, especially through mass education, has been an ongoing project of nationalism. The immigrant population comes mainly from Portugal and northern Africa, although there has been increasing immigration from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Today the population is divided by social class, political party affiliation, generation, ethnicity, and region. Having had a significant rural population well into the twentieth century, the country continues to be marked by a rural-urban split.
Demographics: Population and Language
France has a population of roughly 66 million inhabitants and a low population density compared to other countries in Western Europe. In an attempt to keep the population up, family allowances are given to each family per child, with no income restriction. There is much population mobility from urban to rural areas and from region to region. The population has more than doubled since the mid-nineteenth century, when it was 28.3 million. The post–World War II period saw fertility increases in the French version of the baby boom, but the birthrate began to drop in the early 1970s. Migration has added to the population. At the turn of the twentieth century and after World War I, migration accounted for half the total population growth.
The official language of France is French, which is also by far the majority language, having been imposed on the regional populations since the nineteenth century. Regional languages and dialects such as Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Basque, Alsatian, and Flemish are still in use, and some are taught in regional schools. A law passed on January 11, 1951 permitted the teaching of regional languages in regions in which they were in use. The most recent update of national language policy regarding education came in 1995, permitting the teaching of regional languages at the primary and secondary levels. In all cases, this is voluntary for pupils.
The nation historically has been divided into two linguistic regions: that of the langue d'oeil to the north and that of the langue d'oc to the south. National identity is closely identified with the French language. The purity of the language is officially protected by the Académie Française established by Cardinal Richelieu in the seventeenth century, whose forty members rule over the inclusion of new words in the language. In 1966, the government instituted a further safeguard by establishing a commission on the French language whose role is to discourage borrowings from English and Franglais (the combination of the two languages). The Toubon Law of 1994 mandates and ensures that French be spoken in all official, public spheres of life. The French state also has played a role in the protection of global francophonie. Then President François Mitterrand established the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie in 1984, which sponsors summit meetings among French-speaking countries.
Religious Beliefs in France
France has historically been dominated by the influence of the Catholic Church, yet the constitution declares it to be a "secular" country. Secularism does not reject religion but attempts to bar any single religion from gaining political control. The minister of the interior is also the minister of religions, an office established to ensure the representation of various creeds. About 80 percent of the population of France is Roman Catholic. The second largest religion in terms of adherents is Islam. There are about a million Protestants; 700,000 Jews; and 200,000 Orthodox (Russian and Greek) Christians. There is also a significant Buddhist population. Folk religion in France varies by region. Witchcraft beliefs persist in some regions, such as the Vendée. Many Catholic regions combine elements of folk religion and Catholicism in their belief systems.
About 15 percent of the population of France claims the status of a nonbeliever. Religious practice has diminished during the last fifty years, and less than 10 percent of the population attends religious services regularly.
Rituals and Holy Places
France was the site of many pilgrimages during the Middle Ages. Most regions have historic churches that are visited regularly on holy days, with processions leading to them. Lourdes is one of the best known pilgrimage sites in the world. Located in the Pyrenees region in the southwest, it is visited by five million people each year. In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl, Bernadette Soubirous, at the grotto in Lourdes. This miracle inspires handicapped and ill people to visit this site and take the waters, which are believed to have healing qualities. Lourdes has a website where one can hear the church bells and watch the visitors.
Death and the Afterlife
The Judeo-Christian tradition dominates beliefs about the afterlife, with heaven and hell playing a major role in the belief system of the French. In traditional rural areas, there was a fatalist approach to death, and in many regions, such as Brittany, a "cult" of death — especially among older women. Funerals are important events, drawing from the entire community. The cemetery in France is a symbolic site of memory, often visited by older female relatives who tend to family plots. Young children often accompany grandmothers for walks through cemeteries.
Literature and the Arts
There is a great deal of support for the arts in France at the state, regional, and municipal levels. The French Ministry of Culture funds artists as well as restoration projects and museums.
Oral traditions and folktales predominated in pre-modern France. Up until the mid-twentieth century, rural communities held veillées, in which neighbors gathered in someone's home around the hearth to trade stories and tales. French written literature is considered one of the greatest world traditions. The first works of literature in French were the Chansons de Geste of the eleventh century, a series of epic poems. During the Renaissance, France's great national literature flourished with works by François Rabelais, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, and Pierre de Ronsard. Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped to shape a national consciousness during this time.
Nineteenth-century French writers took up themes of struggles between social classes, clerical and anticlerical forces, and conservatives and liberals. They also developed a form of realist writing that charted the various regional differences, and urban-rural splits, in France. François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand, Madame de Staël, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle), Honoréde Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert were the great novelists of this period. Poets in France included Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Alphonse-Marie-Louis de Prat Lamartine, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Earlier twentieth century writers included Marcel Proust, Anatole France, Jules Romains, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, François Mauriac, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and André-Georges Malraux. French existentialism during the postwar period is associated with writers Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir. The so-called "new novel" came to the fore in the 1950s and its representatives include Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet.
France gives several literary prizes each year. These include the Goncourt, the Renaudot, the Medicis, and the Femina.
France's most important graphic art forms are painting, sculpture, and architecture. The prehistory of French art is also important, including the famous cave paintings in southwestern France. The nineteenth century period of Romanticism in painting is associated with Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Auguste Ingres. Paintings of peasant life flourished during this century, particularly in the work of Jean Courbet and Jean-François Millet.
Impressionism, in which color and light became important, is associated with Claude Monet, (Jean) Pierre Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissaro, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, and Morissette. Postimpressionism followed later in the century, with works by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Georges Seurat, and Pierre Bonnard. Great twentieth century painters include Georges Braque, and Jean Dubuffet. The most famous French sculptor is Auguste Rodin.
Theater and dance have a strong tradition in France, both in the classical sense and in the realm of folk life. As in most of France's cultural life, Paris dominates the grand traditions of theater and the arts in general. France's great dramatists include Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Molière, Victor Hugo, Dumas, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Genet. The Comédie Française in Paris still presents the classic works of Molière and Racine. Opera is also popular in France, cutting across social class.
Street theater, pageants, and regional theatrical productions flourish in the provinces of France. The city of Toulouse is particularly well-known for its performance arts. French cinema is subsidized more highly by the state than other European movie industries, and the French have access to more nationally-produced films than their neighbors. Many French cities hold movie festivals during the year, the most famous being that in the city of Cannes in early summer.
Cuisine and Food Customs
Food plays a major role in the social life of French citizens. Wine and cheese are sources of national pride and reflect regional differences. Meals are ritualized, and full of social and cultural meaning.
The three main meals in France are le petit déjeuner (break-fast), le déjeuner (lunch), and le dîner (dinner). Although the midday meal had great importance in an agricultural economy and is still the main meal in rural areas, there is now a tendency for families to eat the largest meal in the evening. Breakfast is a light meal of bread, cereal, yogurt, and coffee or hot chocolate. Lunch and dinner generally involve several courses, at minimum a first course (l'entree) and a main dish (le plat), followed by cheese and/or dessert. In restaurants, it is common to have a price that includes all these courses, with a choice of dishes. Children eat a snack after school, le goûter or quatre-heures, which usually includes cookies, bread and jam or chocolate, and a drink.
Meals involve a succession of courses eaten one at a time. A typical family meal starts with a soup, followed by vegetables and a meat dish and then a salad, cheese, and dessert. Wine is commonly served at meals. Children begin to drink wine during family dinners in their early teens, often drinking wine diluted with water. Most daily food preparation is done by wives and mothers in family settings even if both spouses work full-time. The need to prepare wholesome meals that reflect traditional values is an increasing source of stress for working women who feel pressed for time. As a result, convenience foods are becoming more prevalent in the country, and fast food is a growing trend.
Holidays in France are associated with special foods. Elaborate meals are served on Christmas Eve by Catholic families who attend midnight Mass. These meals involve salmon, oysters, turkey, and la bûche de noël cake. In many regions, crêpes are eaten on February the 2 of each year, the Feast of the Virgin. The ceremonial nature and symbolism of food are evident in rural wedding ceremonies. Often, mixtures of food and drink are presented to the wedding couple in a chamber pot in the early hours of the morning after the wedding. These mixtures can include champagne and chocolate or savory soups with carrots and onion.
In many rural regions, it is still common for families to slaughter a pig each winter and make sausages, patés, hams, roasts, and chops for freezing. These are ceremonial occasions, and each person who helps the family is given a portion of the pig.
Holidays and Celebrations
France has several civic holidays (jours feriés), when schools, museums, and stores close. These public holidays, which include some with a religious origin, are: le Jour de l'An—1 January; May Day or Labor Day—1 May; World War II Victory Day—8 May; Easter (date varies); Ascension Day (after Easter); Pentecost Monday; Bastille Day—14 July; Assumption Day—15 August; All Saints Day or Toussaint—1 November; Armistice Day—11 November; and Christmas—25 December. Along with Bastille Day, Armistice Day is the most patriotic of these holidays, marking the end of World War I. There are speeches and parades in local communities involving local dignitaries and veterans, who place a wreath on the war memorial.
Bastille Day is the most important national holiday in France, celebrated in every commune with town dances, fireworks, and other festivities. On this day, there is a parade down the Champs-Elysée in Paris, involving the President and other dignitaries. Bastille Day marks the storming of the state prison, known as Bastille, by the citizens of Paris during the French Revolution. Known popularly as the 14th of July (le quatorze juillet), Bastille Day celebrates the overthrow of the French monarchy and the beginnings of the French Republic.
Each commune in France generally holds a town festival during the year. In some regions, these incorporate religious and secular symbolisms. There are dances, parades, sports competitions, and other activities.