FranceFrance, officially the French Republic, French France or République Française, is a country in northwestern Europe. Historically and culturally among the most important nations in the Western world, France has also played a highly significant role in international affairs, with former colonies in every corner of the globe. Bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Alps and the Pyrenees, France has long provided a geographic, economic, and linguistic bridge joining northern and southern Europe. It is Europe’s most important agricultural producer and one of the world’s leading industrial powers.
France is among the globe’s oldest nations, the product of an alliance of duchies and principalities under a single ruler in the Middle Ages. Today, as in that era, central authority is vested in the state, even though a measure of autonomy has been granted to the country’s 21 régions in recent decades. The French people look to the state as the primary guardian of liberty, and the state in turn provides a generous program of amenities for its citizens, from free education to health care and pension plans. Even so, this centralist tendency is often at odds with another long-standing theme of the French nation: the insistence on the supremacy of the individual. On this matter, the French historian Jules Michelet once remarked, “England is an empire, Germany is a nation, a race, France is a person.” This tendency toward individualism joins with a pluralist outlook and a great interest in the larger world.
At once universal and particular, the culture of France has spread far and has greatly influenced the development of art and science, particularly in the fields of anthropology, philosophy, and sociology.
France has also been influential in government and civil affairs, giving the world important democratic ideals in the age of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and inspiring the growth of reformist and even revolutionary movements for generations. The present Fifth Republic has, however, enjoyed notable stability since its promulgation on September 28, 1958, marked by a tremendous growth in private initiative and the rise of centrist politics. Although France has engaged in long-running disputes with other European powers (and, from time to time, with the United States, its longtime ally), it emerged as a leading member in the European Union (EU) and its predecessors. From 1966 to 1995 France did not participate in the integrated military structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), retaining full control over its own air, ground, and naval forces; beginning in 1995, however, France was represented on the NATO Military Committee, and in 2009 French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the country would rejoin the organization’s military command. As one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—together with the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and China—France has the right to veto decisions put to the council.
Brief History of France
During the Iron Age, what is now France was inhabited by the Gauls, a Celtic people. The Gauls were conquered by the Roman Empire in 51 BC, which held Gaul until 486. The Gallo-Romans faced raids and migration from the Germanic Franks, who dominated the region for hundreds of years, eventually creating the medieval Kingdom of France. France has been a major power in Europe since the Late Middle Ages, with its victory in the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453) strengthening French state-building and paving the way for a future centralized absolute monarchy. During the Renaissance, France experienced a vast cultural development and established the first steps of a worldwide colonial empire. The 16th century was dominated by religious civil wars between Catholics and Protestants known as the Huguenots.
Louis XIV made France the dominant cultural, political and military power in Europe, but by the late 18th century, the monarchy was overthrown in the French Revolution. One legacy of the revolution was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, one of the world's earliest documents on human rights, which expressed the nation's ideals to this day. France was governed as one of history's earliest Republics until the Empire was declared by Napoleon, who dominated European affairs and had a long-lasting impact on Western culture. Following his defeat, France endured a tumultuous succession of governments: an absolute monarchy was restored, replaced in 1830 by a constitutional monarchy, then briefly by a Second Republic, and then by a Second Empire, until a more lasting French Third Republic was established in 1870.
France's colonial empire reached the height of global prominence during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when it possessed the second-largest colonial empire in the world. In World War I, France was one of the main winners as part of the Triple Entente powers fighting against Germany and the Central Powers. France was also one of the Allied Powers in World War II, but it was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940. Following liberation in 1944, a Fourth Republic was established and later dissolved in the course of the Algerian War. The Fifth Republic, led by Charles de Gaulle, came into being in 1958 and continues to operate today. In the era of decolonization, most of the French colonial empire became independent after the Second World War.
Government of FranceFrance is a republic and its institutions of governance are defined by the French Constitution, more specifically by the current constitution, being that of the Fifth Republic. The Constitution has been modified several times since the start of the Fifth Republic, most recently in July 2008, when the French "Congress," a joint convention of the two chambers of Parliament, approved—by 1 vote over the 60% majority required—constitutional changes proposed by President Sarkozy.
The Fifth Republic was established in 1958, and was largely the work of General de Gaulle - its first president, and Michel Debré his prime minister. It has been amended 17 times. Though the French constitution is parliamentary, it gave relatively extensive powers to the executive (President and Ministers) compared to other western democracies.
As in many western developed countries, the French government system consists of three distinct branches: the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The Executive Branch
The head of state and head of the executive branch of French government is the President, elected by universal suffrage. Since May 2012, France's president is François Hollande. Originally, a president of the Fifth Republic was elected for a 7-year term (le septennat), renewable any number of times. Since 2002 the President has been elected for a 5-year term (le quinquennat). Since the passing of the 2008 Constitutional reform, the maximum number of terms a president can serve has been limited to two.
The President, who is also supreme commander of the military, determines policy with the aid of his Council of Ministers (Conseil des ministres). The residence of the President of the French Republic is the Elysée Palace (le palais de l'Elysée) in Paris.
The President appoints a prime minister (currently - 2015 - Manuel Valls ) , who forms a government. The residence of the French Prime Minister is at Matignon House (l'Hôtel Matignon) in Paris.
In theory ministers are chosen by the PM; in practice unless the President and the PM are from different sides of the political spectrum (a system known as la cohabitation), PM and president work together to form a government. The President must approve the appointment of government ministers.
The cabinet, or le Conseil des ministres, meets on a weekly basis, and is presided over by the president. Ministers determine policy and put new legislation before Parliament in the form of bills (projets de loi); within the framework of existing law, they apply policy through decrees (décrets).
The Legislative Branch
The French parliament is made up of two houses or chambers. The lower and principal house of parliament is the Assemblée nationale, or national assembly; the second chamber is the Sénat or Senate. Members of Parliament, called Députés, are elected by universal suffrage in general elections (élections législatives) that take place every five years. Senators are elected by "grand electors," who are mostly other local elected representatives. The electoral system for parliamentary elections involves two rounds; a candidate can be elected on the first round by obtaining an absolute majority of votes cast. The second round is a runoff between two or more candidates, usually two.
Until 2014, the left-wing Socialist party had a majority in both houses. However, following the municipal elections, the Socialists lost their majority in the Senate in September 2014. Senators are chosen by "grands électeurs," most notably by mayors and other locally elected representatives.
The Judicial Branch
While the Minister of Justice, le Garde des Sceaux, has powers over the running of the justice system and public prosecutors, the judiciary is strongly independent of the executive and legislative branches. The official handbook of French civil law is the Code Civil.
How Laws Are Proposed/Enacted in France
New bills (projets de loi), proposed by government, and new private members bills (propositions de loi) must be approved by both chambers of the legislature before becoming law. However, by virtue of Article 49.3 of the French constitution, a government can override parliamentary opposition and pass a law without a parliamentary vote. This does not happen frequently, and in the framework of constitutional amendments, president Sarkozy curtailed the possibility of using 49.3.
However, in 2015, Prime Minister Valls had to resort to using 49.3 in order to push the controversial economic reforms of the "Loi Macron" through parliament, in the face of a revolt by hard left members of his own Socialist party.
Laws and decrees are promulgated when the official text is published in the Official Journal of the French Republic, known as le Journal Officiel.
The Constitutional Council of France
The Constitutional Council , le Conseil constitutionnel, exists to determine the constitutionality of new legislation or decrees. It has powers to strike down a bill before it passes into law, if it is deemed unconstitutional, or to demand the withdrawal of decrees even after promulgation. The Council is made up of nine members, appointed (three each) by the President of the Republic, the leader of the National Assembly, and the leader of the Senate, plus all surviving former heads of state.
Political Parties in FranceThe main political parties in French politics are:
- On the Right: The Popular Union Movement (UMP - Union pour un Mouvement Populaire)
- Center Right: the New Centre (Nouveau Centre), and the Union of Democrats and Independents (launched in 2012) l'Union des démocrates et indépendants
- Center: The Democratic Movement (Mouvement Démocratique, MoDem)
- On the Left: the Socialist party (Parti Socialiste, PS) - since June 2012 the party in power; The Radical left (les Radicaux de gauche - a centre left group);The French Communist Party (parti Communiste Français - PCF);The Green Party (EELV - Europe Ecologie Les Verts)
Economy of FranceFrance is one of the world's major economic powers. Agriculture plays a larger role than in the economies of most other industrial countries. A large proportion of the value of total agricultural output derives from livestock (especially cattle, hogs, poultry, and sheep). The mountain areas and NW France are the livestock regions. The country's leading crops are wheat, sugar beets, corn, barley, and potatoes, with the most intensive cultivation North of the Loire Valley; the soil in the Central Massif is less fertile. Fruit growing is important in the south. France is among the foremost producers of wine in the world. The best-known vineyards are in Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhône and Loire valleys, and the Bordeaux region. The centers of the wine trade are Bordeaux, Reims, Épernay, Dijon, and Cognac.
France's leading industries produce machinery, chemicals, automobiles, metals, aircraft, electronics equipment, textiles, and foods (especially cheeses). Advanced technology industries are also important. Coal, iron ore, bauxite, and other minerals are mined. Tourism is an important industry, and Paris is famous for its luxury goods. Nuclear energy furnishes 75% of all electricity produced in France. In addition to the Paris area, important industrial cities are, in the northeast, Metz, Strasbourg, Roubaix, and Lille; in the southeast, Lyons, Saint-Étienne, Clermont-Ferrand, and Grenoble; in the south, Marseilles, Toulouse, Nice, and Nîmes; and in the west, Bordeaux and Nantes. Other important cities are Orléans, Tours, Troyes, and Arles.
France has an extensive railway system, the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF). The first of a number of high-speed rail lines (TGVs) was completed in 1983, linking Paris and Lyons. Subsequent lines connected Paris to several other French cities, as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and, via the Channel Tunnel, Great Britain.
The government at one time had majority ownership in many commercial banks, some key industries, and various utilities, including the telephone system. The government has since reduced its holdings in many companies, although it still controls energy production, public transportation, and defense industries.
Leading exports are machinery and transportation equipment, aircraft, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, iron and steel, and beverages. Leading imports are machinery and equipment, vehicles, crude oil, aircraft, plastics, and chemicals. Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States are the main trading partners of France. The chief ports are the cities of Rouen, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulon, Dunkirk, and Marseilles.
The Climate and Geography of France
Weather and Climate in FranceA popular year-round destination, France has an affable climate with long hot summers and cool winters, which bring snow to higher ground. Summer (June-August) is the peak season, when it is warm and sunny across much of the country. If you’re visiting at this time, prepare to face higher-than-usual demand at major sights, attractions and coastal resorts, particularly along the French Riviera.
Southern France remains balmy throughout spring (March-May) and autumn (September-October), which are decidedly quieter times to visit. Prices are also considerably cheaper. The crowds return during the ski season (December-March), packing resorts in the Alps and Pyrenees, which offers excellent conditions for skiing.
Northeastern areas have warm summers and colder winters with rainfall distributed throughout the year and snowfall likely in winter. The Atlantic influences the climate of the western coastal areas from the Loire to the Basque region, where the weather is temperate and relatively mild with rainfall throughout the year. Summers here can be very hot and sunny – sunburn may be a risk if you’re unprepared.
One of the prettiest natural spectacles occurs in Provence between the last week of June and first week of August, when lavender fields in The Luberon are in full bloom.
Geography of France
France, the largest country in Western Europe, is bordered to the northwest by the English Channel (La Manche), to the northeast by Belgium and Luxembourg, to the east by Germany, Switzerland and Italy, to the south by the Mediterranean (with Monaco as a coastal enclave between Nice and the Italian frontier), to the southwest by Spain and Andorra, and to the west by the Atlantic Ocean. The country’s loose six-sided shape means it often gets referred to by the informal nickname “L’Hexagone.”
The island of Corsica, southeast of Nice, is made up of two départements. France is home to an astonishing range of scenery, from the mountain ranges of the Alps and Pyrenees to the attractive river valleys of the Loire, Rhône and Dordogne, and the flattering countryside of Normandy and the Atlantic coast. The country has some 2,900km (1,800 miles) of pristine coastline.
Away from the mainland and Corsica, there are a number of French-administered overseas departments and regions outside of Europe. These include Guadeloupe (an island in the Caribbean), Réunion Island (located in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar), French Guiana (on the northeastern coast of South America), Martinique (another island in the Caribbean) and Mayotte (an island in the Mozambique Channel).
Paris and other Major Cities in FranceParis
The capital and by far the most important city of France is Paris, one of the world’s preeminent cultural and commercial centers. A majestic city known as the ville lumière, or “city of light,” Paris has often been remade, most famously in the mid-19th century under the command of Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussman, who was committed to Napoleon III’s vision of a modern city free of the choleric swamps and congested alleys of old, with broad avenues and a regular plan. Paris is now a sprawling metropolis, one of Europe’s largest conurbations, but its historic heart can still be traversed in an evening’s walk. Confident that their city stood at the very center of the world, Parisians were once given to referring to their country as having two parts, Paris and le désert, the wasteland beyond it. Metropolitan Paris has now extended far beyond its ancient suburbs into the countryside, however, and nearly every French town and village now numbers a retiree or two driven from the city by the high cost of living, so that, in a sense, Paris has come to embrace the desert and the desert has come to embrace Paris.
Other Major French Cities
Among France’s other major cities are Lyon, located along an ancient Rhône valley trade route linking the North Sea and the Mediterranean; Marseille, a multiethnic port on the Mediterranean Sea founded as an entrepôt for Greek and Carthaginian traders in the 6th century BC; Nantes, an industrial center and deepwater harbor along the Atlantic coast; and Bordeaux, the French wine country located in southwestern France along the Garonne River.
Culture, Customs and Traditions of France
Last, but certainly not least, are the culture, customs and long-held traditions of beautiful France.
Not surprisingly, most people associate French culture with Paris, which is a center of fashion, cuisine, art and architecture, but life outside of the City of Lights is also very unique and varies greatly by region.
France doesn't just have different cultures, as the word "culture" actually comes from the French. As a term, the word “culture” derives from the same French term, which in turn derives from the Latin word colere, meaning “to tend to the earth and grow, cultivate and nurture."
Historically, French culture was influenced by Celtic and Gallo-Roman cultures as well as the Franks, a Germanic tribe. France was initially defined as the western area of Germany known as Rhineland but it later came to refer to a territory that was known as Gaul during the Iron Age and Roman era.
Languages of France
French is, of course, the dominant language of the country’s roughly 66 million residents, but there are a number of variants of the language from one region to the next. French, the official language, is the first language of 88 percent of the population, according to the BBC, and is the second most widely learned foreign language in the world (after Spanish), with almost 120 million students, according to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development.
About 3 percent of the French population speaks German dialects and there is also a small group of Flemish speakers in the northeast. Arabic is the third-largest minority language in the country.
Those living near the border of Italy may speak Italian as a second language, and Basque is spoken by people living along the French-Spanish border.
Other dialects and languages include Catalan, Breton (the Celtic language), Occitan dialects, and languages from the former French colonies, including Kabyle and Antillean Creole.
Religion in FranceCatholicism is the predominant religion of France, despite membership in that church having fallen off in recent years. In a survey by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), 64 percent of the population (about 41.6 million people) identified themselves as Roman Catholic. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, about 7.5 percent of the population (4.7 million people) adheres to the Muslim faith, and the estimated Jewish population was 310,000 at the time of that same survey. In addition to these groups, there were 280,000 Buddhists and 30,000 Hindus in France at the beginning of the last decade, and nearly 18 million people who practiced folk religions, "other" religions or no religion whatsoever (agnostics and atheists).
French ValuesThe French take immense great pride in their nation and government and are typically offended by any negative comments about their country. Visitors, particularly Americans, often interpret their attitude toward foreigners as rude.
The expression known as "chauvinism"—meaning an attitude that members of your own gender are always better than those of the opposite sex, or a belief that your country, race, etc. is better than any other—originated in France around 1851, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. While women are playing a greater role in family life and business, many still see it as a male-dominated culture.
The French embody romance and passion, and there is an open attitude toward sex outside of marriage, according to a study by France's National Research Agency on AIDS. Even the country’s top politicians have been known to carry out extramarital affairs without making an effort to conceal them. As a reflection of the country’s secular nature, about half of children are born to unmarried couples.
According to historians, from around the 16th century, in Europe, culture became a term for the cultivation of the mind, the intellect, knowledge, learning, creative faculties and acceptable ways of behaving. The French embrace style and sophistication and take pride in the fact that even their public spaces strike a regal tone.
The French believe in égalité, which means equality, and is part of the country’s motto: "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." Many say they place a higher importance on equality than liberty and fraternity, the other two words in the motto.
The Cuisine of France
Food and wine are central to life at all socioeconomic levels in France, and much socializing is done around lengthy, leisurely dinners.
While cooking styles have changed to emphasize lighter fare, many still associate French cooking with heavy sauces and complicated preparation. Some classic French dishes include boeuf (beef) bourguignon — a stew made of beef braised in red wine, beef broth and seasoned with garlic, onions and mushrooms — and coq au vin, a dish made with chicken, Burgundy wine, lardons (small strips or cubes of pork fat), button mushrooms, onions and optional garlic.
Currently, traditional French cooking is on the decline. Seventy percent of the restaurants in France are using prepared meals instead of fresh cuisine that is a cornerstone of the culture.
French Clothing and StyleParis is known as the home to many high-end fashion houses, such as Dior, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel. Many French people dress in a sophisticated, professional and fashionable style, but it is not overly fussy. Typical outfits include nice dresses, suits, long coats, scarves and berets.
The term haute couture is associated with French fashion and loosely means fancier garments that are handmade or made to order. In France, the term is protected by law and is defined by the Paris Chamber of Commerce, according to Eva Domjian, a London-based fashion writer and editor. Domjian writes on her blog:
"To earn the right to call itself a couture house and to use the term haute couture in its advertising and any other way, a fashion house must follow these three rules:
- Design made-to-order for private clients, with one or more fittings.
- Have a workshop (atelier) in Paris that employs at least fifteen people full-time.
- Each season (i.e. twice a year) present a collection to the Paris press, comprising at least thirty-five runs/exits with outfits for both daytime wear and evening wear.
Art is everywhere in France — particularly in Paris and other major cities — and Gothic, Romanesque Rococo and Neoclassic influences can be seen in many churches and other public buildings.
Many of history’s most renowned artists, including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Camille Pissarro, sought inspiration in Paris, and they gave rise to the very historically important Impressionism movement.
The Louvre Museum in Paris is among the world’s largest museums of art and is home to many famous pieces, including the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.
Holidays and Celebrations in FranceThere are many major holidays and celebrations held throughout France each year, as well as dozens of minor events, customs and traditions that are observed only in certain French cities and regions.
As for the major holidays in the country, the French celebrate the traditional Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, as well as New Year’s Day. They also mark May Day, also known as Labor Day, on May 1. Victory in Europe Day, held each year on May 8, commemorates the end of hostilities in Europe in World War II. Bastille Day celebrated on July 14, is a favorite holiday of the French people—a day that commemorates the date on which the Bastille fortress in Paris was stormed by revolutionaries to mark the beginning of the French Revolution.