POPULATION: About 57 million
LANGUAGE: French; also Breton, Flemish, Spanish, Catalan, Basque, Provençal, and English
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism; Islam; Judaism
France, which has existed in its present form since the fifteenth century, is Europe's oldest and largest nation. It is a leader in intellectual trends, the fine arts, fashion, and cuisine. France is also the world's fourth-richest country, and Europe's leading agricultural producer.
Originally part of the Celtic region known as Gaul, France became part of the Roman Empire until its was overrun by the Franks in the fifth century AD . At the end of the tenth century, Hugh Capet (c.938–96) founded the dynasty that was to rule over the French for the next 800 years.
The French Revolution in 1789 was followed by the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who conquered much of Europe before his downfall in 1814. In the twentieth century, France has weathered two world wars and a worldwide economic depression, in addition to its own political and social upheavals and the loss of a large colonial empire. However, it has survived to become a major political and economic world power.
France is the largest country in Europe and is located on the extreme west coast of the continent. Lowlands make up about half of France's terrain. The other half consists of hills or mountains. The English Channel lies to the north and northwest. The Mediterranean Sea lies to the south and southeast. Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany are neighbors on the north and northeast. Switzerland and Italy are situated to the east. Spain is to the south.
French, a Romance language with Latin roots, is the national language not only of France's people but also of some 300 million other people throughout the world. Within France itself, other spoken languages include Breton, Flemish, Spanish, Catalan, Basque, and Provençal
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Native folklore varies from region to region. Ancient Celtic religious sites can still be found in the north, along with remnants of ancient beliefs.
When a person dies, the doors and windows of the house are traditionally left open so that the soul can depart, and mirrors are turned to face the wall.
A folktale tells the story of a lily of the valley, a fragrant spring flower. According to legend, fairies of the forest held a dance. Each fairy used a tiny cup to gather dewdrops for the fairy queen's breakfast. The fairies hung their cups on blades of grass. On the day of a particular dance, the fairies were having so much fun that the sun rose before they knew it. (One of the laws of the fairy kingdom is that they must never be seen after the sun rises.) The sun turned the dewdrops to sparkling diamonds and dried them all away. When the fairies noticed the sunshine, they ran to gather their tiny cups. To their dismay, they found they were stuck to the blades of grass. The fairies began weeping, fearing that the queen would be angry. Just then, the fairy godmother appeared, waved her magic wand, and turned the blades of grass into stems and leaves to hide the cups from the angry queen. These stems and leaves became lilies of the valley.
About 80 percent of the French population is Roman Catholic. However, fewer than one-fifth of Catholics attend church regularly. Protestants account for roughly 2 percent, mostly Calvinist or Lutheran. France also has 1.9 million Muslims (followers of Islam), mostly immigrants from northern Africa. The Jewish population in France is one of the largest in the world, estimated at 530,000 people.
New Year's Eve is celebrated with a festive dinner. At midnight, family and friends wish each other a good year by kissing under mistletoe. For Epiphany on January 6, a large round pastry is baked with a bean hidden in it. The person who finds the bean becomes "ruler" for the evening. Mardi Gras, on Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) in February, is marked by parades featuring flowers, floats, and giant cardboard figures. Labor Day on May 1 is celebrated by workers' parades.
May 8 marks the end of World War II (1939–45). France's national holiday (the equivalent of Independence Day, July 4, in the United States) is Bastille Day on July 14, which commemorates the storming of the Bastille in 1789. It is accompanied by parades, fireworks, and dancing in the streets. The French observe Christmas by attending a midnight Mass.
Many of the rites of passage that young people undergo are religious rituals, such as baptism, first communion, confirmation, and marriage. In addition, many families mark a student's progress through the education system with graduation parties.
The French have a formality and reserve that is often interpreted as rudeness by outsiders. Money is generally considered something of a forbidden topic. It is considered especially rude to ask the size of someone's salary. When invited to another person's home, a French person will always bring along a gift of wine or flowers. Both men and women often greet each other by kissing on the cheek.
Long, white-walled, red-tiled farmhouses are a typical sight in the French countryside. Most city dwellers live in rented apartments, often a short distance from where they work. It is becoming increasingly popular for city dwellers to maintain a second home in the country, where they can go on weekends. Immigrants from northern Africa often live in large suburban housing developments called cités , which are generally run-down and overcrowded.
Traditionally, French households were made up of extended families—grandparents, parents, and children. As of the late 1990s, however, a modest-sized nuclear family with two or three children is the norm. Nonetheless, family ties remain strong. College-age children usually attend school in town, and families get together on birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. However, France's divorce rate has doubled since the 1960s. Today, one in three marriages ends in divorce…
French women who work outside the home earn about one-third less than men. The percentage of women who participate in the labor force has been unchanged—39 percent—since the early 1900s.
For their day-to-day activities, the French, both in the countryside and the cities, wear modern Western-style clothing. Perhaps the most typical item of clothing associated with the French is the black beret. It is still worn by some men, particularly in rural areas. The French are renowned for fashion design. Coco Chanel, Yves Saint-Laurent, Christian Dior, and Jean-Paul Gautier are all French fashion design houses whose creations are worn by people around the world.
Traditional regional costumes are still worn at festivals and celebrations. In Alsace, women may be seen in white, lace-trimmed blouses and aprons decorated with colorful flowers. Women's costumes in Normandy include white, flared bonnets and dresses with wide, elbow-length sleeves.
The French are famous for their elaborate, well-prepared cuisine. Each region of the country has its own specialties. Central France is famous for boeuf bourguignon, beef in red wine sauce. Southern France has a typical Mediterranean cuisine that depends heavily on garlic, vegetables, and herbs. One of its typical dishes is a vegetable stew called ratatouille.
A recipe for the classic French dessert, Crêpes Suzette, follows. To make the crêpes (very thin pancakes), French cooks use a special crêpe pan. Any small frying pan will work, but one with sloping sides is best
The French typically eat a modest petit déjeuner (pe-TEE day-jhe-NAY), or breakfast, of café au lait (ka-FAY oh-LAY), which is coffee with milk, and croissants or bread and butter. Déjeuner (day-jhe-NAY), or lunch, is a three- or four-course meal consisting of a main dish plus appetizer, salad, and dessert. Díner (dee-NAY), or dinner, is a lighter meal. The French are famous for their wines, which are commonly served at both lunch and dinner.
Education is required between the ages of six and sixteen. Public education is free. After five years of primary school, students spend four years at a middle school called a collège (koh-LEJ). The next three years are spent either at a general lycée (lee-SAY) for those planning to go on to college, or at a vocational lycée. After receiving their baccalauréat (back-ah-lahr-RAY-ah) degrees, students may go on to a university or to a grand école (grah eh-COAL), which offers preparation for careers in business or government service.
(Adapted from American Heart Association, Around the World Cookbook. New York: New York Times Books, 1996.)
France has made significant contributions in all of the fine arts. In the nineteenth century, France was famous for its Impressionist painters, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), Claude Monet (1840–1926), and Edouard Manet (1832–83). The most famous French sculptor was Auguste Rodin (1840–1917). Post-impressionists Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), and Henri Matisse (1869–1954) had a great influence on twentieth-century painting.
France's great musicians include the nineteenth-century composers Hector Berlioz (1803–69), Claude Debussy (1862–1918), and Maurice Ravel (1875–1937). Pierre Boulez (1925–) is well-known worldwide as a composer and conductor. France is also an international center for ballet.
Nineteenth-century novelists Victor Hugo (1802–85), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1859), and Emile Zola (1840–1902) wrote about the social issues of their time. Marcel Proust (1871–1922) is considered France's greatest twentieth-century writer.
About two-thirds (65 percent) of the French labor force is employed in service-related jobs, close to a third (30 percent) in industry, and only 5 percent in agriculture. The work week averages thirty-nine hours, and the work day can begin as early as 6:00 or 7:00 AM . There is a two- to three-hour break for lunch, the main meal of the day, and the work day usually ends at about 7:00 PM . Most French workers get five weeks of paid vacation per year. Most people take the month of August for vacation.
The French are avid soccer fans. Other spectator sports include rugby, horse racing, and auto racing. France's most famous annual sporting event is the Tour de France bicycle race, first held in 1903. Popular participation sports include fishing, shooting, swimming, skiing, and mountain climbing.
Activities such as gardening, home improvement, and cooking are popular leisure-time pursuits. Television is also popular, and France has the world's fourth-highest rate of movie attendance. Vacation trips—especially to the beach in August—are favorite activities among the French.
French children enjoy playing a simple marble game. The game can be played near any wall with about three to six feet (one to two meters) of smooth surface in front of it. A line is drawn three feet (one meter) from the wall and parallel to it. Taking turns, each player rolls a marble toward the wall. The marble coming closest to the wall without touching is the winner. More rounds of the game can be played by drawing the line further away from the wall.
Adapted from Hamilton, Leslie. Child's Play Around the World. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1996.
Folk arts are kept alive throughout France's distinctive regions. In Burgundy, artisans produce sabots (wooden shoes), vielles (stringed musical instruments), and other craft items. Many parts of France have rich folk music traditions. Traditional Basque folk poets, called bertsolariak, improvise and sing rhymes on any subject. Folk dancing is also extremely popular among the Basques.
France is affected by many of the major problems facing other European nations, such as high unemployment, pollution, and inadequate housing. There are still sharp class divisions and great contrasts between the income of the rich and the poor. In addition, services are lacking for immigrants and the elderly, whose numbers are increasing.
American Heart Association, Around the World Cookbook. New York: Times Books, 1996.
Buckland, Simon. Guide to France. New York: Kingfisher Books, 1994.
Hamilton, Leslie. Child's Play Around the World. New York: Berkeley Publishing, 1996.
Norbrook, Dominique. Passport to France. New York: Franklin Watts, 1994.
Sookram, Brian. France , Major World Nations. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1997.
Embassy of France, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.info-france-usa.org/ , 1998.
French Government Tourist Office in the United States. [Online] Available http://www.francetourism.com , 1998.
World Travel Guide. France. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/fr/gen.html , 1998.