Introducing France

Historically and culturally, France is one of the most significant nations of Western Europe. The country is favored by nature, with a variety of landforms, climates, and resources as well as with rich and varied agricultural lands. Strategically, it is located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The country has played a pivotal economic, political, and cultural role in the history of its continent and of the world. It has particularly close historical and philosophical ties with the United States.

France is a roughly hexagonal country that bridges the gap between northwestern, mainly Germanic, Europe and southwestern, mostly Latin, Europe. In many ways it blends the best of both of those worlds. The beautiful French language is a descendant of the Latin of the Roman Empire. The name “France,” however, reflects a Germanic legacy. It is derived from the Franks, a collection of early German tribes. King Clovis, the founder of France in 507 A.D., was a Frank. Likewise, Charlemagne, who, around 800 A.D. briefly unified what was to comprise modern France centuries later, was also a Frank. The logical, scientific, and military side of French character may reflect the Germanic legacy. On the other hand, the artistic, intuitive, and dramatic aspects of that character seem more a part of Mediterranean culture, especially that of Italy.

The French look to the Gauls—Celtic-speaking peoples related to the Scots, Irish, and Welsh, and whom the Romans conquered—as their ancestors. However, outside of Brittany, there is very little in the way of a detectable Celtic heritage in today’s French culture.

france map europe

The climate of northern France is similar to that of Britain and Germany, whereas the climate of much of the south is more like that of Italy and Spain. This climatic variety, coupled with its variety of landforms, allows France to produce a variety of agricultural products. This, in turn, contributes to a higher degree of selfsufficiency than possessed by most nations, and also to the fine and diverse cuisine for which France is so deservedly famous.

France faces two seas: the Mediterranean on the southeast and the Atlantic Ocean’s Bay of Biscay and English Channel on the west. The country has 2,930 miles (4,716 kilometers) of coast. Not surprisingly, France has a long legacy of fishing for the “fruits of the sea” and of engaging in international maritime trade. Its naval and merchant fleets were key to the establishment of a once-vast overseas empire. In modern times, the coasts have offered many recreational opportunities. Today, the French excel at recreational and competitive sailing.

Many French, as well as hordes of tourists from elsewhere, vacation along the Atlantic and Mediterranean shores, including the famous sunny Riviera. Vacation homes are popular in these and other attractive areas of la belle France.

France has important mountain chains. The lofty Alps extend deep into eastern France from neighboring Switzerland and Italy. The range includes glacier-flanked Mont Blanc, at 15,771 feet (4,807 meters) the highest point in Europe outside the Caucasus Mountains. France shares the Pyrenees with Spain; in fact, the crest of this range defines the boundary between these countries. The mountains are important sources of timber, support a large livestock industry, and provide spectacular scenery and skiing opportunities. Even more important, runoff from the mountains is the main source of water feeding the great rivers of Western Europe—the Rhine, Rhône, and Garonne—which are so important to transportation and agriculture.

For a nation of modest size and population, France has played a very important role in history. The country’s influences in culture have been worldwide: art and architecture, music, theater and film, high fashion (haute coûture) and perfumes, and the culinary arts. One need only name such people as Claude Monet, Auguste Rodin, Claude Debussy, Molière, and Coco Chanel to recognize some of these contributions. Gothic architecture first emerged in the region near Paris, becoming the copied style of church buildings and universities worldwide. It was in the same region, centuries later, that French Impressionist painting was unveiled to the world.

For centuries, until surpassed by English, French was the language of diplomacy and general elite culture. Because of the Norman (French) conquest of England in 1066, English is particularly rich with French words. Perhaps 20% of the common English vocabulary comes from French.

Like Great Britain, and following the earlier examples of Spain and Portugal, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries France built an enormous empire that encircled the globe. Huge areas of Africa, especially in the northern half, became French colonies, as did substantial areas in Southeast Asia (French Indochina), and many Pacific Islands.

The French also claimed parts of the Americas. France’s possessions included French Canada, Louisiana (Territory), French Guiana, and various Caribbean islands. France exported French language, culture, technology, and institutions to these areas. Although most of the empire was dismantled following World War II, these former colonial possessions continue to reflect the French cultural legacy. They often retain French as an official language and, in many cases, still maintain fairly close political, economic, and cultural ties to France. French is the official or mother language of some 300 million people worldwide.

Owing in large part to this empire, France became an international economic force as well. This economic prominence has diminished in the postcolonial period, but is still very important. The empire provided plantationproduced tropical and subtropical agricultural products such as sugar, cacao (chocolate), tea, rice, coconuts, and dyestuffs, as well as mineral wealth. The colonies also represented a captive market for such French manufactured goods as textiles, tools and utensils, and machinery. In the colonies, ports, railroads, and highways were built. So were schools, hospitals, and other social-service facilities. Today, individuals of French descent are still significant in the bureaucracies and economies of many ex-colonies. A French company constructed (1869) and co-controlled Egypt’s Suez Canal that links the Mediterranean and Red seas. Because of this connection with Egypt, as well as its former colonial control over much of North Africa and parts of the Near East, France has a long-standing tie with the Arab world. The country also depends on that world for much of its petroleum, having very little oil of its own.

Although it also imports many goods, France is Western Europe’s largest food-producer and exporter. Products include staple foodstuffs as well as specialty products such as gourmet cheeses, bottled waters like Perrier and Vichy and, above all, fine wine—which is, along with fashion, probably France’s most famous product.

France has a long tradition of friendly association with the United States. French ships and troops were key to the success of the American Revolution for independence from Great Britain (France’s traditional rival on the global scene). Much of American democratic philosophy is based on the writings of eighteenth-century French thinkers such as the Baron de Montesquieu, which caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson and other patriots. The United States came to the aid of Britain and France in World War I and World War II. Without American intervention, France could conceivably still be under German control today. The Statue of Liberty, which rises above New York Harbor as one of America’s most familiar icons, was a gift from France to the United States in 1884.

France today is part of the European Union, which, thankfully, has replaced the old belligerent relations among such nation states as France, Britain, and Germany. With its rich history, countless cultural contributions to the global community, and contemporary importance in the emerging European Union, France is and will continue to be one of the world’s foremost countries.

Natural Environments and Landscapes

French History to 1830

France in the Modern Era (1830–Present)

Population, Culture Regions, and Social Institutions

France’s Government

France’s Economy and Communications

France’s Future