Population, Culture Regions, and Social Institutions

Fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong,” goes the old saying, but there are now more than sixty million French citizens in metropolitan and overseas France. They account for 16% of the European Union's population and rank France twentieth among world countries. Approximately 75% of the country's population is urban, living in towns of 2,000 or more people. This is in a land traditionally thought of as being rural and agrarian. Since 1950, rural population has declined drastically as a consequence of agricultural modernization. Small farmers, especially, suffer from low incomes and declining services in rural areas. Economics have forced many who would prefer to farm into other lines of work away from their land. France's average population density is 279 persons per square mile, but distribution is very uneven.

In 2002, life expectancy in France was an impressive 76 years for males and 83 for females. One of the first countries to achieve low birthrates (in the nineteenth century), France nevertheless experienced a post-World War II baby boom. In the early 1970s, low birthrates were restored. In 2002, France's annual rate of natural population increase was about .4%, much of which was contributed by residents of foreign origin. Immigration adds perhaps another .18% each year. Today, France has more than four million foreign residents.

At the 1999 census, one-third of all households were couples with at least one child, 26.8% were childless couples, and 7.3% were single-parent families, a figure much lower than in America. Households of lone individuals accounted for 30%. Availability of the contraceptive pill, a lowering of the average French couple's ideal family size (2–3 children), and more women working, have led to deferred childbearing and lowered birthrates (fewer than 2 per mother). As a consequence, France also has an aging population that will have to be supported in retirement. Too, an aging work force is a handicap in an era when energy, flexibility, innovativeness, and mobility are asked for. Average age in 1999 was 37 years, a figure that is rising. The age structure was: under 20 years, 25.7%; 20 to 59, 53.9%; 60 and older, 20.4%. The average age at first marriage was 27 for women and 29 for men.


Metropolitan France is not a culturally homogeneous country containing only one important ethnicity, the “French.” France includes, in fact, several regions in which not only is the traditional ethnicity not French, French is not even the first language of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people.

In 1800, one in four “Frenchmen” could not speak any French and another one in four only very badly, and even today a quarter to a third of the country's native population can speak a regional language or dialect. The historically most important regional division in France is between the Frenchspeakers of most of the relatively cool and rainy northern two-thirds of the country, and the people (les meridioneaux) of the warmer, drier Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Massif Central south or Midi ('Midday'),where the langue d'oc, a tongue closer to Latin than is French, formerly held sway (where oc is the word for 'yes').

Standard French—one of nine langue d'oil dialects (in which oil means 'yes')—emerged from Latin in the Ile de France (greater Paris region) under residual Celtic and later Germanic influence and spread from there as the power of Paris gradually expanded outward. The other oil dialects have been diluted to the point that today most northerly regions possess only regional patois—“deformed” versions of standard French (as in Appalachian English).

The langue d'oc is actually a web of six dialects in three main divisions, running from Spain to Italy. The name of the traditional province of Languedoc, lying to the west of the lower Rhone River, derives from the general name of the tongue, while the province to the east of the Rhone is known as “Provence” (from the Latin Provincia Romana), and the name of its dialect, Provencal, is often used to refer to all the oc dialects, as is “Occitan.”

In some areas, the langue d'oc continues to be spoken among country people, mostly in the home (although everyone is now bilingual in French), but fewer and fewer young people are learning it.

Although France—including today's Midi—is largely fully francophone (French speaking), some of its corners retain significant populations whose first language is neither French nor Occitan but some other tongue, plus even greater numbers of people who have at least some understanding of that tongue. One of these regions is French Catalonia, just over the border from Spain's large Catalan-speaking province of Cataluna (Andorra, the tiny Pyrenean country between France and Spain, is also Catalan speaking). Catalan is closely related to the langue d'oc. As in other linguistic-minority regions, Catalan continues to be eroded by French, but the strength of Catalan culture and language in prosperous neighboring Spanish Catalonia buttresses the idiom in France,where Catalan promises to endure more robustly than Occitan in nearby regions.

Like Catalonia, the Basque Country straddles the French-Spanish border, formed by the Pyrenees Mountains, but it faces the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean.Although the Spanish section is much more populous and industrially developed than the French, the French Pays Basque is a quite distinctive region in its own right. The French language continues to supplant Basque, an ancient tongue unrelated to other European languages.

Among traditional Basque mountain life ways, sheepherding is the most prominent; Basque emigrant herders have been important in the sheep-raising industries of certain other parts of the world as well, including in the western United States. The male Basque's sartorial signature is the navy-blue beret basque—whose mid-twentieth century working-class popularity all over France has since waned in favor of the cloth cap.

On the Armorican Peninsula is the old province of Brittany, home of Armorican Gauls in Roman times and further settled by other Celts during the fifth and sixth centuries, when many Brittonic-speaking Celts fled from the Saxon and other invasions of England. The Bretons and the Welsh share legends concerning King Arthur. The province was not annexed by France until 1532 and maintained considerable separateness for another two and a half centuries. Like Celtic Ireland, it is a very conservative and religious Catholic region, with many unofficial local saints and a multitude of religious processions called pardons.

The stone folk houses of the scattered farmsteads still standing in Brittany today remind one of those of Celtic parts of the British Isles. Like many areas of Celtic regions of the British Isles, too, Brittany and Normandy possess numerous stone walls and hedgerows on farms. Such bocage country is strictly a northern phenomenon in France.

Numbers of speakers of the Breton language can still be found in the western parts of the province, although the language is on the decline, with less than a fifth of the population speaking it, mostly as a second language; only about 6% of people under 25 use it regularly. Despite considerable disaffection among Bretons and efforts at cultural revival, there is little separatist effort in contemporary Brittany.

The Romance-Germanic linguistic border does not coincide with the frontiers between countries; it cuts through France's Flanders, Belgium, France's Alsace-Lorraine, and Switzerland. Contemporary France's Germanic northeastern corner has, over the last couple of hundred years, passed, like a football, back and forth between France and Germany. The old provinces of Lorraine (native land of Charles de Gaulle) and Alsace were largely German-speaking; and although most Alsatians' loyalties lie with France, one of two dialects of German is still the first language of most older Alsatian country folk; 90% of the population can speak Alsatian, although in the province as a whole, French is the first language for 85%. Alsace's older architecture is Germanic in style, and there are many picturesque villages with fairytale-like halftimbered houses whose steep roofs are covered with flat tiles. Although Catholicism is strong, northern Alsace has France's highest concentration of Protestants.

Eastern Belgium, just to the North of France, is French speaking (Walloon), whereas western Belgium (Flanders) is Flemish speaking. Flemish and Dutch are close dialectical cousins. As mentioned above, some of Flanders (Flandre) lies on the French side of the frontier, which was fixed in 1713.Not only can Flemish (flamand) still be heard spoken there, but the older architecture, mostly in brick, is more akin to that of Belgium and the Netherlands than it is to that of other parts of France Separated from mainland France and situated out in the Mediterranean Sea, is the large island of Corsica (Corse), Napoleon's birthplace. The traditional language and culture are much more akin to those of Italy's Tuscany than to those of France, and historically included the custom of vendetta, blood feud between families—personal, family, and clan loyalties being paramount. Of France's “non-French” regions, Corsica has seen the most violence in the course of a struggle for some autonomy.

Metropolitan France also has some important immigrant populations of non-French, including non-European, origin. Today, the European Union (EU) permits free migration among its member countries. Portuguese, Italians, and Spaniards became very numerous even in pre-EU times. Non-ethnically French, non-EU residents derive mainly from former colonies and current overseas departments and territories and include considerable numbers of (mostly black) West Indians, Africans and their descendents from subSaharan countries, and North African Arabs and Berbers from AlgeriaMorocco, and Tunisia. There are also rather large numbers of Asians of Vietnamese background. In addition, a certain number of Turks figure in France's labor force. There are wandering gypsies as well.

Racial discrimination is not a major concern in France, and laws against it were passed in 1999 (although not involving affirmative action). However, native French expect immigrants to adopt French ways and values and are disdainful of those who fail to do so; the state offers language and other integrationist programs. One point of conflict is the feast of Aid al-Adha, when Muslims ritually slaughter tens of thousands of sheep.


The family is of utmost importance in France. “Everything,” wrote historian Fernand Braudel, “starts with the family, and almost everything can be explained by it.” In the north, the simple nuclear family holds sway. But in the south, the tradition is of Mediterranean-style “community” families in which a patriarch heads an extended family that includes his sons and their wives and children. In Germanic areas of France, a patriarchal family is traditional, with only one son per generation being allowed to both stay home and to marry.

As a whole, French families tend to be somewhat patriarchal, at least in form, although wives and mothers have always played a strong role. Despite families being child-centered, in the past fathers did not overly involve themselves with care of the children. This has changed a bit in recent decades, especially as more and more women have entered the work force. French personal incomes are lower than in the United States, and the dual-income family is becoming the norm.

The Frenchman and Frenchwoman's home has always been his and her castle, and security and privacy are highly valued. There will be shutters on the windows, always closed at night and often during the day, plus a wall—perhaps topped by shards of glass—or a thick hedge around any garden. Even tiny houses and apartments have entry halls from which the rest of the home is closed off by doors, so that callers may be received there, or at least screened prior to being permitted to enter the rest of the home. In the interior, doors to bathrooms and bedrooms are kept closed even when not in use. It is less common to be invited for a meal at a person's home (as opposed to at a restaurant) in France than in the United States.

French families stress closeness and express affection by means of the classic two- or three-kiss embrace as well as in other ways. French children leave home at a later age than in America. In many respects, the French have been more successful than the Americans in maintaining meaningful family relationships among the generations. Younger people sometimes experience such a high level of togetherness as rigid and stultifying, but in fact it is highly beneficial—socially, educationally, and behaviorally—to almost all concerned.

The value accorded to the family is signaled by the existence of a High Council for Family Affairs and Population. Still, the French family has changed since the early 1970s. Parental authority has been eroded (though less so than in the United States). Divorce rates have risen to about one in three nationwide and to one in two in Paris. This is much lower than in the United States or in other European Union countries.

There are many types of households other than traditional families. About a third involve single persons who are divorced or have never married. Homosexual couples are legally recognized, although not universally accepted.

One seemingly “antifamily” trend is the rise of cohabitation since the late 1960s. One couple in six, of young adults of the opposite sex, is living together without formally marrying.Cohabitation is legally recognized as a state equal to marriage. In reality, these are usually serious relationships (often, trial marriages) and many such couples tend to marry if pregnancy ensues.Others may feel that a nonbinding relationship is more “authentic,” and, in fact, one in four children is born out of wedlock.

As of 1999, there has also been a legal arrangement intermediate between cohabitation and marriage, called a “pact.” Such arrangements have led to higher rates of sexual fidelity earlier in life. But the incidence of marital infidelity nevertheless remains relatively high in France, despite a heritage of Catholic guilt about such behavior. In France, sex is seen as a private matter left to personal choice. The question here is more one of openness and tolerance than of permissiveness and personal promiscuity.

Love, as distinct from mere sex, has made a comeback, and fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has fostered sexual restraint. Whereas in the past, marriages were often largely matters of family alliances, wealth-preservation, and convenience, leading to either resignation or rebellious infidelity, today's young people are far more likely to look for common interests and genuine affection in a marriage, not simply security or social position.We may also observe that the French love household animals: there is more than one pet for every two people. Many rural men keep hunting dogs, and well-behaved lap dogs are even commonly seen in restaurants!


“France is not one society but many societies,”wrote historian Fernand Braudel. In addition to having regional differences, France was once a land of enormous contrasts in recognized rank and in wealth. Considerable rigidity existed with regard to mixing among the various socioeconomic classes.Much of French politics since 1789 has had to do with the ongoing tensions between the values of a conservative and hierarchical tradition on the one hand, and the radical and egalitarian one created largely at the time of the French Revolution on the other. The French class system was the one that most stimulated Karl Marx in his development of the theory of class struggle. The socioeconomic classes have their traditional stereotypes:

  • The cultivated airs of the upper-class aristocracy, whose inherited titles, though having no legal status today, remain socially significant.
  • The adaptability and the social pretensions of the upper middle class.
  • The middle middle class concern for the bourgeois values of money, comfort, and order.
  • The respectable, egalitarian, independent, and frugal lower middle class, comprised of tradespersons and small shopkeepers.
  • The naive, suspicious, cautious, and greedy peasantry.
  • The uncouth and radical, mostly urban, working class.

Like most stereotypes, these have some basis in reality, but are largely exaggerations and not universally applicable. Whereas class and regional distinctions have begun to blur, especially with a shift from blue-collar to white-collar employment and with much labor migration, young people still generally marry within the social, occupational, and regional groups in which they grew up. Class-consciousness remains strong, relating less to affluence than to cultivation of taste and sophistication. The presence of large numbers of foreign-born inhabitants and their descendants in modern France raises various issues. Single-ethnicity ghettos are discouraged but do exist, and, as mentioned, foreigners are expected to adapt to French ways. Native French find immigrants troubling, especially if they are not assimilating. This is not a matter of race, but of culture: clinging to one's ethnic identity threatens the ideal of a unified national culture.


As of 1999, approximately 82% of the population was classed as Roman Catholic. However, a long history of negative attitudes toward the clergy, especially during the revolution, plus increasing rationalism and secularism, has resulted in a very high rate of nonobservance. Today, some 25% of “Catholics” are nonbelievers. As one author (James Corbett) put it, “The French are Catholic more by tradition than by conviction.”Many enter churches only for ceremonies such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals. The pronouncements of Rome on personal matters such as sex, contraception, and abortion are widely dismissed.

Calvinist and Lutheran Protestants comprised a mere 1.64% of the population in 1999. Much of the Protestant community fled following the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Jewish population, reduced during World War II, hovered at 1.29%. Islam, on the other hand, had grown rapidly with immigration from North Africa and stood at 6.89%. Too, .68% (mostly Vietnamese immigrants) were Buddhist and .34% Eastern Orthodox Christians (for example, Russians and Greeks).

There always used to be a village priest, but today the Catholic Church is experiencing a shortage of clergy. It has responded with withdrawal of full-time priests from smaller churches, which are served, if at all, only by priests who travel from town to town.


The hierarchy of settlements from small to large in France is: farmsteads, hamlets, villages, market towns, cities, and metropolises. Paris, whose metropolitan area holds more than 11,000,000 inhabitants, is overwhelmingly the largest of the urban agglomerations. Thirty-eight other cities have 100,000 or more inhabitants. With some 75% of its people living in towns or cities, France is a highly urbanized country.

Housing shortages are commonplace, and costs are high, especially in Paris. Rent controls established in 1948 unintentionally discouraged private construction or renovation of rental properties. In response, during the 1960s the state erected many large, dismal social-housing blocks, the most notorious being in the Parisian suburb of Sancerre. Today, these are mostly inhabited by the poor, the unemployed, and the elderly, many being immigrants. Since 1986, rent controls have been phased out and private construction of apartment houses has resumed. Some of the aging public-housing projects began to be renovated and landscaped during the 1990s.

In France today, perhaps 45% of the people live in apartment houses, and 56% of single-family house-dwellers live in homes they own. Second homes are owned by 10% or more, as well. Home ownership is highly valued, just as land ownership was to people's peasant ancestors. It provides security and a sense of having one's own domain.

Unlike in the United States, where wooden houses are the norm, in France older houses are constructed of stone while contemporary ones are of cinder block and concrete or, in some areas, hollow tiles or brick. France has fewer developments containing “cookie-cutter” houses.Architecture is more customized, although it must, by law, conform to the regional style. Good insulation in new homes is encouraged by tax incentives, to conserve energy.


Most French persons believe in the need for a governmentprovided “safety net.”The resulting costs of the country's many social service and welfare programs is high, but citizens are unwilling to cut them back. The Ministry of National Solidarity is in charge of many of these generous programs, as well as of immigration.

The French healthcare program, under the Ministry of Health, is also generous (although less so than the free national health program in the United Kingdom). It covers from 60 to 100% of costs, and includes maternity and disability insurance, as well as family allowances for dependent children. A nongovernment committee of workers' organizations and employers negotiates price agreements with representatives of the healthcare providers, and basically runs the system. The choice of physicians is up to the patient. Costs of medications, whose prices are set by the government, are also reimbursed.

France ranks third in the world when it comes to percapita health-care expenditures and, despite an oversupply of physicians, these expenses are increasing as health-care costs escalate. French health care is at the top of the World Health Organization's rankings, and the French hold the record for frequency of utilizing the system and of taking medications. There are both public and private hospitals. Despite being a Catholic country, France also pays for requested birth-control aid, which has been legally available only since 1967 (the country has allowed abortion since 1975).

All kinds of social security, not just that for retirees, are funded largely through direct contributions from employers (representing a third of their wage bills) and, to a lesser degree, employees. However, what is not paid for in this way must be made up from general taxes. The social security system accumulated such large debts that interest rates and the value of the franc were affected, resulting in an overhaul of the system in 1995.

There are unemployment benefits of 60 months' duration. For decades, unemployment has been a problem in France, and currently stands at about 9%. One response has been to decrease the length of the workweek to 35 hours, to increase the length of paid vacations to six weeks, and to lower the (optional) retirement age from 65 to 60. Benefits (and even retirement age) vary according to job category and years of employment.

Life expectancy in France is almost 80 years, as compared to 76 in the United States. Infant mortality is about .6%. Despite the cultural emphasis on food and drink, obesity is surprisingly uncommon—much less prevalent than in Germany or the United States. Death due to cardiovascular problems is lower than the European average.Wine is thought to offer some protection.

Still, cardiovascular disease is the principal causes of death, followed by cancer and automobile accidents. Cigarette smoking is more common in France than in the United States, but has declined somewhat in recent years. Cigarette advertising has been banned since 1993. Nonetheless, annually there are approximately 60,000 deaths attributable to tobacco use.

Although the country is a transfer point for the shipping of illicit South American cocaine, Southeast Asian heroin, and European synthetic drugs, illegal drug use in France, while serious, is lower than in the United States. This consumption is largely of “soft” drugs, but hard-drug use is growing, especially in slums. Interestingly, the French have the highest level of consumption of legal tranquilizers in the world.


The French prize education, which they recognize as being an important pathway to both polish and position. Education is compulsory from ages 6 to 16, and literacy approaches 100%. Most schools are public and administered by the Ministry of Education and Research. There are also state-subsidized Catholic schools, which are particularly popular in Brittany.

The basic curricula of all schools, whether public or Catholic, are identical, although some flexibility has been accorded to the regions. Catholic schools account for 15% of primary pupils and 20% of secondary students. Many parents select private schools not for religious reasons, but because there is more discipline and more after-class supervision.Most French teachers are civil servants. The school year is shorter than in the United States, but school days and weeks are substantially longer. Standards are high.

Many young children go to preschools for two- to five-yearolds and kindergartens for those aged five and six. All children attend primary school (equivalent to U.S. grades one through five), middle or junior high school (grades six through nine), and academic, vocational, or technical high school (grades ten through twelve). The type of high school (lycee) one attends is determined on the basis of examinations taken at the end of ninth grade. Even academic students, though, must have some vocational training. At age 17, one takes the corresponding baccalaureate examination, success in which symbolizes graduation and is prerequisite to higher education. Although the academic exam has eight specialized varieties (math-physics carries the most career clout), it is comprehensive and grueling, being taken over a period of three weeks. About 78% of those who take the exam pass it these days, far more than in earlier times.

There are 86 public and 4 Catholic universities. Fees are low, and half the students pay nothing, but the institutions are correspondingly underfunded and provide less than pleasant study environments. One may earn any of various degrees, including a licence (more or less a Bachelor's degree), and a maitrise or a diplome (roughly, Master's degrees). A few scholars write a substantial thesis and gain the coveted doctorat (approximately, a Ph.D.). Students are evaluated less by individual class tests than by very lengthy subject-matter examinations at the end of the course of study. France has some 71,200 primary schools, middle schools, and high schools and employs nearly 850,000 teachers. About 10% of students enrolled in higher education are foreign.

Education was shaken to its roots during the events of May 1968 when university students, particularly in Paris, revolted against their mode of education. The type of education offered was very structured, stressed upper-class values and nationalism, and involved much rote learning. Students rebelled against both this kind of instruction and the inaccessibility of their teachers. In the years since, education has seen a shift from the classical to more experiential learning and creative activity. Yet, much rote learning remains and too much originality continues to be stifled. There were more student demonstrations in 1986.

France's traditions are especially humanist, and educational choices at the universities once reflected this. But today, interest in specializing in literature or philosophy has waned in favor of mathematics and science, which are considered more critical in the contemporary high-tech world. Interestingly, despite a long-established adulation of writers, the French as a whole are not great readers.