Author Steve Wright describes the history, culture, art, food and economy of France, and also takes a look at particular regions
France has contributed more than any other country to the history of art over the past 200 years. Paris is self-evidently the city to go and be an artist and meet others of like mind, and every major movement from Impressionism to Dadaism has had its engine room there. Artists have flocked there from all over the world to stay up late debating the Future of Art over a pastis at a Montmartre café, and three Paris museums will give you a good account of the city's rich heritage. The Louvre has an enormous collection of art across the centuries: the Musee d'Orsay is the place to head for lovers of the Impressionism of Monet, Degas et al; while if it's the later, Modernist movements like Surrealism and Futurism you're after, you're best off heading to the stylish Centre Georges Pompidou.
As one of the strongest elements in the EU, with a still-thriving agriculture and many cutting-edge industries, France has been central to the ever-increasing economic growth in Europe since the end of the Second World War. A member of the G8 group of leading industrialized countries, France ranked as the fifth-largest economy in the world in 2003, behind the US, Japan, Germany and the UK. Along with 10 other EU members, France was at the launch of the Euro on January 1 1999, with euro coins and banknotes replacing the French franc in early 2002.
In 2003 France was the world's fifth-largest exporter, behind the US, Germany, Japan and China, and fourth-largest importer, behind the US, Germany and China. It also received the largest percentage of foreign international investment.
France has an important aerospace industry, centred on Toulouse and led by Airbus, and it even has its own national space centre, in the Paris suburbs. It's pretty self-sufficient in energy terms, due to a strong nuclear power industry – making it, also, the smallest producer of carbon dioxide among the world's leading industrial nations.
The government retains considerable influence over key segments of infrastructure sectors, with majority ownership of railway, electricity, aircraft, and telecommunication firms. It has been gradually relaxing its control over these sectors, however, and is slowly selling off its holdings in France Telecom, Air France and the insurance, banking and defence industries.
Since the end of WWII the government has integrated increasingly with Germany, both economically and politically. Today the two countries form a central 'core' of countries in favour of greater European integration.
The French take their food seriously, and a slice of quiche from a bakery will often taste as if it's come from a cordon bleu kitchen. The French are not squeamish about what they eat, so prepare to meet tripe and pigs' trotters on menus everywhere: take along a dictionary if you want to be sure you know what you've ordered. More common menu staples include such meaty delicacies as veal, entrecote (steak) and especially duck. It's still a difficult country in which to be a vegetarian, especially in the rich, meaty cuisine of the southwest.
Wherever you go, experiment with sauces - a French speciality - and be sure to try the coffee (on the strong side), croissants, pastries, brioches, jams, cheeses (more than 250 kinds), oysters and truffles. Oh, and cheese: France produces over 450 varieties!
Lunch is served between noon and 2 pm (the French traditionally eat their main meal at midday), and if you wait any later, you may well go hungry. Dinner is served from 7:30 pm onward.
If you're looking for a meal on the road, look for a 'routier', a sort of glorified French truck stop. The decor may not be stylish, but French truckers know about good food. Many routiers have long tables, and the food is served boarding-house style. You will get an excellent three- or four-course lunch with wine, water and coffee for half what you might pay elsewhere.
France is not a country for snacking, and even cheap cafeteria meals include two or three courses. Most restaurants (from the bottom end of the scale up to the most glitzy) will have a 'menu du jour'. Children are always welcome, too, even in the most upscale restaurants (ask for the menu d'enfant).
Political debate is a French cultural sport, a national past-time. In two centuries, France has had several experiments in government, including five republics and two imperial dictatorships.
Now the country has both a President and a Prime Minister. The French regime is parliamentary, i.e. the elected representatives nominate and dismiss the government and its Prime Minister. The President, on the other hand, is elected every five years directly by the people, and is granted all the powers of the Head of State of a presidential regime, including the power to dissolve the National Assembly – the lower house of the French Parliament. He also names the prime minister, presides over the cabinet, commands the armed forces, and concludes treaties.
The President is therefore a dual character: he's the representative of the nation and able to stand above party rivalries, not unlike our own monarchy; at the same time, he's a politician and party leader. The Prime Minister on the other hand is appointed to carry out policies which have been decided by the President, so that the latter can keep his prestige safe from the hubbub of politics. The government has a strong influence in shaping the agenda of Parliament. The National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale) is the principal legislative body, and its deputies, like the President, are directly elected to five-year terms, and all seats are voted on in each election. The Assembly has the power to dismiss the cabinet, and thus the majority in the Assembly determines the choice of government.
If the Assemblée is France's House of Commons, then the Senate, while in no way hereditary, can in some ways be likened to the House of Lords. Senators are chosen by an electoral college for six-year terms, and, from 2007, one half of the Senate will be renewed every three years. The Senate's legislative powers are limited; the National Assembly has the last word in the event of a disagreement between the two houses, except for constitutional amendments.
Local government comprises three levels: regions, which elect assemblies and executives; departments, which have an elected council; and communes, which have an elected council and a mayor. A commune can vary in size from a small village to a large city. For the last 30 years, French politics have been characterised by the opposition of two political groups: one left-wing, centred around the Parti Socialiste; the other right-wing, centred around the UMP. Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right Front National, advocating tougher law-and-order and immigration policies, has made inroads since the early 1980s and seems to remain stable at around 16% of the votes.
Recently, government has alternated between left-and right-wing coalitions. Problems in the 'banlieues' - deprived suburban housing projects, with a high proportion of North African residents, on the edges of Paris, Lyon and other major cities - still have to be successfully tackled. Le Pen's relative success at the 2002 election has been attributed largely to concerns about juvenile crime and a breakdown of law and order in the banlieues. History A brief history of France should probably begin with Charlemagne (742-814), leader of the Carolingians, Holy Roman Emperor and the man responsible for the expansion of the Frankish kingdom over much of western Europe. An able military leader, Charlemagne was also a great supporter of education and the arts, and his kingdom blossomed under his rule.
The next major date is 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and was crowned king of his new land on Christmas Day. Subsequently, the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II in 1152 yielded most of western France to Britain. It was Edward III's claim to the French throne that started the Hundred Years' War in 1337, but, with the help of a French peasant girl, Joan of Arc, Charles VIII emerged victorious and drove the English back to Calais.
Francois I strengthened France during the early 16th century, welcoming artists like Leonardo da Vinci to his capital, Paris, and promoting the Renaissance style of art and architecture. Later that century, though, there was much infighting between the country's Huguenots (Protestants) and Catholics. The 17th century was a golden age for France, as Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu transformed the feudal system to an absolute monarchy. Louis XIV, a.k.a. the Sun King, strengthened his own power by keeping all the local princes and lords occupied with court life at Versailles, his sumptuous palace just outside Paris, which even today is one of the most ornate and eye-catching buildings in the world. It was a good time to be a writer, as witness the oft-performed classical dramas of Racine, Molière and Corneille and the epic literature of Rabelais. The eighteenth century was the so-called Age of Enlightenment, in which philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau began to question the old regime, the aristocracy and the monarchy, urging instead a liberal society with free commerce, and the abolition of the class system.
In 1789 the crisis came to a head: on 14 July, a Parisian mob revolted and stormed the Bastille prison, which was seen as a symbol of political oppression. The French revolution had begun. On August 26, 1789 the revolutionaries issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man with its central tenets 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité' ('Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood'), with the aiming of putting an end to the hated class system. During the Revolution, Louis XVI was guillotined, along with scores of moderates and radicals. The Revolution came to an end in 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte entered Paris and was crowned First Consul. In 1804 he took the title of emperor Napoleon I. He took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his head himself, thereby directly challenging the authority of the church. A military genius, Napoleon expanded his empire as far east as Russia, where he was eventually defeated in 1812, and again three years later at Waterloo in Belgium. After a troubled period, Louis Philippe was elected king in 1830, and his eighteen-year rule was a relatively prosperous one: in 1848 Napoleon's nephew Louis Napoleon was elected first president of the Second Republic. He later commissioned Baron Haussmann to redesign Paris in its distinctive present shape, all wide boulevards and impressive vistas, and started the French industrial revolution. The nineteenth century in France is also renowned for its cultural contributions, including the paintings of the Impressionists, the Art Nouveau style, and a quartet of great realist novelists in Flaubert, Stendhal, Balzac and Zola (see below).
During the Entre-Deux-Guerres ('between the wars') period, France played a leading role in the avant-garde movement, attracting artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the world, but the country's chief twentieth-century moment was probably its concerted resistance to the Germans in WWII, organized by General Charles de Gaulle, himself largely in exile in London. The French resistance held out until the end of the war from its bases in southern and eastern France. Landscapes France's landscapes are incredibly versatile, from the wild, rocky coasts of Brittany to the lavender-clad limestone hills of Provence, from the snow-white Alpine peaks to the gentle prosperous farmland of the Loire, Burgundy or the Dordogne.
France's major mountain ranges are concentrated in the south and east of the country: of these, the best-known is the Alps, the highest of all and a skier's paradise (France has western Europe's highest mountain in the shape of Mont Blanc at 4807m, although Italy is just at the foot of the mountain) and the Pyrenees, the long range which forms the border with Spain, fantastic for hill-walking. Elsewhere, the Jura and the Vosges in the east of the country are largely forested areas, both rich in wildlife; the Ardennes on the Belgian border are a lower, hillier range, and another naturalist's paradise; while the Massif Central, as its name suggests, is in the central spine of the country, a remote, rugged and atmospheric range, again thickly forested and sliced by numerous rivers and lakes. Literature Here again, France's position in the world league table is very respectable. The dramatists Racine, Moliere and Corneille started the ball rolling in the seventeenth century, though on different themes – Moliere's plays are for most part high-spirited farces, while Racine's and Corneille's tend to be epic and classically-inspired.
In the nineteenth century, the Realist novel was all the rage, and the French team of Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert and Hugo was a worthy rival to the Russians Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev. Zola's 'Rougon-Macquart' cycle, in particular, is a huge sweep of Parisian life in the late nineteenth century, while Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary' is an amazingly atmospheric portrait of life in stifling 1840s rural Normandy, and for many people one of the best insights into young womanhood – albeit written by a man. In the last century, two key figures were Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, the twin fathers of existentialism, an essentially gloomy philosophy that seems curiously out of keeping with the renowned French joie de vivre. People and Politics France has a fairly broad ethnic mix – 13 per cent of the population is made up of immigrants, with a strong population of north Africans from its old colonies in Morocco and Algeria. Relations between these and indigenous French people are not always good: there are sporadic outbursts of racist activity, including anti-Semitic incidents, as well as continuing discrimination both socially and professionally. Possibly a cause of the trouble or merely a symptom of it, France has one of the best-supported right-wing political parties in Europe, with an openly racist ideology.
In terms of movement the other way, some 1.7 million French people live outside the country, with over half of those elsewhere in Europe, a quarter in North America and 11% in Africa. Places to see France receives over seventy-seven million tourists each year making it one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. The palace at Versailles is always teeming with visitors as are the great châteaux of the Loire Valley.
As border regions, Alsace and Lorraine have been fought over for centuries by France and Germany, their beleaguered past recalled by many a military stronghold and cemetery: the region has changed nationality four times since 1871.Today, though, its landscape of pastel-painted villages, fortified towns and sleepy vineyards is as peaceful as any other, and in historic Strasbourg it boasts one of the country's most elegant old towns, and a major centre for the new Europe.
If you're after something a little wilder, Brittany, jutting defiantly into the Atlantic, has long been culturally and geographically distinct from the rest of France. With a past full of legends of drowned cities and Arthurian forests, and a wealth of ancient and prehistoric monuments, Brittany is one of the country's most atmospheric regions. There are also some wonderful beaches along its northern shore, with some pretty, authentic fishing ports like St Malo and Dinard. Fish and seafood are the obvious choice here, and Breton oysters are second to none.
The prosperous region of Burgundy considers itself the heart of France – although it was for centuries a separate kingdom – and is blessed with world-famous wines, some excellent cuisine and magnificent architecture. It's a wealthy region, and a centre of medieval religious faith, as witness the fine abbeys and monasteries at Vézelay, Fontenay and Cluny. Dijon is a vibrant university city, filled with old Burgundian palaces and great art.
The Loire region is renowned for its sumptuous châteaux, the relics of royal days gone by, and the beautiful sluggish river which runs through the region and gives it its name. The region's food and wine, including Loire salmon, rillettes (potted pork) and the white wines of Sancerre, Saumur and Vouvray, is deservedly well-known, though not perhaps on a par with other foodie centres such as Burgundy or the south-west. Of the cities, Orleans was France's intellectual capital in the 13th century, attracting artists, poets and troubadours to the royal court. Tours is France's Oxford, a fine old university city where (or so the locals will tell you) the purest French is spoken. Chambord and Chenonceaux, the latter straddling the river majestically, are the pick of the châteaux. Amboise, Blois, Saumur and Beaugency are all picturesque historic towns.
On the south coast, Marseille is packed full of character, a huge, bustling port with a very diverse ethnic make-up – much of France's North African population is centred in the city. Marseille guards its warm, Mediterranean identity fiercely against the perceived northern snobbishness of, say, Paris or Lyon. Normandy The quintessential image of Normandy is of a lush, pastoral region of apple orchards and contented cows, cider and pungent cheese – but the region also spans the windswept beaches of the Cotentin and the wooded banks of the Seine valley.Highlights include the great abbey churches of Caen, the mighty island of Mont-St-Michel and Monet's garden at Giverny. Its capital, Rouen, is another cultured cathedral city.
Paris is, deservedly, many people's favourite city, a worthy capital of fine arts and fine living. The Champs Elysées is a uniquely impressive thoroughfare; not far away, the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré has for a century been the centre of Paris' renowned fashion industry. The Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World Fair, is a graceful, iron structure, one of the most recognisable pieces of architecture in the world: you can stop off at the first and second platforms, or climb up to the top for some breathtaking views.
Perched on a high hill north of the city centre, Montmartre remains a contained and only slightly sullied throwback to a bygone era, with winding streets, ivy-clad houses with gardens, artists' studios, quiet streets, cafés and squares giving a village-style atmosphere. It's easy to see what drew famous painters, sculptors and poets like Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani and Utrillo here. South of the river, the Latin Quarter, centred around the stylish, relaxed Jardin du Luxembourg park, is associated with artists, intellectuals and bohemian life, largely due to the thousands of students that live in the neighbourhood.
Much of Toulouse, the south-west's largest city, is built in a soft pinkish brick that has given the city its nickname 'La Ville Rose'. It's also a dynamic city these days, home to a huge university, centre of the French aerospace industry and the capital of the regional Occitan language and culture.
French wine is now rivalled by regions like Australia, California and Chile, but for many people remains the best the world can offer in both red and white. In France, the wine industry holds nearly as much intrigue and influence as politics: when one of Bordeaux's foremost producers, Chateau Giscours, was accused of adding cheap wine to its better vintages, the scandal was front-page news. 2003, incidentally, was reckoned to be one of the best vintages for many years.
The four chief wine-producing regions are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône and Champagne. The Bordeaux vineyard is centred around the port city of Bordeaux – twinned with its cross-channel likeness, Bristol – the Gironde estuary, and the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. Chief vineyards include Graves and Saint Emilion, both richly flavoured reds.
The Burgundy vineyards cover a narrow strip of land on the eastern slopes of the hills around Dijon. The most famous brands are the reds, the best of which can keep for a good 20 to 30 years. However, Burgundy also produces some top quality whites.
The Côtes du Rhône region runs for over 200 kilometres down the Rhône river valley in south-eastern France, from the second city Lyon to the Mediterranean coast. The region has plenty of highly-praised smaller growing areas such as, Hermitage and Chateauneuf du Pape, near Avignon, but the majority of its wine is sold under the generic appellations 'Côtes du Rhône' or 'Côtes du Rhône Villages'.
Champagne is the most northern of France's major vineyards. Champagnes are blended in order to produce either non-vintage or vintage champagnes – the latter blended from wines of the same harvest. The well-known brands here are Krug, Mumm, Bollinger, Heidsieck, and Moët & Chandon. A wine must be produced in the region to call itself champagne. A note on etiquette: the correct way to open a champagne cork is to ease it very gently out of the bottle, rather than imitating an F1 racing driver and spraying the contents all over one's guests.
The Jura, Languedoc, Loire valley and the Medoc, to the northwest of Bordeaux, are also major wine-producing areas, the latter home to some of France's most prestigious wines like Saint Estèphe and Margaux.