France is the one country of Europe most Americans know best: French has traditionally been the most-studied foreign language in U.S. schools, and French culinary, diplomatic, and literary terms have become a living (and lively) part of the English language. Yet France surprises even the best-prepared visitor, and a review of some facts and historical events may help to explain why.
Big Land, Small Farms For one thing, France astonishes the traveler by its sheer bigness — by Europe standards. In land area, it's the largest country in Western Europe, covering about 212,000 square miles, almost the size of Texas. Half of the land is devoted to agriculture. Until recently, farming was almost the whole basis of the French economy; for 8% of the population, it still is. France is more than self-sufficient in wheat and other staple foods, and its wines and cheeses are renowned the world over.
One peculiarity of French agriculture (which has created problems for the other Common Market countries): most farms are owned by the families who work on them. The average farmstead is relatively small. Huge agricultural combines like the King Ranch in Texas are practically unknown in France. This sometimes makes for inefficiency and higher food prices — but it suits the individualism of French farmers (and the French people in general).
Population: It is relatively small considering the land area: 55 million. The people are spread fairly evenly around the country, not bunched up in mega-cities. Hence, the local traditions and family customs survive. The only cities with a population of 1 million or more are Paris and Marseille. Most "city dwellers "live in medium-size cities like Tours or Rouen, and in hundreds of towns and villages.
Agriculture and Industry The country is made for farming: relatively flat and uniform, with large lowlands and river basins. Only mountainous area: Auvergne and the Alps. Much of the soil is fertile and rich; 40% of it can be farmed. Natural resources too: iron ore and coal. French textiles are among the most famous in Europe; after all, where would the fashion industry in paris get its raw materials? France exports everything from silk to wool to hopsack.
Heavy industry: The most recent addition to the French economy. The French aircraft industry is the most prestigious (French planes did the job for the Israelis during the Six Day War.) French automobile industry: exporting 700,000 cars a year. Major makes: Peugeot, Renault, Dussault, and Citroen.
Gauls and Romans France's geography provides a clue to its history. Unlike many other countries in Europe, France has had fairly standard boundaries throughout its history. No trauma of "national unification" in the 19th century, like Italy and Germany. France has no internal barriers to break it up into separate regions. It's "nature's creation," just made to be a single country. This has given the French a feeling of national unity from the beginning.
France was occupied by the Romans centuries before the birth of Christ. Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars provides a glimpse of primitive tribes living in the area. The expression "Transalpine Gaul" (that part of Gaul "beyond the Alps") was used to refer to the whole of France, as distinguished from "Cisalpine Gaul" (the smaller part of Gaul on "this" side of the Alps, in Northern Italy). There were other, smaller Roman provinces in France too: Aquitania (in the southwest), and Provincia (or modern Provence). But (Transalpine) Gaul was the largest, and the word Gallic is still used to refer to anything French.
Roman influence spread everywhere in France: the Latin language (among educated classes), Roman dress and manners, legal and civic institutions, roman baths, temples, aqueducts, statues, etc. The Roman law became the basis of French law, and even pagan gods were rebaptised as Christian saints. The romans arrived in France earlier than anywhere else in northern Europe, and remained longer; this drew the country into the permanent orbit of "Romance" (Roman-derived) culture, distinguishing it sharply from Germany and England, where Roman rule and influence were shorter-lived.
Knights, Lords, and Louis XIV French history has been made mainly by great personalities, in keeping with the individualism of the French people. Clovis, who ruled the Frankish tribes after the Fall of Rome, introduced Christianity into France. The great Charlemagne patronized learning and codified laws for the first time. Joan of Arc, the "Maid of Orleans," rallied her people against the English in the bloody Hundred Years War. Throughout the Middle Ages, France was nominally ruled by the dynasty of Capet, which later branched out into the Valois and Bourbon dynasties. But French kings always had to contend with individualistic nobles who raised private armies and often banded together to challenge the crown.
It wasn't until the 15th-16th centuries that French kings could impose their authority on the nobles; but when they did, it was with the same freewheeling individualism that marked the behavior of their former rebels. Examples: Francis I, the "chevalier king," who liked to hunt and who built country chateaux like Fontainebleu and Chambord. He was the embodiment of French chivalry and gallantry, who insisted that ladies at court be treated courteously, not in the rough-and-tumble manner of his medieval predecessors. This knightly chivalry eventually became the artificial code of etiquette established by another historic French personality: Louis XIV, the "sun king." Next to Napoleon, he is the leading figure in French history. He thought of himself as a latter-day Roman emperor, and managed during his long reign (1643-1715) to behave like one. His military exploits in the Low Countries and Germany put France at the forefront of Europe's military powers. He patronized artists and playwrights like Moliere, Racine, and Le Brun, making his ear a "splendid century," unrivaled ever since.
Foremost among Louis' accomplishments was the building of Versailles, a palace aped and imitated by the other kings of Europe. Everywhere inside is the emblem of the shining sun, symbol of Louis' glory.
Napoleon to de Gaulle Napoleon is another such personality, with ambitions that kept Europe in turmoil for 15 years. After spectacular military exploits (in Egypt, Austria, Prussia), he found himself at the helm of an empire stretching from the English Channel to the Russian border.
He was also a political genius — an organizer. French law reorganized along Roman lines: Code Napoleon, still the basis of French law (and Louisiana law in the U.S.). Everything form education to commerce was re-examined, reorganized, and put under a central authority in Paris. Under Napoleon, Paris became a bureaucrat's paradise. This pattern of central control from paris has continued, often wiping out local customs. This is really what the student riots of 1968 were all about: a demand that education in France be decentralized, with each university controlling its own affairs. Now at long last, France is doing just this, and not only in education. Still, the fact that Napoleon's innovations stuck for so long reveals the character of the man himself. It is a small wonder that "Napoleon revivals" appear from time to time in fashion and fads, at the very time that the emperor's system is being dismantled.
The more recent of the nation's great personalities: de Gaulle. Like Louis XIV and Napoleon, his personal traits mirrored the larger character of France as a nation. De Gaulle once summed up his life's motto as: "Precision in thought, concision in speech, decision in life." He adhered to that philosophy with uncommon consistency, bringing France out of its postwar doldrums into a new role on the world stage.
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