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  • Writer's pictureSteve Haywood

I Feel Like I Know France…

Of all foreign countries, I feel like France should be the one I know best. Apart from Ireland, it is my nearest neighbour, I have visited it far more than I have any other country, five times in total I think, and my first foreign trip was to France. Admittedly, this was a day trip to the coastal port town of Bolougne when we were staying on England’s south coast and all I can remember about it was munching a French baguette stood on the top deck of the ferry while crossing the English Channel back to England. Still, my first trip it was. Also, for five years at high school I learnt French, not all of it bad. I still remember the excitement of our first French lessons – this was something really fresh and new, we had never done anything like it before. I was also rather fond of that staple of high school French lessons – a game of Lotto (this was way before the National Lottery pinched the name).

As I start to research about the country however, I realise that I know far less than I thought I did. Wasn’t it Socrates that said ‘All that I know is that I know nothing’? If I remember rightly, he thought that admitting your lack of knowledge is the first step on the path to Wisdom. Well, perhaps for me admitting that I know nothing much about France is a start towards actually learning something about what is a very interesting country.

Where in the World?

One of the first things I read as I started to research France was that it was the shape of a Hexagon? Really? I’ve looked at maps of Europe plenty of times, especially Western Europe, surely I would have spotted before if it was shaped like a Hexagon? I reached for my world atlas and… you know, it sort of does look like a hexagon, that or a star shape anyway. If it is a hexagon, then starting in the top right hand corner you’ve got Dunkirk & Lille, then going clockwise round the hex there’s Strasbourg, then Geneva, Nice, Bayonne and finally Brest. There’s no escaping the fact that it’s a big country, arguably the biggest in Europe (this depends on your definition, its France or Ukraine), sitting between the Iberian South, and much of the rest of Europe to the East. It is no wonder France has played such a major role in the region throughout recorded history. The territory of France has also stayed fairly stable for most of the last thousand years when compared to most other countries in continental Europe, some regions have been gained, some have been lost, but the central core of the country spanning the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts has remained intact.

A Very Brief History of France

eiffel tower france

Eiffel Tower, France

France’s recorded history starts of course with the Romans. Before the Romans came the area was populated by three main groups – the Gauls, the Aquitani and the Belgae. The Gauls were the biggest group, and the Romans named the area Gaul. They conquered Gaul in the 2nd and 1st century BC and it became an important part of the Roman Empire, so much so that today France has some of the best Roman remains outside Italy. After Roman fell, the Germanic Franks raided and migrated to the area, eventually giving France its name. The kingdom of the Franks reached its zenith with Charlemagne, one of the few names from this period you might have heard of! Charlemagne united most of Western Europe, and while this union did not last, from its remains, the countries of Europe started to take shape including France. During this time, monarchs called themselves King of the Franks. The first to be called King of France was Phillip II who with victory over England and other European rivals transformed France from a small feudal state to one of biggest and most powerful countries in Europe.

In time, the power of the French kings grew, until from the 16th to the 18th century their rule was more or less absolute as they systematically reduced the power of the nobility. This, along with a rise of the merchant class in the 18th century led to one of the most important events in European history: the French Revolution. The monarchy was overthrown, a republic put in its place, and the king, Louis XVI, was beheaded (a move condemned around the world). Most Revolutionary movements since then have looked to the French Revolution  as their example, and as such it has had a huge influence on history around the world that can scarcely be measured. Out of the Revolutionary wars came Napoleon Bonaparte who had imperial ambitions which saw France come to dominate the European mainland in away none had since the Romans. He is widely considered one of the greatest military leaders in history, and almost made it too, but was ultimately defeated by their long time rivals the British at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The first half of the 20th century saw them taking the brunt of German aggression in two world wars, but ultimately were on the winning side in both. After the second world war, France and their foe Germany became founder members of the European Union, between them shepherding in a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity for Europe that lasts to this day.

What is France Famous For?

France Cheese and Wine

Cheese & Wine from France

France is one of those countries where I can’t name everything they are famous for, I’d be here forever. In its capital Paris, it has one of the truly great cities of the world, with huge monuments, magnificent galleries and museums and a reputation for being a romantic, bohemian destination. Throughout the country there are many grand cathedrals, huge monasteries and wonderful country churches, as well as palaces and chateau’s a plenty. France is packed with many famous people, not least its great artists – Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, the list goes on. France’s contribution to the artists isn’t limited to historic painters either, the Cannes film festival is arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world.

The above may all be very true, but arguably what France is most famous for is its food and its wine. French cuisine is often considered the best and most refined in the world, and dishes like Boeuf bourguignon, Ratatouille, Tarte Tatin and many others have transcended their French origin to become dishes of the whole world. It’s not just gourmet restaurant food however, in my opinion at least France has some of the best cheeses in the world – it has certainly got a lot of them anyway with estimates ranging from the hundreds to the (more likely) thousands. The perfect accompaniment to a good cheese is a fine wine, and France has these in abundance. It generally tops all lists about wine – biggest wine producer, best wines, most wine drunk per person, the French really are good at their wine. From a rich, deep Bordeaux red to the sparkling Champagne, the French have it all. What’s more, if you go to France wine is so cheap, why wouldn’t you drink lots of it? (But please drink responsibly!)

I Didn’t Know That About France

“‘In liberty, we are the advance-guard of nations. In language, we are still at the Tower of Babel” – Abbe Gregoire

One of the most remarkable tidbits I’ve learned about France is just how rural and remote much of France was, up until the early 20th century. Many villages in central France were effectively enclaves, cut off from the rest of the country and not even speaking French. A villager from one village could walk to a different village in the next valley only a few miles away and they wouldn’t be able to understand each other. In 1880, a survey of the country identified that only about 8 million people were comfortable speaking French, about one fifth of the population, and many couldn’t speak it at all. France was a patchwork of different languages – and to some extent still is – with languages such as Breton, Occitan, Catalan, Basque, Franco-Provencal, Alsatian and more. Within these language group there were many sub-languages and dialects.

If you are interested in reading more about this, I recommend ‘The Discovery of France’ by Graham Robb.

Image credits

Eiffel Tower By Waithamai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons Cheese & Wine By Traaf. – Own work., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link


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