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Among the countries of Europe, France ranks third in size behind Russia and Ukraine. France is a highly complex and diverse land. It includes a wide range of natural environments, cultural backgrounds, and economic activities that present an ever-changing perspective to the observing traveler.

The diversity begins with the French landscape itself, broken by extensive highlands that include the Alps and their highest peak, Mont Blanc, and descending into lush, fertile valleys and level plains. France's area of more than 210,000 square miles (543,000 square kilometers) includes the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea.

France faces the major seas of Europe the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean. It lies across the English Channel from England and shares boundaries with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Andorra, and Spain. France has thus been open to ideas, immigrants, and invasions from many directions, and its own culture, products, and philosophies have spread throughout the world.

A major manufacturing country that employs some of the world's most advanced technology, France is also Europe's most important agricultural nation, providing wheat, wine, and other products to the world. The French language ranks second only to English in international use; and the nation's great cultural vitality gives it an international importance far exceeding its size or population. Liberal political traditions, with emphasis on human rights and national independence, make France a leader in world affairs.

France has many visible traces of its richly varied past. Beginning with the Stone Age monuments at Carnac and the cave paintings of Lascaux, artists have recorded the flow of centuries down to some of today's most advanced creative expressions. The French people have also molded almost every part of the country, creating the hedgerows of Normandy, the vast open fields of the Paris Basin, and the miles of carefully tended vineyards in many regions. This humanization of the landscape has sometimes gone against nature, resulting in deforestation, bleak mining areas, and high levels of air and water pollution. Today, however, France is committed to protecting and restoring both its natural environment and its rich cultural heritage.

Reference is often made in this article to the historical provinces of France, which include such well-known names as Brittany (Bretagne), Burgundy (Bourgogne), Normandy, Provence, and Champagne.




France is composed of a number of distinctive natural units, many of which have a complicated geologic history and form a pattern of great variety. The country's landscapes vary from flat, almost featureless plains to Mont Blanc, which spreads across the border of France and Italy, rising to 15,771 feet (4,807 meters) in the glorious French Alps.

Northern France, particularly the region of Ile-de-France and its margins, is dominated by the Paris Basin. This vast surface, which appears very flat in many places, has been compared to a series of saucers of decreasing size stacked one inside the other. There are gently sloping surfaces toward the interior, and steep slopes on the outer edges. Paris is in the center of the basin, and the outward-facing ridges, composed primarily of resistant limestone, have historically provided strong defensive lines to the east. The ridges form rugged chalk cliffs along the English Channel to the west. To the north, the Paris Basin blends into the plains of Flanders and northwestern Europe. The Ardennes and Vosges mountains to the northeast and east are part of a zone extending beyond the Rhine River through central Germany.

To the west, much older rocks, mainly granites and schists, form the Massif Armoricain of Brittany and the Cotentin Peninsula of Normandy. In the southwest, the Paris Basin is connected by a low threshold, called the Gate of Poitou, to the other large lowland region in France, the Aquitaine Basin. Along the Bay of Biscay, Aquitaine has many areas of sandy soil and some of France's flattest surfaces. The south-central part of France is dominated by a large area of uplands, mostly of volcanic origin, known as the Massif Central and including the regions of Limousin and Auvergne. This area is dotted with peaks rising from 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800 meters), which impede communications and economic activity.




Some of Europe's most imposing mountains border France to the southeast and southwest. East of the Massif Central, beyond the Rhone-Saone corridor, the linear folded ridges of the Jura mountain range give way to the Alps. In France, the Alps begin at the Mediterranean, where they are called the Maritime Alps, and extend northward before turning east and entering Switzerland and northern Italy. The French Alps, though high, rugged, and complex, were heavily glaciated, particularly in their northern section. As a result, they have broad valleys and provide relatively easy access deep into the range's interior.

The Pyrenees Mountains, which rise between France and Spain, are not as high as the Alps, but in some ways they are more impressive. The Pyrenees were formed from a single block of the Earth's crust, thrust upward with the steeper face toward France. They were only slightly glaciated, and so are less accessible than the Alps. Only a few difficult passes cut through the central portions of this range. Pic de Vignemale, which has a height of 10,820 feet (3,298 meters), is the highest peak in the French Pyrenees, but elevations exceed 11,000 feet (3,350 meters) on the Spanish side. East of the Rhone River, the Mediterranean coast is rough and indented where the Alps extend to the sea. West of the Rhone the broad, fertile plain of Languedoc extends southward from outlying formations of the Massif Central.




Most of France is drained by five major river systems. Perhaps the most famous French river is the Seine, which rises in Burgundy, flows through Paris, and empties into the English Channel at Le Havre. With its major tributaries, especially the Marne, Oise, and Eure rivers, it drains most of the Paris Basin and upper Normandy and is an important waterway to and from Paris (see Seine River).

The Loire River, which has the largest drainage basin of any river entirely in France, rises in the Massif Central. Such tributaries as the Cher, Vienne, and Sarthe rivers enter the Loire before it flows into the Atlantic below Nantes (see Loire River).

The Rhine River, which rises in the Swiss Alps and enters the North Sea in The Netherlands, forms the boundary between France and Germany. Most of Alsace and Lorraine is drained by the Rhine or its major tributaries, the Moselle and Meuse.

The Rhone, another stream with its headwaters in Switzerland, is the major river of southeastern France. Joined by such tributaries as the Saone and Isere rivers, the Rhone drains southern Burgundy, the French Jura, and much of the French Alps before entering the Mediterranean through a delta just west of Marseilles (see Rhone River).

The fifth major French river, the Garonne, drains the southwestern regions. Rising in the Pyrenees and flowing northward, it receives tributaries from both the Massif Central the Lot and Dordogne rivers and the Pyrenees the Ariege River. The Garonne drains much of the Aquitaine Basin before entering the Atlantic north of Bordeaux through a wide estuary known as the Gironde.









Tourism ranks as one of France's leading industries. The country has a variety of landscapes and climates unmatched in Europe. These features, together with an abundance of historical and cultural sites, artistic and architectural treasures, recreational facilities, and the nation's famous foods and wines, have made France a favorite of tourists from North America and other parts of Europe. Increasing numbers of travelers from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are visiting France. In 1991 foreign tourists spent some 9 billion dollars more in France than French travelers spent abroad.

The French travel widely within their own country as well. The introduction of paid vacations for industrial workers, beginning in the late 1930s, led to a boom in family tourism. Today most French workers receive four or five weeks of paid vacation annually, and such regions as Brittany and Languedoc profit from low-budget family tourism. Many wealthier city residents have second homes, either in places from which their families once migrated or in desirable vacation districts. Many of these homes are used for retirement as well as for holiday sites during the owners' working years.

For international travelers, as for many French people from throughout the country, Paris remains the greatest attraction. The capital's artistic and cultural attractions, its famous shops and restaurants, the color and animation of its many districts, and such world-famous symbols as the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre, and the Georges Pompidou Center make Paris one of the most visited places in the world (see Paris).

Next to Paris in popularity is the Mediterranean coast, especially the Provence-Cote d'Azur section, which includes part of the French Riviera. Sheltered by the Alps, the Riviera first became popular in the 1860s as a winter resort for wealthy visitors, mainly tourists from England. Its fame grew steadily, and today it is known especially as a summer resort area.

The mountainous areas of France, particularly the Rhone-Alpes region, have also had a dramatic rise in tourist income during recent years, largely because of increasing interest in winter sports. People once visited the mountains mainly in summer for health reasons, but these areas now benefit from almost a year-round season, and such resorts as Chamonix and Morzine are internationally famous.


Transportation and Communication


Transportation. Transport systems have long been vital to France, serving to unite the nation in an administrative sense while promoting the growth of regional economies and linking the country to the rest of Europe and to the world. Paris has always been the hub of French transportation.

The Industrial Revolution brought innovations in transportation to France. For example, a complex system of canals was built, connecting many navigable rivers and providing low-cost water transport for products of the mines and factories.

The railroad age began while the canal-building era was at its height. The first French line began operating in 1827, between St.-Etienne and Andrezieux, and steel rails soon linked most parts of the country. By 1934 France had 33,282 miles (53,561 kilometers) of railways. Most of the main lines were built in a radial pattern, with Paris at the center, thus reinforcing the importance of the capital. Paris continued to grow and prosper at a remarkable rate because people had difficulty traveling between any two points in France without passing through the capital. Also, rail lines made it easier for rural people displaced by the Industrial Revolution to migrate to Paris than to any other city.

The appearance of the automobile just before 1900, and the airplane a few years later, added new perspectives to transportation. Highways, duplicating the earlier railway patterns, radiated in all directions from Paris, and the distance to any point in France was calculated from the front steps of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Air transportation to and from the airfield at Le Bourget, near Paris, began in 1919.

Today, French transportation systems are changing to cope with three problems: rapid technological change, the obsolete condition of many earlier systems, and increasing pressure to reduce the dependency of the entire nation on Paris. Although lagging behind several other European countries, France has, since about 1960, embarked on a major program of superhighway construction. Many of the new highways have necessarily duplicated the older ones centered on Paris, but engineers have made great efforts to enable travelers to go to and from other parts of France without passing through the capital.

Rail traffic has declined, as it has in nearly every country, but is still important in France. The high-speed TGV travels between Paris and Lyon in only two hours, compared with four hours for conventional service, and the TGV service is being expanded to other lines as well. Air travel has also increased enormously. Traffic at Paris is divided among the airport at Orly, south of the city, and Charles de Gaulle, to the northeast, in Roissy. With Le Bourget, which today handles only charter flights, these airports accommodated a total of about 30 million passengers per year in the early 1980s, making Paris the second busiest European air travel center after London. Paris is also the airfreight capital of Europe, handling about 625,000 tons of cargo in 1981. Other major international airports include those at Marseilles, Nice, Lyon, Lille, and Strasbourg.


Communication. There are about 80 daily newspapers in France. The government, which controls radio and television broadcasting, taxes owners of television sets and radios. One of the nation's television channels broadcasts educational and cultural programs, another features entertainment and sports, and a third also offers films, as well as other programs. The radio stations are France Musique, France Culture, and France Inter. The French motion-picture industry is also supervised by the government.




The National Government


France is governed under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, which went into effect on Oct. 4, 1958, and has since been revised. The chief of state, the president, holds an extremely powerful position, making the French government different from those in most European parliamentary democracies. Based on the conceptions of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, a World War II hero who later became president, the executive branch wields much of the effective authority in the country. The president is elected by the people to a seven-year term and can be reelected an unlimited number of times, assuring a certain stability for the government. The president appoints the prime minister, five ministers of state, 29 other ministers, and nine secretaries of state. The numbers of ministers and secretaries of state may vary.

The legislative branch of the government is a parliament that consists of two houses, the National Assembly, also called the Chamber of Deputies, and the Senate. The National Assembly, the more important house, has 491 members, called deputies, and there are 316 senators. Both houses include representatives from overseas dependencies.


Administrative divisions. The basic administrative units of France are its 22 metropolitan regions, many of which have the names of the historical provinces whose areas they often approximate, and the 96 departments within the regions. The departments, generally named for rivers, mountains, and other local natural features, were established at the time of the French Revolution to replace the provinces of the monarchy. Executive powers at the regional and departmental levels are in Regional Assemblies and General Councils, respectively. The people elect the members of both these units. Departments are divided into arrondissements (wards), cantons (districts), and the smallest units of government, called communes (parishes). There are about 36,400 communes, many with extremely small populations.

The French Republic also includes five overseas departments French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion, and St. Pierre and Miquelon and four overseas territories French Polynesia, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, and the Wallis and Futuna Islands. Mayotte is a special collectivity.

In recent times the French have become aware that perhaps they have too many levels of administration for responsive government and that the sizes of the units are often too small to respond effectively to modern demands. As a result, many of the functions of the arrondissements and cantons are gradually being eliminated, and the smallest communes are being urged to merge into larger units.


Regional policy. The major goal of French government policy through the centuries has been the centralization of power. Faced with constant threats and challenges from rebellious dukes and other members of the nobility in various provinces, the monarchy strove to concentrate authority and to control the two keys to success, military power and economic decision making. Because Paris has been the capital since the 13th century, much of this drive for centralization has tended to promote the growth and prosperity of that city at the expense of outlying regions and provincial cities.

Although the French Revolution specifically aimed to destroy the ancient provincial system, it retained the concept of a strongly centralized administration, establishing the departments, each with a governing official called a prefect, that were controlled by Paris. The result of this system, which is still in effect, has been that Paris became an unwieldy city with about 20 percent of the national population, while many outlying regions remained provincial backwaters. They relied on Paris for the smallest decisions and lacked a voice in their own destinies.

In response to increasing regional demands for greater autonomy in local matters, the government in 1970 created the 22 administrative regions. Although still forced to deal with the traditional tendency of the Parisian bureaucracy toward centralization, the regions have become strong units with many local powers. Most importantly, they can establish policies involving many financial considerations. An increasing number of activities in France are based on decisions made by regional authorities.


Political parties. Political life in France is as colorful and varied as most other aspects of the national culture. Major parties range across the political spectrum from liberal to conservative, parties change their names and often their directions, and new ideas often generate new parties, rather than simply being absorbed by existing ones.

France has four major political alliances. On the right are the conservative Gaullists, associated mainly with the Rally for the Republic. A more centrist, or moderate, group, whose factions are grouped in the Union for French Democracy, promotes the programs of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. On the left, the Socialist party is the more moderate group. The French Communist party, with traditional support from industrial workers, takes more radical positions. Some smaller parties fill the gaps between the major ones, and others represent the extreme left and extreme right. Special interest groups, such as environmentalists and women's rights advocates, have their own parties.

The Fifth Republic was dominated by the basically conservative political philosophies of its founder, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, and his successors Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d'Estaing until 1981. That year the Socialists won a majority of seats in the National Assembly and Francois Mitterrand became president. This was the first time since the 1930s that the Socialists had been in power in France. They governed with the help of the Communists and the Movement of the Radicals of the Left.


International Relations


In keeping with its long tradition of international involvement, France plays a leading role in world affairs, often exercising considerable influence. France is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and is one of only five nations with veto power over decisions of that body. The nation is also a member of nearly all other United Nations agencies, as well as of numerous other international bodies. France was one of the founding members of the European Economic Community, participating actively in early unification efforts during the 1950s. (See also European Union; United Nations.)

On the other hand, France has always been concerned with maintaining an independent role in the world and pursuing its own interests regardless of the positions of allies and friends. For example, France withdrew from the military affairs of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which it helped found, because it was unwilling to subject French defense decisions to international control. France also refused to sign the nuclear test ban treaty.

France has three major goals in international relations. The nation tries to promote peace and stability in Europe while ensuring its prominent role on the Continent. France also works to ensure stability in the Middle East, the source of most of its energy supply, and to serve as an alternative to the superpowers in military and economic aid to this and other sensitive regions. In addition, France seeks to consolidate its influence in former colonial possessions, especially in North and West Africa, again on a basis of mutual advantage. The French are aided in pursuit of these goals by the international stature of their language, their long reputation as skilled diplomats, and their independent stance in world affairs.




Relics discovered by archaeologists show that people have lived in the land of France since the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers. The Romans defeated tribes of Celts when they conquered Gaul in 58-51 BC. During five centuries of Roman rule these peoples absorbed many civilized ways. In Roman cities of the south they dressed like the Romans, spoke the Latin tongue, and learned to respect Roman law. Gauls served in the Roman legions and returned home over Roman roads to teach the new ways. Christianity spread from Rome to Gaul and was widely adopted as early as the 4th century. (See also Celts.)


The Merovingian and Carolingian Kings


With the decline of the Roman Empire German tribes invaded Gaul and other parts of the Roman world. The Franks under Clovis from 481 to 511 dominated the other tribes and established Frankish rule over much of the land. Clovis' adoption of Christianity led to the conversion of all who served him.

The Merovingian Dynasty, founded by Clovis, ruled for 300 years, while the cities and culture of Rome nearly disappeared. A new dynasty the Carolingians gained power as court officials. Charles Martel of this line led the armies that turned back an invasion of Muslim Arabs from Spain. This battle between Poitiers and Tours kept Islam from Christian Europe. (See also Clovis; Charles Martel.)

The greatest of the Carolingians was Charlemagne, who ruled not only France but most of Western Europe as well. He became a supporter of the Christian church and was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by the pope in Rome on Christmas Day, 800. (See also Charlemagne.)


The Feudal Era


Charlemagne's empire fell into three separate parts after his death. The western section became the kingdom of France. The word kingdom meant little, for the spread of the feudal system distributed the power of government and protection among local rulers. The king was left with little but nominal overlordship. (See also Feudalism; Knighthood.)

Weak kings could not protect their country from invasion. In the 9th century the Northmen invaded a region in the northwest and established the duchy of Normandy. In 1066 its ruler, William the Conqueror, vanquished England. Thus the feeble kings had as feudal vassals the powerful rulers of another country.


The Middle Ages


French kings, feudal lords, and knights were at the forefront in the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Many lost their lives trying to rescue the holy city of Jerusalem from the Muslims. (See also Crusades.)

In spite of political disunity, the Middle Ages was a time of cultural progress. Architecture advanced as nobles built their great fortress-castles and growing towns erected beautiful churches. Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals are the glory of France today. Artists and craftsmen brought the stories of the Bible to the illiterate worshipers through sculpture and stained glass. Music also served the church. (See also Middle Ages; Architecture; Sculpture.)

The University of Paris attracted scholars from all over Europe to study theology, philosophy, and the sciences. The scholars wrote their treatises in Latin, but the poets of the day sang in the developing French tongue. Minstrels recited the adventures of the knights and crusaders in chansons de geste (verse chronicles), and troubadours chanted verses of courtly love. (See also French Literature.)

In the 12th and 13th centuries progress toward strengthening the monarchy was made under Philip Augustus, or Philip II (1180-1223), Louis IX (1226-70), and Philip IV (1285-1314). In 1302 Philip IV called the first Estates-General, the predecessor to Parliament. (See also Estates-General; Louis, Kings of France.)


Joan of Arc Saves France


France was weak and disorganized when the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) began. This war was brought about when the English king pressed his rights to the French crown. The war was nearly lost until a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, led the troops to victory. (See also Hundred Years' War; Joan of Arc.)

France recovered swiftly and prospered. The cities grew and gained strength as trade flourished. Able kings, such as Louis XI (ruled 1461-83), continued the struggle to bring the powerful feudal domains into their kingdoms. Territory changed hands through plots, wars, marriages, and inheritances.


Religious Wars and a Strong Monarchy


Francis I (ruled 1515-47) strengthened the monarchy and gave it grandeur. He patronized the arts. He encouraged the discovery and exploration in America that was to bring France an empire in the New World. He also involved France in the rivalries of Europe, however, and wasted its wealth in fruitless wars for Italian territory. (See also Francis I.)

The spread of Protestantism led to bitter wars between Roman Catholics and Huguenots in the 16th century. Peace came when Henry IV (1589-1610), the first Bourbon king, signed the Edict of Nantes (1598), granting Protestantism partial toleration. (See also Huguenots; Henry, Kings of France; Bourbon, House of.)


Grandeur Under Louis XIV


The 17th century is known as France's great century. Colonies expanded and trade increased. Art and literature reached new heights. Able ministers, such as Sully, Richelieu, Mazarin, and Colbert, helped make France the foremost power in Europe. Under Louis XIV (1643-1715) the movement to centralized government reached its peak. The "sun king's" power was absolute. He did not call the Estates-General into session, and he treated his ministers as chief clerks. (See also Louis, Kings of France; Richelieu; Estates-General.)

The 18th century witnessed a long struggle between England and France for colonial empire. The Treaty of Paris (1763) marked the loss by France of its dominions in America and its power in India. France gave financial aid to the American Colonies in their struggle for independence. The government was severely criticized for the loss of its colonies as well as for inefficiency, abuses, and extravagance. The new cultured middle class was dissatisfied with the old regime and demanded an influence in the government suitable to its wealth and education. France's great 18th-century philosophers and writers spread ideas of freedom and equality.


French Revolution and Rise of Napoleon


Matters came to a crisis when financial problems forced the government to convene the Estates-General in 1789. This led to the French Revolution. The revolution overthrew the monarchy and brought years of terror and war before a new political and social order was set up. (See also French Revolution.)

Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in revolutionary France because the young officer brought success in its foreign wars. As emperor of the French (1804-14) he attempted to make the nation supreme in Europe. In conquest after conquest, he was almost able to attain his ambition before his exhausted country met defeat. The Congress of Vienna (1815) reduced France to its former limits. (See also Napoleon I.)

France was left prostrate by the Napoleonic wars. The nation was slow in accustoming itself to the new order. The Revolution of 1830 (July 27-29) overthrew the restored Bourbons. It brought in the Orleanist prince, Louis Philippe, as a constitutional monarch. He fell in the Revolution of 1848 (February 22-24). After a stormy experiment with a Second Republic, the Second Empire brought Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (a nephew of Napoleon I) to the throne 1852-70. (See also Napoleon III.)


Franco-Prussian War and Third Republic


The ruinous Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), launched by France against Germany, caused the downfall of the Second Empire. When Paris surrendered after a long siege, a provisional government made peace. France lost its provinces of Alsace and Lorraine and the valuable iron mines and heavy industry there. Parisian workingmen rebelled and set up a government called the Commune. It was ruthlessly put down. (See also Franco-Prussian War.)

In 1875 the Third Republic was founded, bringing greater stability. Under its constitution France had universal male suffrage and an elected parliament of two houses. The republic had a president, but the real executive power lay with the body of ministers, or cabinet. Under the parliamentary system, when the government, or cabinet, was defeated on a major bill, it was obliged to resign.

Public opinion was so divided that it was difficult for any party to achieve a majority in parliament. The numerous political parties ranged from Monarchist on the far right to Socialist, and later Communist, on the far left. Ministries tended to be made up of coalitions of leaders of various parties without a safe majority. In the history of the Third Republic (1875-1940) 93 ministries fell.


Economic Expansion


In spite of political conflict and instability during the 19th and early 20th centuries, France advanced economically. Agricultural output increased greatly after the revolution broke up the great estates and put small holdings into the hands of industrious farm families. Food was abundant. Wool, flax, and silk fibers supplied the growing textile industry. After the monarchy's arbitrary regulations on manufacturing and trade were swept away, enterprising French manufacturers began to overcome England's lead in the use of factory machines. They stressed quality and elegance in their wares and found a market for them abroad.

The government aided commerce by building transportation lines. Abroad, it won colonies in Indochina and Africa to replace its 18th-century losses. The construction of the Suez Canal by Ferdinand de Lesseps aided foreign trade (see Suez Canal).


World-Wide Cultural Renown


France's prestige in culture was never higher. The Third Republic's list of literary figures was as brilliant as in any period of history. French painters made Paris the world center of art. Museums and galleries in every nation collected canvases by the masters of modern French schools of painting.

A new school of modern music, original in its style of composition and its harmonies, influenced musical development. Scientists rivaled the artists in renown. Many of the important discoveries and inventions of the century were the work of French scientists and technologists.


World War I and Its Aftermath


France was invaded by Germany immediately after World War I broke out. It became the chief battlefield of the war. French losses in killed and wounded ran into the millions. Northern France was occupied by the armies of the enemy and of the Allies. Hundreds of towns were deserted wastes. Millions of acres of farm land were scarred with shell holes and trenches. (See also World War I.)

After Germany's defeat, the treaty signed at Versailles provided benefits for France. It regained Alsace-Lorraine and took over many of Germany's colonies. As payment for damage, it was given a 15-year lease on the Saar coal mines, and Germany agreed to make huge reparations. The Saar and Lorraine provided coal, iron, and potash to aid the postwar development of heavy industry.

France assisted in the founding of the League of Nations. Its diplomats took part in the conferences of the 1920s and 1930s aimed at maintaining world peace. Yet the nation felt insecure. It built the Maginot Line along the German border and increased the size of its army and navy. Heavy defense costs forced the government to raise taxes, to float extensive loans, and, in 1926, to devalue the franc from 19.3 to about 4 cents. France ran into continual difficulty trying to collect reparation payments from Germany. (See also World War I, section "The Peace and Its Results.")


Europe Drifts into World War II


France, along with the rest of the world, was suffering from great economic depression when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933 (see Hitler). He boldly promised to create a greater Germany. He rebuilt the army, navy, and air force and constructed fortifications paralleling the Maginot Line. The French were too torn politically and economically to counter Germany's threat. Parties of the left feared rightist plots to set up a dictatorship. Right and center parties feared a Communist revolution.

When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, France refused to intervene. In 1938 it joined England in appeasing Hitler's demand for Czechoslovakian territory. The error of this policy became evident when Hitler annexed all Czechoslovakia and Italy's dictator, Benito Mussolini, seized Albania in 1939. France and England had promised aid to Poland. When Germany invaded that country in September 1939, they declared war. (See also World War II.)


Surrender, Resistance, Liberation


France and Great Britain planned to wage a defensive war of attrition, but their strategy failed. In May 1940 the Nazi forces swept through The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. Within a short time the road to Paris lay open. Panic and defeatism gripped the government. It retreated from Paris to Vichy. There Marshal Henri Philippe Petain as premier asked Germany for an armistice. On June 22 he signed surrender terms. At first only the north and the west coasts were occupied.

Petain declared the end of the Third Republic on July 11 and established a dictatorship, with Vichy as the capital. After the Allies invaded North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942, Germany broke the surrender terms and occupied all France.

Part of the French army had escaped to England. General Charles de Gaulle organized this force into the Free French, which later became called the Fighting French. At home hundreds of thousands joined an underground organization called Le Maquis. This group harassed the occupying forces and aided the Allied liberation troops after they landed in Normandy June 6, 1944. (See also De Gaulle.)


Postwar Chaos and Disunity


Victory found France again battered and exhausted. Factories had been looted and bombed and transportation lines wrecked. Two million homes had been damaged one fourth of them beyond repair. Farms and vineyards had been neglected. It had fewer people to undertake the enormous task of reconstruction. The list of war prisoners was long. Hundreds of thousands of civilians had been shipped to Germany for forced labor, and two thirds of them did not return. The death rate had risen due to malnutrition even starvation during the German occupation.

De Gaulle was made president of the provisional government. He resigned in 1946 when the constitution for a Fourth Republic failed to approve a strong presidency. France's wartime unity crumbled as numerous parties battled for power. When coalition governments took office, their policies often failed to get support in the National Assembly. The Fourth Republic had 26 ministries in its 12 years.


Achievements Under Four-Year Plans


At first France lagged behind its European allies and West Germany in reconstruction and industrial recovery. In 1946 the nation embarked on a series of highly successful development plans. The first plan was aimed mainly at reconstruction and at replacing the obsolete equipment that had kept output low. Nearly 12 billion dollars were invested in equipment and modernization. In 1948 the French began receiving enormous economic aid from the United States under the European Recovery Program. Dollars were available to buy machinery and materials for public and private industries and public works.

Industrial expansion was the objective of the 1954-57 and 1958-61 plans. In these years large investments were also made in housing, schools, hospitals, sanitary engineering, water supply, and city planning. Production had been expanding at an annual average rate of about 41/2 percent when the 1962-65 plan, aimed at a 5 1/2 percent annual increase, began.


Plans for European Economic Cooperation


France took a leading role in movements to unite Western Europe for economic expansion. In 1948 it joined with 15 other nations benefiting from United States aid to set up the Organization for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC). The Council of Europe was established the next year with headquarters in Strasbourg.

The European Coal and Steel Community was formed by France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg in 1952. These six nations organized the European Economic Community, or Common Market. Its aim was the gradual elimination of customs duties and other restrictions upon their trade. The Common Market was inaugurated on Jan. 1, 1958, as was the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Euratom involved a pooling of atomic resources for industrial use. (See also International Relations; International Trade.)

The French Assembly voted against the European Defense Community plan in 1954. The next year, however, it approved the similar Western European Union and authorized a German army of 12 divisions within NATO. France and England failed to get support from their allies in 1956 when they invaded Egypt in an attempt to free the Suez Canal from blockade. (See also Suez Canal.)


Rebellion in Overseas Territories


The constitution of the Fourth Republic established the French Union, composed of the mother country and its overseas territories. France hoped to improve relations with the peoples of these overseas areas and to give them hope for independence within the French political system. Relations, however, worsened in Asia and North Africa.

The situation in Indochina became especially desperate. A long war against the Communist Vietminhs of northern Vietnam resulted in severe losses to French Union troops. After the French forces were surrounded and routed by the Vietnamese at Dienbienphu, an armistice was signed in 1954 in Geneva. Vietnam was divided into a Communist North Vietnam and a non-Communist South Vietnam. With full independence for Laos in 1953 and for South Vietnam and Cambodia in 1955, the conception of a united "French Indochina" was ended. (See also Cambodia; Indochina; Laos; Vietnam.)


Arab Revolt in North Africa


The Arab League helped rouse nationalist ambitions and revolts among the Muslims of the French North African territories. France was unable to overcome the uprisings in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It recognized the independence of Morocco and Tunisia in 1956. (See also Algeria; Morocco; Tunisia.)

The French, however, regarded Algeria as part of France itself. French settlers, called colons, had participated in its development. The colons violently opposed the demands of the Arab peoples for freedom. The revolt dragged on, sapping French finances and adding to the political dissension.


De Gaulle and the Fifth Republic


The unstable ministries of the Fourth Republic were unable to end the Algerian conflict or solve France's economic problems. In May 1958 leaders of the French army in Algeria appealed to General De Gaulle to take control of the government. He asked for full power to act. A new constitution that provided for a strong presidency received overwhelming support, and the Fifth Republic was proclaimed on Oct. 5, 1958. The French Community replaced the French Union. De Gaulle was elected president.

De Gaulle devalued the franc on Dec. 29, 1958, and made French currency convertible abroad. France thus could offer favorable prices on its goods in foreign trade. De Gaulle also put into effect an austerity budget. Private investment increased, and France prospered along with other member countries of the Common Market.

In September 1959 De Gaulle suggested self-determination for the Algerians. This enraged the colons. They stirred up riots in Algeria and demonstrations against De Gaulle in France.


Independence for Many French Colonies


Guinea became independent of France in 1958. Twelve other French possessions in Africa won independence in 1960. These became the republics of Dahomey (now Benin), Ivory Coast (now Cote d'Ivoire), Niger, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Congo, Gabon, Chad, and Mauritania, and the Malagasy (now Madagascar) and Central African republics. In the same year two trusteeships, Cameroon and Togo, also became republics.

The French supported self-determination for Algeria in a January 1961 referendum; peace talks with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) were begun in May. This set off terrorist violence organized by the Secret Army Organization (OAS) in France and Algeria. The long-awaited truce guaranteeing Algerian independence was signed on March 18, 1962. It provided for joint control of Algerian oil. Algeria became independent on July 3, 1962.

De Gaulle reached new heights of popularity and power. Elections in 1962 gave the Gaullists a majority in parliament. De Gaulle stepped up his efforts to give France primacy in Western Europe by developing a nuclear striking force and a space program. France in 1963 rejected proposals by the United States and Britain for a multilateral NATO force. It also blocked Britain's entry into the Common Market and refused to sign the international nuclear test ban treaty. France had begun atomic bomb tests in 1960 and its first Earth satellite was sent into orbit in 1965. Its first nuclear-powered submarine was launched in 1967.

De Gaulle was inaugurated for a second term in 1966. He withdrew France from all NATO military activities. In May 1969 De Gaulle resigned after failing to receive a vote of confidence. Former Premier Georges Pompidou, the next president, died on April 2, 1974. In May Valery Giscard d'Estaing, finance minister in the De Gaulle and Pompidou cabinets, was elected president. (See also Giscard d'Estaing, Valery; Pompidou, Georges.)

In a close election in 1981 Giscard lost to Francois Mitterrand, the country's first popularly elected Socialist president. The Socialists, who later won control of the National Assembly, instituted measures to decentralize the government and to nationalize industry. The National Assembly also gave massive approval to the government's energy program, which cut back on the number of nuclear power plants that had been planned by the previous administration. (See also Mitterrand, Francois.)

The Comoro Islands unilaterally declared independence in 1975; however, Mayotte, one of the islands, rejected independence. The Territory of the Afars and Issas became the Republic of Djibouti in 1977. In late 1981 the eighth Franco-African summit, the first since Mitterrand took office, was held in France. The French expressed a desire to work out a new style of relations with Africa. In 1982 Mitterrand made two extensive visits to Africa, leaving no doubt about the continuing interest of the French government in that part of the world. In 1988 Mitterrand was reelected for another seven-year term, but his political position was weakened by rising conservative opposition.

France was a leader in the drive for economic and political union of the countries in the European Communities (EC). Mitterand strongly supported the Maastricht Treaty of December 1991, a blueprint for European federalism and a single currency. Hardly was the treaty signed than it was in trouble. French voters barely approved it. French farmers rioted against a possible loss of subsidies and fear of outside competition.

Edith Cresson served as the first woman prime minister of France from 1991 to 1992. In April 1992 she was dismissed after the government's defeat in regional elections. Mitterrand named Pierre Beregovoy to take her place. In the early 1990s the country was confronted by a wave of strikes, a weak economy that brought record unemployment, violent police clashes with immigrants, and political corruption. In the March 1993 elections conservative parties won a landslide victory and took control of 80 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Mitterand appointed former finance minister Edouard Balladur prime minister.



France Fact Summary


Official Name. French Republic. The name France is derived from the Franks, a confederacy of Germanic tribes that conquered Gaul (ancient France).

Capital. Paris.

Coat of Arms. In center RF represents the name Republique Francaise (French Republic); sides French flags; top Roman fasces; bottom oak and olive leaves, Legion of Honor medal.

National Emblem. Fleur-de-lis; adopted by Louis VII, 1179.

Motto. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity).

Anthem. 'La Marseillaise' adopted in 1792 (words and music by C. Rouget de Lisle).


Borders (excluding Corsica). Coast 1,870 miles (3,010 kilometers); land frontier 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers).

Natural Regions. Aquitaine Basin, Massif Armoricain (Brittany), Cotentin Peninsula (Normandy), Paris Basin, Mediterranean Plain, Massif Central, Rhone-Saone Valley, Pyrenees, Alps-Jura, Northeast France (Alsace and Lorraine).

Major Ranges. Alps, Pyrenees, Jura, Ardennes, Vosges, Massif Central.

Notable Peaks. In Alps Mont Blanc, 15,771 feet (4,807 meters); in Pyrenees Pie de Vignemale, 10,820 feet (3,298 meters).

Major Rivers. Garonne, Loire, Marne, Rhine, Rhone, Saone, Seine.

Notable Lakes. Lake Geneva (partly in France), Annecy, Bourget.

Major Island. Corsica.

Climate. Maritime temperate, with Mediterranean along the southern coast, and continental in the mountains of the east.


Population (1990 preliminary census). 56,942,000; 271.1 persons per square mile (104.7 persons per square kilometer); 74.3 percent urban, 25.7 percent rural.

Vital Statistics (annual rate per 1,000 population). Births 13.5; deaths 9.3; marriages 5.1.

Life Expectancy (at birth). Males 72.3 years; females 80.5 years.

Major Language. French.

Ethnic Groups. French; minorities include North Africans, West Africans, Basques, Celts, Germans, Latins, Slavs, and Vietnamese.

Major Religion. Roman Catholicism.

MAJOR CITIES (1991 estimate)

Paris (2,175,200). Capital of France; transportation, commercial, industrial, political, and cultural center; Cathedral of Notre Dame; Eiffel Tower; Louvre Museum; Place de la Concorde; the Invalides, including the Church of St-Louis; Sacre-Coeur Basilica; Arc de Triomphe; Opera; Les Halles.

Marseilles (807,700). France's leading port; commercial, industrial, and educational city on the Mediterranean; Vieux-Port (Old Port); Canebiere, street promenade; Cathedral of St-Lazare; Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde; St-Victor Church.

Lyon (422,400). Transportation, industrial, commercial, and cultural center, silk and rayon production; Cathedral of St-Jean; University of Lyon; Lyon Trade Fair.

Toulouse (365,900). Commercial, industrial, and cultural center; Cathedral of St-Etienne; Church of the Jacobins, site of the tomb of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Nice (345,700). Tourist center on the Riviera; Chagall Museum; Mardi Gras carnival; beaches.

Strasbourg (255,900). Chief port and industrial, commercial, and educational center of Alsace; Cathedral of Notre-Dame and Work of Our Lady Museum; Tanners Quarter; Palace of Europe (meeting place of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe); headquarters of the Commission of Human Rights.

Nantes (252,000). Port on the Loire River; industrial hub of southern Brittany; ducal palace; Museum of Fine Arts; Cathedral of St-Pierre.

Bordeaux (213,300). Port on the Garonne River; a center of the wine trade; Grand Theatre; Esplanade de Quinconces; Cathedral of St-Andre; International Festival of Music and Dance.

Montpellier (208,000). Chief town and noted art center in southern Languedoc.

St-Etienne (201,600). Industrial and manufacturing city on the upper Loire River; chief French center for ribbon, scarf, and tie production.

Rennes (198,000). Economic and cultural center of Brittany; former capital of Brittany, the Palace of Justice (law courts) was seat of the Breton Parliament.


Chief Agricultural Products. Crops apples, apricots, barley, carrots, cauliflower, corn (maize), grapes, green peas, oats, peaches, plums, potatoes, rapeseed, rye, sugar beets, tobacco, tomatoes, wheat. Livestock cattle, horses, pigs, poultry, sheep.

Chief Mined Products. Bauxite (aluminum ore), coal, iron ore, natural gas, petroleum, potash, salt, sulfur.

Chief Manufactured Products. Aluminum; automobiles; cement; commercial vehicles; cotton, woolen, and synthetic textiles, fabrics, and yarn; steel; fertilizers; lead and zinc; paper and wood pulp products; pig iron; sulfuric acid; synthetic rubber.

Foreign Trade. Imports, 54%; exports, 46%.

Chief Imports. Chemicals, coal, crude petroleum, electrical machinery, fruits and vegetables, iron and steel, meat, motor vehicles, nonferrous metals, textile fibers.

Chief Exports. Alcoholic beverages, chemicals, clothing and textiles, electrical machinery, fruits and vegetables, grain, iron and steel, motor vehicles, nonelectrical machinery, nonferrous metals.

Chief Trading Partners. Germany, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, United States.

Monetary Unit. 1 French franc = 100 centimes.


Public Schools. Centralized school system under the minister of education. The country is divided into 27 academies (educational districts). All public, secondary, and university education is free.

Compulsory School Age. From 6 to 16 years of age.

Literacy. Almost 100 percent of the population 15 years old and over can read and write.

Leading Universities. 69 universities in the state university system, 3 national polytechnic institutes, state colleges and institutes (grandes ecoles), Catholic Institute of Paris, School of the Louvre.

Notable Libraries. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris; Bibliotheques des Universites de Paris; Bibliotheques municipales.

Notable Museums and Art Galleries. National Museum of Modern Art, Paris; Louvre Museum, Paris; Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris; Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris; Museum of the Air, Le Bourget; Museum of French History, Versailles.


Form of Government. Democratic parliamentary republic.

Constitution. Constitution of the Fifth Republic adopted Oct. 4, 1958.

Chief of State. President; elected to seven-year term by direct universal suffrage.

Head of Government. Prime minister; appointed by the president.

Legislature. Parliament; consists of the National Assembly with 491 deputies elected for five-year terms, and the Senate with 316 senators elected for nine-year terms.

Executive. Council of Ministers; consists of prime minister, ministers, and ministers and secretaries of state all appointed by the president; responsible to parliament.

Judiciary. The highest court is the Court of Cassation. For civil cases there are 469 lower courts and 184 higher courts. For criminal cases there are police courts, courts of correction, and courts of assize. Appeals go to the Court of Appeal. Social administrative courts settle disputes between individuals and public bodies.

Political Divisions. 22 administrative regions: Alsace, Aquitaine, Auvergne, Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy), Bretagne (Brittany), Bourgogne (Burgundy), Centre, Champagne-Ardenne, Corse (Corsica), Franche-Comte, Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy), Ile-de-France, Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin, Lorraine, Midi-Pyrenees, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Pays de la Loire, Picardie (Picardy), Poitou-Charentes, Provence-Cote d'Azur, Rhone-Alpes; the regions are divided into 96 departments, 324 arrondissements, 3,509 cantons, and 36,395 communes; other political divisions are 4 overseas departments, 4 overseas territories, and 2 territorial units (also called collectivities).

Voting Qualification. Age 19.


Alps. Snowcapped range in southeast; resorts and health spas.

Alsace-Lorraine. Fertile agricultural region; wine grapes; cultural and art centers of Strasbourg and Colmar.

Amiens. Cathedral of Notre-Dame, largest of French-Gothic style; Museum of Picardy; a center of the textile industry.

Brittany. Peninsula in northwest; fishing ports; holiday resorts such as St-Malo (Emerald Coast) and La Baule; Belle-Ile, largest Breton island; prehistoric menhirs at Carnac.

Carcassonne. Medieval fortified walled city.

Chamonix. Health and winter sports resort near Mount Blanc; cable cars; Mont Blanc Tunnel.

Chartres. Chartres Cathedral, masterpiece of Gothic architecture.

Fontainebleau. Renaissance palace, home of the rulers of France from Louis VII to Napoleon III; forest along the Seine River.

Grasse. Winter resort; flower fields; perfume industry.

Ile-de-France. Area around Paris; origin of French civilization; Gothic cathedrals and abbeys; historic towns.

Lille. Chief city of French Flanders; traditional textile industry center; Porte de Paris, triumphal arch; Palace of Fine Arts.

Loire Valley. Chateaus of the Loire Medieval, Angers, Chinon, Langeais, Loches, Sully; Renaissance, Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, Blois, Chambord, Chaumont, Chenonceaux, Usse, Villandry; Neoclassical, Cheverny, Valencay; Orleans, statue of Joan of Arc; Tours, city of St. Martin.

Lourdes. Roman Catholic pilgrimage center in honor of the visions of Bernadette Soubirous.

Mont Blanc. Highest peak in the Alps; Mont Blanc Tunnel, scenery and skiing; cable cars.

Mont-Saint-Michel. Walled abbey on rocky islet off Normandy.

Normandy. Rich agricultural region; Bayeux Tapestry at Bayeux Cathedral; World War II Allied invasion site; seaside resorts.

Pyrenees. High mountains along French-Spanish border; Basque homeland; holiday, health, and sports resorts.

Reims. Champagne cellars; historic Gothic cathedral, coronation site of early French kings; Porte de Mars, Roman gate.

Riviera, or Cote d'Azur. Mediterranean coast between Marseilles and the Italian border; coastal scenery along winding corniche roads; seaside resorts such as St-Tropez, Cannes, and Nice.

Rouen. Gothic cathedral and churches; many museums.

Versailles. Palace of Versailles, lavish residence of French royalty from 1682; fountains; gardens.

Vichy. Spa and health resort; thermal springs.

Vosges. Rounded, exposed range of peaks overlooking the Rhine Valley.



This article was contributed by James R. McDonald, Professor of Geography, Eastern Michigan University.




Books for Children


Bender, Lionel. France (Silver Burdett, 1988).

Harris, Nathaniel. The Fall of the Bastille (David & Charles, 1987).

Moss, Peter, and Palmer, Thelma. France (Childrens, 1986).

Norbrook, Dominique. Passport to France (Watts, 1986).

Tunnacliffe, Chantal. France, rev. ed. (Silver Burdett, 1986).


Books for Young Adults


Ardagh, John. France Today (Penguin, 1990).

Braudel, Fernand. The Identity of France, 2 vols. (Harper, 1990, 1991).

Campling, Elizabeth, and Campling, James. The French Revolution (David & Charles, 1984).

Kollay, Jocelyne. French Holiday Activity Workbook (PS Enterprises, 1990).

Salmon, J.H.M. Renaissance and Revolt (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987).

Schama, Simon. Citizens (Vintage, 1990).

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times, 4th ed. (Norton, 1987).