France is the largest European country in terms of land area after Russia and Ukraine.
Nearly 20% of the territory of France lies outside Europe. These regions are known as "DOM-TOM" (overseas departments and territories), where over 2.5 million French citizens live.
The 45th parallel north, which marks the theoretical halfway point between the Equator and the North Pole, is said to be the limit between Northern France, where the Oïl dialects are spoken, and Southern France, where the Occitan dialects prevail. It is also the boundary between the butter and olive oil cuisines. In a wider European context, the 45th parallel roughly marks the division between northern and southern Europe, a division that may date back to the Neolithic.
The Canal du Midi is Europe's oldest functional canal. It was built from 1666 and 1681. It is 240 km (150 miles) long, has 63 locks, 126 bridges, 55 aqueducts, 7 canal-bridges, 6 barrages and 1 tunnel.
Rivers played a major role in French history, acting as the main transportation routes before the advent of the railway. 24 rivers in France exceed 300 km in length (against only 2 in the UK and 4 in Italy). 66 of the 95 metropolitan départements are named after rivers.
The tides in the region of Brittany and Normandy are the strongest in Europe, with a difference in level of up to 15 meters between high and low tide.
According to a 2008 study published by Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank, the municipality of Saint-Jean Cap-Ferrat, between Nice and Monaco, is the world's most expensive peninsula, and the world's third most expensive place for real estate - after London and Monaco. Prices per square metre were found to be twice higher than in Tokyo and three times higher than in Paris.
Briançon, in the Hautes-Alpes department, is the highest town in the European Union. It lies at an altitude of 1,326 metres.
The village of Saint-Véran (Hautes-Alpes department) is the highest municipality in Europe. The village itself is located at 2,042 metres of altitude, and the highest point on its territory reaches up to 3,175 metres.
Seaside resorts in France were given catchy or poetic names, typically after (semi-)precious stones. On the Channel and North Sea coast you can find the Opal Coast, Alabaster Coast, Mother-of-pearl Coast, Emerald Coast, Pink Granit Coast; on the Atlantic coast, some beaches are known as the Jade Coast, Silver Coast or Love Coast ; while on the Mediterranean side, tourists are greeted with colourful names like the Amethyst Coast, Ruby Coast, Mauresque Coast or Azure Coast. The French Riviera (Côte d'Azur) was the first to aquire such a nickname, in 1887.
France and its overseas departements and territories cover 12 different time zones, the most of any country in the world.
The largest canyon in Europe is the Verdon Gorge, near Castellane and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, where the Provence meets the Alps. It is the world's second largest gorge, at about 25 kilometers in length and up to 700 meters deep.
People & Lifestyle
French people cheek kiss to greet each others between family and friends, even between men. The number of kisses varies according to the region, from 1 (e.g. in the tip of Brittany) to 4 (e.g. Paris and most of the North), and occasionally up to 5 in Corsica.
The 2003 Durex Global Sex Survey found that the French are the people who have sex the most often in a year.
According to a 2004 IFOP survey, 44% of French people are Atheists (up by 24% since 1947).
French people have the highest female and third highest male life expectancy in the European Union.
According to the WHO (2002 stats), French men have the lowest incidence of obesity in the EU (women come 2nd after Denmark).
The French are the world's biggest consumers of psychotropic drugs. About one fourth of the population admits having taken anti-depressants or tranquillisers over the past year.
There are between 5 and 6 million of more or less seriously handicaped people in France (nearly 1 person out of 10). This includes physical, sensorial and mental handicaps.
A 2007 study revealed that the French were the biggest consumers of medicines in Europe, both in quantity and total money spent per person.
French people are the second biggest consumers of alcohol per capita in the Western world - after Luxembourg...
France was the first modern country to legalise same-sex sexual activity, in 1791. In contrast, gay sex was only legalised nationwide in the USA in 2003.
20% of the French people live in the Parisian region.
André Gide, French writer and Nobel Prize of Literature, said "French people are Italian people in bad mood".
Although French language is a direct descent of Latin, French people have some of the most diversified genetic make-up Europe, with genes inherited from the Celts (or Gauls), the Basques, the Romans, the Franks (originally from the Benelux) and the Normands (originally from Denmark), which explains the wide physical diversity in French facial traits, as well as hair and eye colours. [=> see map of ethnicities in Europe]
According to Graham Robb in his book The Discovery of France, there were hundreds of small, autonomous republics within France until the 18th or 19th century. Some were autonomous hamlets that didn't pay tax at all and were almost completely isolated from the rest of France.
Until 1964 French women were not allowed to open a bank account or get a passport without their husband's permission.
Until the early 20th century at least two thirds of the French population was rural and most people lived in communities numbering less than 100 people. Few people knew anything a dozen miles beyond their place of birth, and few identified themselves with France as a country.
Almost all high schools in France have condom vending machines.
4.9 million foreign-born immigrants currently live France (8.1% of the country's population), including 1.2 million of other Latins (Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese), 1.5 million of Maghrebans (Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians), and 570,000 from sub-Saharan Africa.
Recent immigrants and their offspring (foreign-born + first and second generations of immigrants) make up over 10% of the population of France, including 8.7% of Muslims.
40% of all immigrants live in the region of Paris. 60% of sub-Saharan African immigrants live in the region of Paris.
French used to be the language of the nobility and diplomacy all across Europe and in the Ottoman Empire, then the world's first real international language until English replaced it in the mid-20th century.
The French word for 'deadline' is (ironically) délai, and indeed delay is part and parcel of the French work culture.
Metropolitan France counts several native regional languages : Alsatian and Lorraine German (both High German dialects), Occitan (incl. Gascon and Provençal), Oïl dialects (such as Picard and Poitevin-Saintongeais), Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican and Franco-Provençal.
In spite of foreign stereotypes, many French people can speak at least one foreign language (45% are able to participate in a conversation in a foreign language according to Eurobarometer in 2005), and English is the most widely spoken (34%).
A survey in 1794 revealed that a mere 11% of the population of France were pure French speakers. As late as in 1880, only 20% of the population could actually speak French fluently. Nowadays, 86% of French people are native French speakers if this is defined by the language their parents spoke with them before the age of 5. Oc languages account for 3.65%, Oïl languages for 3.10%, German and German dialects for 3.15%, and Arabic for 2.55%.
(Middle) French was the official language of England for over 300 years (from 1066 until the early 15th century).
The first government authority to adopt Modern French as its official language was the Aosta Valley in Italy in 1536, three years before France itself.
Nowadays French is still the official language of 30 countries worldwide. French language is spoken by 270 million people worldwide (almost as much as the population of the USA), of which 120 million are native or fluent. There are less than 60 million of White Caucasian native speakers of standard French worldwide.
The variety of French spoken in Quebec, Canada, is a distant dialect of the French spoken in Europe, and can sometimes be hard to understand for European French speakers.
The French cultural exception
France is the only continental European country or Eurozone member where cheques are still used as one of the main forms of payment. Most of European countries stopped using them since the 1990's because it was not deemed a safe method of payment.
As of 2013 France was last EU member that did not yet have ID-1 format (like credit cards) identity cards. France is also one of the few EU member state with compulsory ID card that does not use chip cards.
France is the only EU country to have all its V.A.T. rates with decimal fractions (19.6%, 5.5% or 2.1%). Only Britain and Ireland also use some rates with decimal fractions.
France is the only country in the world where any kind of personal DNA tests, even paternity tests and genetic genealogy tests, are prohibited by law (except when court ordered) and punishable by heavy fines or prison sentences (read more). This law (Article 226-28 of the Penal Code) has been criticised as a breach of Human Rights.
According to the Bioethic Law of 29th July 1994, both parents of a child born through a sperm donation outside one of the few officially sanctioned clinics will face a fine of 30,000 € and two years imprisonment. (read more).
Beauty pageants for children are banned in France and are punishable with up to 2 years in prison and a 30,000 € fine.
A child born in France from an single mother can be recognised by any man who claims the child as his own at the town hall, even if he is not the biological father and the mother disagrees. The first man who reaches the town hall and claims the newborn baby is officially the father. Paternity tests being illegal in France, they cannot be used to prove who is the rightful biological father (read more).
In France, in exceptional cases it is possible to marry a deceased person with the authorisation of the President of the Republic.
In the town of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in Provence, a municipal law of 1954 prohibits flying saucers from landing within the borders of the municipality (!)
From 1798 to 2012 it was illegal for women in Paris to wear trousers. The law remained unenforced for a long time though.
Soldiers serving in the French Foreign Legion who are wounded while defending France can immediately apply for French citizenship. They are considered "French by spilled blood".
The name 'France' comes from the Franks, a Germanic tribe that settled in the Western Roman Empire from the 2nd century, then took over most of Gaul after the collapse of the empire (see History of the Franks).
The French state is one of the oldest in Europe; it was founded in 843, splitting from the Carolingian Empire based in Aachen (Belgo-German border).
The region of Paris was settled since around 4200 BCE. The city itself was founded by the Parisii, a Celtic tribe, around 250 BCE. The Roman renamed it Luteca from 52 BCE, and it only became known as "Paris" after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century.
Foie gras may be part and parcel of French cuisine, but its origins go back to 4,500 years ago in Ancient Egypt, from where it spread to Greece (500 B.C.E.), then the recipe was imported by the Romans and brought to Gaul.
Gothic art has its origins in the middle of the 12th century in the North of France. The world's first Gothic building is said to be the Abbey of St. Denis, just north of Paris, which is the burial place of many Frankish kings since Clovis, as well as most Kings of France. Gothic architecture then spread to Picardy, notably with the cathedrals of Noyon, Laon and Senlis, followed by the Île-de-France. The term "Gothic" was only used from the 16th century Renaissance as a pejorative term to describe complicated and "barbaric" art, as opposed to the simplicity of the Greco-Roman revival. Nowadays more people may value more highly Gothic than Renaissance architecture.
King John I of France was proclaimed king five months before he was born. He only lived for five days (15–20 November 1316), which earned him the title of John the Posthumous.
Nicotine was named after Jean Nicot (1530-1600), a French diplomat and scholar who introduced the tobacco plant to France in 1559 (from Portugal).
"La Marseillaise", France's national anthem, was composed in Strasbourg in 1792, not in Marseilles as its name might induce to think.
Under the First French Republic, from 1790 to 1794, the tricolour French flag had red, white and blue stripes, the reverse order of the current flag.
During the Bourbon Restoration (1814-1830), the flag of France was plain white.
The first modern fire-resistant safe deposit box was invented by Alexandre Fichet (1799-1862) around 1840.
The world's first true department store was Le Bon Marché in Paris, founded by Aristide Boucicaut in 1838.
The tradition of decorating Chritmas trees started in Eastern France in the 16th century (then part of Germany). Trees were then ornated with flowers and fruits (notably apples). A drought in 1858 destroyed the apple harvest, prompting a glass blower from Goetzenbruck, a Lorraine village on the Moselle, to create apple-shaped glass baubles. The practice spread quickly around Europe, and by the late 1800's the local glass factory at Goetzenbruck was manufacturing tens of thousands of baubles.
France was the first country to introduce vehicle licence plates in 1893, followed by Germany in 1896.
At its peak, between 1919 and 1939, the second French colonial empire extended over 12,347,000 km² (4,767,000 sq. miles) of land, or 8.6% of the world's land area. This is over 22 times the size of modern Metropolitan France.
France has hosted five times the Summer Olympic Games (2nd most after the USA), three times the Winter Olympic Games (2nd most after the USA), and twice the FIFA World Cup (most with Italy and Germany).
France has won the 4th most Summer Olympic medals (including gold) in history after the USA, USSR and UK.
The capital of Malta, Valletta, was built by and named after the French nobleman Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568), Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaller and ruler of the island.
On 10 June 2007, a sabre having belonged to Napoleon I was sold at an auction for € 4.8 million - the most expensive weapon ever sold.
Government & Politics
The French 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen' of 1789 is the world's first universal declaration of human rights, applying not only to French citizens or "free men" (as opposed to slaves), but to all people in the world.
France has changed its form of government 9 times since 1789, including 5 republics, 2 empires and 2 constitutional monarchies.
France has only had 3 presidents in the last 32 years (since 1974) : Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
France ruled over the second largest colonial empire in the world (after Britain) from the late 19th-century to the 1960's, controlling 8.6% of the world's land area.
Culture & Heritage
The early Neolithic Cairn of Barnenez in Brittany, dating from circa 4800 BCE, is one of the earliest megalithic monuments in Europe and is considered the oldest extant buildings in the world, predating the oldest Egyptian pyramid by over 2000 years.
There are some 40,000 châteaux (castles, manors, palaces...) in France.
The Louvre is the world's largest castle or palace (it is both). It covers an area of 210,000 m² (2,260,500 sq ft), of which the Louvre Museum occupies 60,600 m² (652,000 s ft). For comparison, the Palace of Versailles is 67,000 m², Buckingham Palace 77,000 m² and the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican 162,000 m².
France is the country that has won the most Nobel prizes for literature (13 as of 2013, with the last prize going back to 2008).
There are over 300 kinds of cheese made in France.
There are 28 categories of sites in France listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including 3 Roman sites (Arles, Orange and Le Gard), 4 cathedrals (Amiens, Bourges, Chartres, Reims), 4 abbeys (Fontenay, Reims, Saint-Savin sur Gartempe and Vezelay), 8 historic city/town centres (Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, Avignon, Le Havre, Mont-Saint-Michel, Provins and Carcassone) as well as numerous belfries, castles and palaces.
81 million tourists have visited France in 2012, more than in any other country in the world, and the figures keep rising year after year. France is one of the few countries (along with Spain, Austria and Greece) where the number of annual tourists exceeds its population.
The spectacle "Ionesco" has been playing at the Théâtre de La Huchette since 1957, with over 15,000 performances - a world record.
There are about 2 new cooking books published every day in France.
Pop singer Claude François (1939-1978) is still as popular as ever in France 30 years after his accidental death. Two of his songs have remained constantly in the top 10 of music played in night club for the last 20 years. A real cult has developed around him. In many ways, Claude François can be regarded as the French equivalent of Elvis Presley.
About one fourth of French people nowadays choose to be cremated when they die, instead of the traditional Catholic burial.
"Remember, if there are any complaints, in France, the customer is always wrong." (from the 2006 Ridely Scott film A Good Year)
Sciences & Inventions
Famous French inventions include the adding machine, the hot air balloon, the airship, the parachute, the submarine, the ambulance service, photography, animation and cinema.
The world's first international scientific conference was held in Paris on 2 February 1799.
France has won the most Nobel Prizes for Literature of any country (13 so far) and the second highest number of Field Medals (mathematics) after the USA.
French inventor Denis Papin was the first to develop the paddlewheel boat (in 1704) and to conceive a functional steam-powered boat, although he never built it. The world's first steamship to sail successfuly was the Palmipède created in 1774 by Marquis Claude de Jouffroy and launched in June 1776.
The 400 crocodiles at the Crocodile Farm in Pierrelatte, near Montélimar, can enjoy tropical conditions in their pools thanks to hot water provided by the nearby Tricastin Nuclear Power Center.
Food & Drinks
The famous Petit Suisse ("little swiss cheese") of Gervais are not from Switzerland, but from Normandy, in France.
Crêpes, one of the most popular food in Europe, originate from Brittany, in western France.
Wine has been made in France since Roman times.
There are 450 different wine appellations in France. There are tens of thousands of small wine-producing domains, but only 15% of all French wines enjoy the marketing benefits of AOC designations.
Bordeaux alone has over 9,000 different châteaux.
72% of the adult French population finds it difficult to understand French wine labels.
In 2004, France produced 56.6 millions hectoliters of wine.
Wines from the North of France (e.g. Alsace) are usually made from a single variety of grape (e.g. Pinot Noir), whereas wines further south are typically blends of varietals (e.g. Carbernet Sauvignon + Merlot), which is why they do not mention them on the label like in Australia, California, Chile or South Africa.
France produces some of the world's most famous liqueurs, such as Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Triple Sec, Mandarine Napoleon, Cognac, Armagnac, Crème de Cassis, Pastis, Chartreuse, etc.
The international market of Rungis, in a southern suburb of Paris, covers 232-hectares (573 acres). With 1.7 million tonnes brought annually, it has the largest turnover of any wholesale markets in the world.
Economy & Industry
France is the world's leader in luxury goods, including haute couture, fashion accessories, perfumes and cosmetics.
France is the world's first producer of wine and liquors.
France is the first producer of nuclear electricity in Europe and second producer in the world after the United States. France produces as much nuclear electricity as Germany, the UK, Spain and Russia combined !
France has the third highest GDP (PPP) per capita per hour in the world, after Norway and Luxembourg, with an average of US$ 38.16 per hour.
The Millau Viaduct, completed in 2005 in the south of France, is the tallest bridge in the world.
The largest and most advanced passenger cruise ship, the Queen Mary 2, was built in France in 2004.
The France-based Arianespace is the world leader in commercial space launch, with over 50% of the global market for launching satellites.
The French TGV is the fastest train in the world, with an average speed of 263.3 km/h from station to station. It reached a record 574.8km/h on a test run in April 2007 (still unbeaten). It also detains the world record of endurance, running from Calais to Marseille (1067.2 km) in 3h29min, in 2001.