Where is it?:
The largest country in western Europe, France is across the English Channel from the United Kingdom to the north, and has an expansive Atlantic coastline to the west, famed for Allied landings that turned the tide of World War II. To the south, over the Pyrenees mountains, is the border shared with Spain and the Mediterranean Sea. Along the expansive eastern border is Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In addition to metropolitan France, territories are French Guinea in northern South America, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean, Mayotte in the southern Indian Ocean, and Reunion in southern Africa. In land-area comparisons, France is slightly smaller than the state of Texas. The country is the top tourist destination in the world.
The capital of the French Republic is Paris. The city began with a Celtic settlement along the river Seine at about 250 BC; it later came under Roman rule and was given its current name in 212, according to historians. Paris was the center of monarchial rule as French kings gradually expanded the country's territory. Under Napoleon in the 19th century, the modern form of Paris would take shape with its present-day network of straight, wide streets, parks and circuses. Paris fell to the Germans in June 1940 and the French government relocated to Vichy, leaving the city under occupation for four years. Paris was liberated by Allied forces in 1944 before German troops carried out with Adolf Hitler's orders to destroy the city. The city was largely spared the physical damage suffered in many cities throughout Europe.
The country's motto - "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" (Liberty, equality, fraternity) - dates back to the French Revolution and is imprinted on French coins. (The German occupiers during World War II replaced this motto with "Work, family, fatherland".) The flag is the French Tricolor -- singles bands of blue, white and red, with blue and red being the traditional colors of Paris. The national anthem, "La Marseillaise," was adopted in 1795.
French is the official language. There are several regional dialects including Provencal, Breton, Alsatian, Corsican, Catalan, Basque and Flemish that are rapidly falling out of use. In the overseas departments, French is spoken along with Creole patois and Mahorian, a Swahili dialect spoken on Mayotte.
Over 62 million people in metropolitan France and nearly three million more in the five overseas regions. In France it is not legal for the government to collect information on ethnic and racial breakdowns. The country is highly secular though the vast majority of people identify as Roman Catholic, between 83 percent and 88 percent. There is a growing Muslim community due largely to immigration now estimated at 5 percent to 10 percent of the population. There are also small minorities of Protestants, Jews and those who don't affiliate themselves with a religion. The country has a nearly 100 percent literacy rate and one of the top life expectancy rates in the world. Eighty-five percent of the population lives in urban centers.
Back in the time of ancient Rome, the area now known as France was called Gaul, a region where humans have lived for tens of thousands of years. The country has seen legendary change through its famed monarchies, the world-changing French Revolution, the rise and fall of the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, and a succession of French Republics. France took hits in the reach of its colonial empire and dominance on the world stage after World Wars I and II, and has rebounded to a European leader. France celebrates no official date of independence. Bastille Day celebrates the establishment of a constitutional monarchy; the modern constitution came into existence in 1958. France is one of five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council.
A member of the G8, France has been an economic power in Europe for hundreds of years, and now enjoys the continent's second-largest economy. The system can be described as capitalism with heavy socialist influences, as the state strives to ensure equality through policies. Pension and tax reform are touchy issues in a country where citizens have enjoyed so many benefits for so long, but these are being pushed by some leaders in the wake of the recession that brought down the economies of Greece and Ireland. The country is transitioning away from the extensive government intervention in business as sectors such as Air France have been privatized. Key industries include financial services, insurance, aerospace, manufacturing, agriculture, and tourism.
Branches are the Army, including the famed French Foreign Legion, which is a wing that accepts foreign nationals willing to fight for France (French citizens comprise about a quarter of the legion); Navy, Air Force and National Gendarmerie. Military service is voluntary and open to those ages 17-40. Women do not serve in a combat capacity. About 29 million men and women are available for military service. The country has the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. Terrorism is a concern as the current government has both participated in anti-extremism campaigns and taken controversial steps toward restricting Islamic dress. The country is also the headquarters for INTERPOL.
Type of government:
A republic with a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system of governance. The president is elected for a five-year term (can serve two consecutively) and appoints the prime minister. The voting age is 18.