Questions About France
An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983
Questions About France
Odyssey Traveller specialises in crafting unforgettable experiences for mature-aged travellers, providing adventure and educational programs to small groups since 1983. Odyssey has built up a reasonable knowledge bank to answer questions about France that travellers are likely to ask, as they make their plans to tour independently, or with us as part of a small group tour. We hope that this list of frequently asked questions and the answers we provide will help you with planning your next holiday.
Read on, but please do not hesitate to contact us via the website, or through email or chat if you have more questions about France or our other tours.
France is located at the heart of Western Europe. It is bordered by Italy and Spain to the south, Switzerland to the east, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg to the North, and (across the English Channel) the United Kingdom to the North-West.
Located between Northern and Southern Europe, the British Isles and the Mediterranean, France ‘has long provided a geographic, economic, and linguistic bridge’ joining the regions of Europe (Britannica), while maintaining its own unique and influential culture. The third biggest country in Europe by area, after Russia and the Ukraine, France has long been one of the most powerful, casting an influence felt both in Europe and across the globe.
During the Roman Empire, the region known as France today was referred to as Gallia, or Gaul. Following the end of the Roman Empire, the region was associated with a Germanic tribe known as the Franks, and when a monarchy was established it became known in Latin as Francia, or the Frankish Empire. From Francia the modern English term France was derived.
Where the term ‘Frank’ comes from is an issue of historical debate. Some have linked it to the term ‘frank’ (free) in English, as after the conquest of Gaul, only the Franks were free of taxation. Others theorise that it comes from the proto-Germanic word *frankon or javelin. In Latin, the throwing axe of the Franks was known as francisca. Other scholars have suggested that these weapons were named because of their association with the Franks, not the other way around.
To the ancient Romans, France, along with a significant portion of Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany was known as ‘Transalpine Gaul’, which was populated by Celtic tribes. In 121 BC the Roman Republic took land surrounding modern day Provence, and the remainder of Gaul was seized during the reign of Julius Caesar (from 58 to 50 BC). Gaul was quickly assimilated into the Roman Empire, and became a centre of culture and writing.
During the empire’s period of decline, Gaul was subject to successive Germanic invasions, as Franks, Burgundians, and Visigoths all settled in Gaul. The culture remained Roman, however, and newcomers converted to Christianity.
From 481 to 511, Clovis I consolidated all of the Frankish tribes under one kingdom, though this was divided between his four sons on his death.
France remained divided until the reign of Charlemagne (747?-814), now regarded as the founding father of France. Charlemagne unified most of France, and extended his empire into what is now Germany and Italy.
Following the death of Charlemagne’s grandson, Lothar I, the Frankish Empire was divided into three kingdoms. The region of West Francia, given to his son Charles the Bald, would become the precursor to modern France.
In 987, Hugh Capet was proclaimed King of France. His successors would add extensive territory to West Francia. The Kingdom of France was declared in 1180 by Phillip II Augustus, essentially establishing what would become modern-day France.
There’s not an easy answer to this question, as for over a hundred years France went back and forth between republics and various monarchies (the current French Republic, established in 1958, is widely known as the fifth republic). You’re probably thinking however, about the first French republic, established during the French Revolution.
By the 18th century, the French king and aristocracy had become increasingly detached from the problems facing the country. The King and his courtiers lived in the lavish palace of Versailles, explored in these two Odyssey Traveller articles: Constructing Versailles, Living at Versailles and Conserving Versailles. At the same time, a rising class of businessmen were making increasing amounts of money – but had no political power to match – while overpopulation, inefficient agriculture, and widespread unemployment meant that life got tougher for France’s poor. The result was increasing resentment against the aristocracy and the King.
In response to a growing debt crisis, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General, an ancient meeting of the three ‘estates’ of the French realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the ‘third estate’ or the people. At the convention debates over procedure broke out – a proxy for the fact that, though the ‘third estate’ contained by far the majority of the French population, the clergy and nobility could easily outvote it.
Finally, the deputies of the ‘third estate’ declared that they were not simply the ‘third estate’ but a national assembly. Soon afterwards the people of Paris – who had faced a prolonged food shortage the previous year – rose in rebellion in the famous Storming of the Bastille. Peasants in the countryside also rose up as insurgents.
Soon afterwards, the Assembly met, sweeping away all the old aristocratic privileges and drafting the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
However, the king and the aristocracy continued to resist further reform. In response, in June 1792, a huge crowd of Parisians stormed the royal palace. The legislative assembly declared a Republic.
The first French Republic would prove to be short-lived. Even before the Republic had been declared France went to war with a coalition of Prussia and Austria. Massacres of prisoners led many representatives to fear anarchy. In the midst of crisis caused by the war and continued revolt in the provinces, power was centralised by the Jacobin faction of the assembly, which declared a ‘terror’ against those deemed to be enemies of the revolution. During this period around 17,000 people were executed, frequently by guillotine.
The fall of Maximilien Robespierre brought the Terror to an end, and inaugurated the Thermidorian period.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, a general who had risen to fame due to his skill in the Revolutionary War, seized power in a coup and the First Republic came to an end. However, Napoleon’s reign cemented many of the legacies of the French Revolution and spread these to the rest of Europe.
We don’t have the space here to encapsulate everything that’s well known about France, so here are some highlights:
- France – and particularly Paris – has long been at the forefront of western art and culture. While artists were active in France from the Late Middle Ages, it was after the establishment of Versailles that French artists became internationally influential. Jean-Honoré Fragonard pioneered the exuberantly ornamental pastel styles of rococo, while the neoclassical revolutionary art of Jacques-Louis David served as a republican response.
- In the 19th century, artists bristled against the strict rules of the Academy of Fine Arts, leading to a succession of avant-garde movements, from the Romanticism of the early 19th century, to realism in the mid-19th century. The sharpest break with academic painting was made by the impressionists in the 1860s. Impressionist painters such as Monet, Manet, Degas, and Renoir abandoned strict representation to record the reality that the human eye sees – representing light and movement through washes of colour.
- In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Paris became home to the avant-garde of art as painters such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse challenged realism further, moving towards abstract art. In the interwar era, France remained at the forefront of art, and was home to important outposts of the international surrealist and dada movements.
- For more information on French art, check out our previous articles: Monet’s Giverny Garden and Monet’s Water Lillies.
- France also has a significant literary history. In the Middle Ages, France was known for epic poems such as The Song of Roland, and the courtly lyric poems which expressed romantic love in a period in which most aristocratic marriages were arranged.
- In the 18th century, France became a centre of Englightenment ideas thanks to the works of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot.
- France was as much a centre for avant-garde literature as it was visual art. Significant 19th century writers included the novelists Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola and Victor Hugo, and the poets Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarmé.
- In the 20th century, Paris was home to the existentialist movement embodied by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as the surrealist writer Andre Gide.
- As much as the individual writers and artists who have lived in France, it is the atmosphere that surrounds French art and literature that sets it apart. In the 19th century, the Parisian avant-garde became associated with a bohemian way of life that challenged the strictures of the Victorian Era.
- Today the arts are uniquely valued in France. Here, intellectuals have as much fame as reality TV stars, and people discuss books and ideas at the dinner table. Perhaps because of this, Paris is famous not just for its own artists but as a home of expatriates – including Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway.
Art de vivre (the art of living):
- As well as its prominence in the formal arts, France is known internationally for elevating daily life into a kind of art form. Central to the art de vivre is the little moments, which are imbued with a simple elegance. The French take time to start their day with a coffee and a croissant, make sure to shop for fresh ingredients at local markets and savour wine, dinner and good conversation with friends. Stroll the streets of Paris or the French countryside, where all is in harmony.
- Fresh produce is at the heart of the French art de vivre.
The association of France with style and fashion began during the reign of Louis XIV, who established the great palace of Versailles. In the 1670s, the first fashion magazines were created in France, which marketed French styles to women across Europe, and introduced the fashion ‘season’, meaning that fashions constantly changed.
In the late 19th century, haute couture – in which clothes were made specifically to fit the buyer – was developed in Paris. Fashion designers such as Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin became international celebrities, presaging today’s designer labels.
In the 1920s Coco Chanel promoted a boyish and simple chic – including the enduring ‘little black dress’ – that overthrew the corseted designs of the 19th century. Chanel endures as a luxury fashion house today, joined by other French designers such as Christian Dior, Givenchy, and Yves Saint Laurent.
Today, French fashion and beauty inspire fashionistas worldwide with an ethos infused with the effortlessness and simple elegance of the art de vivre.
- More than anywhere else, Paris exercises a hold over the imagination. It’s hard to measure up to every tourists image of elegant boulevards, literary cafes, and romantic walks beyond the Seine – but Paris does. On your first visit, make sure to see the iconic Eiffel Tour, Arc de Triomphe and Louvre.
- Yet, Paris has so much to offer beyond the tourist staples. The amount of world-class art here justifies several trips – it can take several days to get through the Louvre, not to mention the city’s more than 130 other museums. Make sure to take some time away from visiting sites to live like a local: buy fresh produce, eat in cafes, browse flea markets, and experience the Parisian way of living that draws people from around the world.
- For a chance to explore Paris in depth, why not join Odyssey’s 21 Days of Parisian Life tour?
- We also invite you to read our other articles for more information about Paris: Designing Paris, Paris Leaders and Landmarks and The Elegant Arcades of Paris.
- While the country might have been unified much longer than most of its European counterparts, the culture and people of France remain fiercely diverse. Each of France’s regions is home to a distinct culture, national dress, and cuisine. Reflecting this, the landscape is always changing, from rugged Brittany to the Alps to the sunny beaches of the French Riviera. It’s impossible to capture so much diversity in one article, so here are some highlights:
Provence and the Côte d’Azur:
- Outside of Paris, Provence and the French Riviera are probably the most iconic regions of France – with good reason. The bright sun, crystal-clear beaches and fields of lavender inspired artists such as Van Gogh, Cézanne and Renoir.
- The area also has a long history: Roman remains dot the landscape, while the city of Avignon was home to popes during the Middle Ages.
- In the 20th century, the French Riviera became the holiday locale of choice for artists, writers and film stars, home to charming coastal village and luxury resorts.
- Odyssey Traveller offers several tours which visit Provence: Paris-Bordeaux-Provence By Train, Southwest France: Along the Canal du Midi, and Provincial France.
- In the Middle Ages, Burgundy was a powerhouse, ruled by its own duke and existing outside the French crown. Today, Burgundy is quintessential rural France, sleepy green hills dotted with wineries (home to the famous Burgundy reds) and medieval villages.
- The city (and once capital) of Dijon is a testament to Burgundy’s former wealth and power, filled with medieval and Renaissance buildings. Particularly lavish is the neoclassical Palais des Dukes, once home to Burgundy’s dukes.
- Odyssey Traveller visits Burgundy on our La Belle France and Provincial France tours.
Normandy and Brittany:
- Normandy has long played an important role in European history: it was here that William the Conqueror reigned before (and after) his conquest of England in 1066 and here that the famous D-Day invasion was launched bringing World War Two to a close. This history is tangible in Normandy, from the Bayeux Tapestry, with its vivid account of the Norman conquest of England, to the cemeteries of the D-Day beaches, to the striking island monastery of Mont St. Michel, one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the Middle Ages.
- Brittany, or Breizh, a rugged Atlantic ocean peninsula, is one of the most distinctive regions of France. Only incorporated into France in 1592, here the Breton language – closely related to Celtic languages such as Cornish and Welsh – is still spoken. Local festivals celebrate Celtic-influenced Breton music, dance, and poetry.
- Odyssey Traveller offers a specialty tour devoted to Normandy and Brittany.
- For more on the diversity of rural France, read our articles about South West France, the historic Loire Valley, and the island of Corsica.
The international celebration of French food as the height of fine dining neglects the heavily localised and diverse nature of French food. Regional specialties include crêpes (Brittany), bouillabaisse (Marseille) and cassoulet (Toulouse).
France is also home to over 500 varieties of cheese. Wine has been a part of French culture since the Roman Empire, and today there are dozens of wine producing regions around France, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, Provence, the Loire Valley, and Champagne. Indicating the seriousness with which wine is treated, the French government regulates that only certain grapes can be grown in certain regions, and determines what land can be used for vineyards.
French bread is a cultural icon, served with virtually every meal. No matter where you go, you’ll likely encounter a boulangerie selling all kinds of bread. Pastries and baked goods are another specialty of the French, including croissants, tartes (tarts) and gâteaux (cakes).
The climate in France varies considerably, with four major climate regions. The western coast of France has a rainy and cool climate, with little variation between seasons, while inland has a continental climate of hot summers and cold winters. The Mediterranean has a hot dry summer and a mild winter, and the final region, the French Alps have a mountain climate, with snow three to six months a year.
If you’re concerned about the future of the iconic Notre Dame cathedral, following the devastating fire in April 2019, there’s good news – the French senate has recently voted to rebuild the cathedral in medieval style.
Difficulties have emerged, however, regarding the roof of the cathedral – which was built out of 800-year-old oaks. There are concerns that there might not be enough oaks extant to rebuild the roof – though some historians have asserted that the Baltic states might hold enough tall trees.
If this article has made you interested in visiting (or re-visiting) France, why not join an Odyssey Traveller tour? Reflecting the richness of French history, culture and scenery, we offer over 20 tours of France. Each offers a diverse perspective on France, lead by experts and local tour guides so that you have a culturally rich and authentic experience.