France Fact File
Official name French Republic
Form of government Republic with two legislative bodies (Senate and National Assembly)
Area 547,030 sq km (211,208 sq miles)
Time zone GMT+1 hour
Projected population 2015 61,852,000
Population density 109.3 per sq km (283.0 per sq mile)
Life expectancy 79.1
Infant mortality (per 1,000) 4.4
Official language French
Other languages Provencal, Breton, Alsatian, Corsican, Catalan, Basque, Flemish, German, Arabic
Literacy rate 99 %
Religions Roman Catholic 90%, Protestant 2 °/ Jewish 1 %, Muslim 1 %, unaffiliated 6%
Ethnic groups French 95%; others, including Algerian, Portuguese, Moroccan, Italian, and Spanish 5 %
Economy Services 70 %, industry 28 %, agriculture 2%
GNP per capita US$ 25,700
Climate Temperate, with cool winters and mild summers; warmer on the Mediterranean coast
Highest point Mont Blanc 4,807 m (15,771 ft) Map reference Pages 290-91
Situated at the west of continental Europe, France roughly resembles a hexagon and has three long stretches of coastline. To the north the English Channel separates it from the southern coast of England (the Channel Tunnel now links the two), to the west it faces the Bay of Biscay, and its southern shores are on the Mediterranean Sea. To the northeast and east, it shares borders with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, and in the far southwest the Pyrenees Mountains separate it from Spain. Southeast of the mainland, in the Mediterranean, is the French island of Corsica.
A political entity roughly equivalent to the area of present-day France was first established in ad 843, when the Treaty of Verdun divided the enormous Frankish Empire, which had reached its high point under Charlemagne, between Charlemagne's three grandsons. These divisions corresponded approximately to what are now France, Germany, and Italy. Charles the Bald thus became king of Francia Occi-dentalis. His Carolingian Dynasty lasted only until 987, when territorial fighting between feudal lords led to the election of Hugh Capet, who controlled the region around Paris, as king. The Capetian Dynasty lasted for almost 350 years, during which time it consolidated its power and extended its territory. When the crown passed to Philip VI, the first of the Valois rulers, in 1328, France was a great European powrer, although much of its present territory was in the hands of the English, who also laid claim to sovereignty over all of France. In 1338 there began a series of wars which later became known as the Hundred Years War. Despite a major French defeat at Agincourt in 1415, these conflicts eventually led to the expulsion of the English from nearly all of France by the middle of the fifteenth century.
In the second half of the sixteenth century, France was wracked by religious wars between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). These finally ended in 1598 with the accession of the first Bourbon king, the Protestant-turned-Catholic Henry of Navarre. Under the Bourbons, and especially under the 72-year reign of Louis XIV that ended in 1715, the monarchy reigned supreme and France acquired colonies in places as far afield as India, North America, and the Caribbean. Under royal patronage, French literature, art, and music flourished, and the royal court in Versailles was the most opulent in Europe and became a role model for basically every European prince. Such immense luxury, however was only possible due to ruthless exploitation of the Sun King's subjects. After his death, weak leadership, extremely high taxation and a series of debilitating wars during the eighteenth century led to the popular unrest that culminated in the French Revolution of 1789, which overthrew the monarchy and deposed the nobility but soon collapsed into a period of anarchy and savagery. The rise of Napoleon Bonaparte restored some stability and he conquered large parts of Europe between 1799 and 1814, only to lose it again. He was ultimately defeated in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium, and sentenced to exile on St Helena Island where he died in 1821.
Napoleon's defeat ushered in a period of political instability that saw first the restoration of the monarchy, which was twice overthrown in revolutions (1830 and 1848), then the installation of Napoleon's nephew, Louis-Napoleon, first as president of a republic and then as the Emperor Napoleon III. The defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 led to a new republic and a period of relative stability in which France acquired new colonies in Africa and Indochina.
During the twentieth century France suffered grievously in both world wars. In the trench warfare of the First World War, almost a million and a half French lives were lost and the northwest of the country was devastated. In the Second World War northern France was occupied by German forces and the south was administered from Vichy by a pro-Nazi collaborationist government led by Marechal Petain.
Political instability continued after the Second World War, as France unsuccessfully waged a war against insurgents in Indochina and as unrest in French-controlled Algeria threatened to bring down the government. In 1957 France's Second World War hero, Charles de Gaulle, was invited to assume power, under a constitution that greatly increased the powers of the president. This constitution has since undergone a number of revisions, the latest being in 2000. The French president, who controls defense and finance, is elected by universal suffrage for a five-year term. There are two houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate. The representatives in the National Assembly, who hold legislative authority, are elected every five years, while one-third of the Senate, with an advisory role, are chosen at three-year intervals.
Physical features and land use Much of France is low-lying with almost two-thirds of its land at an elevation of less than 250 m (800 ft). These lowland regions, interspersed with a number of hilly areas, stretch from the Belgian and German borders across the north to the rugged Breton Peninsula in the west, and inland to the Pyrenees in the southwest. Further east, along the Mediterranean coast and hemmed in by mountains, is the low-lying region of western Provence in the Rhone Delta. Except for the far northeast, which forms part of the Flanders Plain, most of these lowland areas comprise the basins of France's four main rivers and their tributaries. In the north, the Seine flows northwest through Paris and the surrounding Ile-de-France to the English Channel. France's longest river, the Loire, flows north through the central region, then westward to the Atlantic Ocean. Further south the Garonne, which rises in the Pyrenees, drains much of southwest France on its way to the Atlantic near Bordeaux; and in the east the Rhone, rising in Switzerland, flows west to Neanderthal people lived in caves, sometimes burying dead using decorated tombstones aul (France)
1309-77 The papacy moves from Rome to Avignon in southern France
1643 Religious persecution causes 200,000 Huguenots to flee, resulting in economic decline
1792 First French Republic established; Louis XVI executed (1793)
1814-15 Napoleon exiled to St Helena after losing Battle of Waterloo; monarchy restored under Louis XVIII