The history of human life in France goes back at least 32,000 years to the Paleolithic era. France is famous for its many caves containing hundreds and hundreds of beautiful paintings of various animals familiar to Paleolithic hunters. Perhaps the most well-known cave is that at Lascaux in central France, discovered in 1940 and thought to be about 16,500 years old.
Among the spectacular paintings of bulls, antelopes, and horses, paleoastronomers have found what appear to be the earliest maps of the night sky as it would have looked from Earth at the time.
This ancient planetarium was found in an area of the Lascaux system called the Shaft of the Dead Man. Among the star patterns represented on the cave’s walls is the Summer Triangle, with its three stars, Vega, Deneb, and Altair, the brightest stars visible during the northern summer. Seventeen thousand years ago, around the time these drawings were made, this area of the heavens never set below the horizon and would have been particularly clear at the beginning of spring. Closer to the entrance of the cave system is a map of the Pleiades star cluster, sometimes called the Seven Sisters, above the shoulder of a bull. In the 21st century this portion of the sky is part of the constellation called Taurus the Bull, indicating that the identification of this cluster with the bull goes far back into prehistory.
But the Lascaux cave complex is not the oldest Paleolithic art gallery in France. That honor may go to a new system near Lascaux discovered at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in the mid-1990s by an amateur spelunker, which contains paintings dating back between 32,000 and 30,000 years. The dates identify the work as that of the Aurignacian culture (34,000–23,000), peoples whose artifacts have been found spread across the continents of Europe and Asia. The Aurignacians are known for their innovative flint-knapping techniques, body ornaments, and diverse tools.
Unlike Lascaux, where many of the animals represented were probably on the Paleolithic menu, the animals of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc include dangerous animals—lions, bears, and rhinoceros—more than 60 percent of the animals drawn on the gallery’s walls. The proposed age of this system would be enough to make it an important find. What may be more significant, however, in terms of understanding our species’ development, is the sophistication of the techniques used to portray the animals, in particular the use of perspective and shading.
Although Aurignacian hunters had projectile points made of antler, bone, and ivory, they did not use spear-throwers (atlatls) or the bow and arrow. It is not known whether they had eyed needles for stitching hides together, but none have so far been found.
During the Iron Age the Celtic Gauls arrived in France from the east. After many centuries of war and conflict with the Romans, the Gauls were defeated by the Romans under the leadership of Julius Caesar in 52 B.C.E. France, known as the province of Gaul during Roman rule, became a highly developed territory. Archaeologists have unearthed ruins of public baths and amphitheaters that date back to this period.
However this period of prosperity did not last and barbarian raids started to undermine the stability of Gaul. These barbarians were violent tribes that came from Germany. The Franks were the most powerful among them. In 5 C.E. the Franks succeeded in establishing their rule over the region.
The struggle for power continued between different groups and France subsequently saw the rule of the Merovingians, Carolingians, and eventually the Capetian Dynasty.
This period is often referred to as the Gothic period and was generally a prosperous time in spite of continual wars and feuds. The Gothic period is synonymous with the grand cathedrals that are still found in France today. The church emerged as a constant and stable power, and many monasteries flourished under the Capetian monarchy. The monasteries became increasingly involved in farming and other economic activities. France was one of the major contributors to the Crusades, the series of holy wars started by Christians who sought to take the Holy Land from the Muslims. This considerably weakened the Capetian Dynasty, which was further undermined by the Hundred Year’s War (1337–1453) with England. The Hundred Year’s War, which was actually fought for a little over a century, inflicted great damage on both France and England. Famines and bubonic plague, social and political turmoil, afflicted France in its aftermath.
In response to war, civil strife, feudal rebellion, and banditry, King Louis XI (1423–83) and his successors began to create the institutions and amass the power of a premodern state. Louis expanded and consolidated France’s borders, built up the royal army, and curtailed unruly nobles. François I (1494–1547), in 1516, secured an agreement with the pope that gave France considerable religious autonomy and created a national Catholic clergy.
The Wars of Religion, which wracked France with civil war for nearly 40 years between 1562 and 1598, were as much political as they were religious.
When King Henry II (1519–49) died accidentally in a tournament in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici (1519–89) oversaw a tumultuous 30-year period in which her three young sons (François II [1544–60], Charles IX [1550–74], and Henri III [1551–89]) ruled in succession for brief periods. The country endured chaos, punctuated by ferocious struggles between Huguenots (Protestants) and Catholics.
With the end of the Wars of Religion, and the advent of the strong leadership of the royal advisor Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), France saw the rise of an absolute monarchy, epitomized by King Louis XIV (1638–1715). Known as the Sun King, he ruled from 1643 to 1715, amid great pomp and splendor.
The 18th century is known as the period of the Enlightenment in France. The philosophies of Voltaire, Rousseau, and other philosophes had a profound effect on Western thought, and the ideals of liberty and equality expressed during this period ultimately fueled both the American and French revolutions.
The French Revolution in 1789 eliminated the absolute monarchy in France and led to the formation of the First French Republic in 1792.
Following a period of incredible bloodshed, which included the execution of the king and then countless others in the Terror, the French Revolution eventually led to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), who expanded the French Empire by conquering neighboring countries.
Napoleon I ruled France from 1804 to 1814, after which the Bourbon Dynasty was restored to power.
The period that followed is known as the French Restoration. The power of the Roman Catholic Church, which had suffered great losses during the revolution, was reestablished under the Bourbons.
The French Second Republic was established in 1848, when the monarchy was replaced with a representative government. In 1852, however, Napoleon III (1808–73) overthrew this government and established the Second Empire. In 1870 Napoleon III was overthrown, and the Third French Republic was established. During this period France pursued an aggressive colonial program, expanding its overseas territories in Asia and Africa. During World War I France allied with nations that opposed German power. Much of that war was fought on French soil; by the end the country had suffered a huge loss of troops and industrial capacity and had to work hard to rebuild its economy.
During World War II France and its territories were defeated by Nazi Germany in 1940; some 90,000 French troops died and nearly two million were taken prisoner.
German troops occupied the country, assisted by the collaborationist Vichy regime.
Under the Vichy regime some 76,000 French and foreign Jews were deported to death camps; less than than 3 percent survived.
Opposing the German occupation was the leader of the Free French General Charles De Gaulle (1890–1970) and various partisan groups acting independently of De Gaulle.
France was freed by the Allied forces in 1944. Charles de Gaulle set up a provisional government and subsequently became the president of France. After the world wars France was unable to maintain its colonial empire as the 1950s and 1960s became a period of chaotic decolonization around the world.
In the 21st century France is a stable and prosperous country with a presidential democracy.
The country enjoys good relations with neighboring nations, including Germany, in spite of their turbulent past.
France is a founding member of the European Union (EU).
j GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE France is one of the largest countries in Europe. It shares borders with Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Monaco, and Andorra.
France consists mainly of plains and slightly undulating hills. The Pyrenées mountain ranges are located in the south, while the country shares the Alps mountain range with Switzerland to the west.
The Massif Central, one of the oldest ranges in France, is located in the middle of the country.
France has a fairly long coastline that exceeds 1,988 miles and borders the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. French beaches can be smooth and sandy or rocky and rough. The country has four major rivers: the Loire, Seine, Rhône, and Garonne. The Loire, the longest river in France, stretches 634 miles, from its beginning in the Massif Central until it drains into the Atlantic Ocean. The German Rhine River, situated on the Franco-German border, also forms a part of the country’s system of waterways.
France has four types of climate: oceanic, semicontinental, Mediterranean, and mountain. Except for the coastal regions, marked by hot summers and mild winters, most parts of the country generally enjoy cool winters and mild summers. France also experiences strong, dry, cold winds known as mistral, which blow from the northwest.

France is one of the major industrialized economies in Europe and, indeed, the world. The French government, although it has relaxed control over many economic sectors, still claims a major stake in railways, electricity, and telecommunication sectors.
The country is blessed with a rich supply of natural resources. Among its mineral resources are coal, iron ore, potash, zinc, and bauxite. France also has sound timber and flourishing fishing industries.
Aerospace, automobiles, chemicals, electronics, machinery, textiles, and tourism are other major industries in France. French farmers cultivate grains, potatoes, and wine grapes. Beef, fish, and dairy products also contribute to the country’s economy.
France enjoys good trade relations with the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, the United States, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. France exports transportation equipment, machinery, iron and steel, and beverages. The import list includes crude oil, plastics, and chemicals.
France is a leading member of the Group of Eight (G8) and officially joined the European Union (EU) in 1999. The French currency, the French franc, was replaced with the Euro in 2002.

The French people are generally convivial and friendly. It is customary for people to greet each other even if they are strangers but to address each other formally (as monsieur, madame, or mademoiselle, as the case may be). French culture has been highly romanticized over the ages. Artists and fashion designers flock to France for inspiration and exposure. Tourists consider Paris a haven for romantics.
Music, literature, philosophy, art, museums, festivals, food, style, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle are synonymous with France. The French are also avid fans of sports such as rugby, soccer, tennis, skiing, and basketball. The most popular sporting events involve cycling and auto racing. France hosts the world famous Tour de France (cycling) and Grand Prix (auto racing) events.
About 85 percent of the French population is Roman Catholic. In modern France adherence to church orthodoxy has diminished, though there are still plenty of Catholic faithful who adhere to the traditions and rituals. Minority communities include Muslims, Protestants, and Jews. A large number of French do not subscribe to any religious beliefs.

French cuisine is widely renowned. The word gourmet is French, and the restaurant is a French invention. Every region in France has a distinct flavor to its cooking. Classic French cuisine mainly originates from the northern parts of France. Liberal use of butter, cream, cheese, and eggs is characteristic of classic French cooking.
Combinations of salads, red and white meat, freshwater fish, and red and white wine are common items on French menus. The French, however, do not prepare such elaborate and delicate dishes on a daily basis.
A normal day begins with café au lait (coffee with hot milk), croissants, and other breads along with butter and jam. Dishes of pork, fish, or veal often form the main course at dinner tables. Cheese and apple tarts are also included in the main meals.
White wine is often drunk with fish or cheese, and red wines with red meat.
French wines are among the world’s best.
French wine-making has a rich and long history that dates back to pre-Roman times. Some of the most famous varieties come from the Burgundy, Rhône, Champagne, and Bordeaux regions.

Typically there are two wedding ceremonies in France: a civil ceremony and a church ceremony.
The civil ceremony is very short and is conducted by the local mayor. He legalizes the wedding after reading an excerpt from the French constitution and declaring the couple husband and wife.
The second wedding ceremony is religious in nature and normally takes place inside a church, conducted by a priest in front of family and friends.
At the wedding reception, a toast is made to the newlyweds. The couple drinks from special goblets that may be family heirlooms. Some French couples also serve a special dessert known as croquembouche instead of the traditional wedding cake. The revelers pop the corks on champagne bottles with a saber specially made for this purpose. This custom dates back to the time of Napoleon. In those days skilled horsemen, astride horses, would ride past ladies holding up champagne bottles and cut off the corks with sharp sabers.
After a long wedding reception the couple retires to their new home. Sometimes close friends appear on their doorstep singing and clanging pots and pans. The groom is expected to entertain his boisterous guests with snacks and drinks.