Languages: French 100%, rapidly declining regional dialects (Provençal, Breton, Alsatian, Corsican, Catalan, Basque, Flemish)
Ethnicity/race: Celtic and Latin with Teutonic, Slavic, North African, Southeast Asian, and Basque minorities
Religions: Roman Catholic 83%–88%, Protestant 2%, Islam 5%–10%, Jewish 1%, unaffiliated 4%
National Holiday: Fete de la Federation, July 14
Literacy rate: 99% (2003 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2009 est.): $2.11 trillion; per capita $32,800. Real growth rate: –2.2%.
Inflation: 0.1%. Unemployment: 9.7%. Arable land: 34%. Agriculture: wheat, cereals, sugar beets, potatoes, wine grapes; beef, dairy products; fish.
Labor force: 27.76 million; services 71.5%, industry 24.4%, agriculture 4.1% (1999).
Industries: machinery, chemicals, automobiles, metallurgy, aircraft, electronics; textiles, food processing; tourism.
Natural resources: coal, iron ore, bauxite, zinc, uranium, antimony, arsenic, potash, feldspar, fluorospar, gypsum, timber, fish.
Exports: $456.8 billion (2009 est.): machinery and transportation equipment, aircraft, plastics, chemicals, pharmaceutical products, iron and steel, beverages.
Imports: $532.2 billion (2009 est.): machinery and equipment, vehicles, crude oil, aircraft, plastics, chemicals.
Major trading partners: Germany, Spain, UK, Italy, Belgium, U.S., Netherlands (2006).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 38.433 million (2005); mobile cellular: 49.37 million (2005). Radio broadcast stations: AM 41, FM about 3,500 (this figure is an approximation and includes many repeaters), shortwave 2 (1998). Television broadcast stations: 584 (plus 9,676 repeaters) (1995). Internet hosts: 3.149 million (2006). Internet users: 29.945 million (2006).
Transportation: Railways: total: 29,085 km (2005). Highways: total: 956,303 km; paved: paved: 951,220 km (including 10,490 km of expressways); unpaved: 0 km (2002). Waterways: 8,500 km (1,686 km accessible to craft of 3,000 metric tons) (2000). Ports and harbors: Bordeaux, Calais, Dunkerque, La Pallice, Le Havre, Marseille, Nantes, Paris, Rouen, Strasbourg. Airports: 501 (2006 est.).
International disputes: Madagascar claims Bassas da India, Europa Island, Glorioso Islands, and Juan de Nova Island; Comoros claims Mayotte; Mauritius claims Tromelin Island; territorial dispute between Suriname and the French overseas department of French Guiana; France asserts a territorial claim in Antarctica (Adelie Land); France and Vanuatu claim Matthew and Hunter Islands, east of New Caledonia.
France Gains Territory in the Hundred Year’s War
The missing pieces in Philip Valois’s domain were the French provinces still held by the Plantagenet kings of England, who also claimed the French crown. Beginning in 1338, the Hundred Years’ War eventually settled the contest. After France’s victory in the final battle, Castillon (1453), the Valois were the ruling family, and the English had no French possessions left except Calais. Once Burgundy and Brittany were added, the Valois dynasty’s holdings resembled modern France. Protestantism spread throughout France in the 16th century and led to civil wars. Henry IV, of the Bourbon dynasty, issued the Edict of Nantes (1598), granting religious tolerance to the Huguenots (French Protestants). Absolute monarchy reached its apogee in the reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715), the Sun King, whose brilliant court was the center of the Western world.
Birth of French Republic
After a series of costly foreign wars that weakened the government, the French Revolution plunged France into a bloodbath beginning in 1789 with the establishment of the First Republic and ending with a new authoritarianism under Napoléon Bonaparte, who had successfully defended the infant republic from foreign attack and then made himself first consul in 1799 and emperor in 1804. The Congress of Vienna (1815) sought to restore the pre-Napoleonic order in the person of Louis XVIII, but industrialization and the middle class, both fostered under Napoléon, built pressure for change, and a revolution in 1848 drove Louis Philippe, last of the Bourbons, into exile. Prince Louis Napoléon, a nephew of Napoléon I, declared the Second Empire in 1852 and took the throne as Napoléon III. His opposition to the rising power of Prussia ignited the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), which ended in his defeat, his abdication, and the creation of the Third Republic.
Germany Occupies France During World War II
A new France emerged from World War I as the continent’s dominant power. But four years of hostile occupation had reduced northeast France to ruins. Beginning in 1919, French foreign policy aimed at keeping Germany weak through a system of alliances, but it failed to halt the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine. On May 10, 1940, Nazi troops attacked, and, as they approached Paris, Italy joined with Germany. The Germans marched into an undefended Paris and Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain signed an armistice on June 22.
France was split into an occupied north and an unoccupied south, Vichy France, which became a totalitarian German puppet state with Pétain as its chief. Allied armies liberated France in Aug. 1944, and a provisional government in Paris headed by Gen. Charles de Gaulle was established. The Fourth Republic was born on Dec. 24, 1946. The empire became the French Union; the national assembly was strengthened and the presidency weakened; and France joined NATO. A war against Communist insurgents in French Indochina, now Vietnam, was abandoned after the defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A new rebellion in Algeria threatened a military coup, and on June 1, 1958, the assembly invited de Gaulle to return as premier with extraordinary powers. He drafted a new constitution for a Fifth Republic, adopted on September 28, which strengthened the presidency and reduced legislative power. He was elected president on Dec. 21, 1958.
France next turned its attention to decolonialization in Africa; the French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia had received independence in 1956. French West Africa was partitioned and the new nations were granted independence in 1960. Algeria, after a long civil war, finally became independent in 1962.
Relations with most of the former colonies remained amicable. De Gaulle took France out of the NATO military command in 1967 and expelled all foreign-controlled troops from the country. De Gaulle’s government was weakened by massive protests in May 1968 when student rallies became violent and millions of factory workers engaged in wildcat strikes across France. After normalcy was reestablished in 1969, de Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, modified Gaullist policies to include a classical laissez-faire attitude toward domestic economic affairs. The conservative, pro-business climate contributed to the election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as president in 1974.
Economic Troubles Under Mitterand
Socialist François Mitterrand attained a stunning victory in the May 10, 1981, presidential election. The victors immediately move to carry out campaign pledges to nationalize major industries, halt nuclear testing, suspend nuclear powerplant construction, and impose new taxes on the rich. The Socialists’ policies during Mitterrand’s first two years created a 12% inflation rate, a huge trade deficit, and devaluations of the franc. In March 1986, a center-right coalition led by Jacques Chirac won a slim majority in legislative elections. Chirac became prime minister, initiating a period of “cohabitation” between him and the Socialist president, Mitterrand. Mitterrand’s decisive reelection in 1988 led to Chirac being replaced as prime minister by Michel Rocard, a Socialist. Relations cooled with Rocard, however, and in May 1991 Edith Cresson—also a Socialist—became France’s first female prime minister. But Cresson’s unpopularity forced Mitterrand to replace her with a more well-liked Socialist, Pierre Bérégovoy, who eventually was embroiled in a scandal and committed suicide. During his tenure, Mitterrand succeeded in helping to draft the Maastricht Treaty and, after winning a slim victory in a referendum, confirmed close economic and security ties between France and the European Union (EU).
Jacques Chirac Gains French Presidency
On his third try, Chirac won the presidency in May 1995, campaigning vigorously on a platform to reduce unemployment. Elections for the national assembly in 1997 gave the Socialist coalition a majority. Shortly after becoming president, Chirac resumed France’s nuclear testing in the South Pacific, despite widespread international protests as well as rioting in the affected countries. Socialist leader Lionel Jospin became prime minister in 1997. In the spring of 1999, the country took part in the NATO air strikes in Kosovo, despite some internal opposition.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Front Party, shocked France in April 2002 with his second-place finish in the first round of France’s presidential election. He took 17% of the vote, eliminating Lionel Jospin, the Socialist prime minister, who tallied 16%. Jospin, stunned by the result, announced that he was retiring from politics and threw his support behind incumbent president Jacques Chirac, who won with an overwhelming 82.2% of the vote in the runoff election. Chirac’s center-right coalition won an absolute majority in parliament. In July 2002, Chirac survived an assassination attempt by a right-wing extremist.
During the fall 2002 and winter 2003 diplomatic wrangling at the United Nations over Iraq, France repeatedly defied the U.S. and Britain by calling for more weapons inspections and diplomacy before resorting to war. Relations between the U.S. and France have remained severely strained over Iraq.
France sent peacekeeping forces to assist two African countries in 2002 and 2003, Côte d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
After becoming Prime Minister in 2002, Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s plan to overhaul the national pension system sparked numerous strikes across France in May and June 2003, involving tens of thousands of sanitation workers, teachers, transportation workers, and air traffic controllers. In August, a deadly heat wave killed an estimated 10,000 mostly elderly people. The deaths occurred during two weeks of 104°F (40°C) temperatures.
In 2004, the French government passed a law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols in schools. The government maintained that the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols threatened the country’s secular identity; others contended that the law curtailed religious freedom.
In March 2004 regional elections, the Socialist Party made enormous gains over Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) Party. Unpopular economic reforms are credited for the UMP’s defeat.
On May 29, 2005, French voters rejected the European Union constitution by a 55%–45% margin. Reasons given for rejecting the constitution included concerns about forfeiting too much French sovereignty to a centralized European government and alarm at the EU’s rapid addition of 10 new members in 2004, most from Eastern Europe. In response, President Chirac, who strongly supported the constitution, replaced Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin with Dominique de Villepin, a former foreign minister.
France Makes Headlines with Ban on Headscarves and DSK Scandal
In April 2011, France banned the wearing of full veils in public, becoming the first European nation to impose the restriction. The ban caused protests in Paris and several other cities. The new restriction has many Muslims worried about their rights as French citizens. Covering the face is considered by some Muslims as a religious obligation. Supporters of the ban view it as necessary to preserve French culture and to combat what they claim are separatist actions in Muslims.
On May 14, 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn , head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a leading political figure in France, was arrested for sexually assaulting a maid at a Manhattan hotel. Strauss-Kahn was removed from an Air France Plane at Kennedy International Airport and taken into custody. On May 18, he resigned as managing director of the IMF.
Strauss-Kahn was expected to announce his candidacy for the French presidency soon. He had been considered a favorite to oust President Nicolas Sarkozy. A grand jury indicted him on multiple charges, including committing a criminal sex act, attempted rape, and sexual abuse. Reaction in France was a mixture of anger, disbelief, and embarrassment, with polls showing that most people thought he was set up.
On July 1, 2011, Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest. Prosecutors, who initially believed they had a strong case, acknowledged that the accuser has credibility issues. The hotel maid accused Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in May. Since then she has admitted to prosecutors that she lied about what happened after the incident. In her initial statement she said that after the assault, she waited in a hallway for Strauss-Kahn to leave the room, but later admitted that she had cleaned a nearby room and his room before reporting the incident. The woman also reportedly lied about her income to qualify for housing as well as the number of children she has to increase her tax refund.