French culture has been dynamically shaped by significant historical events
as well as the unique geography of the European region that France inhabits. The
landscape of France drastically changes from one region to another and culture,
in turn, varies greatly from region to region.
The Pyrenees Mountains, which comprise the southern border between France and
Spain, have many customs and cultural aspects that are deeply rooted in Basque
heritage. This region is referred to as Southwestern France and is home to the
micro-country Andorra. Many people who are of Basque decent, properly
referred to as French Basque Country among French nationals, live in the
Southwestern region of France huddled near the Spanish border. Responsible for
the origin of the game of jai-alai, this region has been described by many
travel aficionados as a gateway to the past. The Basque have remained mostly
unchanged even with the proliferation of many modern customs and cultural
characteristics nipping at their borders.
View of Mt. Urkulu in the Western Pyrenees - Heart of
French Basque Country:
By Iñaki LLM
via Wikimedia Commons
Moving Eastward towards the Italian and Swiss borders are the French alps. Of
the Alps that occupy southeastern France would most notably be Mont Blanc and
the Chamonix ski area. The Chamonix ski area is most notable for a large ski
reception area that has been hollowed out of an area just below the summit of
Mont Blanc which includes a shopping area, restaurants, and observation decks
which are constructed within and on the exterior of Mont Blanc.
Political movements with domestic policy changes as their primary motivators
are both a source of French cultural change as well as source of many French
political movements. Democracy and political movements in France have made
French politics a primary source of study for many political science majors in
the United States as well as in other western countries around the world.
Outside foreign occupation and hostile sieges like The Nazi Occupation during
World War II and Napoleon's unsuccessful attempt at conquering all of Europe
including Russian during what Russians refer to as the Patriotic War of 1812.
These two heavy handed foreign manipulations have remarkably altered the course of not only
French history, but French culture as
Map of French Empire in 1812 - (Click to Enlarge and Read):
These two international situations are no doubt the most important foreign
originated sources of change for French culture throughout modern history. These
international situations led not only to the exile of Napoleon, but France's
dynamically adaptive culture that it has gained international notoriety for. The
reach of foreign influence can be readily seen by recognizing the dynamically
varying customs and cultures that vary from one region of France to another.
Imperial Standard of Napoleon - State Flag of Confederation
of the Rhine:
Since the 17th Century, France has played a large role in the creation and
maintenance of high culture. Emerging during the 19th Century, French influence
can easily be recognized in cuisine, couture, as well as cinema. Paris has
served as the epicenter for the pulse of design leading many to refer to
France, and Paris in particular, as one of the most cultured locales in all of Europe.
The Parisian lifestyle is earmarked with many world-renowned museums such as The Louvre which houses the infamous Mona Lisa and
Monet's beautiful mural, Water Lilies.
There is easily an entire lifetime someone could spend learning about France
and French culture. In an attempt to provide a brief cliff notes if you will of
French culture, here is a list of the 15 most significant parts of French
culture that serve as a starting point for the Francophile inside each and every
one of us.
15) National Religion
Religion has always played a pivotal role in European culture since before the
middle ages, and even today the affects of religion in Europe can still be
distinctly seen in Spain, France, England, and Italy. In Europe during the 1300s, religion began gaining more and more importance as the monarchies that
dotted most of Western Europe needed to reinforce their claim to the throne via
divine rite. In France, freedom of religion is practiced and indeed guaranteed,
thanks to the Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen, which was a
declaration signed in 1789. Since then, the country has remained free from any
ruling national religion and has cast aside its traditional, synergistic
relationship between their monarchy and the Catholic church.
Important Document of the French Revolution - Declaration
of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789:
There was a time when the national religion of France was Catholicism, but
since then, despite most religious people being Catholic, anybody is free to
practice whatever religion they like. Today, a wide range of religions are
practiced in France, including Islam, Protestantism, Judaism, Russian Orthodoxy
and Sikhism. The country is, in turn, both multicultural and multiconfessional.
France may enjoy a period now without national religion but it must be noted
here that the French are deeply rooted in Catholicism and it is common place for
many to celebrate what is known as their saint's day in addition to their
birthday. Their saint's day is determined by the church calendar where
confirmation names determine a corresponding date with the church calendar. The
religious as well as non-devout, can both enjoy what is ultimately a second
birthday each year.
The French, for almost the entire period prior to 1789, were very staunchly
Catholic. French history even overlaps with one of the most severe fracturing of
the Catholic Church in modern history known as the schism. At this time there
were actually two claims for the papacy - one in Rome and one in Avignon; yes
two separate claims to the papacy! There was even a Papal Palace erected to
house the opposing claim to the papal throne.
14) The State
The role of the state in France has changed dramatically over time, with the
revolution of 1789 overthrowing the democracy and implementing a brand new
system of government and control.
Storming of the Bastille and Arrest of the Governor M. de
Launay - July 14, 1789:
Traditionally, however, the state has always
had an important role when enforcing culture, whether it’s a matter of
education, culture or the economy.
Depiction of the Storming of the Tuileries Palace on August
10, 1792 by Jean Duplessis-Bertaux:
The French state and its culture have a long relationship that goes back to the
times of the French Monarchy. State policies throughout history have also been designed
to unite the country around cultural norms, but as the country has become
increasingly multicultural, the right wing of politics has begun thriving, with
conservative parties performing well and even the Front Nationale, which calls
for a halt to immigration and ‘Islamisation’ of the country. The rise in
conservatism across the country shows that the state has not always had a strong
relationship with culture because of bureaucracy or desire for control by the
political classes, but because the French people wanted it to.
"Liberty Leading the People" - By Eugene Delacroix
Commemorating French Revolution of 1830:
13) Social Classes
Social classes in France have a large impact on the culture of the country.
Today, there is a social structure that remains pretty much just as it was
during the 1950s. There are three classes that may often be split up into
sub-sections. The first section is the upper class. This class is made of up
wealthy families, businessmen, CEOs and politicians. For instance, this class
would include the President, his cabinet, the leaders of political parties and
the CEO of French company, Airbus.
Fabrice Bregier - Current CEO of Airbus:
Courtesy of USA Today
The middle class group is by far the largest group in France. This social
class is made up of people who have white-collar jobs. These kinds of jobs
include the senior managers of companies, and those who can have a moderately
high income buy mostly a stable, annual income.
Finally, there is the lower class that consists largely of people who work in
blue-collar, manual labor roles. This class also includes people who work in
retail and similar roles. This class can be defined by those who have a
relatively small income, or an unsecured income. Over the last couple of decades,
industries have changed in France, meaning that the amount of blue-collar jobs
that are available have decreased massively.
12) Regional Customs
France has many regions, and in each region there are noticeably different
customs and cultures. France is the result of a nation building its own ideals
of centuries, and today, there are regions with their own fashion, religions,
accents, foods and general ways of life. Historic French provinces include
places like Normandy, Berry, Brittany, Dauphine and Poitou. Regional
identification in the 21st Century generally revolves around life style and
socioeconomic status. For time purposes we will focus on the region of Normandy.
Map of the French Province Normandy:
The reason why socioeconomic status is one of the most defining features
between different regions is because of industrialization and immigration into
the country during the 19th and 20th Centuries. These processes created regional
communities in France that are urban, suburban and rural. Each society, in turn,
creates its own traditions and unique appearance. Below is the Mount
Saint-Michel Abbey. What makes Mount Saint-Michel Abbey so interesting is that
the tides of the English Channel actually wash the road leading to Mount Saint
Michel whenever the region is experiencing high-tide. During low-tide the road,
visible in the bottom left of the photograph below, is opened to the public and
traffic commences on and off of the island. Mount Saint Michel actually has
times during the day that no one can venture on and off the island unless they
wish to get very muddy and wet!
Mount Saint-Michel Normandy:
Some typical customs include puppet shows on Christmas Eve, dinner after Mass
on Christmas Eve or other religious events. There is also a five-week holiday in
France, whereby employees in different regions of the country are legally
entitled to five weeks of paid leave from work. Other traditions revolve around
the celebration of historic events, like Bastille Day, which commemorates the
storming of the Bastille prison in 1789.
"July 14th in the Country" - By: Tadeusz Makowski in Honor
of Bastille Day:
11) Alcohol Culture
France once believed that its culture was totally immune to binge drinking,
which is a phenomenon that has hit the United Kingdom and the United States. For
a great deal of time, the French culture of drinking in cafes and restaurants,
in moderation, meant that the country remained relatively civilized when it came
to the consumption of alcohol. However, recent changes in culture have meant
that the country has had to increase the legal drinking age from 16 to 18.
Today, France has a culture of young people drinking far too much in the
urban areas. In the more rural areas, however, the traditional attitude to
alcohol and, wine in particular, has remained relatively the same. The French
enjoy alcoholic beverages like wine and distilled liquors, and in the rural
areas do not indulge in mass produced and low quality alcoholic drinks. Alcohol
is seen as an accompaniment to food.
The media plays an important role in any country’s national culture, given
that it doesn’t just report on happenings in the country, but also shapes them.
The media of France, while still playing a significant part in national culture,
is not as influential as it is in other European countries, and nowhere near as
influential as it is in the United States.
In general, the French do not read newspapers as frequently as other
countries. In fact, it is believed that less than 200 adults out of 1,000 read a
newspaper every day.
French Newspaper Ouest France Today Section:
The history of the French media goes back hundreds of years, but it came most
prevalent after the Second World War, when the press media became particularly
popular. It was only a year after the war had ended when 28 papers were being
printed regularly in France with a combined readership of around 6,000,000.
This did not last, however, and in just seven years, the readership of
newspapers was slashed by around half. The decline is blamed on the rise of the
broadcast media, which is significantly more popular in France. 80 newspapers
are printed daily in France today, and there are many free papers and magazines
that are handed out in the inner cities, but the Internet and television remain
the most popular form of media.
French art has been prominent throughout a number of its periods of history,
beginning in the prehistoric times and moving up to modern day. Before France
even existed, the landmass that soon became the country was home to some of the
earliest ‘artists’. Currently, the earliest known artwork in Europe can be found
in Europe and is though to be as old as 40,000 years old.
The Celtic and Roman periods saw the implementation of artwork on armor and
architecture, and then through the medieval period, there was Carolingaian art
and Merovingian art.
From "Utrecht Psalter" - 9th Century Naturalistic and
Energetic Line Drawings were New and Most Influential Innovation of Carolingian
Renaissance (780 to 900 AD):
The 1500s saw the introduction of the Early Modern period of art, which moved
on to the Baroque and Classicist phase. Today, France is also home to some of
the most impressive collections of artworks from all over the world. Notorious
museums in Paris include the internationally renowned Louvre museum, Petit
Palais and MuseeCarnavalet.
The most famous artists of France are also some of the most infamous in the
whole art world. One of these infamous French artists includes Vincent Van Gogh, the experimental and eccentric
artist known for cutting off his own ear.
"Self-Portrait" by Vincent Van Gogh in 1889:
Famous French artists also include
Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and the pioneering sculptor and contemporary artist,
"Impression Sunrise" By Claude Monet in 1872:
Music plays a large part in the culture of France in the modern world, and
has done for centuries previously. Some of the most famous styles to be played
and developed in France include Celtic, electronic, house, hip hop, Gregorian,
classical, opera, chanson, folk and cancan music. The country has its own charts
known as the SNEP, and every year, a wide range of festivals are held that
feature modern and traditional music alike, including the Bourges festival,
Hellfest and Rock en Seine.
France has produced a huge amount of classical music in history, and is proud
to be the home of some of the most legendary composes of romantic music. Not
only that, but the earliest sound recording device we know of was designed and
patented in France. The device was called the phonautograph, and was developed
1859 Model of Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville's
Today, the long history of music in the nation remains significant,
with contemporary music continuing to be developed and built upon by composers
Theater in France, much like its music, can be dated back as far as the medieval
days. The country, however, is most famous for its theater productions during
the Renaissance period. It was during the 16th Century that French theater began
to flourish and change. Before this period, the theater in France remained
mostly the same from medieval times, where comedies, histories, and tragedies were most popular.
Title Page of First Folio by William Shakespeare - 1623:
During the Renaissance, theatrical performances in Paris had tight
regulations placed upon them by guilds. It was in the last couple of decades of
the 16th Century, however, that these guilds began to disappear, and exclusive
rights were eventually given to the capital. Theaters soon began opening in the
capital city and alongside the public theaters, a number of private theaters
began appearing. This allowed for the performance of some more modern plays for
the time, as well as brand new productions written by French playwrights.
Theatre de la Renaissance in 1873 - Paris:
The 20th Century saw perhaps the biggest change since the 16th Century,
however, when a greater range of plays and playwrights began appearing. Works by
French writers were performed alongside world theater, and pieces written by
William Shakespeare. The mid-20th Century also saw the rise of the avant-garde,
where traditional plays began to disappear in favor of contemporary and
experimental pieces. Today, theaters remain open all over the country, and Paris
has become a hub for theater lovers across France and the rest of Europe.
Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris, France Present Day:
The most popular pieces of French literature include pieces written as far
back a 1846, with one of the most popular old titles being The Count of Monte
Cristo. Other pieces like Candide by Voltaire go back even further, with the
first edition of the book being published in 1759.
Alexander Dumas, Author of Count of Monte Cristo, in 1855:
Generally, French literature refers to any form of text that was initially
written in the French language, and much like French art and theater, the
history can be traced back to Medieval times. French literature can also refer
to literature written by those who live in France, but spoke other languages.
Some of the oldest literature found in the whole of Western Europe was in
fact written in Medieval French, which is a romance language that originally
formed from Latin. For this reason, France is known to be home to some of the
oldest literature in the West. Later in the 14th Century, the Italians started
producing a great deal more literature, but it was in the 16th Century that
France became significant again, and in the 17th Century, French literature was
once again dominant. A number of literary movements have passed through the
nation, including Symbolism, Naturalism, Surrealism and Existentialism.
Today, the country continues to produce world-renowned pieces of literature,
with the last French Nobel Prize winner for literature being J.M.G. Le Clezio in
2008. Other winners include Gao Xingjian, who writes in Chinese, Claude Simon,
Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint-John Perse and a host of others dating
back to 1901.
Architecture in France is one of the most defining features of its cities,
and one of the most famous pieces of architectural is the Eiffel Tower. The
tower has become well known all over the world, and was erected way back in
1889. The tower is made of an iron lattice and can be found in Paris. The tower
was once the tallest structure in the world, and today remains as the tallest
structure to exist in the whole of Paris. The tower, in 2010, had officially
received more than 250 million visitors.
Eiffel Tower and Jardins du Trocadero from the Palais de
via Wikimedia Commons
Architecture in general, in France, is considered one of the crowning glories
of the country. The Insitut de France, or French Institute announced in 1671 that
architecture in the country would become a special focus for the French people
and their culture.
Throughout the country’s history, architectural styles have changed a great
deal. The country has seen Gallo-Roman, Pre-Romanesque, Romanesque, Medieval,
Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassicism, Second Empire, Art Deco and
Modernist architecture. Today, modern architecture in its cities and towns take
influence from the many variations throughout history, and implement modernist
and postmodernist influences as well.
Art Deco Doors on the Cochise County Courthouse in Arizona:
The country also has regional architecture, which means that designs have
never stayed entirely consistent throughout the country. Instead, different
regions changed at different times, resulting in a wide range of architectural
styles within particular time frames.
Sport is another part of French culture that is considered immensely
important by the French people. The country has a long sporting history, and
much like Germany and the United Kingdom, the most popular form of sport in the
nation is football. The nation is also known for the annual Tour de France
Football has more than two million licensed players, as of 2009 statistics,
in France. The sport initially came from England in the 19th Century, but it
soon gained a large amount of followers, mostly from Northern France.
The Tour de France is a multiple stage bicycle race and this is what most
people consider to be the ‘most French’ when it comes to sporting in the
country. The race takes place in July, and involves cycling professionals from
all over the world. The race is organized by the Amaury Sport Organization, and
it has been operating since 1903. The only times when the tour has never taken
place were during the First and Second World Wars.
First Tour De France Winner Marice Garin, Paris, 1903:
Another popular sport that is not well known in the United States is
handball. As of 2009 statistics, there were nearly 400,000 registered players of
the game in France. The French are the world leaders in handball, being the
current Olympic Champions of the sport.
France is known for many reasons, and its great food is one of them. No, it’s
not all about onions and frog legs! The country is home to traditional foods and
modern, pioneering dishes, but soupe'oignon is certainly a favorite in
restaurants across the world. Translate, this is simply onion soup, and it is a
traditional French dish that is made of onions and beef stock. The soup is then
served with croutons, and with a layer on melted cheese over the top. The
origins of the onion soup can be dated back to the time of the Roman Empire, but
the current version was first used in the 18th Century.
France is of course known for its fine wines, but great wine simply doesn’t
feel right without some French cheese. Throughout French, plates of cheese are
often served up after the main course, before dessert, and with a French wine.
The cheese span from brie to blue cheese.
A lesser-known treat is known as Flamiche, and translated into English, this
simply means ‘Flemish’. The savory dish is a pie that has been filled with
vegetables and cheese. The classic dish is sometimes served like a pizza,
essentially making it a cheese and vegetable pie without a crust on the top.
Fashion is easily one of the biggest parts of French culture that people all
over the Western world can associate with. The French are considered to be world
leaders in fashion, along with the likes of Italy. The nation is one of the
world leaders in the fashion industry, and this has nearly always been the case.
French design first became prominent and popular between the 15th and 20th
Centuries, when France was experimenting with new styles of art, and artists
were coming up with innovative new styles that became popular the world over.
Today, fashion remains one of the biggest exports for the country, along with
wine. The country is home to some of the biggest fashion houses in the world,
including Chanel, Chlore, Hermes, Lanvin, Rochas, Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent
Boutique Chanel Joailleire - 18 Place Vendome, Paris:
During the Second World War, many fashion houses in Paris closed down, but by
1947, the ‘New Look’ appeared. As fashion once again became prominent after the
end of the war, a number of new collections appeared that included majestic
dresses and skirts. Fabric was once again being used in excess in fashion, and
in 1952, famous designer Coco Chanel returned to Paris. From here, the fashion
industry boomed, and the 1960s welcomed the introduction of ‘high fashion’.
1) The Concept of ‘French’
The most significant thing to consider when talking about French culture is
what exactly it means to be French, and what French culture really is. The
definition of culture stays the same regardless of the nation one is discussing.
Culture includes the beliefs, systems, values and institutions of a nation, a
group of people or other wider organization. In France, the concept of culture
is difficult to describe as values, beliefs and institutions change drastically
depending on what part of France you are considering.
"Hour of Triumph: Parisians Join the Parade Following
Allied Victory over Nazis - August 1944:
This seems to have been the case for hundreds of years, and even in the 18th
Century, metropolitan France was still a mixture of different cultures and
values. Today, when discussing French culture, it is simplest to talk about the
many values, beliefs and trends that have swept across the country, regardless
of the region it might have originated, or even stayed. Today, however, many
people in rural France, and conservatives in metropolitan France, believe that
the national culture is under threat as a result of globalization,
multiculturalism and Americanization. It is certainly true that in the last 20
years, immigrant communities have changed culture to some extent, and the free
market of the European Union has allowed for culture to change and adapt to
All in all, France is rich in history and culture. Whether you wish to
discuss the original cultures of the French regions, or the cultures that have
appeared and emerged in France since the 1960s, it is fair to say that the
country has an impressive range of values and traditions.
Even today, France is creating new traditions and values. Ever since the
revolution and the implementation of individual rights, the country’s art,
literary, fashion, food and sporting fields have flourished and become more
diverse and dynamic than ever.