The French wrote the book on la vie en rose and gave the world champagne and camembert, de Beauvoir and Debussy, the Tour de France and the Tour Eiffel. There’s a term for their seductive lifestyle – Douce France (Sweet France) and you’ll find yourself using it often.
Although the ubiquity of Levi’s and Le Big Mac flusters the country’s cultural purists, anything from a year in Provence to a weekend in Paris will explain why half the world grows dreamy over stalking Cyrano’s streets or picnicking Manet-style sur l’herbe.
This country has been synonymous with romance for longer than your grandmother cares to remember, so whether you visit Paris or the Pyrenees, the Côte d’Azur or the auberge de jeunesse, be sure to keep your fantasies in check, your expectations in line and your joie in your vivre.
Full country name: French Republic
Area: 547,030 sq km
Population: 60.18 million
Capital City: Paris
People: 92% French, 3% North African, 2% German, 1% Breton, 2% other (including Provençal, Catalan & Basque)
Language: French, Catalan, Basque, Breton, Corsican
Religion: 88% Roman Catholic, 8% Muslim, 2% Protestant 1% Jewish, 3% unaffiliated
Head of State: President Jacques Chirac
Head of Government: Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
GDP: US$1.58 trillion
GDP per capita: US$26,000
Annual Growth: 4%
Major Industries: Oil refining, steel, cement, aluminium, agricultural products & foodstuffs (wheat, barley, maize, cheese), luxury goods, chemicals, motor manufacturing, energy products
Paris assaults the senses, demanding to be seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelt. From romance along the Seine to landscapes on bus-sized canvases to the pick-an-ism types in cafes monologuing on the use of garlic or the finer points of Jerry Lewis, Paris is the essence of all things French.
Many of Paris’ significant sights are strung along its river, and its quartiers each have their own distinct personalities, so you can experience a lot without covering much ground. The museums, monuments and the two islands are a magnet for visitors but it can be just as rewarding to wander.
Best time to go
Spring offers the best weather to visitors, with beach tourism picking up in May. Temperatures aren’t too bad in autumn, although the short days mean limited sunlight and the cold starts to make itself felt towards the end of the season, even along the Côte d’Azur. Winter means playing in the snow in France’s Alps and Pyrenees, though the Christmas school holidays send hordes of tadpoles in uniform scurrying for the slopes. Mid-July through to the end of August is when most city dwellers take their annual five weeks’ vacation to the coasts and mountains, and the half-desolate cities tend to shut down a bit accordingly. The same happens during February and March.
Slightly larger than California, France is one of the largest countries in Europe. The English Channel lies to the northwest and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Spain broils across the Pyrenees to the south, the Mediterranean (including Corsica) is to the southeast, and over the eastern Alps and Jura ranges lie Switzerland and Italy. France’s relatively flat northeastern borders abut Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
The country’s longest river, the Loire, runs 1020km (630mi) from the Massif Central to the Atlantic. The Seine, Rhône, Garonne and Rhine are France’s other major waterways, draining the plains and funnelling huge mountain run-offs.
The French Alps include Mont Blanc, which at 4800m (15,750ft) is Europe’s highest peak. The most spectacular of France’s ancient ranges is the Massif Central, a huge region in the middle of France that covers one-sixth of the country. Over 3200km (1985mi) of coastline ranges from the chalk cliffs of Normandy and the promontories of Brittany to the fine-sand beaches along the Atlantic. The southeastern Mediterranean coast tends to have pebbly, sometimes rocky beaches, though the Languedoc and some of the Roussillon beaches have sand-castle potential.
Forests – mostly beech, oak and pine – cover roughly one-fifth of the country. Storms in 1999 uprooted over 60 million trees throughout France; replanting is underway. These wooded areas, as well as vast wetlands, support the bulk of the country’s mammals and birds.
France’s mix of climates and terrains endowed it with a rich variety of fauna. Unfortunately, due to agricultural overkill, pollution and encroaching urbanisation, many fragile species such as the Pyrenees ibex, Corsican deer, brown bear, wolf and otter now face extinction. Some animals and birds – the chamois (a mountain antelope), the larger bouquetin (a type of ibex), beaver, stork and vulture – still live in the wild thanks to re-introduction programs based in national parks.
Since 1790, France has been divided into administrative units of about 6100 sq km (2380 sq mi) called départements. There are 96 départements in France and a further five overseas, expanses of ocean being no impediment to French administrative zeal. The départements d’outre-mer (overseas departments) are the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Pacific island groups of New Caledonia, Tahiti and French Polynesia; French Guiana, in South America; Réunion, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar; and Saint Pierre and Miquelon, in the Atlantic Ocean just south of Newfoundland.
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