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Europe, France

Strait of Dover, Republique Francaise, major seas, popular referendum, French kings

France, officially the French Republic (French, Republique Francaise), major industrialized nation in western Europe. France is the third largest country in Europe, after Russia and Ukraine, and the fourth most populous. The French Republic includes ten overseas possessions, most of them remnants of France’s former colonial empire. Paris is the nation’s capital and largest city.

Roughly hexagonal in shape, France shares boundaries with Belgium and Luxembourg to the northeast; Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to the east; and Spain and Andorra to the southwest. In the northwest, France is bounded by the English Channel. At the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the channel, France and England are separated by just 34 km (21 mi). France faces three major seas: the Atlantic Ocean to the west, the North Sea to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the southeast.

France is a nation of varied landscapes, ranging from coastal lowlands and broad plains in the north, to hilly uplands in south central France, to lush valleys and towering, snow-capped Alps in the east. Mountainous and hilly areas lie on nearly all of France’s borders, creating a series of natural boundaries for the country. Only the nation’s northeastern border is largely unprotected. Several major rivers drain France, including the Seine, Loire, Garonne, and Rhone.

France is highly urbanized. Three-quarters of the population lives in cities, including more than ten million people in the metropolitan area of Paris, the most densely populated region in France. The French are among the healthiest, wealthiest, and best-educated people in the world. A comprehensive social welfare system is in place, guaranteeing all citizens a minimal standard of living and health care. Most citizens speak French, the principal language. The dominant religion is Roman Catholicism.

French culture, especially French art and literature, has profoundly influenced the Western world. Paris, one of the world’s great intellectual capitals, has been at the center of Western cultural life since the Middle Ages. World-renowned French cultural figures include philosophers, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, composers, playwrights, and film directors. French literary and artistic contributions during the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment deeply influenced the path of Western cultural development. Impressionism, an innovative painting movement in the late 19th century, originated in France. During the 20th century, French writers and artists were at the center of movements such as dada, surrealism, existentialism, and the theater of the absurd. France has a long reputation for excellence in cuisine, and French fashion styles are imitated throughout the world.

The economy of France is large, diverse, and one of the most highly developed in the European Union (EU). It is a leading manufacturing nation, producing goods such as automobiles, electrical equipment, machine tools, and chemicals. France is the EU’s most important agricultural nation—shipping cereals, wine, cheese, and other agricultural products to the rest of Europe and the world. In recent decades service industries, including banking, retail and wholesale trade, communications, health care, and tourism, have come to dominate the French economy.

France is one of the oldest states in the Western world and its history is rich and varied. Little is known of France’s earliest inhabitants. Cave paintings in southwestern France dated to about 15,000 bc reveal the existence of a sophisticated and creative people. By the 8th century bc hordes of Celts, among other tribes, began entering and settling in France. A Celtic word, Gaul, was a name used in antiquity for the region of France. The Romans incorporated France in the 1st century bc and ruled the region until the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century ad.

After the fall of Rome, a series of royal dynasties ruled much of what would become France. Royal power declined in the Middle Ages with the spread of feudalism, which distributed power among local rulers. From the 14th to 18th century the power of the monarchy grew steadily as French kings and their ministers built a centralized bureaucracy and a large standing army. The French Revolution in 1789 toppled the monarchy, ushering in decades of political instability. Despite this turmoil, the revolution, and the subsequent rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, established a uniform administrative state in France.

French strength and prosperity grew during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and France built a worldwide colonial empire rivaling that of Britain. Much of World War I (1914-1918) was fought on French soil, and the nation suffered heavy losses. During World War II (1939-1945), Germany occupied northern France while a collaborationist regime was established in the south. After the war France rebuilt its shattered economy and emerged as one of the world’s major industrial countries. Growing resistance to French rule in the colonies increased in the postwar period, triggering a wave of decolonization that stripped France of most of its overseas possessions.

In 1958 an uprising in Algeria, then a French colony, threatened France with civil war. The French government surrendered dictatorial power to Charles de Gaulle, a resistance leader during World War II, and invited de Gaulle to form a new government. French voters approved a new constitution by popular referendum that strengthened the powers of the presidency, and de Gaulle became the new government’s first president. De Gaulle viewed France as a great power, and he followed an independent stance in foreign affairs, a policy that helped boost France’s international influence. In recent decades, France has played a leading role in the move toward greater European economic and political integration.

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