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Lets cover off France first. France, officially the French Republic, is a state in Western Europe with several of its overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the English Channel and the North Sea, and from the Rhine to the Atlantic Ocean. It is often referred to as L’Hexagone (“The Hexagon“) because of the geometric shape of its territory. It is bordered (clockwise from the north) by Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Spain and Andorra. France’s overseas departments and collectivities also share land borders with Brazil and Suriname (bordering French Guiana), and the Netherlands Antilles (bordering Saint-Martin). France is linked to the United Kingdom by the Channel Tunnel, which passes underneath the English Channel.

France is a member state of the European Union, the largest one by area. It is also the third largest in Europe behind Russia and Ukraine. It would be second if its extra-European territories like French Guiana were included. France has been a major power for many centuries with strong economic, cultural, military and political influence. During the 17th and 18th centuries, France colonised great parts of North America; during the 19th and early 20th centuries, France built the second largest empire of the time, including large portions of North, West and Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and many Pacific islands.

France is a unitary semi-presidential republic with its main ideals expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. France is one of the most developed countries and possesses the fifth largest economy by nominal GDP and seventh largest economy by purchasing power parity. France enjoys a high standard of living as well as a high public education level, it’s one of the most globalised nations, has 2009’s second best international reputation and has also one of the world’s highest life expectancies, with its healthcare system rated as the best in the world. It is the most visited country in the world, receiving 82 million foreign tourists annually. France is one of the founding members of the European Union. It is also a founding member of the United Nations, and a member of the Francophonie, the G8, G20, NATO, OECD, WTO, and the Latin Union. It is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, possesses the third largest number of nuclear weapons in the world and the largest number of nuclear power plants in the European Union.

Economy

France airbusFrance’s economy combines extensive private enterprise with substantial state enterprise and government intervention. The government retains considerable influence over key segments of infrastructure sectors, with majority ownership of railway, electricity, aircraft, nuclear power and telecommunications.

It has been gradually relaxing its control over these sectors since the early 1990s. The government is slowly corporatizing the state sector and selling off holdings in France Télécom, Air France, as well as the insurance, banking, and defence industries.

France has an important aerospace industry led by the European consortium Airbus, and has its own national spaceport, the Centre Spatial Guyanais.

France is the smallest emitter of carbon dioxide among the seven most industrialized countries in the world, due to its heavy investment in nuclear power.

France nuclear power renaissanceAs a result of large investments in nuclear technology, most of the electricity produced in the country is generated by 59 nuclear power plants (78% in 2006). In this context, renewable energies are having difficulties taking off the ground.

Large tracts of fertile land, the application of modern technology, and EU subsidies have combined to make France the leading agricultural producer and exporter in Europe. Wheat, poultry, dairy, beef, and pork, as well as an internationally recognized foodstuff and wine industry are primary French agricultural exports.

Labour market

The French GDP per capita is similar the GDP per capita of other comparable European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. GDP per capita is determined by (i) productivity per hour worked, which in France is the highest of the G8 countries in 2005, according to the OECD, (ii) the number of hours worked, which is one the lowest of developed countries, and (iii) the employment rate. France has one of the lowest 15–64 years employment rates of the OECD countrie.

La Defense Business District, Paris FranceThese low employment rates are explained by the high minimum wages which prevent low productivity workers – such as young people – from easily entering the labour market, ineffective university curricula that fail to prepare students adequately for the labour market, and, concerning the older workers, restrictive legislation on work and incentives for premature retirement.

In June 2009, the unemployment rate for France was 9.4%. Shorter working hours and the reluctance to reform the labour market are mentioned as weak spots of the French economy in the view of the right, when the left mentions the lack of government policies fostering social justice.

Liberal economists have stressed repeatedly over the years that the main issue of the French economy is an issue of structural reforms, in order to increase the size of the working population in the overall population, reduce the taxes’ level and the administrative burden. Keynesian economists have different answers to the unemployment issue, and their theories led to the 35-hour workweek law in the early 2000s, which turned out to be failure in reducing unemployment.

Tourism

With 81.9 million foreign tourists in 2007, France is ranked as the first tourist destination in the world, ahead of Spain and the United States. This 81.9 million figure excludes people staying less than 24 hours in France, such as Northern Europeans crossing France on their way to Spain or Italy during the summer.

Eiffel tower Paris, FranceFrance features cities of high cultural interest (Paris being the foremost), beaches and seaside resorts, ski resorts, and rural regions that many enjoy for their beauty and tranquillity (green tourism). France also attracts many religious pilgrims to Lourdes, a town in the Hautes-Pyrénées département, that hosts a few million visitors a year.

Popular tourist sites include: Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum, Palace of Versailles, Musée d’Orsay, Arc de Triomphe, Centre Pompidou, Mont-Saint-Michel, Château de Chambord, Sainte-Chapelle, Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, Puy de Dôme, Musée Picasso, Carcassonne.

Culture

Louvre museum in Paris, FranceThe culture of France and of the French people has been shaped by geography, by profound historical events, and by foreign and internal forces and groups. France, and in particular Paris, has played an important role as a center of high culture and of decorative arts since the seventeenth century, first in Europe, and from the nineteenth century on, world wide. From the late nineteenth century, France has also played an important role in modern art, cinema, fashion and cuisine.

The importance of French culture has waned and waxed over the centuries, depending on its economic, political and military importance. French culture today is marked both by great regional and socioeconomic differences and by strong unifying tendencies.

Fashion

Along with Milan, London and New York, Paris is sometimes called the “fashion capital of the world”. The association of France with fashion dates largely to the reign of Louis XIV when the luxury goods industries in France came increasingly under royal control and the French royal court became, arguably, the arbiter of taste and style in Europe.

2009 Paris Fashion WeekFrench fashion is setting the trend with icon brands such as Chanel, Christian Dior, Hermes, Balenciaga, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Louis Vuitton, Hubert de Givenchy, Chloé and Yves Saint Laurent. Many lesser known French fashion designers turn Paris into the fashion city of the world. Discover our selection of the best French fashion brands.

Most of these fashion brands have stores in Paris. While in Paris, discover French fashion at its best. Nearly all French fashion top brands have their main store on Avenue Montaigne or Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, both near Champs-Elysees avenue. The Saint-Germain des Pres district on the left bank has many French fashion clothing stores. Look for them in streets around rue de Sevres with flagship Le Bon Marche luxury department store.

More recently, the rue des Rosiers in Le Marais emerged as one of Paris foremost fashion streets. The big shopping centers in and around Paris have many French fashion shops with affordable prices.

Going there, you will also have the opportunity to meet French people doing their weekly shopping. A good way to discover the contemporary Parisian way of life. Paris fashion shows are restricted to professionals. You can see the schedule and Paris fashion show pictures. The Arts Decoratifs museum near Louvre museum regularly stages first class fashion exhibitions.

France food and wineFood and alcohol

Traditional French culture places a high priority on the enjoyment of food. French cuisine was codified in the 20th century by Georges Auguste Escoffier to become the modern version of haute cuisine. Escoffier’s major work, however, left out much of the regional character to be found in the provinces of France. Gastro-tourism and the Guide Michelin helped to bring people to the countryside during the 20th century and beyond, to sample this rich bourgeois and peasant cuisine of France. Basque cuisine has also been a great influence over the cuisine in the southwest of France.

Ingredients and dishes vary by region. There are many significant regional dishes that have become both national and regional. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated in different variations across the country in the present day.

Cheese and wine are also a major part of the cuisine, playing different roles both regionally and nationally with their many variations and Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) (regulated appellation) laws (lentils from Le Puy-en-Velay also have an AOC status). Another French product of special note is the Charolais cattle.

Architecture

French Gothic architectureThere is, technically speaking, no architecture named French Architecture, although that has not always been true. Gothic Architecture‘s old name was French Architecture (or Opus Francigenum).

The term “Gothic” appeared later as a stylistic insult and was widely adopted. Northern France is the home of some of the most important Gothic cathedrals and basilicas, the first of these being the Saint Denis Basilica; other important French Gothic cathedrals are Notre-Dame de Chartres and Notre-Dame d’Amiens.

Before the appearance of this architecture France had been using Romanesque architecture like most of Western Europe. The end of the Hundred Years’ War marked an important stage in the evolution of French architecture.

french renaissance architectureIt was the time of the French Renaissance and several artists from Italy and Spain were invited to the French court; many residential palaces, Italian-inspired, were built, mainly in the Loire Valley.

Following the renaissance and the end of the Middle Ages, Baroque Architecture replaced the gothic one. However, in France, baroque architecture found a greater success in the secular domain than in the religious one.

After the Revolution the Republicans favoured Neoclassicism although neoclassicism was introduced in France prior to the revolution with such building as the Parisian Pantheon or the Capitole de Toulouse.

The first phase of neoclassicism, Arc de TriompheThe architecture associated to this era is named Second Empire. These times also saw a strong Gothic-Revival trend across Europe. In the late 19th century Gustave Eiffel designed many bridges, although he is best remembered for the Eiffel Tower.

In the 20th century the Swiss Architect Le Corbusier designed several buildings in France. More recently French architects have combined both modern and old architectural styles. The Louvre Pyramid is a good example of modern architecture added to an older building.

Certainly the most difficult buildings to integrate within French cities are skyscrapers, as they are visible from afar.

Marianne

Delacroix - La liberteeMarianne is a symbol of the French Republic. She is an allegorical figure of liberty and the Republic and first appeared at the time of the French Revolution. The earliest representations of Marianne are of a woman wearing a Phrygian cap. The origins of the name Marianne are unknown, but Marie-Anne was a very common first name in the 18th century. Anti-revolutionaries of the time derisively called her La Gueuse (the Commoner).

It is believed that revolutionaries from the South of France adopted the Phrygian cap as it symbolised liberty, having been worn by freed slaves in both Greece and Rome. Mediterranean seamen and convicts manning the galleys also wore a similar type of cap.

Under the Third Republic, statues, and especially busts, of Marianne began to proliferate, particularly in town halls. She was represented in several different manners, depending on whether the aim was to emphasise her revolutionary nature or her “wisdom”. Over time, the Phrygian cap was felt to be too seditious, and was replaced by a diadem or a crown.