A New Map of France: Régions
Since 2016 the country's traditional 22 administrative régions have been reduced to 13 – essentially by one or two regions joining together. Naturally such a redécoupage territorial sparked a flurry of regional sentiment and emotion among the French, notably in northeastern France where Germanic Alsace is suddenly wed to dramatically different Lorraine and Champagne; and in Languedoc-Roussillon which is now joined at the hip with the Midi-Pyrénées, despite the natural inclination of main town Nîmes and surrounds to be in completely the opposite direction, towards Provence.
For tourists in France, not an awful lot changes. Tourist boards for each historical region remain firmly independent, with each French region continuing to enjoy and promote its unique identity, culture and gastronomy.
Stylish, sexy, chic, charming, arrogant, rude, bureaucratic, chauvinistic… France is a country whose people attract more stubborn myths and stereotypes than any other. Over the centuries dozens of tags, true or otherwise, have been pinned on the garlic-eating, beret-wearing, sacrebleu-swearing French. (The French, by the way, don't wear berets or use old chestnuts like sacrebleu anymore.) So what precisely does it mean to be French?
Most French people are proud to be French and are staunchly nationalistic, a result of the country's republican stance that places nationality – rather than religion, for example – atop the self-identity list. This has created an overwhelmingly self-confident nation, culturally and intellectually, that can appear as a French superiority complex.
Such natural confidence is the backbone to being French. Never was this demonstrated more passionately or fervently than during the terrorist attacks that rocked the French capital in November 2015 and Nice during Bastille Day celebrations in 2016. Far from cowering in a corner, the shock attacks prompted the French to get out there and defiantly brandish their culture and national pride as their greatest weapon against terrorism: the hashtag slogan #JeSuisEnTerrasse spread like wildfire on the internet while in Paris, Parisians took to cafe pavement terraces and public spaces in typical quiet and elegant defiance.
Many French speak a foreign language fairly well, travel, and are happy to use their language skills should the need arise. Of course, if monolingual English-speakers don't try to speak French, there is no way proud French linguists will reveal they speak English! Many French men, incidentally, deem an English-speaking gal's heavily accented French as irresistibly sexy as many people deem a Frenchman speaking English.
Tradition v Innovation
Suckers for tradition, the French are slow to embrace new ideas and technologies: it took the country an age to embrace the internet, clinging on to its own at-the-time-advanced Minitel system. Yet the French innovate. They came up with microchipped credit cards long before anyone else. The lead pencil, refrigerator, tinned foods, calculator, spirit level and little black dress (merci, Chanel) are all French inventions.
When it comes to sex, not all French men ooze romance or light Gitane cigarettes all day. Nor are they as civilised about adultery as French cinema would have you believe. Adultery, illegal in France until 1975, was actually grounds for automatic divorce until as late as 2004. Today, some 45% of marriages in France end in divorce (making France the ninth most divorced country in the world) – with women, interestingly, being the ones to file for divorce in three out of four cases. As with elsewhere in Europe, couples are marrying later – at the average age of 32 and 31 for men and women respectively today, compared to 30 and 28 a decade ago. Almost 60% of babies in France are born out of wedlock, and one-fifth are raised by a single parent.
Kissing is an integral part of French life. (The expression 'French kissing' doesn't exist in French, incidentally.) Countrywide, people who know each other reasonably well, really well, a tad or barely at all greet each other with a glancing peck on each cheek. Southern France aside (where everyone kisses everyone), two men rarely kiss (unless they are related or artists) but always shake hands. Boys and girls start kissing as soon as they're out of nappies, or so it seems.
No contemporary writer addresses the naturally sleek art, style and panache of French women better than Helena Frith-Powell (www.helenafrithpowell.com), a part-time resident of Languedoc in southwestern France, who found literary fame with Two Lipsticks and a Lover (2007), an exposé on the secrets behind the glamour of French women (expensive and matching lingerie, infidelity and the like).
Feature: France's First Lady
Not only are many French naturally sexy, but this enviable look is ageless. Or it has been unofficially declared so among older women following the arrival of President Emmanuel Macron who brought into office a glamorous first lady 24 years his senior (and over 60 to boot). Confidently stylish and sexy to the core, Brigitte Trogneux was a married mum-of-three and teacher at a school in small-town Amiens when she first met Macron, then a 15-year-old school pupil. The pair fell in love, prompting enormous scandal at the time, and subsequently married. They are the embodiment of open mindedness.
Gay & Married
The French capital has long been known as 'gay Paree', with an openly proud gay mayor for 13 years (until 2014) and an open gay and lesbian scene. Nevertheless, reactions to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in France in 2013 were mixed and at times extreme, exposing a deeply conservative streak in some French people.
Demonstrators repeatedly marched through the streets of Paris, Lyon and other cities in protest at the law, and in 2014, following an appeal by French mayors who claimed the new law violated the country's constitution, France's high court ruled that mayors and registrars, irrespective of personal or religious beliefs, did not have the right to refuse to conduct a gay marriage. Lesbian couples do not have the right to receive fertility treatment in France, a situation that is expected to change in 2018.
Since gay marriage has been legalised, approximately 7000 couples – 3% of all marriages in France – wed in France each year; three out of five gay marriages are male couples.
Be a fly on the wall in the 5th-floor bourgeois apartment of Monsieur et Madame Tout le Monde and you'll see them dunking croissants in bowls of café au lait for breakfast, buying a baguette every day from the boulangerie (Monsieur nibbles the end off on his way home) and recycling nothing bar a few glass bottles and the odd cardboard box.
They go to the movies once a month, work 35 hours a week (many French still toil 39 hours or more a week – employers can enforce a 39-hour work week for a negotiable extra cost), and enjoy five weeks' holiday and almost a dozen bank (public) holidays a year. The couple view the start-up launched by their 24-year-old son in Paris with a bemusing mix of pride, scepticism and non-comprehension. Their 20-year-old daughter is a student: France's overcrowded state-run universities are free and open to anyone who passes the baccalaureate. Then there's their youngest, aged 10 and one of France's many children who have no school on Wednesday – the four-day week is a ball for kids, but not so easy for working parents who have to sort out childcare for that one day each week.
Madame buys a load of hot-gossip weekly magazines, Monsieur meets his mates to play boules, and the first two weeks of August is the only time to go on a summer holiday (with the rest of France). Dodging dog poo on pavements is a sport practised from birth and everything goes on the carte bleue (credit or debit card) when shopping. The couple have a landlord, although they are in the minority: 65% of households own their own home; the rest rent.
Women were granted suffrage in 1945, but until 1964 a woman needed her husband's permission to open a bank account or get a passport. Younger French women in particular are quite outspoken and emancipated. But this self-confidence has yet to translate into equality in the workplace, where women hold few senior and management positions. Sexual harassment is addressed with a law imposing financial penalties on the offender. A great achievement in the last decade has been Parité, the law requiring political parties to fill 50% of their slates in all elections with female candidates.
Abortion is legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and girls under 16 do not need parental consent provided they are accompanied by an adult of their choice: 30 abortions take place in France for every 100 live births.
Above all else French women are known for their natural chic, style and class. And there's no doubt that contemporary French women are sassier than ever. Take the Rykiel women: in the 1970s, legendary Parisian knitwear designer Sonia Rykiel (1930–2016) designed the skin-tight, boob-hugging sweater worn with no bra beneath. In the new millennium, daughter Nathalie created Rykiel Woman, a sensual label embracing everything from lingerie to sex toys and aimed squarely at women who know what they want.
Then, of course, there is Spanish-born Anne Hidalgo, Paris' first ever female mayor, elected in 2014. Allez les femmes!
Speaking a language other than their own is an emotional affair for the French, memorably illustrated a few years back when the-then French president Jacques Chirac walked out of an EU summit session after a fellow countryman had the audacity to address the meeting in English. French newspapers and the French blogosphere seethed with debate on linguistic patriotism the following day, French bloggers – many of whom write in English – rightly pointing out that French has not been the primary international language for a long, long time.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy fared marginally better than his monolingual predecessor. Yet Sarkozy also stuck to what he knew best in public, so much so that the couple of lines he did utter in English were instantly plastered over the internet as a video link and swiftly went viral. Then there was the famous letter from President François Hollande to US president Barack Obama which ended 'Friendly, François Hollande' – a plain embarrassing mistranslation of amicalement used to sign off letters in French.
In 2015, France's École Nationale d'Adminstration (National School of Administration) in Strasbourg – the elite university attended by Jacques Chirac, François Hollande et al – finally made English an admission requirement for students aspiring to study at the school, the unspoken entry point for the French civil service and government. And indeed, since the arrival of Emmanuel Macron – a fluent English speaker – on the political scene in 2017, English has assumed a new de rigueur in France. During his electoral campaign, Macron was slammed by the far-right opponents for addressing a conference in Brussels in English rather than French. Yet since assuming the French presidency, Macron's silver-tongued ability to speak at ease in both English and French has won over the world.
French was the main language of the EU until 1995 when Sweden and Finland came into the EU fold. French broadcasting laws restrict the amount of airtime radio and TV stations can devote to non-French music, but nothing can be done to restrict who airs what on the internet. With English words like 'weekend', 'jogging', 'stop' and 'OK' firmly entrenched in daily French usage, language purists might just have lost the battle.
France is multicultural (immigrants make up around 9% of the population), yet its republican code, while inclusive and nondiscriminatory, has been criticised for doing little to accommodate a multicultural society (and, interestingly, none of the members of France's National Assembly represents the immigrant population, first or second generation). Nothing reflects this dichotomy better than the law, in place since 2004, banning the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, crucifix and other religious symbols in French schools, or the more recent 2017 burkini ban on beaches in southern France.
Some 90% of the French Muslim community – Europe's largest – are noncitizens. Most are illegal immigrants living in poverty-stricken bidonvilles (shanty towns) around Paris, Lyon, Marseille and other metropolitan centres. Many are unemployed (youth unemployment in many suburbs is as high as 40%) and face little prospect of getting a job.
Most French wouldn't be seen dead walking down the street in trainers and tracksuits. But contrary to appearances, they love sport. Shaved-leg cyclists toil up Mont Ventoux, football fans fill stadiums and anyone who can flits off for the weekend to ski or snowboard.
Les 24 Heures du Mans and the F1 Grand Prix in Monaco are the world's raciest dates in motor sports; the French Open, aka Roland Garros, in Paris in late May to early June is the second of the year's four grand-slam tennis tournaments; and the Tour de France is – indisputably – the world's most prestigious bicycle race. Bringing together 189 of the world's top male cyclists (21 teams of nine) and 15 million spectators in July each year for a spectacular 3000-plus-kilometre cycle around the country, the three-week race always labours through the Alps and Pyrenees and finishes on Paris' Champs-Élysées. The route in between changes each year but wherever it goes, the French systematically turn out in droves – armed with tables, chairs and picnic hampers – to make a day of it. The serpentine publicity caravan preceding the cyclists showers roadside spectators with coffee samples, logo-emblazoned balloons, pens and other free junk-advertising gifts and is easily as much fun as watching the cyclists themselves speed through – in 10 seconds flat.
France's greatest moment in football history came at the 1998 World Cup, which the country hosted and won. The son of Algerian immigrants, Marseille-born midfielder Zinedine Zidane (b 1972) wooed the nation with a sparkling career of goal-scoring headers and extraordinary footwork that unfortunately ended with him head-butting an Italian player during the 2006 World Cup final. But such was the power of his humble Marseillais grin (since used to advertise Adidas sports gear, Volvic mineral water and Christian Dior fashion) that the French nation instantly forgave this 'golden boy' of French football.
Recent years have seen a crop of new French stars emerge: in 2016 French midfielder Paul Pogba (b 1993) was signed by Manchester United for a then-record €105 million, a price tag equalled by Les Bleus' striker Ousmane Dembélé (b 1997) a year later when he moved to Barcelona. Paris-born Kylian Mbappé (b 1998) then put pen to paper the same year and signed for Paris Saint-Germain, eclipsing both transfer fees with a deal worth around €180 million. French football is clearly back in the spotlight.
Feature: Frogs vs Rosbifs
In the finest of traditions, tales of the rivalry between rosbifs ('literally 'the roast beefs', aka the English) and frogs (the French) sell like hotcakes. Our favourites:
- 1000 Years of Annoying the French (Stephen Clarke, 2011) A smart comic look at French-Anglo history by the man who launched his career with A Year in the Merde (A Year in the Shit).
- Cross Channel (Julian Barnes, 1996) Classic short stories set either side of the Channel.
- More France Please! We're British! (Helen Frith-Powell, 2004) France from the perspective of Brits who choose to live there permanently.
- Dirty Bertie: An English King in France (Stephen Clarke, 2014) Apparently, fervent Francophile Edward VII learnt everything there is know about life from the French…
Feature: French Manners
- Splitting the bill is deemed the height of unsophistication. The person who invites pays, although close friends often go Dutch.
- Fondle fruit, veg, flowers or clothing in shops and you'll be greeted with a killer glare from the shop assistant.
- Take flowers (not chrysanthemums, which are only for cemeteries) or Champagne when invited to someone's home.
- Never, ever, discuss money over dinner.
Feature: French Kissing
Kissing French-style is not straightforward, with 'how many' and 'which side first' being potentially problematic. In Paris it is two: unless parties are related, very close friends or haven't seen each other in an age, anything more is deemed affected. That said, in hipster 20-something circles, friends swap three or four cheek-skimming kisses.
Travel south and les bises (kisses), or les bisous as the French colloquially say, multiply; three or four is the norm in Provence. The bits of France neighbouring Switzerland around Lake Geneva tend to be three-kiss country (in keeping with Swiss habits); and in the Loire Valley it is four. Corsicans, bizarrely, stick to two but kiss left cheek first – which can lead to locked lips given that everyone else in France starts with the right cheek.
Feature: Madame from Birth
'About time too', a feminist anywhere else on the planet would argue. Indeed, it is only since 2012 that French women no longer have to tick one of two boxes when filling out official forms and documents – 'Madame' meaning 'Mrs' or 'married' and 'Mademoiselle' meaning 'Miss' or 'young and not married'. 'Mademoiselle' also implies 'virgin' and 'sexually available' according to Paris-based feminist group Les Chiennes de Garde (meaning 'guard dogs' or, rather, 'guard bitches'), who launched the petition to banish the term 'Mademoiselle' from the administrative and political arena.
'Mademoiselle' originates from the medieval word damoiselle, meaning a young upper-class girl (male equivalents were called damoisel). Later merged with 'ma' to denote an unmarried woman, the term was tantamount to 'sad old spinster who can't find a husband' in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century, novelist Adolphe Belot borrowed the term to depict a frigid wife in Mademoiselle Giraud, ma Femme. These days, for a woman over 35, being addressed as 'mademoiselle' is a subtle way of being told 'you're young!'.
Feature: France's North–South Divide
No films better illustrate what southerners think of those from 'the sticks' in the far north than Dany Boon's original Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (Welcome to the Sticks; 2008) and recent sequel a decade later, La Ch'tite Famille (2018). The two are a classic commentary on France's north–south divide.
For starters, the weather in the cold rainy north is revolting. So no surprise that post-office chief Philippe, upon setting off north from his native Salon-de-Provence on the sun-drenched Côte d'Azur, dons a puffer jacket and scarf as he bids farewell to bronzed wife Julie. The weather changes when he passes the 'Nord-Pas de Calais' sign – at which point it doesn't just rain but slashes down beyond windscreen-wiper control. Even the gendarme (police officer)on the autoroute, upon stopping him for driving too slowly, lets him off with a sympathetic smile and his deepest condolences when he hears where he's heading: Bergues, an ex-mining town of 4300 inhabitants, 9km from Dunkirk.
Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis is a kaleidoscope of comic scenes that slowly chip away at the deeply entrenched prejudices surrounding this northern land of redundant coal mines and its unemployed, impoverished, pale, unhealthy and 'uncultured' inhabitants who drink too much beer and speak like this – 'Ej t'ermerci inne banes' (that means Merci beaucoup).
Yes, their thick Ch'timi dialect (old Picard peppered with Flemish) is incomprehensible to outsiders. Yes, they dunk stinky Maroilles cheese and bread in chicorée café (chicory-flavoured instant coffee) for breakfast. Yes, they skip the traditional French three-course lunch for an alfresco round of frites fricadelle, sauce picadilly (chips 'n' meatballs) – eaten with their fingers. And yes, their very nickname (les Ch'tis) was borne out of prejudice during WWI when French soldiers mocked the thickly accented way their northern comrades spoke – 'ch'est ti, ch'est mi' (c'est toi, c'est moi – it's you, it's me), hence 'Ch'ti'.
The north and its regional characteristics are no mystery to director Boon, a born-and-bred northerner who grew up in Armentières, near Lille.
Sidebar: Covering Up
Following France’s ban on face covering, burka included, in 2010, municipalities in 30 coastal resorts on the Côte d'Azur and in Corsica banned burkinis in 2016. The French Council of State declared the ruling illegal, but the body-covering beach wear still remains banned on some beaches in Cannes, Nice and elsewhere.
Sidebar: Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong
Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: What Makes the French so French ask Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow in their witty, well-written and at times downright comical musings on the French.
Sidebar: French Children Don't Throw Food
A timeless bestseller addressing French culture is Pamela Druckerman's French Children Don't Throw Food (2012), a witty and entertaining look at how French parents in Paris raise their kids by an American living in the city.
France's traditional ball games include pétanque and the more formal boules, which has a 70-page rule book. Both are played by men on a gravel pitch.
Sidebar: The Elementary Particles
The Elementary Particles (first published in French as Les Particules Élémentaires and subsequently in the UK as Atomised) by bestselling French author Michel Houellebecq uses the story of two French half-brothers born to a hippy mother to delve into the state of contemporary society. Funny, sad, caustic and hugely insightful, it is a wonderful anthropological portrait of modern France.
Dubbed the southern version of Dany Boon's Les Ch'tis, the comic film Marseille (2016) provides a rich and entertaining commentary on the regional characteristics of the Marseillais and the wealth of mixed cultures the port city embraces. Paolo, a born-and-bred Marseillais exiled to Quebec, returns after 25 years to nurse his ageing father.
France maintains a rigid distinction between church and state. The country is a secular republic, meaning there can be no mention of religion on national school syllabuses.
Literature, music, painting, cinema: France's vast artistic heritage is the essence of French art de vivre. Contemporary French writers might struggle to be published abroad, but Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust and Simone de Beauvoir walk the hall of fame. Music is embedded in the French soul, with world-class rap, dance and electronica coming out of Paris. French painting, with its roots in prehistoric cave art, continues to break new ground with provocative street art, while French film is enjoying a marvellous renaissance.
Courtly Love to Symbolism
Troubadours' lyric poems of courtly love dominated medieval French literature, while the roman (literally 'romance', now meaning 'novel') drew on old Celtic tales. With the Roman de la Rose, a 22,000-line poem by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, allegorical figures like Pleasure, Shame and Fear appeared.
French Renaissance literature was extensive and varied. La Pléiade was a group of lyrical poets active in the 1550s and 1560s. The exuberant narrative of Loire Valley–born François Rabelais (1494–1553) blends coarse humour with encyclopedic erudition in a vast panorama of every kind of person, occupation and jargon in 16th-century France. Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) covered cannibals, war horses, drunkenness and the resemblance of children to their fathers, along with other themes.
The grand siècle (golden age) ushered in classical lofty odes to tragedy. François de Malherbe (1555–1628) brought a new rigour to rhythm in poetry, and Marie de La Fayette (1634–93) penned the first French novel, La Princesse de Clèves (1678).
The philosophical Voltaire (1694–1778) dominated the 18th century. A century on, Besançon gave birth to French Romantic Victor Hugo (1802–85). The breadth of interest and technical innovations exhibited in his poems and novels – Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame among them – was phenomenal.
In 1857 literary landmarks Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1821–80), and Charles Baudelaire's (1821–67) poems Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil), were published. Émile Zola (1840–1902) saw novel-writing as a science in his powerful series, Les Rougon-Macquart.
Evoking mental states was the dream of symbolists Paul Verlaine (1844–96) and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–98). Verlaine shared a tempestuous homosexual relationship with poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854–91): enter French literature's first modern poems.
The world's longest novel – a seven-volume 9,609,000-character giant by Marcel Proust (1871–1922) – dominated the early 20th century. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past) explores in evocative detail the true meaning of past experience recovered from the unconscious by involuntary memory.
Surrealism proved a vital force until WWII. André Breton (1896–1966) captured the spirit of surrealism – a fascination with dreams, divination and all manifestations of the imaginary – in his autobiographical narratives. In Paris the bohemian Colette (1873–1954) captivated and shocked with her titillating novels detailing the amorous exploits of heroines such as schoolgirl Claudine. In New York meanwhile, what would become one of the bestselling French works of all time was published in 1943: Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), by Lyon-born writer and pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–44). He captured the hearts of millions with his magical yet philosophical tale for children about an aviator's adventures with a little blonde-haired Prince from Asteroid B-612.
After WWII, existentialism developed around the lively debates of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80), Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86) and Albert Camus (1913–60) in Paris' Left Bank cafes.
The nouveau roman of the 1950s saw experimental young writers seek new ways of organising narratives, with Nathalie Sarraute slashing identifiable characters and plot in Les Fruits d'Or (The Golden Fruits). Histoire d'O (Story of O), an erotic sadomasochistic novel written by Dominique Aury under a pseudonym in 1954, sold more copies outside France than any other contemporary French novel.
Another writer to turn heads was radical young writer Françoise Sagan (1935–2004) who shot to fame overnight at the age of 18 with her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), published in 1954. The subsequent fast-paced, hedonistic lifestyle pursued by the party-loving, bourgeois-born writer ensured she remained in the spotlight until her death in 2004.
Marc Levy (www.marclevy.info) is France’s bestselling writer. The film rights of his first novel were snapped up for the Stephen Spielberg box-office hit, Just Like Heaven (2005), and his novels have since been translated into 49 languages. His 16th novel, Elle & Lui (2015) was quickly published in English as PS from Paris (2017), as will no doubt be the case with his most recent novels, La Dernière des Stanfield (2018) and Une Fille Comme Elle (2018).
Comedian-dramatist Nelly Alard (www.nellyalard.fr) has had her hugely successful second novel, Un Moment d'un Couple (Couple Mechanics, 2013), published in English. Christine Angot is widely known as la Reine de l'Autofiction (the queen of autobiography), while Yasmina Khadra is actually a man – a former colonel in the Algerian army who adopted his wife's name as a nom de plume. His most recent work, Dieu n'habite pas la Havane, was published in 2016.
No French writer better delves into the mind, mood and politics of France's notable ethnic population than Faïza Guène (b 1985; http://faizaguene.fr), sensation of the French literary scene who writes in a notable ‘urban slang’ style. Born and bred on a ghetto housing estate outside Paris, she stunned critics with her debut novel, Kiffe Kiffe Demain (2004), sold in 27 countries and published in English as Just Like Tomorrow (2006). Faïza Guène's father moved from a village in western Algeria to northern France in 1952, aged 17, to work in the mines. Only in the 1980s could he return to Algeria. There he met his wife, whom he brought back to France, to Les Courtillières housing estate in Seine-St-Denis, where 6000-odd immigrants live in five-storey, high-rise blocks stretching for 1.5km. Such is the setting for Guène's first book and her second semi-autobiographical novel, Du Rêve pour les Oeufs (2006), published in English as Dreams from the Endz (2008). Her third novel, Les Gens du Balto (2008), published in English as Bar Balto (2011), is a series of colloquial, first-person monologues by various characters who live on a street in a Parisian suburb. Un Homme ça ne Pleure Pas (Real Men Don't Cry, 2014), shifted to Nice in southern France, and her latest novel Millenium Blues (2018) opens with an accident in Paris during a heatwave in the capital in 2003.
Delphine de Vigan (b 1966) is another female Parisian writer to be widely translated in English. Her eight novels today include the psychological thriller D'après une histoire vraie (2015), published in English as Based On a True Story (2017), about a writer named Delphine living in Paris with her teenage kids and famous journalist husband.
Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, born during WWII in Nice to a Niçois mother and Mauritian father, addresses ethnic issues engagingly. The bulk of his childhood was spent in Nigeria and he studied in Bristol, England, and Aix-en-Provence. In 2008 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
The work of Paris-born Patrick Modiano (b 1945) was only really discovered by an Anglophone audience after the novelist was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. His most famous novel remains Prix Goncourt winner Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978), translated in English as Missing Person (1980). Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier (So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood; 2014) is set in Paris. His latest novel is Souvenirs dormants (2017).
French Baroque music heavily influenced European musical output in the 17th and 18th centuries. French musical luminaries – Charles Gounod (1818–93), César Franck (1822–90) and Carmen creator Georges Bizet (1838–75) among them – were a dime a dozen in the 19th century. Modern orchestration was founded by French Romantic Hector Berlioz (1803–69). He demanded gargantuan forces: his ideal orchestra included 240 stringed instruments, 30 grand pianos and 30 harps.
Claude Debussy (1862–1918) revolutionised classical music with Prélude à l'Après-Midi d'un Faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Fawn), creating a light, almost Asian musical impressionism. Impressionist comrade Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) peppered his work, including Boléro, with sensuousness and tonal colour. Contemporary composer Olivier Messiaen (1908–92) combined modern, almost mystical music with natural sounds such as birdsong. His student Pierre Boulez (1925–2016) worked with computer-generated sound to create some of France's most powerful electronic, instrumental music.
Jazz & French Chansons
Jazz hit 1920s Paris in the banana-clad form of Josephine Baker, an African American cabaret dancer. Post-WWII ushered in a much-appreciated bunch of musicians, mostly black Americans who opted to remain in Paris' bohemian Montmartre rather than return to the brutal racism and segregation of the USA: Sidney Bechet called Paris home from 1949, jazz drummer Kenny 'Klook' Clarke followed in 1956, pianist Bud Powell in 1959, and saxophonist Dexter Gordon in the early 1960s.
In 1934 a chance meeting between Parisian jazz guitarist Stéphane Grappelli and three-fingered Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt in a Montparnasse nightclub led to the formation of the Hot Club of France quintet. Claude Luter and his Dixieland band were hot in the 1950s.
The chanson française, a French folk-song tradition dating from the troubadours of the Middle Ages, was eclipsed by the music halls and burlesque of the early 20th century, but was revived in the 1930s by Édith Piaf and Charles Trenet. In the 1950s, Paris' Left Bank cabarets nurtured chansonniers (cabaret singers) such as Léo Ferré, Georges Brassens, Claude Nougaro, Jacques Brel and the very charming, very sexy, very French Serge Gainsbourg. A biopic celebrating his life, Serge Gainsbourg: Une Vie Héroïque (Serge Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life), was released in 2009 to wide acclaim.
In the 1980s irresistible crooners Jean-Pierre Lang and Pierre Bachelet revived the chanson tradition with classics such as 'Les Corons' (1982), a passionate ode to northern France's miners. Contemporary performers include Vincent Delerm, Bénabar, Jeanne Cherhal, Camille, Soha, Les Têtes Raides and Arnaud Fleurent-Didier.
Jazz fans will adore the gypsy jazz style of young French pop singer Zaz – an experimental voice from Tours in the Loire Valley, often compared to Édith Piaf – who stormed to the top of the charts with her debut album Zaz (2010). Her subsequent third album, Paris (2014) is a musical ode to the French capital with 13 songs evoking Paris' irresistible charm and romance. Her first live album, Sur la Route (2015), only confirms that Zaz is one of France's hottest contemporary female voices.
France is known for its rap, an original 1990s sound spearheaded by Senegal-born, Paris-reared rapper MC Solaar and Suprême NTM (NTM being an acronym for a French expression far too offensive to print). Most big-name rappers are French twenty-somethings of Arabic or African origin whose prime preoccupations are the frustrations and fury of fed-up immigrants in the French banlieues (suburbs).
Disiz La Peste, born in Amiens to a Senegalese father and French mother, portrayed precisely this in his third album, aptly entitled Histoires Extra-Ordinaires d'un Jeune de Banlieue (The Extraordinary Stories of a Youth in the Suburbs; 2005), as did his 'last' album Disiz the End (2009), after which he morphed into Peter Punk (www.disizpeterpunk.com) and created a very different rock-punk-electro sound. In 2011 he returned as rap artist Disiz La Peste, releasing a rash of albums culminating in 2017 with Pacifique, his 11th album.
France's other big rap band is Marseille's home-grown IAM (www.iam.tm.fr), around since 1989 and still going strong. In 2017 the group released its eighth album, Révolution, and went on tour for the first time in several years; tickets for concerts in Paris and Marseille sold out within seconds of going online. A ninth album is expected in 2018, followed by a world tour in 2019 to celebrate the band's 30th birthday. Djadja & Dinaz from Meaux, 40km northeast of Paris, is a hip-hop duo to watch; their 2018 album Le revers de la médaille raced to the top of the French charts.
French rap continues to inspire fresh talent. Congolese rapper Maître Gims (b 1986) arrived in France at the age of two, grew up in squats in the Parisian suburbs and is one of France's best-known rappers today. The millennial rap scene is notably prolific in Bordeaux in southwest France where talented young rappers like 20-something Joey Larsé – originally from the Parisian suburb of Montreuil – have chosen to live and work.
Rock & Pop
One could be forgiven for thinking that French pop is becoming dynastic. The distinctive M (for Mathieu) is the son of singer Louis Chédid; Arthur H is the progeny of pop-rock musician Jacques Higelin; and Thomas Dutronc is the offspring of 1960s idols Jacques and Françoise Hardy. Serge Gainsbourg's daughter with Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg (b 1971), made her musical debut in 1984 with the single 'Lemon Incest' and – several albums later – released a cover version of the song 'Hey Joe' as soundtrack to the film Nymphomaniac (2013) in which she also starred as the leading lady. For her latest album, Rest, released in 2017, she collaborated with Guy Man from Daft Punk and Paul McCartney among others.
Indie rock band Phoenix, from Versailles, headlines festivals in the USA and UK. The band was born in the late 1990s in a garage in the Paris suburbs; lead singer Thomas Mars, school mate Chris Mazzalai (guitar), his brother Laurent Brancowitz (guitar and keyboards) and Deck d'Arcy (keyboards/brass) have six hugely successful albums under their belt, including Ti Amo (2017) and a much-coveted Grammy award.
Always worth a listen is Louise Attaque who, after a 10-year break, released its new album, L'Anomalie, with huge success in 2016. Nosfell (www.nosfell.com), one of France's most creative and intense musicians, sings in his own invented language called le klokobetz. In 2015 Nosfell wrote the music for Contact, a musical comedy by French dancer and choreographer Philippe Decouflé. His fifth album, Echo Zulu (2017), woos listeners with powerful lyrics in English and French, some written by French sound poet Anne-James Chaton.
Christophe Maé (www.christophe-mae.fr) mixes acoustic pop with soul, with stunning success. His jazzy third album, Je Veux du Bonheur (2013), was heavily influenced by the time the Provence-born singer spent travelling in New Orleans; his last album L'attrape-rêves (2016) included the song 'Ballerine' that he sung to propose to his now-wife. Travels abroad likewise provided the inspiration for the 2016 album Palermo Hollywood, by talented singer-songwriter Benjamin Biolay (b 1973).
Marseille-born Marina Kaye (b 1998) won France's Got Talent TV show at the age of 13, as well as huge acclaim with her debut single 'Homeless'; she released her first album Fearless in 2015. Celebrity singer Nolwenn Leroy (b 1982) performs in Breton, English and Irish as well as French, while Paris' very own Indila (b 1984) woos France with her edgy pop and rai (a style derived from Algerian folk music). Then there's Louane (b. 1996), the idol of many a young French teen.
Dance & Electronica
France does dance music well: computer-enhanced Chicago blues and Detroit techno are often mixed with 1960s lounge music and vintage tracks from the likes of Gainsbourg and Brassens to create a distinctly urban, highly portable sound.
Internationally successful bands like Daft Punk and Justice head the scene. Daft Punk (www.daftalive.com), originally from Versailles, adapts first-wave acid house and techno to its younger roots in pop and indie rock. Its debut album Homework (1997) fused disco, house funk and techno, while Random Access Memories (2013) boldly ditched computer-generated sound for a strong disco beat played by session musicians. The album's lead single, 'Get Lucky', featuring US singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams, sold more than 9.3 million copies and made it into the Top 10 in over 30 countries.
Electronica band Justice, aka talented duo Gaspard Michel Andre Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, burst onto the dance scene in 2007 with a debut album that used the band's signature crucifix as its title. Raved about for its rock and indie influences, Justice has released several albums since, most recently Woman (2016). Electronica duo AIR (an acronym for ‘Amour, Imagination, Rêve’ meaning ‘Love, Imagination, Dream’) and M83 (named after the Messer 83 galaxy) from Antibes are two other electronica bands to listen out for.
David Guetta, Laurent Garnier, Martin Solveig and Bon Sinclair – originally nicknamed 'Chris the French Kiss' – are top Parisian electronica music producers and DJs who travel the international circuit. In the late 1990s David Guetta, with his wife Cathy, directed Paris' mythical nightclub Les Bains Douches, today a trendy club-hotel in Le Marais.
With styles from Algerian rai to other North African music (artists include Cheb Khaled, Natacha Atlas, Jamel, Cheb Mami) and Senegalese mbalax (Youssou N'Dour), West Indian zouk (Kassav', Zouk Machine) and Cuban salsa, France's world beat is strong. Manu Chao (www.manuchao.net), the Paris-born son of Spanish parents, uses world elements to stunning effect.
Magic System from Côte d'Ivoire popularised zouglou (a kind of West African rap and dance music) with its album Premier Gaou, and Congolese Koffi Olomide still packs the halls. Also try to catch blind singing couple, Amadou and Mariam; Rokia Traoré from Mali; and Franco-Algerian DJ turned singer Rachid Taha (www.rachidtaha.fr) whose music mixes Arab and Western musical styles with lyrics in English, Berber and French.
No artist has sealed France’s reputation in world music more than Paris-born, Franco-Congolese rapper, slam poet and three-time Victoire de la Musique–award winner, Abd al Malik (b 1975). His albums Gibraltar (2006), Dante (2008), Château Rouge (2010) and Scarifications (2015) are classics.
Prehistoric to Landscape
France's oldest known prehistoric cave paintings (created 31,000 years ago) adorn the Grotte Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in the Rhône Valley (and its stunning replica, Caverne du Pont d'Arc) and the underwater Grotte Cosquer near Marseille. In the Dordogne, it is the prehistoric art in caves at Lascaux that stuns.
According to Voltaire, French painting proper began with Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), known for his classical mythological and biblical scenes bathed in golden light. Wind forward a couple of centuries and modern still life popped up with Jean-Baptiste Chardin (1699–1779). A century later, neoclassical artist Jacques Louis David (1748–1825) wooed the public with vast history paintings.
While Romantics like Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863; buried in Paris' Cimetière du Père Lachaise) revamped the subject picture, the Barbizon School effected a parallel transformation of landscape painting. Jean-François Millet (1814–75), the son of a peasant farmer from Normandy, took many of his subjects from peasant life, and reproductions of his L'Angélus (The Angelus; 1857) – the best-known painting in France after the Mona Lisa – are strung above mantelpieces all over rural France. The original hangs in Paris' Musée d'Orsay.
Realism & Impressionism
The realists were all about social comment: Édouard Manet (1832–83) evoked Parisian middle-class life and Gustave Courbet (1819–77) depicted working-class drudgery.
It was in a flower-filled garden in a Normandy village that Claude Monet (1840–1926) expounded impressionism, a term of derision taken from the title of his experimental painting Impression: Soleil Levant (Impression: Sunrise; 1874). A trip to the Musée d'Orsay unveils a rash of other members of the school – Boudin, Sisley, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas and more.
An arthritis-crippled Renoir painted out his last impressionist days in a villa on the French Riviera, a part of France that inspired dozens of artists: Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) is particularly celebrated for his post-impressionist still lifes and landscapes done in Aix-en-Provence, where he was born and worked; Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) worked in Arles; while Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853–90) painted Arles and St-Rémy de Provence. In St-Tropez, pointillism took off: Georges Seurat (1859–91) was the first to apply paint in small dots or uniform brush strokes of unmixed colour, but it was his pupil Paul Signac (1863–1935) who is best known for pointillist works.
20th Century to Present Day
Twentieth-century French painting is characterised by a bewildering diversity of styles, including cubism, and Fauvism, named after the slur of a critic who compared the exhibitors at the 1906 autumn Salon in Paris with fauves (wild animals) because of their radical use of intensely bright colours. Spanish cubist Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) and fauvist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) both chose southern France to set up studio, Matisse living in Nice and Picasso in Antibes.
The early 20th century also saw the rise of the Dada movement, and no piece of French art better captures its rebellious spirit than Marcel Duchamp's Mona Lisa, complete with moustache and goatee. In 1922 German Dadaist Max Ernst moved to Paris and worked on surrealism, a Dada offshoot that drew on the theories of Freud to reunite the conscious and unconscious realms and permeate daily life with fantasies and dreams.
With the close of WWII, Paris' role as artistic world capital ended. The focus shifted back to southern France in the 1960s with new realists such as Arman (1928–2005) and Yves Klein (1928–62), both from Nice. In 1960 Klein famously produced Anthropométrie de l'Époque Bleue, a series of imprints made by naked women (covered from head to toe in blue paint) rolling around on a white canvas, in front of an orchestra of violins and an audience in evening dress.
Artists turned to the minutiae of everyday urban life to express social and political angst. Conceptual artist Daniel Buren (b 1938) reduced his painting to a signature series of vertical 8.7cm-wide stripes that is applied to any surface imaginable – white marble columns in the courtyard of Paris' Palais Royal included. The painter (who in 1967, as part of the radical groupe BMPT, signed a manifesto declaring he was not a painter) was the enfant terrible of French art in the 1980s. Partner-in-crime Michel Parmentier (1938–2000) insisted on monochrome painting – blue in 1966, grey in 1967 and red in 1968.
Paris-born conceptual artist Sophie Calle (b 1953) brazenly exposes her private life in public with eye-catching installations such as Prenez Soin de Vous (Take Care of Yourself; 2007), a compelling and addictive work of art in book form exposing the reactions of 107 women to an email Calle received from her French lover, dumping her. Her Rachel, Monique (2010) evoked the death and lingering memory of her mother in the form of a photographic exhibition first shown at Paris' Palais de Tokyo, later as a live reading performance at the Festival d'Avignon, and most recently in a chapel in New York. In 2015 Suite Vénitienne was published, a beautiful hardback edition, on gilt-edged Japanese paper, of her first art book in 1988 in which she followed Henri B around Venice for two weeks, anonymously photographing the enigmatic stranger. The publication of Sophie Calle: My All (2017), a photo-book documenting all 54 of her artworks to date, confirmed her reputation as France's most famous conceptual artist.
Street art is big, thanks in part to the pioneering work of Blek Le Rat (http://bleklerat.free.fr) in the 1980s. The Parisian artist, born as Xavier Prou, began by spraying tiny rats in hidden corners of the streets of Paris, went on to develop stencil graffiti as a recognised form, and notably inspired British street artist Banksy. Other blockbuster names to look out for include Gregos (b 1972) whose 3D clay faces protrude out of walls and other unexpected places all over France; Jérôme Mesnager (b 1961) known for his stencilled white figures; and Monsieur Chat (aka Thoma Vuille) who leaves cartoon cats with huge Cheshire-cat grins all over the place.
Then there is digital art. In 2013 the world's largest collective street-art exhibition, La Tour Paris 13 (www.tourparis13.fr), opened in a derelict apartment block in Paris' 13e arrondissement. Its 36 apartments on 13 floors showcased works by 100 international artists. The blockbuster exhibition ran for one month, after which the tower was shut and demolished. Itself an art work, the three-day demolition was filmed and streamed live on the internet – where the street artworks remain. This initial foray into digital art was followed in 2018 by the Paris opening of EP7 – a cultural cafe showcasing a vast interactive pixel screen as its main façade – and Atelier des Lumières, the capital's first digital-art centre inside a 19th-century smelting factory.
French film flourishes. Sound ushers in René Clair's (1898–1981) world of fantasy and satirical surrealism. Watch Abel Gance's antiwar blockbuster J'Accuse! (I Accuse!; 1919), filmed on WWI battlefields.
WWI inspires a new realism: portraits of ordinary lives dominate film. Watch La Grande Illusion (The Great Illusion; 1937), a devastating evocation of war's folly based on the trench warfare experience of director Jean Renoir.
Surrealists eschew realism. WWII saps the film industry of both talent and money. Watch Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast; 1945) and Orphée (Orpheus; 1950).
Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) sees small budgets, no stars and real-life subject matter. Watch A petty young criminal on the run in Jean-Luc Godard's À Bout de Souffle (Breathless; 1958) and adolescent rebellion in François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows; 1959).
France as the land of romance. Watch Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman; 1966) and Jacques Demy's bittersweet Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg; 1964).
The limelight baton goes to lesser-known directors like Éric Rohmer (b 1920), who make beautiful but uneventful films in which the characters endlessly analyse their feelings.
Big-name stars, slick production values and nostalgia: generous state subsidies see film-makers switch to costume dramas and comedies in the face of growing competition from the USA. Watch Luc Besson strikes box-office gold with Subway (1985) and Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue; 1988).
French actor Gérard Depardieu wins huge audiences in France and abroad. Watch Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre (2002). Besson continues to stun with Nikita (1990) and Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc; 1999).
- New Millennium
'New French Extremity' is the tag given to the socially conscious, transgressive films of talented Paris-born, Africa-raised film-maker Claire Denis. Watch Chocolat (1988) and Matériel Blanc (White Material; 2009), scripted by Parisian novelist Marie NDiaye, to explore the legacy of French colonialism.
Renaissance of French film. Watch The Artist (2011), a silent B&W, French-made romantic comedy set in 1920s Hollywood that scooped five Oscars and seven BAFTAs to become the most awarded film in French film history.
Female film-maker Pascale Ferran (b 1960) makes her mark with Bird People (2014), set in and around a hotel at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.
Feature: Best Books to Read
One way of ensuring your beach reading is right up to the minute is to plump for the latest winner of the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize awarded annually since 1903 and reflective, in recent years, of the occupation in contemporary French literature with issues of race, multiculturalism and immigration.
Winners include Marcel Proust in 1919 for À l'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleurs (Within a Budding Grove, 1924); Simone de Beauvoir in 1954 for Les Mandarins (The Mandarins, 1957); and, more recently, French-Senegalese novelist-playwright Marie NDiaye with Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women, 2009). The first black woman to win the award, NDiaye stunned the literary world at the age of 21 with Comédie Classique (1988), a 200-page novel comprising one single sentence. In 2015 the prize went to Mathias Énard, a Persian and Arabic scholar from southwest France whose winning novel Boussole addresses relations between Europe and the Middle East. Eric Vuillard's realist L'Ordre du Jour (The Order of the Day), a historical work about the rise of Hitler and Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, landed the 2017 prize.
Add to your reading list the laureate of France's other big literary award, the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie Française, around since 1914. The 2009 Grand Prix winner, Les Onze, by French novelist Pierre Michon (b 1945), published in English as The Eleven (2013), portrays a humble Parisian painter who decorates the homes of Louis XIV’s mistresses and goes on to create a Mona Lisa–type masterpiece. Michon’s earlier novels, Small Lives (2008) and Master and Servants (1997), come equally recommended. It has been known for the jury to be split, as was the case in 2015 when two winners were announced: French writer Hédi Kaddour with Les Prépondérants and Algerian writer Boualem Sansal with his Orwellian and apocalyptic 2084: la Fin du Monde (2084: The End of the World). In 2017 Daniel Rondeau won the esteemed prize with Mécaniques du chaos, a polyphonic novel layering together dozens of different contemporary worlds.
Feature: Bandes Dessinées
No literary genre has a bigger cult following in France than bandes dessinées (comic strips) – Paris even has a museum, Art Ludique-Le Musée, dedicated to the art. Originally written for children, comic strips for adults burst onto the scene in 1959 with René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo's now-iconic Astérix series.
Sidebar: Victor Hugo
When Besançon-born Victor Hugo (1802–85) died, his coffin was laid beneath Paris' Arc de Triomphe for an all-night vigil. The novelist's Les Misérables, finally published in 1862, took a remarkable 17 years to write and is London West End's longest-running musical.
Sidebar: Best Literary Sights
- Maison de Victor Hugo (Paris)
- Sartre's and de Beauvoir's graves, Cimetière du Montparnasse (Paris)
- Oscar Wilde's grave, Cimetière du Père Lachaise (Paris)
- Musée Colette (Burgundy)
- Musée Jules Verne (Nantes & Amiens)
- Les Charmettes (Chambéry)
Sidebar: Cinematic Experiences
- Cinémathèque Française (Paris)
- Set in Paris, film-location tours (Paris)
- Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé (Paris)
- Musée Lumière (Lyon)
- Cannes Film Festival (Cannes)
- American Film Festival (Deauville)
- Futuroscope (Poitiers)
Sidebar: Musical Pilgrimages
- Serge Gainsbourg's grave, Cimetière du Montparnasse (Paris)
- Jim Morrison's grave, Cimetière du Père Lachaise (Paris)
- Former home of Josephine Baker, Château des Milandes (Dordogne)
- Espace Georges Brassens (Sète)
- Jazz à Juan, Juan-les-Pins (French Riviera)
Sidebar: Best Modern Art
- Monet's garden (Giverny)
- Musée Renoir (Cagnes-sur-Mer)
- Musée Picasso (Paris & Antibes)
- Musée Matisse & Musée Chagall (Nice)
- Musée Jean Cocteau Collection Séverin Wunderman (Menton)
- Atélier Cézanne (Aix-en-Provence)
- Chemin du Fauvisme (Collioure)
Sidebar: Contemporary Art Trendsetters
- Palais de Tokyo (Paris)
- Centre Pompidou (Paris)
- Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris)
- Fondation Maeght (St-Paul de Vence)
- Centre Pompidou-Metz (Metz)
- Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (Nice)
Sidebar: World Design Capital
In 2020 Lille will be the World Design Capital, the first French city to do so. Watch for a year laden with exhibitions and festivities.
Sidebar: Christine & the Queens
Despite the English name, solo band Christine & the Queens is firmly French. Hailing from Nantes on the Atlantic Coast, Héloïse Letissier (b 1988) woos music lovers with her edgy rock and pop, outspoken attitudes and brazen 'pansexuality'.
From prehistoric megaliths around Carnac in Brittany to Vauban’s 33 star-shaped citadels dotted around France to defend its 17th-century frontiers, French architecture has always been of grand-projet proportions. In the capital, the skyline shimmers with Roman arenas, Gothic cathedrals, postmodernist cubes and futuristic skyscrapers, while provincial France cooks up the whole gamut of mainstream architectural styles along with regional idiosyncrasies.
Prehistoric to Roman
No part of France better demonstrates the work of the country’s earliest architects than Brittany, which has more megalithic menhirs (monumental upright stones), tombs, cairns and burial chambers than anywhere else on earth. Many date from around 3500 BC and the most frequent structure is the dolmen, a covered burial chamber consisting of vertical menhirs topped by a flat capstone. Bizarrely, Brittany’s ancient architects had different architectural tastes from their European neighbours – rather than the cromlechs (stone circles) commonly found in Britain, Ireland, Germany and Spain, they were much keener on building arrow-straight rows of menhirs known as alignements. And, indeed, Carnac’s monumental Alignements de Carnac is the world’s largest known prehistoric structure.
The Romans left behind a colossal architectural legacy in Provence and the French Riviera. Thousands of men took three to five years to haul the 21,000 cu metres of local stone needed to build the Pont du Gard near Nîmes. Other fine pieces of Roman architecture, still operational, include amphitheatres in Nîmes and Arles, open-air theatres in Orange and Fréjus, and Nîmes’ Maison Carrée.
A religious revival in the 11th century led to the construction of Romanesque churches, so-called because their architects adopted many architectural elements (eg vaulting) from Gallo-Roman buildings still standing at the time. Romanesque buildings typically have round arches, heavy walls, few windows and a lack of ornamentation that borders on the austere.
Romanesque masterpieces include Toulouse’s Basilique St-Sernin, Poitiers’ Église Notre Dame la Grande, the exquisitely haunting Basilique St-Rémi in Reims, Caen’s twinset of famous Romanesque abbeys, and Provence’s trio in the Luberon (Sénanque, Le Thoronet and Silvacane). In Normandy the nave and south transept of the abbey-church on Mont St-Michel are beautiful examples of Norman Romanesque.
Then there is Burgundy’s astonishing portfolio of Romanesque abbeys, among the world’s finest: Abbaye de Pontigny, Abbaye de Cîteaux and Vézelay’s Basilique Ste-Madeleine are highlights.
Avignon’s pontifical palace is Gothic architecture on a gargantuan scale. The Gothic style originated in the mid-12th century in northern France, where the region’s great wealth attracted the finest architects, engineers and artisans. Gothic structures are characterised by ribbed vaults carved with great precision, pointed arches, slender verticals, chapels (often built or endowed by the wealthy or by guilds), galleries and arcades along the nave and chancel, refined decoration and large stained-glass windows. If you look closely at certain Gothic buildings, however, you’ll notice minor asymmetrical elements introduced to avoid monotony.
The world’s first Gothic building was the Basilique de St-Denis near Paris, which combined various late-Romanesque elements to create a new kind of structural support in which each arch counteracted and complemented the next. The basilica served as a model for many other 12th-century French cathedrals, including Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres’ cathedral – both known for their soaring flying buttresses. No Gothic belfry is finer to scale than that of Bordeaux’ Cathédrale St-André.
In the 14th century, the Radiant Gothic style developed, named after the radiating tracery of the rose windows, with interiors becoming even lighter thanks to broader windows and more translucent stained glass. One of the most influential Rayonnant buildings was Paris’ Ste-Chapelle, whose stained glass forms a curtain of glazing on the 1st floor.
The Renaissance, which began in Italy in the early 15th century, set out to realise a ‘rebirth’ of classical Greek and Roman culture. It had its first impact on France at the end of that century, when Charles VIII began a series of invasions of Italy, returning with some new ideas.
To trace the shift from late Gothic to Renaissance, travel along the Loire Valley. During the very early Renaissance period, châteaux were used for the first time as pleasure palaces rather than defensive fortresses. Many edifices built during the 15th century to early 16th century in the Loire Valley – including Château d’Azay-le-Rideau and Château de Villandry – were built as summer or hunting residences for royal financiers, chamberlains and courtiers. Red-patterned brickwork – such as that on the Louis XII wing of Château Royal de Blois – adorned the façade of most châteaux dating from Louis XII’s reign (1498–1515).
The quintessential French Renaissance château is a mix of classical components and decorative motifs (columns, tunnel vaults, round arches, domes etc) with the rich decoration of Flamboyant Gothic. It ultimately showcased wealth, ancestry and refinement. Defensive towers (a historical seigniorial symbol) were incorporated into a new decorative architecture, typified by its three-dimensional use of pilasters and arcaded loggias, terraces, balconies, exterior staircases, turrets and gabled chimneys. Heraldic symbols were sculpted on soft stone façades, above doorways and fireplaces, and across coffered ceilings. Symmetrical floor plans broke new ground and heralded a different style of living: Château de Chambord contained 40 self-contained apartments, arranged on five floors around a central axis. This ensured easy circulation in a vast edifice that many rank as the first modern building in France.
Mannerism, which followed the Renaissance, was introduced by Italian architects and artists brought to France around 1530 by François I, whose royal château at Fontainebleau was designed by Italian architects. Over the following decades, French architects who had studied in Italy took over from their Italian colleagues.
The Mannerist style lasted until the early 17th century, when it was subsumed by the Baroque style.
During the Baroque period (the tail end of the 16th to late 18th centuries), painting, sculpture and classical architecture were integrated to create structures and interiors of great subtlety, refinement and elegance. Architecture became more pictorial, with the painted ceilings in churches illustrating the Passion of Christ to the faithful, and palaces invoking the power and order of the state.
Salomon de Brosse, who designed Paris’ Palais du Luxembourg in 1615, set the stage for two of France’s most prominent early-Baroque architects: François Mansart (1598–1666), who designed the classical wing of Château Royal de Blois, and his younger rival Louis Le Vau (1612–70), who worked on France’s grandest palace at Versailles.
Nancy’s place Stanislas in northern France is the country’s loveliest neoclassical square. Neoclassical architecture, which emerged in about 1740 and remained popular until well into the 19th century, had its roots in the renewed interest in the classical forms and conventions of Greco-Roman antiquity: columns, simple geometric forms and traditional ornamentation.
Among the earliest examples of this style is the Italianate façade of Paris’ Église St-Sulpice, designed in 1733 by Giovanni Servandoni, which took inspiration from Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral in London; and the Petit Trianon at Versailles, designed by Jacques-Ange Gabriel for Louis XV in 1761. France’s greatest neoclassical architect of the 18th century was Jacques-Germain Soufflot, the man behind the Panthéon in Left Bank Paris.
Neoclassicism peaked under Napoléon III, who used it extensively for monumental architecture intended to embody the grandeur of imperial France and its capital: the Arc de Triomphe, La Madeleine, the Arc du Carrousel at the Louvre, the Assemblée Nationale building and the Palais Garnier. It was during this period moreover that urban planner Baron Haussmann, between 1850 and 1870 as Prefect of the Seine, completely redrew Paris’ street plan, radically demolishing the city’s maze of narrow, cramped medieval streets and replacing it with wide boulevards, sweeping parks and attractive passages couverts (covered passages).
The true showcase of this era though is Casino de Monte Carlo in Monaco, created by French architect Charles Garnier (1825–98) in 1878.
Art nouveau (1850–1910) combined iron, brick, glass and ceramics in ways never before seen. The style emerged in Europe and the USA under various names (Jugendstil, Sezessionstil, Stile Liberty) and caught on quickly in Paris. The style was characterised by sinuous curves and flowing asymmetrical forms reminiscent of creeping vines, water lilies, the patterns on insect wings and the flowering boughs of trees. Influenced by the arrival of exotic objets d’art from Japan, its French name came from a Paris gallery that featured works in the ‘new art’ style. The Piscine Saint-Georges (1923–26) in Rennes is a perfect example. True buffs should make a beeline for the art-nouveau tourist trail in Nancy.
A Beautiful Age
The glittering belle époque, hot on the heels of art nouveau, heralded an eclecticism of decorative stucco friezes, trompe l’œil paintings, glittering wall mosaics, brightly coloured Moorish minarets and Turkish towers. Immerse yourself in its fabulous and whimsical designs with a stroll along promenade des Anglais in Nice, where the pink-domed Hôtel Negresco (1912) is the icing on the cake; or, up north, around the colourful Imperial Quarter of Metz. Or flop in a beautiful belle époque spa like Vichy.
The Fondation Victor Vasarely, by the father of op art Victor Vasarely (1908–97), was an architectural coup when unveiled in Aix-en-Provence in 1976. Its 14 giant monumental hexagons reflected what Vasarely had already achieved in art: the creation of optical illusion and changing perspective through the juxtaposition of geometrical shapes and colours.
France’s best-known 20th-century architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier; 1887–1965), was born in Switzerland but settled in Paris in 1917 at the age of 30. A radical modernist, he tried to adapt buildings to their functions in industrialised society without ignoring the human element, thus rewriting the architectural style book with his sweeping lines and functionalised forms adapted to fit the human form. No single building has redefined urban living more than Le Corbusier’s vertical 337-apartment ‘garden city’ known as La Cité Radieuse (the Radiant City) – today Hôtel Le Corbusier – that he designed on the coast in Marseille in 1952.
Most of Le Corbusier’s work was done outside Paris, though he did design several private residences and the Pavillon Suisse, a dormitory for Swiss students at the Cité Internationale Universitaire in the 14e arrondissement of the capital. Elsewhere, Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Haut in the Jura and Couvent Ste-Marie de la Tourette near Lyon are 20th-century architectural icons.
Until 1968, French architects were still being trained almost exclusively at the conformist École des Beaux-Arts, reflected in most of the acutely unimaginative and impersonal ‘lipstick tube’ structures erected in the Parisian skyscraper district of La Défense, the Unesco building (1958) in the 7e, and Montparnasse’s ungainly 210m-tall Tour Montparnasse (1973).
For centuries French political leaders sought to immortalise themselves through the erection of huge public edifices (aka grands projets) in Paris. Georges Pompidou commissioned the once reviled, now much-loved Centre Pompidou (1977) in which the architects – in order to keep the exhibition halls as uncluttered as possible – put the building’s insides out. His successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, was instrumental in transforming the derelict Gare d’Orsay train station into the glorious Musée d’Orsay (1986).
François Mitterrand commissioned the capital’s best-known contemporary architectural landmarks (taxpayers’ bill: a whopping €4.6 billion), including the Opéra Bastille, the Grande Arche in La Défense, the four glass towers of the national library, and IM Pei’s glass pyramid at the hitherto sacrosanct and untouchable Louvre (an architectural cause célébre that paved the way, incidentally, for Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti’s magnificent flying carpet roof atop the Louvre’s Cour Visconti in 2012).
Glass has been a big feature of millennial architecture in the capital. Canadian architect Frank Gehry used 12 enormous glass sails to design the Fondation Louis Vuitton (2014) in the Bois de Bologne. The transformation of Forum des Halles (2016) by architects Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziutti saw the 1970s-eyesore shopping centre crowned with a spectacular gold-coloured canopy made of 18,000 glass shingles. One-third of the €600 million budget to restore Gare d'Austerlitz, to be complete in 2021, will be used to restore the historic train station's amazing glass roof.
At Porte de Versailles, the Tour Triangle (2019) is a glittering triangular glass tower designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron. It will be the first skyscraper in Paris since 1973's eyesore Tour Montparnasse, itself set to get a new reflective façade and green rooftop.
Glass will be likewise combined with green architecture in the Mille Arbres (Thousand Trees) project. Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto and French architect Manal Rachdi will transform Porte Maillot into a spectacular tree-topped glass structure by 2022.
France’s leading and arguably most talented architect, Jean Nouvel (b 1945), is the creative talent behind both Paris' ambitious Gare d'Austerlitz project and a succession of landmark buildings in Paris: the Institut du Monde Arabe (1987), successfully mixing modern and traditional Arab and Western elements; riverside Musée du Quai Branly, an iconic glass, wood-and-sod structure; and experimental concert hall Philharmonie de Paris (2015).
Nouvel also designed Périgueux' glass-and-steel Musée Gallo-Romain Vesunna (2003) in the Dordogne. His most recent work is Ycone (2018), a dazzling, 14-storey residential block of coloured glass with modular apartments and digital concierge in Lyon's Confluence district.
Notable pieces of architecture in the provinces include Lyon's sparkling glass-and-steel cloud on the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, aka the cutting-edge Musée des Confluences (2014); Strasbourg’s European Parliament; Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ Euralille and a 1920s art-deco swimming pool turned art museum in Lille; and the fantastic Louvre II in Lens, 37km south of Lille.
In Strasbourg, Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi designed France’s biggest mosque, large enough to seat 1500 worshippers. Topped by a copper dome and flanked by wings resembling a flower in bud, the riverside building took 20 years of political to-ing and fro-ing for the groundbreaking project – a landmark for Muslims in France – to come to fruition.
Looking south, Frank Gehry is the big-name architect behind Arles’ innovative new cultural centre: all a shimmer in the bright southern sun, rocklike Luma Fondation (2018) evokes the nearby Alpilles mountain range with its two linked towers topped with aluminium. Nearby in Roman Nîmes, architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc is the creative talent behind the Roman city's striking €59.4 million archaeological museum, the Musée de la Romanité (2018).
In Lyon, Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (of Tate Modern and Beijing National Stadium fame) are hard at work on phase two of the exciting Confluence project, begun in 2016, which will add a notable residential district, market and new bridges to the former wasteland.
Sidebar: Designer Bridges
Designer bridges in France include the world’s tallest bridge aka Sir Norman Foster's Viaduc de Millau; Normandy’s Pont de Normandie (1995) near Le Havre; and Paris’ striking Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir (2006) across the Seine.
Feature: Big-Name Buildings
Frank Gehry La Cinémathèque Française (Paris), Cité de la Vigne (Gruissan), Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris), Luma Fondation (Arles)
Jean Nouvel Institut du Monde Arabe and Fondation d'Art pour l'Art Contemporain (Paris), Les Docks Vauban (Le Havre), Église Ste-Marie (Salat-la-Canéda), Musée Gallo-Romain (Périgueux), Château La Dominique (St-Émilion), Philharmonie de Paris (Paris), Hôtel de Ville (Montpellier), Ycone (Lyon).
Lord Norman Foster Carrée d'Art (Nîmes), Viaduc de Millau (Languedoc), Musée de la Préhistoire des Gorges du Verdon (Quinson), Château Margaux (The Médoc)
Feature: France's Most Beautiful Villages
One of French architecture’s signature structures popped up in rural France from the 13th century, ‘up’ being the operative word for these bastides or villages perchés (fortified hilltop villages), built high on a hill to afford maximum protection for previously scattered populations. Provence and the Dordogne are key regions to hike up, down and around one medieval hilltop village after another, but you can find them in almost every French region. Many of the most dramatic and stunning are among Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages in France; www.les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org).
Feature: Vauban's Citadels
From the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century, the design of defensive fortifications around the world was dominated by the work of one man: Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633–1707).
Born to a relatively poor family of the petty nobility, Vauban worked as a military engineer during almost the entire reign of Louis XIV, revolutionising both the design of fortresses and siege techniques. To defend France’s frontiers, he built 33 immense citadels, many of them shaped like stars and surrounded by moats, and he rebuilt or refined more than 100.
Vauban’s most famous citadel is situated at Lille, but his work can also be seen at Antibes, Belfort, Belle Île, Besançon, Concarneau, Neuf-Brisach (Alsace), Perpignan, St-Jean Pied de Port and St-Malo. The Vauban citadel in Verdun comprises 7km of underground galleries. A dozen sites (www.sites-vauban.org) star on Unesco’s World Heritage Site list under a ‘Vauban Fortifications’ banner.
Feature: Vertical Gardens
A signature architectural feature of the French capital that has since been exported to other French and European cities is the vertical garden – mur végétal (vegetation wall) – especially that of Patrick Blanc (www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com). His most famous work is at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Seeming to defy the very laws of gravity, the museum’s vertical garden consists of some 15,000 low-light foliage plants from Central Europe, the US, Japan and China, planted on a surface of 800 sq metres and held in place by a frame of metal, PVC and nonbiodegradable felt – but no soil.
Catch up with southern France’s prehistoric architects at Marseille’s Centre de la Vieille Charité, Quinson’s Musée de Préhistoire des Gorges du Verdon, and the beehive-shaped huts called bories at the Village des Bories near Gordes in the Luberon.
Sidebar: Architect-Buff Sleeps
- Les Bains & Hôtel Molitor (Paris)
- Hôtel Le Corbusier (Marseille)
- Hôtel Oscar (Le Havre)
- Hotel Sōzō (Nantes)
- La Co(o)rniche (Pyla-sur-Mer)
- La Fabrique (Provence)
Sidebar: Architecture et Musique
Architecture et Musique (www.architecmusique.com) is a fine concept: enjoy a classical-music concert amid an architectural masterpiece; the annual program is online.
Sidebar: The Staircase
Renaissance architecture stamped châteaux with a new artistic form: the monumental staircase. The most famous of these splendid ceremonial (and highly functional) creations are at Azay-le-Rideau, Blois, and Chambord in the Loire Valley.
Sidebar: Scandal Turned Success
France’s biggest architectural scandals-turned-successes: Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers’ Centre Pompidou, and IM Pei’s glass pyramid at the Louvre, both in Paris.
Sidebar: Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
No single museum presents a finer overview of French architecture than Paris’ Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine inside the 1937-built Palais de Chaillot.
Sidebar: Art Nouveau in Paris
- Hector Guimard’s noodle-like metro entrances
- The interior of the Musée d’Orsay
- Department stores Le Bon Marché and Galeries Lafayette
- The glass roof over the Grand Palais
Sidebar: Paris Plans
Interesting and alarming were Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris that thankfully never left the drawing board. Called Plan Voisin (Neighbour Project; 1925), it envisaged wide boulevards linking the Gare Montparnasse with the Seine and lined with skyscrapers. The project would have required bulldozing much of the Latin Quarter.
Landscapes & Wildlife
France is a land of art. Fantastic portraits adorn the walls of galleries, villages resemble oil paintings plucked from a bygone rural age, and the people are naturally stylish. But as gorgeous as the art of France is, it fades when compared to the sheer beauty of the countryside itself.
Hexagon-shaped France, Europe's third-largest country (after Russia and Ukraine), is fringed by water or mountains along every side except in the northeast.
The country's 3427km-long coastline is incredibly diverse, ranging from white-chalk cliffs (Normandy) and treacherous promontories (Brittany) to broad expanses of fine sand (Atlantic Coast) and pebbly beaches (the Mediterranean Coast).
Western Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc (4810m), spectacularly crowns the French Alps, which stagger along France's eastern border. North of Lake Geneva, the gentle limestone Jura Mountains run along the Swiss frontier to reach heights of around 1700m, while the rugged Pyrenees guard France's 450km-long border with Spain and Andorra, peaking at 3404m.
Five major river systems criss-cross the country: the Garonne (which includes the Tarn, the Lot and the Dordogne) empties into the Atlantic; the Rhône links Lake Geneva and the Alps with the Mediterranean; Paris is licked in poetic verse by the Seine, which slithers through the city en route from Burgundy to the English Channel; and tributaries of the North Sea–bound Rhine drain much of the area north and east of the capital. Then there's France's longest river, the château-studded Loire, which meanders through history from the Massif Central to the Atlantic.
France is blessed with a rich variety of flora and fauna, although few habitats have escaped human impacts: intensive agriculture, wetland draining, urbanisation, hunting and the encroachment of industry and tourism infrastructure menace dozens of species.
France has more mammal species (around 135) than any other European country. Couple this with around 500 bird species (depending on which rare migrants are included), 40 types of amphibian, 36 varieties of reptile and 72 kinds of fish, and wildlife-watchers are in seventh heaven. Of France's 40,000 identified insects, 10,000 creep and crawl in the Parc National du Mercantour in the southern Alps.
High-altitude plains in the Alps and the Pyrenees shelter the marmot, which hibernates from October to April and has a shrill and distinctive whistle; the nimble chamois (mountain antelope), with its dark-striped head; and the bouquetin (Alpine ibex), seen in large numbers in the Parc National de la Vanoise. Mouflons (wild mountain sheep), introduced in the 1950s, clamber over stony sunlit scree slopes in the mountains, while red and roe deer and wild boar are common in lower-altitude forested areas. The Alpine hare welcomes winter with its white coat, while 19 of Europe's 29 bat species hang out in the dark in the Alpine national parks.
The loup (wolf), which disappeared from France in the 1930s, returned to the Parc National du Mercantour in 1992 – much to the horror of the mouflon (on which it preys) and local sheep farmers. Dogs, corrals and sound machines have been used as an effective, nonlethal way of keeping the growing free-roaming wolf population of the Mercantour and other Alpine areas from feasting on domesticated sheep herds. The wolf is a government-protected species, hence farmers are powerless to shoot an attacking wolf.
A rare but wonderful treat is the sighting of an aigle royal (golden eagle): 40 pairs nest in the Mercantour, 20 pairs nest in the Vanoise, 30-odd in the Écrins and some 50 in the Pyrenees. Other birds of prey include the peregrine falcon, the kestrel, the buzzard and the bearded vulture – Europe's largest bird of prey, with an awe-inspiring wingspan of 2.8m. More recently, the small, pale-coloured Egyptian vulture has been spreading throughout the Alps and Pyrenees.
Even the eagle-eyed will have difficulty spotting the ptarmigan, a chickenlike species that moults three times a year to ensure a foolproof seasonal camouflage (brown in summer, white in winter). It lives on rocky slopes and in Alpine meadows above 2000m. The nutcracker, with its loud, buoyant singsong and larch-forest habitat, the black grouse, rock partridge, the very rare eagle owl and the three-toed woodpecker are among the other 120-odd species keeping birdwatchers glued to the skies in highland realms.
Elsewhere, there are now around 2700 pairs of white storks; 10% of the world's flamingo population hangs out in the Camargue; giant black cormorants – some with a wingspan of 1.7m – reside on an island off Pointe du Grouin on the north coast of Brittany; and there are unique seagull and fishing-eagle populations in the Réserve Naturelle de Scandola on Corsica. The balbuzard pêcheur (osprey), a migratory hunter that flocks to France in February or March, today only inhabits two regions of France: Corsica and the Loire Valley.
About 140,000 sq km of forest – beech, oak and pine in the main – covers 20% of France, and there are 4900 different species of native flowering plants countrywide (2250 alone grow in the Parc National des Cévennes).
The Alpine and Pyrenean regions nurture fir, spruce and beech forests on north-facing slopes between 800m and 1500m. Larch trees, mountain and arolla pines, rhododendrons and junipers stud shrubby subalpine zones between 1500m and 2000m; and a brilliant riot of spring and summertime wildflowers carpets grassy meadows above the treeline in the alpine zone (up to 3000m).
Alpine blooms include the single golden-yellow flower of the arnica, long used in herbal and homeopathic bruise-relieving remedies; the flame-coloured fire lily; and the hardy Alpine columbine, with its delicate blue petals. The protected 'queen of the Alps' (aka the Alpine eryngo) bears an uncanny resemblance to a purple thistle but is, in fact, a member of the parsley family (to which the carrot also belongs).
Corsica and the Massif des Maures, west of St-Tropez on the Côte d'Azur, are closely related botanically: both have chestnut and cork-oak trees and are thickly carpeted with garrigues and maquis – heavily scented scrubland, where dozens of fragrant shrubs and herbs find shelter.
The proportion of protected land in France is surprisingly low: seven parcs nationaux (www.parcsnationaux.fr) fully protect just 0.8% of the country. Another 13% (70,000 sq km) in metropolitan France and its overseas territories is protected to a substantially lesser degree by 48 parcs naturels régionaux (www.parcs-naturels-regionaux.tm.fr), and a further few per cent by 320 smaller réserves naturelles (www.reserves-naturelles.org), some of them under the eagle eye of the Conservatoire du Littoral.
While the central zones of national parks are uninhabited and fully protected by legislation (dogs, vehicles and hunting are banned and camping is restricted), their delicate ecosystems spill over into populated peripheral zones in which economic activities, some of them environmentally unfriendly, are permitted and even encouraged.
Most regional nature parks and reserves were established not only to maintain or improve local ecosystems, but also to encourage economic development and tourism in areas suffering from hardship and diminishing populations (such as the Massif Central and Corsica).
Select pockets of nature – the Pyrenees, Mont St-Michel and its bay, part of the Loire Valley, the astonishingly biodiverse Cévennes, a clutch of capes on Corsica and vineyards in Burgundy and Champagne – have been declared Unesco World Heritage Sites.
As elsewhere in the world, wetlands in France – incredibly productive ecosystems that are essential for the survival of birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians – are shrinking. More than 20,000 sq km (3% of French territory) are considered important wetlands but only 4% of this land is currently protected.
Great tracts of forest burn each summer, often because of careless day trippers but more often than not by arson that accounts for 39% of forest fires. Since the mid-1970s, between 31 sq km and 615 sq km of land has been reduced to black stubble each year by an average of 540 fires. Soaring summer temperatures combined with no rain saw 2017 go down as one of the worst years on record: thousands of residents in Provence and Corsica were evacuated from their homes, with 12,000 locals and tourists in Bormes-les-Mimosas spending one night in July in emergency shelters as forest fires spread dangerously close to the seaside resort. Some 70 sq km of forest in all were destroyed.
Dogs and guns also pose a threat to French animal life, brown bears included. While the number of hunters has fallen by more than 20% in the last decade, there are still a lot more hunters in France (1.3 million) than in any other Western European country. Despite the 1979 Brussels Directive for the protection of wild birds, their eggs, nests and habitats in the EU, the French government has been very slow to make its provisions part of French law, meaning birds that can fly safely over other countries can still be hunted as they cross France.
The state-owned electricity company, Electricité de France (EDF), has an enviable record on minimising greenhouse-gas emissions – fossil-fuel-fired power plants account for just 4.6% of its production. Clean, renewable hydropower, generated by 220 dams, comprises 8.8% of the company's generating capacity but this does affect animal habitats. And no less than 75% (the highest in the world) of France's electricity comes from another controversial carbon-zero source: nuclear power, generated by 58 nuclear reactors at 20 sites. In 2012 François Hollande's socialist government had promised to reduce France's reliance on nuclear energy to 50% by 2025, but under President Emmanuel Macron's centrist government this target date has been pushed back to 2035.
This said, the government has agreed to closing down France's oldest nuclear reactor from the 1970s at Fessenheim in Alsace by 2020 once the new state-of-the-art Flamanville 3 reactor, under construction at a cost of €10.5 billion on Normandy's west coast, opens in late 2018.
Europe's largest solar-powered electricity-generating farm sits 1000m-high on a south-facing slope near the tiny village of Curbans in Provence. The farm's 150-hectare array of photovoltaic cells – 145,000 panels in all – removes 120,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from the French energy bill.
Global warming might translate as an increasingly shorter, uncertain and riskier season for ski enthusiasts in the French Alps as snowfall becomes more erratic and avalanches occur more often. But for Alpine flora and fauna, it is even more serious. Alpine plants are fleeing up their warming mountainsides at between 0.5m and 4m per decade, reports the WWF, making way for invasive species and the pathogens and animal life that come with them. France's largest glacier meanwhile, the Mer de Glace near Chamonix, is retreating by 4m to 5m each year.
Feature: High-Factor Protection
Over 10% of the coastline of mainland France and Corsica is managed by the Conservatoire du Littoral (www.conservatoire-du-littoral.fr), a public coastal-protection body. Among the conservatoire's rich pageant of espaces naturels protégés (protected natural areas) are the rare-orchid-dotted sand dunes east of Dunkirk, the Baie de Somme with its ornithological park, several wet and watery pockets of the horse-studded Camargue, and a Corsican desert.
France also sports 43 Ramsar Convention wetland sites (www.ramsar.org).
Feature: Wildlife Watch
The national parks and their regional siblings are great for observing animals in their natural habitat. The following are also worth a gander:
- Flamingos The Camargue, France's best-known wetland site, attracts 10,000 pink flamingos and over 400 other bird species including rollers and glossy ibises.
- Vultures Found in the Pyrenees at Falaise aux Vautours, the Vallée d'Ossau and in Languedoc at the Belvédère des Vautours in the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses.
- Storks In Alsace at the Centre de Réintroduction Cigognes & Loutres, in Hunawihr, and the Enclos aux Cigognes in Munster; on the Atlantic Coast at Réserve Ornithologique du Teich, near Arcachon; and at the Parc des Oiseaux outside Villars-les-Dombes near Lyon.
- Dolphins and whales Playful bottlenose dolphins splash around in the Mediterranean, and whales are sometimes sighted too. Prime viewing from boat trips on the French Riviera and Corsica.
Feature: Bears, Oh My!
The brown bear disappeared from the Alps in the mid-1930s. The 150-odd native bears living in the Pyrenees a century ago had dwindled to one orphaned cub following the controversial shooting of its mother – the last female bear of Pyrenean stock – by a hunter in 2004. Today an estimated 39 to 43 bears of Slovenian origin live in the Pyrenees, and this is set to increase if government plans, announced in 2018, to release two more female bears into the wild to help boost the dwindling bear population come off.
Feature: Life & Death of the Ibex
Often spotted hanging out on sickeningly high crags and ledges, the nippy bouquetin des Alpes (Alpine ibex), with its imposingly large, curly-wurly horns, is the animal most synonymous with the French Alps. Higher altitudes were loaded with the handsome beast in the 16th century but, three centuries on, its extravagant horns had become a must-have item in any gentleman's trophy cabinet, and within a few years it had been hunted to the brink of extinction.
In 1963 the Parc National de la Vanoise was created in the Alps to stop hunters in the massif from shooting the few Alpine ibex that remained. The creation of similar nature reserves and rigorous conservation campaigns have seen populations surely and steadily recover – to the point where today the Alpine ibex is thriving. Not that you're likely to encounter one: the canny old ibex has realised that some mammals are best avoided.
Sidebar: Nature Trek
From butterfly-spotting in the Cévennes to exploring bird-rich wetlands in the Camargue, UK-based tour company Nature Trek (www.naturetrek.co.uk) organises inspirational wildlife-watching holidays.
Follow the progress of France's precious wolf, bear and lynx populations with Ferus (www.ferus.org), France's conservation group for these protected predators.
Of France's 150 orchids, the black vanilla orchid is one to look out for – its small red-brown flowers exude a sweet vanilla fragrance.
Sidebar: Green Roofs
Green initiatives in Paris include the creation of 100 hectares of green roofs, façades and vertical walls in the capital city, a third of which will be devoted to urban agriculture.