France: Background

Castles like this one dot the French countryside.

Every year, millions of visitors come to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum, the gardens, and many other sights in this beautiful city. But there is much more to France than just Paris.

France is the largest nation in western Europe, but it is still smaller than Texas. The hexagon-shaped country has vast wheat fields and vineyards, 2,000 miles of coastline, and tall mountains. Mont Blanc, in the French Alps, is the tallest mountain in western Europe at 15,771 feet. The island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea is also part of France, as are nine overseas dependencies.

More than 90 percent of France's land is fertile. Its climate is perfect for growing many crops. In most of France, summers are pleasantly warm and winters are cool with plenty of rain. This has helped France become one of the world's leading farming nations.

France has also been a fertile place for individual achievements. Frenchman Sieur de La Salle paddled down the Mississippi River and claimed it for France in the 1680s. Polish-born scientist Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, discovered radium in a French lab, and she became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize. The paintings of the French artists known as the Impressionists are loved and appreciated by many people. France's cuisine is famous throughout the world, and the country produces 400 kinds of cheese alone!

France was under the control of the Romans for more than 500 years, starting in 58 B.C. By the Middle Ages, France was an important power, competing for influence among European countries such as the Netherlands, England, and Spain. France's royalty became famous for its glittering courts and rich way of life. But while the royalty lived extravagantly, many French people were poor and had few rights. In 1789, the people rebelled and started the French Revolution.

France did not immediately succeed in establishing a democracy, though. Napoleon became emperor of France in 1799 and conquered much of Europe before his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. The French eventually gained rights as citizens, and today, people vote, have political parties, and participate in France's democratic government.

History Highlights

58 B.C.: Gaul, as the land that is now France was known, is captured by Julius Caesar. The Romans rule Gaul for more than 500 years, until A.D. 486, when Clovis defeats them.

A.D. 800: Charlemagne, king of the Franks and ruler of the land that is now France, conquers much of Europe. He is crowned Roman emperor by the pope in Rome.

1431: Joan of Arc leads French forces in pushing back the English occupying northern France. She is captured by the English and burned at the stake. Still, she inspires the French, and by 1453, the English are gone.

1789: An angry mob of French citizens storms a prison called the Bastille, freeing many political prisoners. The French Revolution begins.

1792: The king of France, Louis XVI, is forced to give up his crown. France becomes a republic.

1799–1815: Napoleon Bonaparte becomes emperor of France and extends his control over most of Europe. He is eventually captured by the British and exiled to the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.

1800–1900s: France conquers parts of Africa, Asia, and South America and turns them into French colonies.

1914: World War I is fought, mainly in Germany and France. France loses one tenth of its male citizens.

1940: In World War II, Germany invades France and occupies it until France is liberated and Germany is defeated.

1950s–60s: French colonies in places such as Vietnam and Algeria fight and win wars of independence. This signifies the end of France's colonial era.

And Did You Know That...

  • the first manned flight was in 1783 in France, when the two Montgolfier brothers launched the first hot-air balloon?
  • each spring, French kids tune in for their favorite French singers in the Eurovision song contest? The contest has been going on for more than 30 years.
  • a month-long bicycle race called the Tour de France attracts the world's top racers? The grueling 3,000-mile race around the country is the greatest sporting event in France.
  • in some parts of France, visitors can still see Roman ruins such as aqueducts, which once carried water to towns?
  • the cast-iron Eiffel Tower, one of the most famous symbols of Paris, weighs about 10,000 tons? It can accommodate 10,000 visitors at a time.

Write about it:
France makes 400 types of cheese! That's a lot of cheese. How many types of cheese can you name?

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Eiffel Tower
The most famous landmark in Paris has an official site. Learn the history of the tower, take a tour, take a quiz, and even do a puzzle all without leaving your computer!

The Louvre is one of the largest museums in the world. Learn about its early days as a palace and take a virtual tour of its huge collections.

Joan of Arc
The undying faith and courage of Joan of Arc inspired her to lead the troops of France against the English. Read about the famed heroine.

Louis XIV wanted to create for himself the most wonderful palace in the world. Take a virtual tour of his former home, court and gardens. The site includes a typical daily schedule of the king when he resided at Versailles as well as information on visiting Versailles.

The Caves of Lascaux
Take a virtual tour of these remarkable caves. The caves conserve our prehistoric heritage. See the paintings and learn how they were discovered.