France is a country that helped shape the European continent that we know today, and the French culture has always had an enormous influence on the entire world. The French language is one of the most widespread languages in the world, yet it was a language spoken by the largest number of people and the majority of the European aristocracy just a century ago. There is also no need to say what a role French philosophers, writers, artists, and musicians played in shaping the European civilization.
Another aspect of the France’s impact on the entire world is its past of being a colonial power, which allowed this country to impose its language and cultural habits on other countries. A number of historical events – the French revolution is, perhaps, the most important and outstanding among them – have also changed the way the entire European continent has developed. Eventually, this article will help you understand the phenomenon of the French culture’s importance, how the modern state of France has been formed, and main stereotypes about the French people.
A Bit of History About France
The first known settlement in the territory of the present-day France was founded by the Ionian Greeks in 600 B.C. The Greeks founded a colony called Massalia, a city that is called Marseille at the present time and that appears to be the oldest French city. But an event that had a profound impact on those territories was the invasion of Gallic Celtic tribes in the north of the modern-day France. Though, the tribes occupied almost the entire territory of the present-day France, which gave a way to speculations about France and its close connection with the Gauls.
In the 4th century B.C., Gaul was quite a prosperous land that had been heavily influenced by the Greek and Roman cultures. Even though there is a stereotype that the territory of the Gauls was the land of primitive barbarians before the Roman conquest, it barely can be said to be the truth. In 390 B.C., the Gallic troops ruled by the tribal chief Brennus successfully passed the Alps, defeated the Roman troops, and ransomed the city of Rome. Such an invasion of the Gallic troops had significantly weakened the power of the Roman Republic (still a republic at that time, not an empire yet). In result, the enmity between the Gauls and the Romans had lasted for a couple of centuries.
In 125 B.C., the Roman troops conquered a southern part of Gaul and called that region as “Our Province” (or “Provincia Nostra”). Julius Ceaser, a distinguished ruler of the Roman Republic, had conquered the entire state of Gaul in 52 B.C. Later, Augustus had divided the conquered territory of Gaul into Roman provinces. During the Roman rule, the territory of the present-day France had developed and prospered quite well. In particular, a number of French cities were founded exactly during this period, including the city of Lugdunum (the city of Lyon nowadays).
The Day of Storming the Bastille appears to be the French National Holiday
The conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity by Constantin I turned many pagan believers who lived in the territory of the modern-day France into Christians. Yet, the collapsing Roman Empire was a subject to numerous conquests, despoilments, and ransoms by the barbarians, namely Alans, Suebi, and Vandals. Eventually, the territory of the present-day France was divided into several Germanic kingdoms. The pagan tribe of Franks settled in the northern part of Gaul, giving the name “Francie” to the country. Later, the troops of the Franks under the rule of Clovis I conquered the majority of kingdoms in the central and northern parts of Gaul. Clovis I also forced the pagan citizens of Francie to convert to Christianity. He is also believed to adopt the Roman language as the country’s language and make Paris the country’s capital.
The rule of Charlemagne (from 768 up to 814 A.D.), known also as Charles the Great, is typically associated with the foundation of France as a state. Besides, he is also regarded as the founder of Germany. During the centuries after his rule, France had to wage wars against its rivals, namely Spain (after the Reconquista), Germany, Britain, and Austria.
The power of the French monarchy reached its zenith in the 17th century, when France was ruled by Louis XIV, whose might was unchallenged and who made France to be a dominant European power. The French language became the most-used language in literature, international affairs, science, and diplomacy, and that status quo will eventually come to the end only at the beginning of the 20th century. In the meantime, France has conquered vast territories in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Yet, Alexis de Tocqueville, a prominent French writer and politician, noted that it was exactly the rule of Louis XIV that actually caused the French revolution, while Louis XVI just attempted to reform the country (and this sparked the revolution).
Indeed, the French revolution was something unimaginable at that time, which showed that feudalism and monarchy are not the only way of ruling a country. The Day of Storming the Bastille, which occurred on 14th July 1789, is widely celebrated in the present-day France even nowadays. As a result of the revolution and inability of incapable rulers (who also started the year-long period of the Reign of Terror) who couldn’t bring anything sensible but only were destroying the old regime, Napoleon Bonaparte seized the power and conquered half of the European continent.
After the revolution, France had been turned back into monarchy and again into a republic many times (nowadays, France is the Fifth French Republic). Yet, the revolution has had a profound impact on the entire European continent, causing revolutions and structural alterations in governance of many countries (one of such was the Austro-Hungarian Empire).
French Culture: Philosophy
When it comes to the French culture, philosophy and literature have played a key role in the formation of France. The French philosophy is believed to stem from Peter Abeland, a medieval scholastic philosopher, who had been numerously named as the keenest thinker of that time. His particular area of work was theology, and it was the time when the Catholic church had largely restricted philosophers of philosophizing on something that would criticize the church or make it seem in a negative light.
In the 16th century, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a Catholic philosopher, took a tough stance on the Catholic church. For this, he is widely regarded as the first anti-conformist philosopher, and he has influenced such prominent thinkers like Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Shakespeare. However, it was René Descartes whose works in epistemology attracted attention from the continent’s leading thinkers and made him a founder of the modern philosophy. His logical conclusion “I think, therefore I am” was the only proven assumption of his, considering his radical skeptical approach to philosophy.
Voltaire is one of the most prominent French philosophers
Among other outstanding French philosophers, Voltaire (1694-1778) appears to be a significantly influential personality. His ideas were later manifested during the French revolution, even though he died shortly before it started. Voltaire is also well-known for his phrase “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” and there have been a number of spectacles staged on the basis of this idea. Though, Alexis de Tocqueville stressed that Voltaire’s ideas of unlimited freedom later led to horrifying consequences during the revolution, blaming him to be one of those whose works irresponsibility prompted people to cause a bloodshed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a prominent revolutionary thinker, was born in Switzerland (yet he moved to France later and is widely regarded as the French philosopher) and also supported the ideas of the revolution.
Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu’s concept of the state power to be separated into three branches (judicial, executive, and legislative) laid ground to the modern-day democracy. His ideas, published in the book “The Spirit of the Laws,” has had a significant impact on the American Founding Fathers. Even nowadays, Montesquieu is widely regarded as one of the most prominent political thinkers, who appeared to develop the concept of governance that is opposite to the one of Niccoló Machiavelli.
The French philosophy of the 20th century also can boast a number of prominent thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jacques Derrida.
French Culture: Literature
Literature occupies an important place in the French culture, and France has been a home to many talented writers. First of all, it must be said that a number of texts dating back to the Middle Ages and that appear to be anonymous have been a significant contribution to the French literature. Namely, it is going about such texts like “The Song of Roland,” “Tristan and Iseult,” and “Lancelot-Graal.”
In the 18th century, French philosophers had also written top-notch masterpieces in literature, bringing the French culture to a higher level. For instance, Voltaire wrote “Zadig, or The Book of Fate” (1747) and “Candide: or, All for the Best” (1759), Montesquieu wrote “Persian Letters” (1721), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau published “Julie, or the New Heloise” (1761).
It was the 19th century when the French literature started to thrive. Namely, such great writers like Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, George Sand, Jules Verne, Émile Zola, and Guy de Maupassant wrote their outstanding works, which have become a treasure of the world literature. Namely, one is able to point out such masterpieces like “The Red and the Black” (Standhal, 1830), “The Human Comedy” (Balzac, 1832-1837), “The Three Musketeers” (1844), “The Count of Monte Cristo” (both works by Dumas, 1844), “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (Hugo, 1831), “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” (Jules Verne, 1870), and “Madame Bovary” (Flaubert, 1857). It can be surely stated that it was the time when the French classic literature had reached its zenith and the works of those authors occupy an important place in the French culture.
The 20th century was not less successful for the French literature. As for the present time, France is a country that can boast the biggest number of Nobel laureates in the field of literature.
French Culture: Visual Arts
For centuries, France has been a cultural center and a place where artists found their home, and so visual arts have always been important for the French culture. Already at the times of Charlemagne, the art industry had been flourishing. It was exactly France where Gothic architecture and art appeared in the 12th century, spreading later to the entire European continent. Besides, the Gothic style underwent significant modifications in France in the 13th and 15th centuries, whereas artists and architects from other countries later adopted such innovations as well.
The time when the French culture could boast paramount achievements in visual arts was the 17th century, when French artists appeared with a new, fairly distinct identity. Then, French artists created their masterpieces in the Classical style, while the entire European continent largely stuck to Baroque. Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin are among the most outstanding French artists of that time. When it comes to the period of Classicism, the Palace of Versailles was built exactly in this style and at that time for the influential Louis XIV (read about this king above).
Versailles was built for the mighty monarch Louis XIV
Later, the French art thrived in such styles like Rococo (the 18th century) and Neoclassicism (at the end of the 18th century). Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Francois Boucher, and Antoine Watteau created their masterpieces in Rococo style, while Dominique Ingres and Jacques-Louis David worked in the Neoclassical style.
In the 20th century, France in general and Paris in particular have turned into a center of innovative art, including origination of such a movement like Cubism. At that time, visual arts became pivotal for the French culture. Many artists (such as the Spanish Pablo Picasso) moved to Paris. Nowadays, Louvre appears to be the world’s largest art museum and is tightly connected with the French culture.
French Culture: Stereotypes About the French People
When it comes to the French culture, it is important to understand how we perceive the French people. Thus, stereotypes help us gain a general opinion about the entire nation. First of all, we know a stereotype that the French are actually food snobs, and that’s true. You won’t find any other nation that is so obsessed with sophisticated dishes and wines. The French also eat baguettes a lot and often walk with them in the streets – this stereotype is true as well.
Regarding the issue of the cuisine in the French culture, it is also true that the French eat a lot of cheese. They also really eat frog legs and escargot. Wine is something they drink very often as well. Unfortunately, the French also smoke a lot and many of them start smoking from the age of 13-14. Yet, not all French women dress perfectly and according to the latest trends of fashion. Very few French men wear berets and scarfs.
The majority of the French people do speak English very well. Yet, they have a strong sense of preserving the French culture and language, trying to popularize them as often as possible. So sometimes it becomes difficult to find the French people who speak (and are willing to speak) English while being on a vacation in France.
French Culture: Useful Sources
If you want to discover more about the French culture, these sources might be useful for you: