France has been a centre of Western cultural development for centuries. Many French artists were among the most famous of their time, and France is still known worldwide for its rich cultural tradition.
Successive political regimes have always encouraged artistic creation, and the creation of the Ministry of Culture in 1959 made it possible to preserve the country’s cultural heritage and make it accessible to the public. Since its foundation, the Ministry of Culture has been very active: it awards subsidies to artists, promotes French culture in the world, supports festivals and cultural events, and protects historical monuments. The French government has also managed to obtain a cultural exception to protect audiovisual products produced in the country.
France receives the most tourists each year, mainly due to the many cultural institutions and historic buildings located throughout the country. There are 1,200 museums that receive more than 50 million visitors a year. The most important cultural sites are managed by the government, for example by the public agency Centre des monuments nationaux, which is responsible for about 85 national historic monuments.
The 43,180 listed buildings include mainly residences (many castles or châteaux in French) and sacred buildings (cathedrals, basilicas, churches, etc.), but also statutes, monuments and gardens. UNESCO has inscribed 41 sites in France on the World Heritage List.
The origins of French art were strongly influenced by Flemish and Italian Renaissance art. It is said that Jean Fouquet, the most famous French painter of the Middle Ages, was the first to travel to Italy and experience the Renaissance. The Fontainebleau school of Renaissance painting was directly inspired by Italian painters such as Primacio and Rosso Fiorentino, both of whom worked in France. Two of the most famous French artists of the Baroque period, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, lived in Italy.
The seventeenth century is the period in which French painting asserts and individualises itself through classicism. The Prime Minister of Louis XIV, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, created the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in 1648 to protect these artists, and in 1666 he created the French Academy of Rome, still active today, to have direct relations with Italian artists.
French artists developed the Rococo style in the 18th century as a closer imitation of the old Baroque style, with the works of courtly artists Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard being the most representative. The French Revolution brought great change, with the neoclassical artists favoured by Napoleon, such as Jacques-Louis David, and the highly influential Academy of Fine Arts defining the style known as Academism. By this time, France had become a centre of artistic creation, with the first half of the 19th century dominated by two successive movements, first Romanticism with Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix and Realism with Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, a style that eventually evolved into Naturalism.
In the second half of the 19th century, France’s influence on painting became even more important with the development of new painting styles such as Impressionism and Symbolism. The most famous Impressionist painters of this period were Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. The second generation of Impressionist painters, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat, were at the forefront of artistic development, as were the Fauvist artists Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Cubism was developed by Georges Braque and the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso, who lived in Paris. Other foreign artists also settled and worked in and around Paris, such as Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Wassily Kandinsky.
Many museums in France are entirely or partially dedicated to sculptures and works of painting. The Louvre Museum, owned by the state, has a huge collection of old masterpieces created before or during the 18th century, such as the Mona Lisa, also known as the Mona Lisa. While the Palais du Louvre has long been a museum, the Musée d’Orsay was opened in 1986 in the former Gare d’Orsay railway station as part of a major reorganisation of national art collections to bring together French paintings from the second half of the 19th century (mainly Impressionist and Fauvist movements).
Modern works are presented in the Musée National d’Art Moderne, which moved to the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1976. These three national museums receive almost 17 million people a year. Other national museums showing paintings are the Grand Palais (1.3 million visitors in 2008), but there are also many museums belonging to cities. The most visited is the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (0.8 million admissions in 2008), which shows contemporary works.
Outside Paris, every major city has a fine arts museum with a section devoted to European and French painting. Some of the finest collections can be found in Lyon, Lille, Rouen, Dijon, Rennes and Grenoble.
In the Middle Ages, many castles were built by feudal lords to mark their power. Surviving French castles include Chinon, the castle of Angers, the massive castle of Vincennes and the so-called Cathar castles. At this time, France, like most Western European countries, used Romanesque architecture. The greatest examples of Romanesque churches in France include the Basilique Saint Sernin in Toulouse, the largest Romanesque church in Europe, and the remains of Cluny Abbey.
Gothic architecture, originally called Opus Francigenum, meaning “French work”, originated in the Île-de-France region and was the first French architectural style to be copied throughout Europe. Northern France is home to some of the most important Gothic cathedrals and basilicas, most notably the Basilica of Saint-Denis (which was used as a royal necropolis); other important Gothic cathedrals in France are Notre-Dame de Chartres and Notre-Dame d’Amiens. Kings were crowned in another important Gothic church: Notre-Dame de Reims. Apart from churches, Gothic architecture was used for many religious palaces, the most important being the Palais des Papes in Avignon.
The final victory of the Hundred Years War marked an important stage in the development of French architecture. It was the time of the French Renaissance and several Italian artists were invited to the French court; many residential palaces were built in the Loire Valley. These residential palaces were the Chateau of Chambord, the Chateau of Chenonceau or the Chateau of Amboise.
After the Renaissance and the end of the Middle Ages, Baroque architecture replaced the traditional Gothic style. In France, however, Baroque architecture found greater success in the secular realm than in the religious. In the secular realm, the Palace of Versailles has many Baroque elements. Jules Hardouin Mansart, who designed the extensions to Versailles, was one of the most influential French architects of the Baroque period; he is famous for his dome on the Invalides. Some of the most impressive provincial Baroque architecture can be found in places that were not yet French, such as Place Stanislas in Nancy. In terms of military architecture, Vauban designed some of the most efficient forts in Europe and became an influential military architect; as a result, imitations of his work can be found throughout Europe, America, Russia and Turkey.
After the Revolution, the Republicans favoured neoclassicism, although it had already been introduced in France before the Revolution with buildings such as the Pantheon in Paris or the Capitol in Toulouse. Built during the First French Empire, the Arc de Triomphe and the Sainte Marie-Madeleine represent the best example of Empire-style architecture.
Under Napoleon III, a new wave of urban planning and architecture emerged; extravagant buildings such as the neo-baroque Palais Garnier were erected. Urban planning at this time was very organised and rigorous, for example Haussmann’s renovation of Paris. The architecture associated with this period is known in English as the Second Empire, the term borrowed from the French Second Empire. There was a strong Gothic revival in Europe and France at this time; the associated architect was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. At the end of the 19th century, Gustave Eiffel designed many bridges, such as the Garabit Viaduct, and remains one of the most influential bridge designers of his time, although he is best remembered for the emblematic Eiffel Tower.
In the 20th century, the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed several buildings in France. More recently, French architects have combined modern and ancient architectural styles. The Louvre pyramid is an example of modern architecture added to an older building. The most difficult buildings to integrate into French cities are skyscrapers, as they are visible from afar. In Paris, for example, new buildings have had to be less than 37 metres high since 1977. The largest financial district in France is La Défense, where a large number of skyscrapers are located. Other massive structures that are difficult to integrate into their surroundings are the large bridges; the Millau Viaduct is an example. Famous modern French architects are Jean Nouvel, Dominique Perrault, Christian de Portzamparc and Paul Andreu.
The first French literature dates back to the Middle Ages, when what is now France did not have a single language. There were several languages and dialects, and writers used their own spelling and grammar. Some authors of medieval French texts are unknown, such as Tristan et Iseult and Lancelot-Grail. Other authors are known, such as Chrétien de Troyes and Duke William IX of Aquitaine, who wrote in Occitan.
Much of medieval French poetry and literature was inspired by the legends of the French cloth, such as the Chanson de Roland and the various Chansons de geste. The Roman de Renart, written in 1175 by Perrout de Saint Cloude, tells the story of the medieval character Reynard (“the Fox”) and is another example of early French writing.
An important writer of the 16th century is François Rabelais, whose novel Gargantua et Pantagruel is still famous and appreciated today. Michel de Montaigne was the other great figure of French literature of this century. His most famous work, the Essais, established the literary genre of the essay. The French poetry of this century was embodied by Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay. These two writers founded the literary movement La Pléiade.
In the 17th century, Madame de La Fayette anonymously published La Princesse de Clèves, a novel that is considered one of the first psychological novels ever written. Jean de La Fontaine is one of the most famous fabulists of the time, for he wrote hundreds of fables, some of which are much more famous than others, such as La Fourmi et la Sauterelle (The Ant and the Grasshopper). Generations of French schoolchildren had to learn his fables, which were seen as a way of teaching wisdom and common sense to the young. Some of his verses entered the vernacular and became proverbs.
Jean Racine, whose incredible mastery of the Alexandrian and French languages has been praised for centuries, created plays such as Phèdre and Britannicus. Along with Pierre Corneille (Le Cid) and Molière, he is considered one of the three great playwrights of France’s Golden Age. Considered one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature, Molière wrote dozens of plays, including Le Misanthrope, L’Avare, Le Malade imaginaire and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. His plays were so popular around the world that the French language is sometimes nicknamed “the language of Molière”, just as English is considered “the language of Shakespeare”.
French literature and poetry flourished even more in the 18th and 19th centuries. Denis Diderot’s most famous works are Jacques le Fataliste and Rameau’s Nephew. However, he is best known as the main editor of the Encyclopaedia, whose aim was to summarise all the knowledge of his century (in areas such as the arts, sciences, languages, philosophy) and present it to the people in order to fight against ignorance and obscurantism. In the same century, Charles Perrault was a prolific author of famous children’s stories, including Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard. In the early 19th century, Symbolist poetry was an important movement in French literature, with poets such as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé.
The 19th century saw the writings of many famous French authors. Victor Hugo is sometimes called “the greatest French writer of all time” because he excelled in all literary genres. The preface to his play Cromwell is considered the manifesto of the Romantic movement. The Reflections and The Legend of the Centuries are considered “poetic masterpieces”, Hugo’s verse has been compared to that of Shakespeare, Dante and Homer. His novel Les Misérables is considered one of the greatest novels ever written, and Le Bossu de Notre Dame remains immensely popular.
Other great authors of this century are Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo), Jules Verne (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea), Émile Zola (Les Rougon-Macquart), Honoré de Balzac (La Comédie humaine), Guy de Maupassant, Théophile Gautier and Stendhal (Le Rouge et le Noir, La Chartreuse de Parme), whose works are among the best known in France and the world.
The Prix Goncourt is a French literary prize first awarded in 1903. Important writers of the 20th century include Marcel Proust, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote “The Little Prince”, which remained popular with children and adults around the world for decades. In 2014, French authors won more Nobel Prizes for literature than those of any other nation. The first Nobel Prize for Literature went to a French author, and the most recent French Nobel Prize for Literature winner is Patrick Modiano, who received the prize in 2014. Jean-Paul Sartre was also the first candidate in the history of the Commission, turning down the prize in 1964.
Medieval philosophy was dominated by scholasticism until the rise of humanism in the Renaissance. Modern philosophy began in France in the 17th century with the philosophy of René Descartes, Blaise Pascal and Nicolas Malebranche. Descartes revitalised Western philosophy, which had been in decline after the Greek and Roman eras. His Meditations on Early Philosophy changed the primary object of philosophical thought and raised some of the most fundamental problems for outsiders such as Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Berkeley and Kant.
In the 18th century, French philosophers created one of the most important works of the Enlightenment. In L’esprit des lois, Baron de Montesquieu theorised the principle of separation of powers, which has been implemented in all liberal democracies since it was first applied in the United States. In Le Contrat social, Jean-Jacques Rousseau openly criticised European monarchies under divine right and strongly affirmed the principle of popular sovereignty. Voltaire embodied the Enlightenment with his defence of civil liberties, such as the right to a free trial and religious freedom.
French thought in the nineteenth century was supposed to be a response to the social malaise after the French Revolution. Rationalist philosophers like Victor Cousin and Auguste Comte, who called for a new social doctrine, were opposed by reactionary thinkers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald and Lamennais, who rebuked the rationalist rejection of the traditional order. De Maistre is considered one of the founders of European conservatism, along with the Englishman Edmund Burke, while Auguste Comte is considered the founder of positivism and sociology.
At the beginning of the 20th century, French spiritualist thinkers such as Maine de Biran, Henri Bergson and Louis Lavelle influenced Anglo-Saxon thought, especially the Americans Charles Sanders Peirce and William James and the Englishman Alfred North Whitehead. At the end of the 20th century, partly influenced by German phenomenology and existentialism, postmodern philosophy emerged in France with important post-structuralist thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.
France has a long and varied musical history. It flourished in the 17th century thanks to Louis XIV, who employed many talented musicians and composers at the royal court. Among the most famous composers of the time were Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin, Michel-Richard Delalande, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marin Marais, all composers at court. After the death of the “Sun King”, French music-making lost momentum, but in the following century the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau gained a certain prestige, and even today he is one of the most renowned French composers. Rameau became the dominant composer of French opera and the most important French composer for the harpsichord.
French composers played an important role in the music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which is considered the era of Romantic music. Romantic music emphasised devotion to nature, fascination with the past and the supernatural, exploration of unusual, strange and surprising sounds, and emphasis on national identity. This period was also a golden age for opera. French composers of the Romantic period included: Hector Berlioz (best known for his Symphonie fantastique), Georges Bizet (best known for Carmen, which became one of the most popular and frequently performed operas), Gabriel Fauré (best known for his Pavane, Requiem and Nocturnes), Charles Gounod (best known for his Ave Maria and his opera Faust), Jacques Offenbach (best known for his 100 operettas from the 1850s and 70s and his unfinished opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann), Édouard Lalo (best known for his Symphonie espagnole for violin and orchestra and his Cello Concerto in D minor), Jules Massenet (best known for his operas, of which he wrote over thirty, the most frequently performed being Manon (1884) and Werther (1892)) and Camille Saint-Saëns (he wrote many frequently performed works, including Le Carnaval des animaux, Danse macabre, Samson et Delilah (Opéra), Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and his Symphony no. 3 (Organ Symphony)).
Later came the precursors of modern classical music. Érik Satie was an important member of the Parisian avant-garde of the early 20th century, best known for his Gymnopédies. Francis Poulenc’s best-known works are his piano suite Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919), the ballet Les biches (1923), Concert champêtre (1928) for harpsichord and orchestra, the opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) and Gloria (1959) for soprano, choir and orchestra. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy are the greatest figures associated with Impressionist music. Debussy was one of the most influential composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and his use of non-traditional scales and chromaticism influenced many composers who followed. Debussy’s music is known for its sensory content and frequent use of atonality. Both composers invented new musical forms and sounds. Ravel’s piano compositions, such as Jeux d’eau, Miroirs, Le tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la nuit, require great virtuosity. His mastery of orchestration is evident in the Spanish Rhapsody, Daphnis and Chloé, his arrangement of Modest Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and his orchestral work Boléro (1928).
More recently, in the mid-twentieth century, Maurice Ohana, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Boulez contributed to the development of contemporary classical music.
French music then followed the rapid rise of pop and rock music in the middle of the 20th century. Although English-language creations achieved a certain popularity in the country, French pop music, known as chanson française, also remained very popular. Among the most important French artists of the century were Édith Piaf, Georges Brassens, Léo Ferré, Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg. Although there are very few rock bands in France compared to English-speaking countries, groups such as Noir Désir, Mano Negra, Niagara, Les Rita Mitsouko and more recently Superbus, Phoenix and Gojira have achieved worldwide popularity.
Other French artists with international careers were popular in several countries, such as singers Dalida, Mireille Mathieu, Mylène Farmer and Nolwenn Leroy, electronic music pioneers Jean-Michel Jarre, Laurent Garnier and Bob Sinclar, and later Martin Solveig and David Guetta. In the 1990s and 2000s (decade), the electronic duos Daft Punk, Justice and Air also gained worldwide popularity and contributed to the reputation of modern electronic music worldwide.
Many of the musical events and current institutions in France are dedicated to classical music and opera. The most prestigious institutions are the Opéra national de Paris (with its two locations, the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille), the Opéra national de Lyon, the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse and the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. As for music festivals, several events are organised, the most popular being the Eurockéennes and Rock en Seine. The Fête de la Musique, imitated by many foreign cities, was first launched by the French government in 1982. The main concert halls and venues in France include the Zénith venues, which can be found in many cities and other locations in Paris (Olympia de Paris, Théâtre Mogador, Élysée Montmartre, etc.).
France has strong historical ties to cinema. Two Frenchmen, Auguste and Louis Lumière (known as the Lumière brothers), created cinema in 1895. Several important film movements, including the New Wave in the late 1950s and 1960s, emerged in the country. The country is known for having a particularly strong film industry, thanks in part to the French government’s protective measures. France remains a leader in the film industry, producing more films than any other European country in 2006. The country also hosts the Cannes Film Festival, one of the largest and most famous film festivals in the world.
In addition to its strong and innovative film tradition, France is also a meeting place for artists from Europe and around the world. For this reason, French cinema is sometimes intertwined with the cinema of other nations. Directors from countries such as Poland (Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieślowski and Andrzej Żuławski), Argentina (Gaspar Noé and Edgardo Cozarinsky), Russia (Alexandre Alexeieff, Anatole Litvak), Austria (Michael Haneke) and Georgia (Géla Babluani, Otar Iosseliani) occupy an important place in the ranks of French cinema. Conversely, French directors have had productive and influential careers in other countries, such as Luc Besson, Jacques Tourneur or Francis Veber in the United States.
Although the French film market is dominated by Hollywood, France is the only nation in the world where American films account for the smallest share of total film revenues at 50 per cent, compared to 77 per cent in Germany and 69 per cent in Japan. French films account for 35 per cent of total French film revenue, the highest share of national film revenue in the developed world outside the United States, compared to 14 per cent in Spain and 8 per cent in the United Kingdom. In 2013, France is the second largest film exporter in the world after the United States.
Until recently, France was the cultural centre of the world for centuries, although its dominant position was overtaken by the United States. Subsequently, France had taken measures to protect and promote its culture and became one of the main advocates of the cultural exception. It managed to convince all EU members to reject the inclusion of culture and the audiovisual sector in the WTO’s list of liberalised sectors in 1993. Moreover, this decision was confirmed by a vote in UNESCO in 2005 and the principle of the “cultural exception” won an overwhelming victory: 198 countries voted in favour, only 2 countries, the USA and Israel, voted against.
Fashion has been an important industry and cultural export of France since the 17th century, and modern “haute couture” was born in Paris in the 1860s. Today, Paris is considered one of the fashion capitals of the world, along with London, Milan and New York, and the city is home to many of the world’s leading fashion houses. The term “haute couture” is a legally protected designation in France that guarantees certain quality standards.
France’s association with fashion and style (in French: la mode) dates largely to the reign of Louis XIV, when the luxury industries in France came under royal control and the French royal court undoubtedly became the arbiter of taste and style in Europe. But France renewed its dominance in the haute couture industry in the 1860s and 1960s with the creation of major fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior and Givenchy. The French perfume industry is a world leader in its field and is centred in the city of Grasse.
In the 1960s, elitist “haute couture” was criticised by French youth culture. In 1966, designer Yves Saint Laurent broke with the established norms of haute couture by launching a ready-to-wear line and expanding French fashion to mass production. With a greater emphasis on marketing and manufacturing, new trends were set in the 1970s and 1980s by Sonia Rykiel, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix. The 1990s saw the merger of many French fashion houses under the aegis of luxury giants and multinationals such as LVMH.
According to a 2010 BBC survey based on 29,977 responses in 28 countries, France is perceived worldwide as a positive influence in world affairs: 49% have a positive opinion of the country’s influence, while 19% have a negative opinion. The National Brand Index 2008 shows that France has the second best international reputation, only behind Germany.
According to a 2011 survey, the French have the highest level of religious tolerance and are the country where most of the population defines its identity primarily in terms of nationality rather than religion. 69 per cent of French people have a positive opinion of the United States, making France one of the most pro-American countries in the world.
In January 2010, International Living magazine named France the “best country to live in” for the fifth year in a row, ahead of 193 other countries.
The French Revolution is still anchored in the country’s collective memory. The tricolour, the anthem “La Marseillaise” and the motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, defined as national symbols in Title 1 of the Constitution, originated in the cultural ferment of the first revolution, with Marianne as the common national personification. In addition, Bastille Day, a bank holiday, commemorates the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.
A common and traditional symbol of the French is the Gallic cockerel. Its origins date back to antiquity, as the Latin word Gallus means both “cock” and “inhabitant of Gaul”. Then this figure gradually became the most widespread representation of the French, used by French monarchs, then during the Revolution and under successive republican regimes as a representation of national identity and used for certain stamps and coins.
French cuisine is known as one of the best in the world. Depending on the region, traditional recipes vary. In the north of the country, butter is the preferred cooking fat, while olive oil is more common in the south. In addition, each region of France has emblematic traditional specialities: cassoulet in the southwest, sauerkraut in Alsace, quiche in Lorraine, beef bourguignon in Burgundy, Provençal tapenade, etc. The most famous French products are wines, including Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Beaujolais, and a variety of cheeses, such as Camembert, Roquefort and Brie. There are more than 400 different varieties.
A meal often consists of three courses, starter (hors d’oeuvre), main course (entrée), cheese (cheese platter) and/or dessert, sometimes with a salad offered before the cheese or dessert. Hors d’oeuvres include a salmon terrine with basil, lobster bisque, foie gras, onion soup or croque monsieur. The main course may include a pot au feu or roast steaks. Dessert can be a mille-feuille, macaroon, eclair, crème brûlée, chocolate mousse, pancake or Liège coffee.
French cuisine is also considered a key element of France’s quality of life and attractiveness. A French publication, the Michelin Guide, awards Michelin stars for excellence to selected establishments. The acquisition or loss of a star can have a dramatic impact on a restaurant’s success. In 2006, the Michelin Guide awarded 620 stars to French restaurants, more than any other country at the time, although the Guide also inspects more restaurants in France than in any other country (in 2010, Japan awarded as many Michelin stars as France, although the number of Michelin inspectors is half that number).
In addition to its winemaking tradition, France is also an important producer of beer. The three main French brewing regions are Alsace (60% of national production), Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Lorraine. A meal often consists of three courses, starter or appetiser (starter, sometimes soup), main course (main course), cheese (cheese platter) or dessert, sometimes with a salad offered before the cheese or dessert.