Where to go?
France still retains a strong rural tradition and, even though there are fewer people employed in agriculture than previously, many French people still have close ties with the land.
Nevertheless, France has a very advanced industrial economy although many believe that restrictive practices are holding back progress. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as President in 2007 seemed to signal a new direction and his declared intention to free up the labour market, cut taxes and red tape and take a less protectionist stance, will make for an interesting period in French social and political life.
For many the concept of the French lifestyle conjures up images of good living with an emphasis on strong family values and traditions. While this remains true for many, there has been a tendency in recent years for busy families to spend less time together and eat less well. This has led some social commentators to take the view that all is not well with french society.
The total population of France on Jan 1 2008 was 63,753,000, an increase of 361,000 over the previous year. Fewer babies were born in 2007, yet France remains one of the most fertile countries in Europe. The average age at marriage was 31.3 for men and 29.3 for women, although the rate of marriage is falling with many preferring to cohabit. France continues to have the longest-living citizens in Europe – for men life expectancy is 77.5 years while for women it is 84.4.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution and there is a strict separation of church and state.
However, France has traditionally been a Catholic country and approximately 80% of the population are thought to be Catholic although the numbers attending church have fallen considerably in recent years.
The most watched sport in France is Football and the the success of ‘Les Bleus’, especially in 1998 and 2000, re-inforced this. Both Rugby codes are also very popular as are Tennis and Cycling which are also mass participatory sports. Petanque or Boules are played anywhere there is a small patch of level ground and is taken very seriously indeed!
Newspapers, both national and local, and magazines are readily available at the many maisons de la presse (newsagents) which are to be found in all towns. English language newspapers such as the Guardian Weekly and International Herald Tribune are usually only available in larger centres. The internet is now widely available in hotels, fast-food outlets, internet cafés and even the local bar.
Economy and Government
France has both an entrenched bureaucracy and a vibrant democracy, with a parliament of 577 deputés elected every five years and a president also elected every five years. The president has extensive personal powers. At the same time, France is divided into 22 regions with a high degree of autonomy, and within each region is a multitude of communes where there is a good deal of local self-determination under powerful mayors. Within the nation is a profound division between a disciplinarian right wing tendency and an equally authoritarian Socialist tradition. This authoritarianism goes hand in hand with an unruly streak that brings frequent strikes, demonstrations and even riots. In deference to the danger of unrest, the government frequently backs down in the face of popular protest, giving in to demands.
Economically, France has followed its own path, favouring extensive employee rights, state monopolies, state intervention, heavy subsidies and protectionism. In 2008 France was ranked the eight largest economy in the world just behind the UK.
Food and Drink
France is the land of good food and good living and it has a host of regional specialities. In addition to the Michelin Guide France, which describes hundreds of hotels and restaurants throughout the country, here are examples of traditional fare.
Soups and Consommés
The best-known are cream of asparagus (velouté d’asperges), leek and potato (soupe de poireaux-pommes de terre), onion (soupe à l’oignon or gratinée), lobster (bisque de homard), garbure (a thick soup with cabbage popular in southwestern France), and cotriade (Breton fish soup), all of which are served at the start of a meal.
There are countless ways to begin a meal and French chefs have boundless imagination in this respect. The following, though, deserve a special mention: salade niçoise (tomatoes, anchovies, onions, olives), salade lyonnaise (using of Honfleur in Normandy, and of the bass grilled with fennel (loup grillé au fenouil) or baked over a fire of vine shoots (au sarment de vigne), a dish that is popular in Provence and on the Riviera. There are so many regional dishes that only a glimpse can be provided of the delights in store.
The best-known local meat dishes include Strasbourg sauerkraut (choucroute - cabbage, potatoes, pork, sausages and ham), Toulouse or Castelnaudary cassoulet (bean stew with pieces of goose or duck and pork-meat products), Caen-style tripe (tripes à la mode de Caen), Rouen pressed duck (canard au sang), Burgundy meurette (wine sauce) that is as good an accompaniment for poached eggs as for brains or beef – cooked Burgundy-style, of course! Also well worth a mention are Auvergne potée (cabbage, piece of pork, bacon and turnips) or its cousin from Franche-Comté (cabbage, Morteau or Montbéliard sausage), aligot (a creamy blend of fresh tomme cheese and mashed potato seasoned with garlic) from Chaudes-Aigues, tripoux from Aurillac, Basque-style chicken (poulet basquaise with tomatoes and pimentoes), rabbit (lapin) chasseur and rabbit forestier (with mushrooms and diced bacon).
There is such a wide range of cheeses that it is difficult to know them all, so it is worth defining the main “families”:
I – Soft cheeses
a) Cheese with surface mould (Brie de Meaux, Camembert, Chaource, etc)
b) Cheese with washed rind (Livarot, Reblochon, Munster, Vacherin, etc)
c) Cheese with natural rind (Tomme de Romans, Cendres de Bourgogne, Brie de Melun, etc.)
II – Hard pressed non-boiled cheeses
(Cantal, Fourme de Laguiole, Gapron d’Auvergne, etc)
III – Hard pressed boiled cheeses
(Emmental de Savoie, Comté de Franche-Comté, Beaufort de
Savoie, and Beaufort de
IV – Blue cheeses
a) Blue cheeses with natural crust (Bleu de Bresse, Bleu de Corse, Fourme de Montbrison, etc)
b) Scraped blue cheeses (Roquefort, Bleu d’Auvergne, Bleu des Causses, etc).
V – Processed Cheeses
Such as Crème de Gruyère, spreads with grapes or walnuts, and a whole range of cheese spreads.
Fruit and Desserts
There are innumerable desserts to round off a meal. Apart from the baskets of fruit, strawberries and cream or strawberries in red wine, fruit salads and macedoines using all the orchard fruits, there are apple, pear, and peach compotes, and all sorts of cakes, such as tarte Tatin (a caramelised tart cooked with the filling underneath), Grenoble walnut cake (gâteau aux noix), Breton far (a baked custard dessert), gingerbread (pain d’épices) in the Gâtinais region, clafoutis (a blend of milk and eggs mixed with fruit and baked in the oven), and kougelhopf from Alsace baked in the form of a ring and served as a dessert or as an afternoon snack. Not to mention all the crème caramels, baked cream desserts, and soft meringues with custard sauce (île flottante) that are found in nearly every region of France.
The Wines of France
The wines of France encompass every variety of taste from the sweetest whites to the driest, from rich, full-bodied reds to light easy-drinking roses, from unpretentious, drinkable tables wines to the greatest names in the world, including of course, the very symbol of celebration and delight, champagne.
For wine lovers, the Michelin Guide The Wine Regions of France offers a comprehensive introduction to French wine-making and features driving itineraries for the 14 main wine regions of the country: Alsace, Beaujolais, Le Bordelais (Bordeaux wines), Burgundy, Champagne, Cognac, Corse (Corsican wines), Jura, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, Rhone Valley, Savoie-Bugey and the Southwest. Descriptions of over 500 restaurants, hotels and guest houses are included in this guide to enhance your journey through these regions.
See also the French regional Michelin Green Guides for the specific region in which you are interested, for example the Green Guide Provence describes Provençal wines.
The official French wine website, www.wines-france.com, features information about grapes, wine labels, France’s wine regions and more.