Area: 552,000 square kilometres
Currency: Euro (€)
Time zone: CET
"Everything happens in France," wrote François de La Rochefoucauld. The junction between northern Europe and the south, sharing land borders with seven countries and in sight of another across La Manche, l'Hexagone has long been Europe's beating heart. Global philosophies, cultures and artistic movements have emerged from this great melting pot, but its attraction and openness has at times been its downfall – France has suffered as much war as it has debated peace.
Global culture, sport, science and politics can all detect distinct French watermarks. Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles de Gaulle spread republican ideals, while the message of free-thinking and romance was poetically disseminated by the likes of Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Jean-Paul Sartre. Painters (Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet), composers (Hector Berlioz, Maurice Ravel), architects (Louis Le Vau, Le Corbusier) – almost every strand of culture has a French accent. Likewise the world's great sporting events, the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, UEFA European Championship and UEFA Champions League, trace their lineage back to France.
Where do you start? With bon appetit, perhaps, that staple phrase with no interest in being confined to the blue swathes on old maps that once signified France's empire. For its purpose it cannot be bettered and, in the stomachs of many, nor can French gastronomy. With such a vast range of climates and landscape, the larder is well-stocked; and from Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin to Paul Bocuse, it has benefited from chefs and artists with an alchemist's touch. Foie gras, cassoulet, choucroute, bouillabaisse, andouillette – every locality has its specialities, its own interpretations.
Football is France's most popular sport, with around two million licensed players. Yet the country has a rich tradition in team sport generally – Les Bleus were runners-up at the 2011 IRB Rugby World Cup and are reigning men's Olympic handball champions. France also has a prolific production line of basketball players, cyclists and motorsport drivers, while tennis's French Open is one of four Grand Slam tournaments. The biggest annual sporting event is cycling's Tour de France, which attracts in the region of 12 million spectators.
The birthplace of the world's three biggest football tournaments, France had to wait until 1984 to win one as Michel Platini's finals-record nine goals helped Les Bleus to UEFA European Championship glory. Zinédine Zidane was the talisman at the turn of the century, inspiring France to victory on home turf at the 1998 FIFA World Cup and then in the EURO two years later. Indeed they have been continental title holders in every age group while French clubs have triumphed in the men's and women's UEFA Champions Leagues.
Elite French football remained amateur until 1932/33, but their clubs were up to speed by the advent of European football and Stade de Reims were runners-up to Real Madrid CF in the inaugural European Champion Clubs' Cup final. It was not until 1993 that a French side ruled Europe as Olympique de Marseille, traditional domestic powerhouses with AS Saint-Étienne, beat AC Milan. Olympique Lyonnais lifted seven successive titles at the start of the century, but more recently Ligue 1 has been noted for its competitiveness, with five different champions in as many seasons.
The pantheon of French football greats is well subscribed, Didier Deschamps, Jean-Pierre Papin, Just Fontaine and Lilian Thuram among them, though three figures loom largest – one for each of Les Bleus' halcyon eras. Raymond Kopa played for the fine Reims and Madrid sides of the 1950s, also helping France make their international breakthrough at the 1958 World Cup, finishing third.
Platini's emergence ushered in the next apogee, the three-time Ballon d'Or winner never more potent than at the 1984 UEFA European Championship when the hosts prevailed. His tally of nine finals goals, from midfield, has never been bettered – similarly, Fontaine's 1958 haul of 13 remains a World Cup record. Then there is Zidane, 'Zizou', the driving force behind France's pre-eminence at the turn of the century. Kopa, Platini, Zidane, men with roots in Poland, Italy and Algeria – France the melting pot.
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