Culture / Religion
France has been a centre of Western cultural development for centuries. Many French artists have been among the most renowned of their time, and France is still recognised in the world for its rich cultural tradition.
The successive political regimes have always promoted artistic creation, and the creation of the Ministry of Culture in 1959 helped preserve the cultural heritage of the country and make it available to the public. The Ministry of Culture has been very active since its creation, granting subsidies to artists, promoting French culture in the world, supporting festivals and cultural events, protecting historical monuments. The French government also succeeded in maintaining a cultural exception to defend audiovisual products made in the country.
France receives the highest number of tourists per year, largely thanks to the numerous cultural establishments and historical buildings implanted all over the territory. It counts 1,200 museums welcoming more than 50 million people annually. The most important cultural sites are run by the government, for instance through the public agency Centre des monuments nationaux, which is responsible for approximately 85 national historical monuments.
The 43,180 buildings protected as historical monuments include mainly residences (many castles, or châteaux in French) and religious buildings (cathedrals, basilicas, churches, etc.), but also statutes, memorials and gardens. The UNESCO inscribed 41 sites in France on the World Heritage List.
The origins of French art were very much influenced by Flemish art and by Italian art at the time of the Renaissance. Jean Fouquet, the most famous medieval French painter, is said to have been the first to travel to Italy and experience the Early Renaissance at first hand. The Renaissance painting School of Fontainebleau was directly inspired by Italian painters such as Primaticcio and Rosso Fiorentino, who both worked in France. Two of the most famous French artists of the time of Baroque era, Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, lived in Italy.
The 17th century was the period when French painting became prominent and individualised itself through classicism. Louis XIV's prime minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert founded in 1648 the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture to protect these artists, and in 1666 he created the still-active French Academy in Rome to have direct relations with Italian artists.
French artists developed the rococo style in the 18th century, as a more intimate imitation of old baroque style, the works of the court-endorsed artists Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard being the most representative in the country. The French Revolution brought great changes, as Napoleon favoured artists of neoclassic style such as Jacques-Louis David and the highly influential Académie des Beaux-Arts defined the style known as Academism. At this time France had become a centre of artistic creation, the first half of the 19th century being dominated by two successive movements, at 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 part of the 19th century, France's influence over painting became even more important, with the development of new styles of painting such as Impressionism and Symbolism. The most famous impressionist painters of the period were Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir. The second generation of impressionist-style painters, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Georges Seurat, were also at the avant-garde of artistic evolutions. as well as 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, living in Paris. Other foreign artists also settled and worked in or near Paris, such as Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani and Wassily Kandinsky.
Many museums in France are entirely or partly devoted to sculptures and painting works. A huge collection of old masterpieces created before or during the 18th century are displayed in the state-owned Musée du Louvre, such as Mona Lisa, also known as La Joconde. While the Louvre Palace has been for a long time a museum, the Musée d'Orsay was inaugurated in 1986 in the old railway station Gare d'Orsay, in a major reorganisation of national art collections, to gather French paintings from the second part of the 19th century (mainly Impressionism and Fauvism movements).
Modern works are presented in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, which moved in 1976 to the Centre Georges Pompidou. These three state-owned museums welcome close to 17 million people a year. Other national museums hosting paintings include the Grand Palais (1.3 million visitors in 2008), but there are also many museums owned by cities, the most visited being the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (0.8 million entries in 2008), which hosts contemporary works.
Outside Paris, all the large cities have a Museum of Fine Arts with a section dedicated to European and French painting. Some of the finest collections are in Lyon, Lille, Rouen, Dijon, Rennes and Grenoble.
During the Middle Ages, many fortified castles were built by feudal nobles to mark their powers. Some French castles that survived are Chinon, Château d'Angers, the massive Château de Vincennes and the so-called Cathar castles. During this era, France had been using Romanesque architecture like most of Western Europe. Some of the greatest examples of Romanesque churches in France are the Saint Sernin Basilica in Toulouse, the largest romanesque church in Europe, and the remains of the Cluniac Abbey.
The Gothic architecture, originally named Opus Francigenum meaning "French work", was born in Île-de-France and was the first French style of architecture to be copied in all Europe. Northern France is the home of some of the most important Gothic cathedrals and basilicas, the first of these being the Saint Denis Basilica (used as the royal necropolis); other important French Gothic cathedrals are Notre-Dame de Chartres and Notre-Dame d'Amiens. The kings were crowned in another important Gothic church: Notre-Dame de Reims. Aside from churches, Gothic Architecture had been used for many religious palaces, the most important one being the Palais des Papes in Avignon.
The final victory in the Hundred Years' War marked an important stage in the evolution of French architecture. It was the time of the French Renaissance and several artists from Italy were invited to the French court; many residential palaces were built in the Loire Valley. Such residential castles were the Château de Chambord, the Château de Chenonceau, or the Château d'Amboise.
Following the renaissance and the end of the Middle Ages, Baroque architecture replaced the traditional Gothic style. However, in France, baroque architecture found a greater success in the secular domain than in a religious one. In the secular domain, the Palace of Versailles has many baroque features. Jules Hardouin Mansart, who designed the extensions to Versailles, was one of the most influential French architect of the baroque era; he is famous for his dome at Les Invalides. Some of the most impressive provincial baroque architecture is found in places that were not yet French such as the Place Stanislas in Nancy. On the military architectural side, Vauban designed some of the most efficient fortresses in Europe and became an influential military architect; as a result, imitations of his works can be found all over Europe, the Americas, Russia and Turkey.
After the Revolution, the Republicans favoured Neoclassicism although neoclassicism was introduced in France prior to the revolution with such building as the Parisian Pantheon or the Capitole de Toulouse. Built during the first French Empire, the Arc de Triomphe and Sainte Marie-Madeleine represent the best example of Empire style architecture.
Under Napoleon III, a new wave of urbanism and architecture was given birth; extravagant buildings such as the neo-baroque Palais Garnier were built. The urban planning of the time was very organised and rigorous; for example, Haussmann's renovation of Paris. The architecture associated to this era is named Second Empire in English, the term being taken from the Second French Empire. At this time there was a strong Gothic resurgence across Europe and in France; the associated architect was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. In the late 19th century, Gustave Eiffel designed many bridges, such as Garabit viaduct, and remains one of the most influential bridge designers of his time, although he is best remembered for the iconic Eiffel Tower.
In the 20th century, French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier designed several buildings in France. More recently, French architects have combined both modern and old architectural styles. The Louvre Pyramid is an example of modern architecture added to an older building. The most difficult buildings to integrate within French cities are skyscrapers, as they are visible from afar. For instance, in Paris, since 1977, new buildings had to be under 37 meters (121 feet). France's largest financial district is La Defense, where a significant number of skyscrapers are located. Other massive buildings that are a challenge to integrate into their environment are large bridges; an example of the way this has been done is the Millau Viaduct. Some famous modern French architects include Jean Nouvel, Dominique Perrault, Christian de Portzamparc or Paul Andreu.
The earliest French literature dates from the Middle Ages, when what is now known as modern France did not have a single, uniform language. There were several languages and dialects and writers used their own spelling and grammar. Some authors of French mediaeval texts are unknown, such as Tristan and Iseult and Lancelot-Grail. Other authors are known, for example Chrétien de Troyes and Duke William IX of Aquitaine, who wrote in Occitan.
Much mediaeval French poetry and literature were inspired by the legends of the Matter of France, such as The Song of Roland and the various chansons de geste. The Roman de Renart, written in 1175 by Perrout de Saint Cloude, tells the story of the mediaeval character Reynard ('the Fox') and is another example of early French writing.
An important 16th-century writer was François Rabelais, whose novel Gargantua and Pantagruel has remained famous and appreciated until now. Michel de Montaigne was the other major figure of the French literature during that century. His most famous work, Essais, created the literary genre of the essay. French poetry during that century was embodied by Pierre de Ronsard and Joachim du Bellay. Both writers founded the La Pléiade literary movement.
During the 17th century, Madame de La Fayette published anonymously La Princesse de Clèves, a novel that is considered to be one of the very first psychological novels of all times. Jean de La Fontaine is one of the most famous fabulist of that time, as he wrote hundreds of fables, some being far more famous than others, such as The Ant and the Grasshopper. Generations of French pupils had to learn his fables, that were seen as helping teaching wisdom and common sense to the young people. Some of his verses have entered the popular language to become proverbs.
Jean Racine, whose incredible mastery of the alexandrine and of the French language has been praised for centuries, created plays such as Phèdre or Britannicus. He is, along with Pierre Corneille (Le Cid) and Molière, considered as one of the three great dramatists of the France's golden age. Molière, who is deemed to be one of the greatest masters of comedy of the Western literature, wrote dozens of plays, including Le Misanthrope, L'Avare, Le Malade imaginaire, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. His plays have been so popular around the world that French language is sometimes dubbed as "the language of Molière" (la langue de Molière), just like English is considered as "the language of Shakespeare".
French literature and poetry flourished even more in the 18th and 19th centuries. Denis Diderot's best-known works are Jacques the Fatalist and Rameau's Nephew. He is however best known for being the main redactor of the Encyclopédie, whose aim was to sum up all the knowledge of his century (in fields such as arts, sciences, languages, philosophy) and to present them to the people, in order to fight ignorance and obscurantism. During that same century, Charles Perrault was a prolific writer of famous children's fairy tales including Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard. At the start of the 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 renowned French authors. Victor Hugo is sometimes seen as "the greatest French writer of all times" for excelling in all literary genres. The preface of his play Cromwell is considered to be the manifesto of the Romantic movement. Les Contemplations and La Légende des siècles are considered as "poetic masterpieces", Hugo's verse having been compared to that of Shakespeare, Dante and Homer. His novel Les Misérables is widely seen as one of the greatest novel ever written and The Hunchback of Notre Dame has remained immensely popular.
Other major authors of that century include 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 (The Red and the Black, The Charterhouse of Parma), whose works are among the most well 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 Little Prince, which has remained popular for decades with children and adults around the world. As of 2014[update], French authors had more Literature Nobel Prizes than those of any other nation. The first Nobel Prize in Literature was a French author, while France's latest Nobel prize in literature is Patrick Modiano, who was awarded the prize in 2014. Jean-Paul Sartre was also the first nominee in the committee's history to refuse the prize in 1964.
During the 18th century, French philosophers produced one of the most important works of the Age of Enlightenment. In The Spirit of the Laws, 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 The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau openly criticised the European divine right monarchies and strongly affirmed the principle of the sovereignty of the people. Voltaire came to embody the Enlightenment with his defence of civil liberties, such as the right to a free trial and freedom of religion.
19th-century French thought was targeted at responding to the social malaise following the French Revolution. Rationalist philosophers such as Victor Cousin and Auguste Comte, who called for a new social doctrine, were opposed by reactionary thinkers such as Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald and Lamennais, who blamed the rationalist rejection of traditional order. De Maistre is considered, together with the Englishman Edmund Burke, one of the founders of European conservatism, while Comte is regarded as the founder of positivism and sociology.
In the early 20th century, French spiritualist thinkers such as Maine de Biran, Henri Bergson and Louis Lavelle influenced Anglo-Saxon thought, including the Americans Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and the Englishman Alfred North Whitehead. In the late 20th century, partly influenced by German phenomenology and existentialism, postmodern philosophy began in France, with notable post-structuralist thinkers including Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.
France has a long and varied musical history. It experienced a golden age in the 17th century thanks to Louis XIV, who employed a number of talented musicians and composers in the royal court. The most renowned composers of this period include Marc-Antoine Charpentier, François Couperin, Michel-Richard Delalande, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marin Marais, all of them composers at the court. After the death of the "Roi Soleil", French musical creation lost dynamism, but in the next century the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau reached some prestige, and today he is still one of the most renowned French composers. Rameau became the dominant composer of French opera and the leading French composer for the harpsichord.
French composers played an important role during the music of the 19th and early 20th century, which is considered to be the Romantic music era. Romantic music emphasised a surrender to nature, a fascination with the past and the supernatural, the exploration of unusual, strange and surprising sounds, and a focus on national identity. This period was also a golden age for operas. French composers from the Romantic era included: Hector Berlioz (best known for his Symphonie fantastique), Georges Bizet (best known for Carmen, which has become 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 of the 1850s–1870s and his uncompleted opera The Tales of 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 more than thirty, the most frequently staged are Manon (1884) and Werther (1892)) and Camille Saint-Saëns (he has many frequently-performed works, including The Carnival of the Animals, Danse macabre, Samson and Delilah (Opera), Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, and his Symphony No. 3 (Organ Symphony)).
Later came precursors of modern classical music. Érik Satie was a key member of the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde, best known for his Gymnopédies. Francis Poulenc's best known works are his piano suite Trois mouvements perpétuels (1919), the ballet Les biches (1923), the Concert champêtre (1928) for harpsichord and orchestra, the opera Dialogues des Carmélites (1957), and the Gloria (1959) for soprano, choir and orchestra. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy are the most prominent figures associated with Impressionist music. Debussy was among 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 noted for its sensory content and frequent usage of atonality. The two composers invented new musical forms and new sounds. Ravel's piano compositions, such as Jeux d'eau, Miroirs, Le tombeau de Couperin and Gaspard de la nuit, demand considerable virtuosity. His mastery of orchestration is evident in the Rapsodie espagnole, Daphnis et Chloé, his arrangement of Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition and his orchestral work Boléro (1928).
More recently, at the middle of the 20th century, Maurice Ohana, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Boulez contributed to the evolutions of contemporary classical music.
French music then followed the rapid emergence of pop and rock music at the middle of the 20th century. Although English-speaking creations achieved popularity in the country, French pop music, known as chanson française, has also remained very popular. Among the most important French artists of the century are 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, bands such as Noir Désir, Mano Negra, Niagara, Les Rita Mitsouko and more recently Superbus, Phoenix and Gojira have reached worldwide popularity.
Other French artists with international careers have been popular in several countries, for example female 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), electronic duos Daft Punk, Justice and Air also reached worldwide popularity and contributed to the reputation of modern electronic music in the world.
Among current musical events and institutions in France, many are dedicated to classical music and operas. The most prestigious institutions are the state-owned Paris National Opera (with its two sites Palais Garnier and 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, there are several events 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. Major music halls and venues in France include Le Zénith sites present in many cities and other places in Paris (Paris Olympia, Théâtre Mogador, Élysée Montmartre, etc.).
France has historical and strong links with cinema, with two Frenchmen, Auguste and Louis Lumière (known as the Lumière Brothers) having created cinema in 1895. Several important cinematic movements, including the late 1950s and 1960s Nouvelle Vague, began in the country. It is noted for having a particularly strong film industry, due in part to protections afforded by the French government. France remains a leader in filmmaking, as of 2006[update] producing more films than any other European country. The nation also hosts the Cannes Festival, one of the most important and famous film festivals in the world.
Apart from its strong and innovative film tradition, France has also been a gathering spot for artists from across Europe and the world. For this reason, French cinema is sometimes intertwined with the cinema of foreign nations. Directors from nations 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) are prominent in the ranks of French cinema. Conversely, French directors have had prolific 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 make up the smallest share of total film revenues, at 50%, compared with 77% in Germany and 69% in Japan. French films account for 35% of the total film revenues of France, which is the highest percentage of national film revenues in the developed world outside the United States, compared to 14% in Spain and 8% in the UK. France is in 2013 the 2nd exporter of films in the world after the United States.
Until recently, France had for centuries been the cultural center of the world, although its dominant position has been surpassed by the United States. Subsequently, France takes steps in protecting and promoting its culture, becoming a leading advocate of the cultural exception. The nation succeeded in convincing all EU members to refuse to include culture and audiovisuals in the list of liberalised sectors of the WTO in 1993. Moreover, this decision was confirmed in a voting in the UNESCO in 2005, and the principle of "cultural exception" won an overwhelming victory: 198 countries voted for it, only 2 countries, the U.S and Israel, voted against it.
Fashion has been an important industry and cultural export of France since the 17th century, and modern "haute couture" originated in Paris in the 1860s. Today, Paris, along with London, Milan, and New York City, is considered one of the world's fashion capitals, and the city is home or headquarters to many of the premier fashion houses. The expression Haute couture is, in France, a legally protected name, guaranteeing certain quality standards.
The association of France with fashion and style (French: la mode) dates largely to the reign of Louis XIV when the luxury goods industries in France came increasingly under royal control and the French royal court became, arguably, the arbiter of taste and style in Europe. But France renewed its dominance of the high fashion (French: couture or haute couture) industry in the years 1860–1960 through the establishing of the great couturier houses such as Chanel, Dior, and Givenchy. The French perfume industry is world leader in its sector and is centered on the town of Grasse.
In the 1960s, the elitist "Haute couture" came under criticism from France's youth culture. In 1966, the designer Yves Saint Laurent broke with established Haute Couture norms by launching a prêt-à-porter ("ready to wear") line and expanding French fashion into mass manufacturing. With a greater focus on marketing and manufacturing, new trends were established by Sonia Rykiel, Thierry Mugler, Claude Montana, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix in the 1970s and 1980s. The 1990s saw a conglomeration of many French couture houses under luxury giants and multinationals such as LVMH.
Compared to other developed countries, the French do not spend much time reading newspapers, due to the popularity of broadcast media. Best-selling daily national newspapers in France are Le Parisien Aujourd'hui en France (with 460,000 sold daily), Le Monde and Le Figaro, with around 300,000 copies sold daily, but also L'Équipe, dedicated to sports coverage. In the past years, free dailies made a breakthrough, with Metro, 20 Minutes and Direct Plus distributed at more than 650,000 copies respectively. However, the widest circulations are reached by regional daily Ouest France with more than 750,000 copies sold, and the 50 other regional papers have also high sales. The sector of weekly magazines is stronger and diversified with more than 400 specialised weekly magazines published in the country.
The most influential news magazines are the left-wing Le Nouvel Observateur, centrist L'Express and right-wing Le Point (more than 400.000 copies), but the highest circulation for weeklies is reached by TV magazines and by women's magazines, among them Marie Claire and ELLE, which have foreign versions. Influential weeklies also include investigative and satirical papers Le Canard Enchaîné and Charlie Hebdo, as well as Paris Match. Like in most industrialised nations, the print media have been affected by a severe crisis in the past decade. In 2008, the government launched a major initiative to help the sector reform and become financially independent, but in 2009 it had to give 600,000 euros to help the print media cope with the economic crisis, in addition to existing subsidies.
In 1974, after years of centralised monopoly on radio and television, the governmental agency ORTF was split into several national institutions, but the three already-existing TV channels and four national radio stations remained under state-control. It was only in 1981 that the government allowed free broadcasting in the territory, ending state monopoly on radio. French television was partly liberalised in the next two decade with the creation of several commercial channels, mainly thanks to cable and satellite television. In 2005 the national service Télévision Numérique Terrestre introduced digital television all over the territory, allowing the creation of other channels.
The four existing national channels are now owned by state-owned consortium France Télévisions, while public broadcasting group Radio France run five national radio stations. Among these public media are Radio France Internationale, which broadcasts programmes in French all over the world, and Franco-German TV channel TV5 Monde. In 2006, the government created global news channel France 24. Long-established TV channels TF1 (privatised in 1987), France 2 and France 3 have the highest shares, while radio stations RTL, Europe 1 and state-owned France Inter are the least listened to.
Popular sports played in France include football, judo, tennis, rugby and pétanque. France has hosted events such as the 1938 and 1998 FIFA World Cups, and the 2007 Rugby World Cup. The country also hosted UEFA Euro 2016. The Stade de France in Saint-Denis is France's largest stadium and was the venue for the 1998 FIFA World Cup and 2007 Rugby World Cup finals. Since 1903, France hosts the annual Tour de France, the most famous road bicycle race in the world. France is famous for its 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car endurance race. Several major tennis tournaments take place in France, including the Paris Masters and the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments. French martial arts include Savate and Fencing.
France has a close association with the Modern Olympic Games; it was a French aristocrat, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who suggested the Games' revival, at the end of the 19th century. After Athens was awarded the first Games, in reference to the Olympics' Greek origins, Paris hosted the second Games in 1900. Paris was the first home of the International Olympic Committee, before it moved to Lausanne. Since 1900, France has hosted the Olympics on 4 further occasions: the 1924 Summer Olympics, again in Paris and three Winter Games (1924 in Chamonix, 1968 in Grenoble and 1992 in Albertville).
Both the national football team and the national rugby union team are nicknamed "Les Bleus" in reference to the team's shirt colour as well as the national French tricolour flag. Football is the most popular sport in France, with over 1,800,000 registered players, and over 18,000 registered clubs. The football team is among the most successful in the world, particularly at the start of the 21st century, with one FIFA World Cup victory in 1998, one FIFA World Cup second place in 2006, and two UEFA European Championships in 1984 and 2000. The top national football club competition is Ligue 1. France has produced some of the greatest players in the world, including three time FIFA World Player of the Year Zinedine Zidane, three time Ballon d'Or recipient Michel Platini, record holder for most goals scored at a World Cup Just Fontaine, first football player to receive the Légion d'honneur Raymond Kopa, and the all-time leading goalscorer for the French national team Thierry Henry.
Rugby union is popular, particularly in Paris and the southwest of France. The national rugby union team has competed at every Rugby World Cup, and takes part in the annual Six Nations Championship. Stemming from a strong domestic league, the French rugby team has won 16 Six Nations Championships, including 8 grand slams; and has reached the semi-final of the Rugby World Cup 6 times and the final 3 times.
Rugby league in France is a sport that is most popular in the south, in cities such as Perpignan and Toulouse. The Catalans Dragons currently play in the Super League, which is the top tier rugby league competition in Europe. The Elite One Championship is the professional competition for rugby league clubs in France.
In recent decades, France has produced world-elite basketball players, most notably Tony Parker. The French National Basketball Team won gold at the FIBA EuroBasket 2013. The national team has won two Olympic Silver Medals: in 2000 and 1948.
According to Article 2 of the Constitution, the official language of France is French, a Romance language derived from Latin. Since 1635, the Académie française has been France's official authority on the French language, although its recommendations carry no legal power.
The French government does not regulate the choice of language in publications by individuals but the use of French is required by law in commercial and workplace communications. In addition to mandating the use of French in the territory of the Republic, the French government tries to promote French in the European Union and globally through institutions such as La Francophonie. The perceived threat from anglicisation has prompted efforts to safeguard the position of the French language in France. Besides French, there exist 77 vernacular minority languages of France, eight spoken in French metropolitan territory and 69 in the French overseas territories.
From the 17th to the mid-20th century, French served as the pre-eminent international language of diplomacy and international affairs as well as a lingua franca among the educated classes of Europe. The dominant position of French language in international affairs was overtaken by English, since the emergence of the US as a major power.
For most of the time in which French served as an international lingua franca, it was not the native language of most Frenchmen: a report in 1794 conducted by Henri Grégoire found that of the country's 25 million people, only three million spoke French natively; the rest spoke one of the country's many regional languages, such as Alsatian, Breton or Occitan. Through the expansion of public education, in which French was the sole language of instruction, as well as other factors such as increased urbanisation and the rise of mass communication, French gradually came to be adopted by virtually the entire population, a process not completed until the 20th century.
As a result of France's extensive colonial ambitions between the 17th and 20th centuries, French was introduced to the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, South-East Asia, and the Caribbean. French is the second most studied foreign language in the world after English, and is a lingua franca in some regions, notably in Africa. The legacy of French as a living language outside Europe is mixed: it is nearly extinct in some former French colonies (The Levant, South and Southeast Asia), while creoles and pidgins based on French have emerged in the French departments in the West Indies and the South Pacific (French Polynesia). On the other hand, many former French colonies have adopted French as an official language, and the total number of French speakers is increasing, especially in Africa.
It is estimated that between 300 million and 500 million people worldwide can speak French, either as a mother tongue or a second language.
France is a secular country, and freedom of religion is a constitutional right. French religious policy is based on the concept of laïcité, a strict separation of church and state under which public life is kept completely secular.
Catholicism has been the predominant religion in France for more than a millennium, though it is not as actively practised today as it was. Among the 47,000 religious buildings in France, 94% are Roman Catholic. While in 1965, 81% of the French declared themselves to be Catholics, in 2009 this proportion was 64%. Moreover, while 27% of the French went to Mass once a week or more in 1952, only 5% did so in 2006. The same survey found that Protestants accounted for 3% of the population, an increase from previous surveys, and 5% adhered to other religions, with the remaining 28% stating they had no religion. Evangelicalism may be the fastest growing religious category in France.
During the French Revolution, activists conducted a brutal campaign of de-Christianisation, ending the established state status of the Catholic Church. In some cases clergy and churches were attacked, with iconoclasm stripping the churches of statues and ornament. After the back and forth of Catholic royal and secular republican governments during the 19th century, France established laïcité by passage of the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State.
According to a survey in January 2007, only 5% of the French population attended church regularly (among the respondents who identified as Catholic, 10% attend church services regularly). The poll showed that 51% of citizens identified as being Catholic, 31% identified as agnostic or atheist (another poll sets the proportion of atheists equal to 27%), 10% identified as being from other religions or being without opinion, 4% identified as Muslim, 3% identified as Protestant, 1% identified as Buddhist, and 1% identified as Jewish. Meanwhile, an independent estimate by the political scientist Pierre Bréchon in 2009 concluded that the proportion of Catholics had fallen to 42%, while the number of atheists and agnostics had risen to 50%.
According to Eurobarometer poll in 2012, Christianity is the largest religion in France, accounting for 60% of French citizens. Catholics are the largest Christian group in France, accounting for 50% of French citizens, while Protestants make up 8%, and other Christians make up 2%. Non believer/Agnostic account for 20%, Atheist 13%, and Muslim 6%.
Estimates of the number of Muslims in France vary widely. In 2003, the French Ministry of the Interior estimated the total number of people of Muslim background to be between 5 and 6 million (8–10%). According to the Pewforum, "In France, proponents of a 2004 law banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools say it protects Muslim girls from being forced to wear a headscarf, but the law also restricts those who want to wear headscarves – or any other "conspicuous" religious symbol, including large Christian crosses and Sikh turbans – as an expression of their faith."
The current Jewish community in France numbers around 600,000, according to the World Jewish Congress, and is the largest in Europe. It is the third-largest in the world, after those in Israel and the United States.
Since 1905 the French government has followed the principle of laïcité, in which it is prohibited from recognising any specific right to a religious community (except for legacy statutes like those of military chaplains and the local law in Alsace-Moselle). It recognises religious organisations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious doctrine. Conversely, religious organisations are expected to refrain from intervening in policy-making. Certain groups, such as Scientology, Children of God, the Unification Church, or the Order of the Solar Temple, are considered cults ("sectes" in French), and therefore do not have the same status as recognised religions in France. Secte is considered a pejorative term in France.