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Republic of W Europe, a major European nation and an important international power. It has a population of approximately 60 million, it is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, and it boasts an exceptionally rich cultural heritage. Paris, the capital and traditional nucleus of the country, has for many centuries been a principal cultural center of Europe. France’s position at the heart of western Europe has ensured that, ever since the country’s emergence as part of the Frankish Empire in the eighth century under Charlemagne, it has played a crucial role in the history of the continent. The country has benefited from the protection afforded by the Alps and the Pyrenees along its southern and eastern borders, by the Rhine and other rivers to the E, and by the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean to the N and W.

Originally inhabited by Celtic tribes, France was known as Gaul to the Romans, who had subdued it under Julius Caesar by 51 b.c. The country greatly benefited from the Roman occupation, which saw the emergence of many new cities, including Lugdunum, now Lyons, the Roman capital. Following the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the fifth century a.d., Gaul was ravaged by barbarian invaders. Of these, the Franks under Clovis I emerged as the most powerful and united the country; but in the ensuing dynastic struggles many achievements of the Roman period were lost. Under this Frankish Merovingian dynasty, however, a process of growth was consolidated which survived with the emergence of the Carolingian dynasty.

Under Charlemagne (768–814) a great new Frankish Empire was established, stretching from the Ebro River in Spain to the Elbe River in Germany. Charlemagne encouraged the arts, letters, education, and religion, and developed an efficient administrative system; but after his death his enormous empire gradually collapsed, and power passed increasingly into the hand s of local feudal lords.

The history of France as a modern nation begins traditionally in the 10th century with the reign of Hugh Capet, elected king by the French nobles and clergy in 987. The Capetian dynasty gradually widened out its dominions from the centrally located Ile de France, containing Paris and Orleans. By subduing local lords and pressing the traditional rights of the French Crown it created a climate in which trade could flourish and justice could be administered. In the 13th century France established itself as a major European power, playing a leading role in the Crusades, and under Philip II winning a decisive victory over England and the Holy Roman Empire at Bouvines in 1214. However, following the death of Charles IV, the last Capetian, in 1328, English claims to the French Crown, resolutely pursued in the face of French territorial and feudal claims, led to the Hundred Years’ War of 1337 to 1453. Although the great battles of this protracted and exhausting war—Crecy in 1346, Poitiers in 1356, and Agincourt in 1415—were English victories, by 1453 France had regained all her lost territories except Calais. By the end of the 15th century most of modern France had been united under Louis XII.

With the spread of the Reformation throughout France in the 16th century, the country fell into a bitter civil war, the Wars of Religion, between 1560 and 1589. The wars were resolved by the able Henri IV, first of the Bourbon dynasty, who secured the rights of the Protestants by the Edict of Nantes in 1598. But these rights were gradually eroded, and many of the Protestant Huguenots were forced to emigrate, depriving the nation of able talent.

The 17th century, however, can be considered the Golden Age of France. Under Louis XIV, king from 1643 to 1715, French classical culture, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, reached its peak; and Louis’s court at Versailles was the richest and most splendid in Europe. It attracted the nobility but also bankrupted them with the required life of lavish display. Under Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister, military successes abroad in the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48 were repeated in the War of Devolution of 1667–68 and in the Dutch War of 1672–78. But the cost was excessive, and when France was defeated at Blenheim in the War of the Spanish Succession of 1701– 14, the country was left on the verge of financial and social ruin.

Though Louis XIV’s finance minister, Colbert, had attempted to centralize economic life under a mercantilist policy, the economic situation was further aggravated in the 18th century by costly and unsuccessful colonial wars. In competition mostly with Great Britain, France had built up enormous imperial holdings in Canada and India in particular, but it lost them in the mid-18th century. France’s anachronistic administrative system, moreover, hampered the attempts of Louis XVI’s ministers to remedy a situation inherited from the past and known historically as the ancien regime. There was a growing demand for radical reforms of the central government, as well as the correcting of local grievances in the countryside against manorial abuses. These led eventually to the French Revolution in 1789 and the execution of the king and queen in 1793. Once started, the revolution quickly evolved into the episodes of the Terror, in which thousand s lost their lives on the guillotine, Thermidore, and the Directory.

In the meantime in the French Revolutionary Wars, brought about by the efforts of reactionary European states, notably Austria, to crush the new French republic, Napoleon Bonaparte emerged as a military leader of genius. He was appointed head of the revolutionary armies in 1797 in the wake of an attempt at a coup d’etat and was named dictator. He crowned himself emperor of France in 1804. Under Napoleon French armies were triumphant throughout Europe, winning famous victories at Austerlitz in 1805 and Jena in 1806; but after a disastrous campaign in Russia and defeat on the Iberian Peninsula the French empire crumbled, and Napoleon was exiled to Elba. His brief return in 1815 ended in a final defeat at Waterloo. At the subsequent Congress of Vienna of 1815 the Bourbon dynasty was restored in France. The new regime, unable to cope with the social changes accompanying widespread industrialization and the extension of civil rights, was rocked by two further revolutions, in 1830 and in 1848. The Second Empire of Louis Napoleon was brought to an end by an ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71, with the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to the newly unified Germany. In the 20th century France has borne the brunt of two world wars arising from its traditional rivalry with Germany. During World War I most of the bitter trench warfare on the Western Front, including the great battles of the Somme and Marne, took place in northeastern France, and many towns and villages were almost completely obliterated. After an early and sudden defeat in World War II, northern France was occupied by the victorious Germans, while the south, under the Vichy regime, collaborated with the Germans in exchange for independence. Liberated in 1944 following the invasions of Normand y and southern France by the Allies and insurrections by the French underground, France soon recovered to play a major role in the reconstruction of Europe and in recent European affairs. A nuclear power since 1960, France was a founding member of the European Economic Community.

A threatened military coup in 1958 over French losses in Algeria led to the National Assembly’s setting up of the Fifth Republic under President Charles de Gaulle, World War II leader of the Free French. France is still governed today under this Fifth Republic. Since the end of World War II France has lost or has given up most of her former colonial empire, including Indochina in 1954 and the possessions in N and central Africa by 1977. In 1981 France elected a Socialist government under Francois Mitterrand that nationalized many industries and expand ed social benefits, but the economy soon soured. In 1986 a conservative government under Jacques Chirac started privatizing French corporations, but Mitterrand returned to power in 1988, signing a nuclear nonproliferation agreement in 1991. In the 1993 elections, high unemployment pushed the government back to the conservative Gaullists. The Gaullists raised taxes and cut spending in order to join the European Currency Union in 1999. The Socialists won the 1997 election, but a slow economy and terrorist violence brought back Chirac and the Gaullists. In 2003, France was outspoken against U.S. involvement in Iraq, straining relations, but in 2007 the more pro- American Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president.

France is an ancient and beautiful country. A relatively large country within Europe's belly, France holds many cultures and geographies since its borders run along Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. During my three months living in France, I traveled to many vineyards, chateaus, museums, and stunning beaches. Some of my favorite excursions and experiences I've included below.

The Troglodyte Caves - Nestled into a cliff side in the beautiful Loire Valley, the caves can be toured daily. Up until the 1900's some French nationals called these naturally-occurring cavities home. Today, some are restored to their original charming modesty. You can even dine in a cave that specializes in mushroom dishes (with the fungi grown right within ints stone walls) and soft, warm, salty bread that's baked within the carved out stone, as if a brick oven.

Elephant in Nantes - Located on the west coast of France, Nantes is a modest-sized city with many typical, charming cafes and ancient, stone architecture. The Great Elephant is a quirky and enchanting attraction. The larger than life elephant sculpture is an interactive experience, giving guests aboard views of the the surrounding courtyard. Its trunk even spurts water, sprinkling passerby. See photos and find more information about The Great Elephant here.

Christmas Market in Strasbourg - Dubbed the Capital of Christmas, Strasbourg is located on the border next to Germany and the marriage of both cultures creates an incredible scenery and dining opportunities. But, perhaps, the best attraction of this part of France is the Christmas Market. And while many European cities have Christmas markets, Strasbourg's is world-renowned. Vendors sell muled wine, home-crafted gift items, chocolates, and gingerbread to hungry shoppers. At night, the market is light with magical white lights, creating a warm, picturesque glow. Take a look around the Christmas Market's official website and feel the cheer!

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