Are you taking French courses or learning French on your own? Want to know more about the fascinating country that brought us baguette and bérets? Read on! Here on Superprof we have collected 10 fun facts you probably didn’t know all about France.
The centre of France is dominated by the Massif Central, a mountain range so old that, in some places, they are barely worthy of the name, so well has erosion done its work. It is separated from the Alps by the Rhone valley. It is older than the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Some of the mountains used to be active volcanoes. But don’t worry, the last eruption dates to 4040 BC, before the invention of writing and long before steel was first smelted.
The Massif Central is a chain of mountains in France with extinct volcanoes. Photo credit: alpha du centaure on Visualhunt.com
Julius Caesar wrote a memoir about it, Goscinny and Uderzo made a comic about it: the Romans invaded a territory called Gaul around 58-50 BC, subjugating the entire area of what is now France. (All? No, one little village…) The people who lived there were Celts, distantly related to the Celts of Britain and Ireland. The Gauls had similar gods and spoke a similar language – Gaulish. But Gaulish was already a language in its own right, similar to Old Briton, Welsh and Cornish but differing from the Celtic languages that would later become Manx and Scottish and Irish Gaelic.
Gaulish was spoken in most of the territories of what is now France, except for Aquitaine, where a precursor of Basque was spoken.
Very little Gaulish survives in the French language (about 150-180 words, plus their derivatives), which is based almost entirely on Latin. Poor Asterix.
On the other hand, one of Gaul’s largest cities, Lutetia, situated along the Seine river, is still alive and thriving as the city of Paris.
Out of the chaos following the disintegration of the Roman Empire, various Germanic tribes migrated throughout Europe, founding new countries. The most successful were the Franks, establishing a kingdom that, at its height, encompassed most of France and a great part of what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
The first dynasty of Frankish kings were called the Merovingians, after a semi-mythical founder called Merovech. And although they were Christians after Merovech’s grandson Clovis (an early form of the name Louis) had himself baptised, that didn’t stop the kings of the Franks from having several wives.
This is somewhat controversial among scholars, as some suggest that they married the women successively – putting one aside before marrying the other. However, the dates support a royal practice of polygamy as many first queens are still mentioned after the king had married a second woman. The practice continued until Charlemagne outlawed multiple marriages.
They also attached great importance to the royal locks – the long, flowing hair sported by the Frankish kings and considered to be the embodiment of their royal power.
Look up “fun facts about French history” and you will generally find a part about the stink of the French court under King Louis XIV in the 17th century. He had a new palace built at the palace of Versailles, some ways outside of Paris, to be safe from the Parisian mobs that terrorised his childhood while he lived at the Louvre, as well as keep as many of the nobles as possible under his eye. It is one of the most visited places in France.
Supposedly, the new administrative capital of France made up in splendour what it lacked in hygiene. We know this from eyewitnesses who write about the stink of unwashed bodies, urine and faeces in the palace and gardens.
However, Versailles definitely had the facilities.
It is true that people of that time did not bathe every day. Prolonged immersion in water was thought to spread diseases. But it was considered proper to wash with a damp towel soaked in a little water or perfume, which would have been made with alcohol, which has hygienic properties. Bathing was a pleasure, and the king of France had his own bathing rooms and installed public baths for the use of the court.
Hygiene was actually a big concern for Louis XIV when building Versailles, with public bathrooms, baths and sewers installed. Photo credit: Jose Losada Foto on VisualHunt.com
Nor was there any need to relieve yourself in the corridors. There were public bathrooms at Versailles to accommodate 300 people, and guests could always flag a passing servant to bring them their master’s toilet chair.
The first toilet with running water was installed in 1727, and there was a series of drainages and pipes that shunted the waste out of the palace and into surrounding marshes.
So why did Versailles stink? If the eye- (or nose-) witnesses were there during large events, people may have been reluctant to give up their place and miss seeing the king just to have a piss. Or they were guests unaware of the amenities. And just because something was proper doesn’t mean that everyone practised it.
When you visit France, you should definitely take a tour of the palace of Versailles and see the place where Marie Antoinette lived. It is very different from the châteaux of the Loire valley, another tourist attraction you should include in your trip to France.
French people like to think that French is still the “lingua franca”, the go-to language when two people from different countries meet. This is sadly no longer the case, but there is still an impressive amount of French speakers scattered throughout the world. Some live in countries where France is still the mother tongue or at least an official language. Others are French diplomats and employees of the large multinational firms that support the French economy, who are often posted abroad. There is even a little French-speaking enclave on the English channel islands.
Therefore, the French government started establishing French schools abroad where class is taught in French, not only in its overseas colonies and territories such as Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, and various African countries, but in almost all the major cities throughout the world. The difference between the Lycées Français and other international schools is that they all follow the French curriculum, so that a French expat can move from city to city, and go back to living in France, and be assured that his child will not constantly find itself skipping a class or forced to redo a year.
This makes the French school system very popular with other diplomats (for example members of the UN) and other people who are forced to move regularly.
A lot of things labelled as “French” are not (in France, a French braid is called a “natte Africaine”), but though French toast may exist in other countries as well, it is very popular in France. This traditional French food is called “pain perdu”, or “lost bread”. It could also be called “recovered bread” as it was a simple means of recovering bread that had hardened and would otherwise have been difficult to eat. Even poorer households, in the country at least, had access to milk and eggs, and so the hard bread was soaked in a mixture of the two until it softened, and then fried and served with butter or honey.
Though it is true that snail (escargot) and frog’s legs are part of French cuisine, not everyone will eat them. Foie gras is for festive occasions, such as Bastille Day (the French national holiday), but pain perdu is a staple of French breakfast, even if it is not as popular as the croissant.
Gustave Eiffel is best known for the eponymous tower of steel he built for the 1889 World Fair in the capital city of Paris. He also built the scaffolding that keeps the Statue of Liberty upright and was the head of the whole monumental project.
Though the Eiffel Tower, now one of the monuments synonymous with French culture (together with the Arc de Triomphe, the pyramid of the Louvre museum, French cheese and French wine) was originally meant to be dismantled after twenty years, Eiffel thought it would be a very clever thing to have his own private apartment inside where he could receive honoured guests – mostly scientists and intellectuals (it had its own miniature lab). He reportedly received offers of thousands of francs to rent it out, but always refused.
The apartment is on the third platform and is now open to the public. Tourists can admire wax figures of Eiffel and Thomas Edison (one of his special guests) in the cosy room.
Speaking of secret apartments, anyone who has seen (or read) The Phantom of the Opera knows about the underground lake in the cellar of the celebrated Parisian Opéra Garnier, where the Phantom had his hideout. What they might not know is that the lake is real, and that it has been used to breed trout.
An opera house is a heavy sort of building and needs proper foundations. But the high water table in that area of Paris meant that the opera would often have had its cellars flooded – the place where all the expensive props, costumes and backdrops are stored. So instead the architect built the flooding into the building. A large vaulted area, supported on sturdy stone columns, provides a space for the water when the water table is high, with the actual storage cellars built above it. Alas, there is no secret apartment where a deformed man once lived and wrote horrifying music. You can rent the Phantom’s box (Number 5), though, to watch the internationally acclaimed productions.
The entrance to the cistern in the foundations of the Opéra Garner, where Gaston Leroux set his Phantom of the Opera. By FR (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
For some time, trout were kept in the lake. This seems to no longer be the case, but the roof still has beehives – you can buy the honey in the opera’s gift shop. When visiting France, you should definitely see the opera house. Tours don’t include the reservoir, but they often have costume exhibitions and the architecture is splendid.
If you know a little about French history and colonialism, you would expect French to be spoken in Africa and maybe parts of the Caribbean (and the Quebec region of Canada), but India belonged to the English, right?
Well, partly right. With the fall of the Mughal Empire in India and the lucre of tea and cotton shining in their eyes, many European powers sought to gain control, among them the English, Dutch and also the French. This was both helped along and hindered by the fact that the Indians were busy fighting amongst themselves as each local ruler declared himself the rightful heir to the next Mughal Empire. This made them susceptible to European envoys waving gold in front of their faces, and European armies with more men to add to their cause.
The wars in India where Wellesly, later Duke of Wellington, cut his strategist teeth were as much between the European powers as between the Indian royal houses. In that chaos, England emerged mostly victorious, but France managed to acquire and hold on to the regions of what is now Punducherry and Chandannagar.
In the spirit of decolonisation, the two regions were given to India when it received its independence, but French remains an official language of those provinces.
When the French revolutionaries first donned the tricolore – the cockade of blue, white and red that later became the flag of France – they weren’t being so revolutionary after all.
The first cockades were only blue and red, in the colours of the flag of the city of Paris. General Lafayette suggested adding white to represent royalty – in fact, the royal arms also incorporated the colours blue, white and red, colours often found in the French flags of the past.
The French flag of red, white and blue isn’t that revolutionary in colour. Photo on VisualHunt.com
As much as “à bas les aristos!” has become a byword for the French revolution, at first all the people wanted was adequate representation in the États-Généraux (a form of parliament that actually only convened at the king’s convenience) and affordable bread. First forays into democracy were along the lines of a constitutional monarchy. But both the king’s endless dithering and the rise of political fundamentalism that sent as many revolutionaries as aristocrats to the guillotine led to the sort of climate that made the king fear for his life and that of his family.
Caught while attempting to flee for Austria (someone recognised his profile from a coin), this was the last straw for the French people who felt the king had betrayed them. The king died (though the monarchy was re-instituted twice in the following century), but the royal colours remain on the French flag – though some argue that the white represented the kingdom of France and its people, not the monarchy itself.