France, in north western Europe is historically and culturally among the most important nations in the Western world, it has also played a highly significant role in international affairs, with former colonies in every corner of the globe. France has also been influential in government and civil affairs, giving the world important democratic ideals and inspiring the growth of reformist and even revolutionary movements for generations.
Paris skyline at dusk.
From 1966 to 1995 France did not participate in the integrated military structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), retaining full control over its own air, ground, and naval forces; beginning in 1995, however, it was represented on the NATO Military Committee, and in 2009 French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the country would rejoin the organisation’s military command. As one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—together with the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and China—it has the right to veto decisions put to the council.
The capital and by far the most important city is Paris, one of the world’s preeminent cultural and commercial centres. A majestic city known as the ville lumière, or “city of light,” Paris has often been remade, most famously in the mid-19th century under the command of Georges-Eugène, Baron Haussman, who was committed to Napoleon III’s vision of a modern city free of the choleric swamps and congested alleys of old, with broad avenues and a regular plan.
Paris is now a sprawling metropolis, but its historic heart can still be traversed in an evening’s walk. Confident that their city stood at the very centre of the world, Parisians were once given to referring to their country as having two parts, Paris and le désert, the wasteland beyond it. Metropolitan Paris has now extended far beyond its ancient suburbs into the countryside, however, and nearly every French town and village now numbers a retiree or two driven from the city by the high cost of living, so that, in a sense, Paris has come to embrace the desert and the desert Paris.
Among France’s other major cities are Lyon, located along an ancient Rhône valley trade route linking the North Sea and the Mediterranean; Marseille, a multi ethnic port on the Mediterranean founded as an entrepôt for Greek and Carthaginian traders in the 6th century BCE; Nantes, an industrial centre and deep water harbour along the Atlantic coast; and Bordeaux, located in south western France along the Garonne River.
Monaco is an independent enclave on the south coast, while the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean is treated as an integral part of the country.