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The concept of culture is of paramount importance in France - a country whose people have all but cornered the world market on urbane savoir faire - and the country's devotion to Frenchness is all-consuming.


The first distinctively Gallic architecture was Gothic, which originated in the mid-12th century in northern France and is preserved in the seminal Chartres cathedral and its successors at Reims and Amiens. In the realms of architecture and the visual arts, the Renaissance - which first showed its face at the end of the 15th century - was largely an imported phenomenon with few homegrown modifications. Local writers showed more verve, with Rabelais and Montaigne producing literary landmarks.


During the Baroque era, which lasted from the end of the 16th century to the late 18th century, painting, sculpture and architecture were integrated to create structures of great subtlety, refinement and elegance. French Baroque music was influential throughout the continent, informing much of the wider European output, while Nicolas Poussin was the first French painter who really ba-rocked. French theatre guffawed with Molière, the era's most popular comic playwright of.


In the 18th century, Jean-Baptiste Chardin brought the humbler domesticity of the Dutch masters to French art. Later, Napoleon named Jacques Louis David, a leader of the 1789 Revolution, official state painter. David produced vast pictures, including one of Revolutionary-dictator Marat lying dead in his bath. The literature of this period is dominated by philosophers, among them Voltaire and Rousseau, while the music scene was dominated by Impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and Berlioz, who founded modern orchestration and produced operas and symphonies that sparked a musical renaissance.


Victor Hugo is the key figure of 19th-century French Romanticism. By the mid-19th century, Romanticism was evolving into new movements, both in fiction and poetry, and three stalwarts of French literature emerged: Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire and the controversial, innovative and powerful work of Émile Zola. The poet Arthur Rimbaud, as well as crowding rugged and exotic adventuring into his 37 years, produced two enduring pieces of work: Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). Sculptor Auguste Rodin, regarded by some critics as the finest portraitist in the history of the art, rendered sumptuous bronze and marble figures. Painting as portraiture was simultaneously revamped by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Eugène Delacroix, while landscape painting was transformed first by Jean-François Millet and the Barbizon School, then by Édouard Manet and the realists. Manet's later work is influenced by the Claude Monet-prefected Impressionist school, which numbered Camille Pisarro and Edgar Degas among its students.


Post-impressionism gave way to a bewildering diversity of styles in the 20th century, two of which are particularly significant: Fauvism, à la Henri Matisse, and Cubism, personified by Pablo Picasso. These were followed by the Dadaists, who reacted to the negativity of WWI by acting weird.


Marcel Proust dominated early 20th century literature with his exquisitely excruciating seven-volume novel, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Poets André Breton and Paul Éluard were militant surrealists fascinated with dreams, divination and all manifestations of 'the marvellous'. After WWII, Existentialism developed around Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, who stressed the importance of the writer's political engagement. De Beauvoir, author of the ground-breaking The Second Sex, had a profound influence on feminist thinking. By the late 1950s, younger writers began to look for new ways of organising narrative; novelist Nathalie Sarraute, for example, did away with the pesky conventions of identifiable character and plot. Marguerite Duras employed similar abstractions, backgrounding character for mood. She came to the notice of an international public with her racy novel L'Amant (The Lover) in 1984.


The 1950s and 1960s was a period of French celluloid innovation, when new wave directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Louis Malle burst onto the scene. The dominance of the auteur directors continued until the 1970s, by which time the new wave had lost its experimental edge and boosted the reputation of French cinema as an intellectual, elitist and, frankly, boring enterprise. The most successful directors of the 80s and 90s have produced original and visually striking films featuring unusual locations, bizarre stories and unique characters. Well-regarded directors include Jean-Jacques Beineix, who made Diva and Betty Blue, and Luc Besson, who wrote and directed The Fifth Element and The Big Blue.

Philosophers such as Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Julia Kristeva, best known for theoretical writings on literature and psychoanalysis, are other 'serious' authors associated with this period, although the most admired national literature is the comic strip Astérix. When they pry their eyes from the finer arts, the French obsessions with soccer, rugby, basketball and cycling, especially the Tour de France, are given full rein. Traditional games such as pétanque (similar to lawn bowling but played on a hard surface) are also popular.


Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion in France, although church life is practically moribund and attendance is extremely low. Beliefs have generally been secularised ever since the Church and state were separated in 1905. Muslims are the second largest religious group followed by Protestants (Huguenots) and a substantial Jewish population.

Food is a subject of endless rumination. Consider just some of the country's epicurean delights - foie gras, truffles, Roquefort cheese, well-built crustaceans, succulent snails plucked off grape vines, sharp-tasting fruit tarts - and you begin to appreciate the Frankish culinary zeal. But one cannot live on escargot and vin de table alone. France's North African and Asian populations have contributed to the pot, bringing spice and colour to many dishes.


A typical day's eating begins with a bowl of café au lait, a croissant and a thin loaf of bread smeared with butter and jam. Lunch and dinner are virtually indistinguishable and can include a first course of fromage de tête pâté (pig's head set in jelly) or bouillabaisse (fish soup), followed by a main course of blanquette de veau (veal stew with white sauce) and rounded off with a plateau de fromage (cheese platter) or tarte aux pommes (apple tart). An appetite-stirring apéritif such as kir (white wine sweetened with syrup) is often served before a meal, while a digestif (cognac or Armagnac brandy) may be served at the end. Other beverages designed to aid digestion and stimulate conversation include espresso, beer, liqueurs such as pastis (a 90-proof, anise-flavoured cousin of absinthe) and some of the best wine in the world.