Picking a list of “greatest French people” is impossible. How do you define greatness? How do you compare a king to a scientist to a philosopher?
This hasn’t stopped people from trying. In 2005, a French television survey asked viewers this question, with dubious results — Charlemagne was ranked behind a soccer player! A study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology identified the best known French people, but fame is not the same as greatness. And then there are the lists of top French monarchs, French inventors, French writers, etc.
I decided to create my own list, based on who has had the greatest influence on France—usually positive, but sometimes negative. I combined the resources above with an informal survey of French friends, including business people, professors, scientists, and artists.
Check out my Top 10 in France Today!
You may have heard of the “Fifth Republic of France” and wondered what it meant. Hasn’t France been a republic since long ago, back when they stormed the Bastille and all? Well, yes and no.
After King Louis XVI lost his head, a republic was indeed proclaimed – a rather bloody one. It didn’t last long and today is referred to as the First Republic. It was followed by a series of governments – empires, monarchies, and more republics, all the way up to today’s Fifth Republic. There were plenty of crises along the way, a coup or two, and more prime ministers than you can shake a stick at.
There’s never a dull moment when it comes to French politics! Enjoy a fun little history lesson and learn about the five republics of France in The Good Life France.
The world is rich with legends. We still dream of Camelot and King Arthur’s court. We hope to one day find El Dorado and its streets paved with gold. And who wouldn’t love to take a dip in the Fountain of Youth?
Provence, too, has its legends.
Is it true that a terrible monster once lived in the depths of the Rhône River? Did a saint poke his finger in a rock and cause wine to pour forth? And what’s this about Mary Magdalene living out her days in Provence?
Read about these and other legends in My French Life!
There are so many fun things to do in Nice—you can walk along the Promenade des Anglais, enjoy the view from one of those famous blue chairs, and dig into a salad niçoise in the Old Town. Now here’s one to add to your list: visit the most Russian spot in France, the Saint Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral.
This magnificent structure was built in 1912 in memory of Nicholas Alexandrovich, the one-time heir to the Russian throne who died in Nice of meningitis. It was designed in the classic Old Russian style, with five beautiful onion domes. Seeing the cathedral you think you’ve somehow stumbled into Moscow. Today the cathedral is a National Monument of France and one of the most visited sites of the French Riviera.
Read all about this unique site in Perfectly Provence!
People are often surprised to learn that France has the third-largest Jewish population in the world, after Israel and the United States.
And they are even more surprised to learn that for centuries the center of Jewish life in France wasn’t Paris, it was Provence… thanks to the Pope!
How did this happen?
Jews have long been subject to persecution in France, as in many places.
In the Middle Ages, French Jews were the victims of murders, riots, and outright expulsions. There were few places where they were allowed to live, even fewer jobs they were allowed to hold, and many were forced to wear a yellow star.
Life was intolerable… but hope beckoned in the south.
Learn all about the surprising history of Jewish Provence in My French Life!
Some quotes from France are beyond famous. King Louis XIV saying “I am the state” or Napoleon’s “An army travels on its stomach” are known around the world. And, if you love quotes, you’ll enjoy these fun France sayings…
“How can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?”—Charles de Gaulle
“France is the most civilized country in the world and doesn’t care who knows it.”—John Gunther
“They have a very low rate for attempted murder and a high rate for successfully concluded murder. It seems that when a French person sets out to kill someone, they make a good job of it.”—Nick Yapp
“You should definitely visit the Louvre, a world-famous art museum where you can view, at close range, the backs of thousands of other tourists trying to see the Mona Lisa.”—Dave Barry
“Boy, those French. They have a different word for everything.”—Steve Martin
“True, you can sit outside in Paris and drink little cups of coffee. But why this is more stylish than sitting inside and drinking large glasses of whiskey I don’t know.”—P.J. O’Rourke
“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals—apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.”—Mark Twain
“Every Frenchman wants to enjoy one or more privileges; that’s the way he shows his passion for equality.”—Charles de Gaulle
“The thing that staggers you when you first come to France is the fact that all the French speak French—even the children.”—Olivia de Havilland
“C’est la sardine qui a bouché le port de Marseille!” (A sardine blocked Marseille’s port!)
This local saying is famous throughout France. Another that is less well-known is “Chercher Molinari” (look for Molinari). Both expressions, curiously, come from the same famous disaster that took place in the 18th century.
Can a little bitty sardine really block a great big port? Yes! Well, kind of.
Read all about it in Perfectly Provence!
Fontvieille is a charming Provençal village in the south of France, close to Arles and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
This quaint town has a lovely old lavoir (wash house), a shady central square, and a bustling open-air market on Monday mornings. It is a delightful place to spend a few pleasant hours and is also the perfect base for exploring three outstanding nearby sites.
First is the windmill immortalized by Alphonse Daudet in his beloved classic Letters from my Windmill. Then there is the ancient Montmajour Abbey, a favorite of Vincent Van Gogh. Finally there are the remains of the Romans’ Barbegal aqueduct and mills, part of the system that brought water to the city of Arles. They were so vast that they could mill enough grain for 12,000 people a day and have been called, “the greatest concentration of mechanical power in the ancient world.”
That is quite a lot to see! It makes for a lovely day trip.
Read all about it in The Good Life France!
France is famous for Eiffel Tower, croissants, the Palace of Versailles, and many other things. But did you know…
– The French are the world’s best sleepers?
– France has a law banning UFOs?
– Louis XIX was King of France for a mere 20 minutes?
Read about these and other fun facts at My French Life!
History is full of horrible monsters. The ancient Greeks were terrorized by the Cyclops. The snowy Himalayas are haunted by the Abominable Snowman. And in Japan, Godzilla appears from time to time and stomps on Tokyo.
The French have their own terrible creature and—unlike the others—this one was real. The mysterious Beast of Gévaudan ravaged the French countryside in the 18th century, killing so many people that King Louis XV had to send troops to destroy it.
What was the Beast—a vicious wolf, an escaped lion, or something else? It’s a fascinating tale.
Read all about it in The Good Life France!