One of the largest countries in Europe, France covers an area of more than 551,000 km2, and as home to just over 66 million people is the third most populous country in Europe, and the biggest in the EU.
The majority of the population (around 85%) are of white European origin, with north Africans (around 10%) making up the next biggest ethnic group.
The climate is broadly temperate and in line with what you could expect from a British summer, particularly in the north and northeast, but the size of France means there are some big variations. In the Atlantic west and northwest the weather is generally warm without being hot, while the mediterranean climate of the south coast and southern-central France is more used to experiencing high temperatures.
Average temperatures for June and July are pleasant enough, and range from the mid-teens to the low-to-mid twenties Celsius.
From the English Channel and the North Sea to the Mediterranean, and from the Rhine and the Alps to the Atlantic, the country known as ‘le hexagone’ consists of a wide variety of landscapes, and is home to the highest point in Europe (Mont Blanc).
France is split into 22 administrative ‘regions’, which in turn are comprised of 96 ‘departments’. The most common manifestation of this for the visitor is the two-digit code that you’ll see on most car number plates - the departments are listed alphabetically, so cars with 01 come from Ain, 47 from Lot-et-Garonne, 85 from the Vendée and so on. These numbers are also reflected in the postcodes of various towns.
The French, unsurprisingly, speak French. The Academie Francaise has been the linguistic guardian of the country since the 1600s, but despite its desires more and more words are being adopted from English and other cultures, particularly in the worlds of tourism, business and technology. You can enjoy ‘un sandwich’ on ‘le weekend’, for instance.
There are strong regional dialects, so you’ll probably notice a great difference in how someone from Brittany speaks when compared with a Parisian or someone from Marseille, making comprehension a little tricky.
The younger the person you come across, the greater the chance that they’ll speak at least some English, but don’t assume that you’ll be able to get by without any native lingo.
France runs on Central European Time (CET), which is one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). They also operate a daylight savings system, and so are still one hour ahead of British Summer Time (BST).
France is a strictly secular country, which means there is a separation of church from any state activities.
The vast majority of churches and religious monuments in the country are Catholic, and that remains the majority religion within the country. As with trends elsewhere, however, the number of people identifying themselves as practicing Catholics is diminishing.
Freedom of religion is a constitutional right, and there is a growing Muslim population in the country (anywhere from 8-10%), along with the largest Jewish population in Europe.
You’ll come across two main types of police on your travels - the Police Nationale in major cities, and the Gendarmerie in the countryside.
Since the terror attacks in Paris, it is much more common to see armed police and even the army on patrol at major transport hubs and monuments, particularly in the capital.
In an emergency you can call the police on 112 (a pan-European emergency number where you should be connected to an English-speaking operator). Other emergency numbers are 15 for an ambulance and 18 for fire service.
Food and Drink
France is known the world over for its gastronomy. Top of the list for most people are its cheeses and wines, but each region has its own specialities, from cassoulet to quiche, fondue to boeuf bourguignon, and we’d encourage you to try the local food wherever you head.
When eating out, taxes and service charges are usually included in restaurant bills, so there isn’t a need to tip as much as in other countries. The bill will usually say something like ‘prix service compris’ to indicate that service is included - if you’ve been particularly well looked after, a couple of Euros on top would be acceptable.
A lot of restaurants/brasseries will offer a ‘prix fixe’ menu at a set price (usually with a choice of two or three options), or you can order from the more expensive ‘a la carte’ menu. By law, a restaurant is obliged to serve you bread with your meal, and you can always ask for ‘une carafe d’eau’ if you want some tap water.
You don’t need a visa to enter France if you have an EU Passport, and while it isn’t a requirement to carry ID we’d recommend that you keep some form of photo ID on you in case of checks by the French police.
If your hotel/accommodation offers a safe, we’d recommend storing your important documents in there rather than having them all on your person when out and about. You can get a replacement passport at the British Embassy, but it’s not something we’d recommend if you can avoid it!
France is one of the 25 countries that forms the Eurozone, and we’d imagine that most people are familiar with it since it’s been around since 1999. 1 Euro is split up into 100 cents, which are still occasionally referred to as centimes in France as a hangover from the days of the Franc.
At the time of writing, the exchange rate was broadly hovering around €1.25 to the pound.
ATMs are as plentiful in French cities as they are at home, and almost all will accept the majority of UK credit/debit cards. Chip and PIN verification is common, although some older machines (particularly those used for public transport) will only accept French Cartes Bancaires, so we’d recommend keeping a small amount of change on you to pay for trams or metros.
Visa and Mastercard (and their debit variations) are widely accepted, but other cards such as American Express are less widespread. We’d advise you to check with your bank beforehand what they charge for overseas transactions and cash withdrawals - some accounts offer free banking while others will charge a fee each time you swipe your card or take out some cash. If the charges are particularly punitive, it may be worth your while to take out more cash in fewer visits to the cashpoint, or exchange some money before you go.
The country code is +33, and thereafter each region’s phone numbers begin with 01 to 07.
Numbers beginning 08 are often premium rate numbers, although confusingly some free numbers also start with 08. To call a French number from abroad, dial +33 and miss out the first 0 from the area code. Within France, just start with the area code. You’ll most frequently see phone numbers written in pairs, such as 08 47 22 56 94.
France uses the same GSM standard for mobile phones as the UK, so chances are your phone will automatically pick up one of the four major networks as you step off the plane/ferry/train - these are Orange, SFR, Bouyges Telecom and Free Mobile.
Coverage is pretty good except in the most rural of locations, or if you’re in the Alps where service can be spotty at best.
We’d advise all travelling fans to check with their mobile operators at home the cost of making calls in France - be aware that you will be charged by the minute for receiving calls as well.
Prices have been coming down in recent years, particularly within the EU, so while it won’t be as massive a shock to the system as it would have been 5 or 10 years ago, you could still land yourself with a hefty bill. Data roaming charges can also be exorbitant, so wherever possible find yourself some free wifi. Which brings us to...
Internet access, both broadband and wireless, is fairly widespread throughout the host cities. Internet cafés are still a common sight, and more and more public buildings (hotels, cafés, bars) will offer wifi. Sometimes this will come with a fee, but finding some free internet isn’t usually too onerous a task - there’s always a Starbucks or a McDonald’s somewhere nearby to rely on.
Electricity is supplied at 220 to 230V 50Hz, and sockets take the standard ‘European’ type plugs with two round prongs. Travellers from the UK will need a travel adaptor for their electrical appliances, phone chargers, etc, which can be picked up fairly cheaply from supermarkets both at home and in France.