A key player on the world stage and a country at the political heart of Europe, France paid a high price in both economic and human terms during the two world wars.
The years which followed saw protracted conflicts culminating in independence for Algeria and most other French colonies in Africa as well as decolonisation in south-east Asia.
France was one of the founding fathers of European integration as the continent sought to rebuild after the devastation of World War II.
In the 1990s Franco-German cooperation was central to European economic integration. The bond between the two countries was again to the fore in the new millennium when their leaders voiced strong opposition as the US-led campaign in Iraq began.
But France sent shockwaves through European Union capitals when its voters rejected the proposed EU constitution in a referendum in May 2005.
France’s colonial past is a major contributing factor in the presence of a richly diverse multicultural population. It is home to more than five million people of Arab and African descent.
It has a number of territories overseas which, together with mainland France and Corsica, go to make up the 26 regions which the country comprises. It is further divided into 100 departements, five of which – French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and Mayotte – are geographically distant from Europe.
Government in France is known for its high degree of centralisation but in March 2003 parliament approved amendments to the constitution allowing for the devolution of quite wide-ranging powers to the regions and departements.
In the light of low election turnout, the move was widely seen as a bid to re-engage in the political process French people disillusioned by the ubiquitous influence of what is often perceived as the Paris elite.
France has produced some of the continent’s most influential writers and thinkers from Descartes and Pascal in the 17th century, through Rousseau and Voltaire in the 18th, Baudelaire and Flaubert in the 19th to Sartre and Camus in the 20th.
In the last two centuries it has given the art world the works of Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Braque, to name but a few.
It is also famous for its strong culinary tradition. France produces more than 250 cheeses and some of the world’s best-loved wines.
Source: BBC World Country Profiles (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/country_profiles/default.stm)