The French Revolution swept away many of the ancient legal privileges enjoyed by the nobility and the clergy and established the principle of legal equality among all citizens. Yet the revolution did not erase sharp distinctions among social groups, nor did it fundamentally alter the distribution of wealth. France still retained a rigid social structure in the early 20th century, with little mobility among social groups. The social strata included peasants, craft and factory workers, shopkeepers, merchants, civil servants, intellectuals, landowners, and petty nobility.
The old social order changed considerably after World War II, as the postwar economic expansion brought growing affluence to an ever larger share of the French population. The vast expansion of the middle classes reduced inequality of wealth and blurred the lines between many social groups. Today power, success, and money are more important than birth in determining a person’s social status.Another sweeping change in postwar France is the growing role of women in society. Beginning in the early 1970s, women began entering the workforce in increasing numbers, many taking jobs in the expanding service sector.
Today women constitute 45.9 percent of all French workers. However, women tend to be concentrated in low-paying jobs, and they are more likely than men to be unemployed. In recent decades women have also played a growing role in politics. Women won the right to vote in 1944; today they account for 53 percent of the French electorate. Many women have pursued successful careers in politics, but their representation in the national parliament is still lower than in most other nations in the European Union (EU).
Many social divisions remain visible in France. A privileged elite composed mainly of leading politicians, senior civil servants, business leaders, and wealthy families still retains a strong grasp on the levers of power. The middle classes are highly stratified. Among white-collar workers, two different groups have emerged: the successful, upwardly mobile senior executives and professionals with expanding spending power and stable jobs, and a growing mass of people in clerical, retail, and food-service jobs for whom unemployment and lower living standards have become increasingly the norm. Blue-collar workers remain, to some extent, economically and socially segregated; only a small proportion of university students come from blue-collar households. The number of blue-collar workers has steadily declined in recent years as the economy has shifted from jobs in industry to those in the service sector.
During centuries the French have taken pride in the sophistication of their culture, the beauty of their spoken language, and their diverse accomplishments in literature, the arts, and sciences. Even French cuisine and clothing fashions have long been a source of national pride. During the second half of the 20th century, as French society grew increasingly middle class and consumer oriented, a new set of attitudes and pursuits appeared alongside these elitist cultural attitudes. Material comforts, such as homes, new appliances, and automobiles, became synonymous with a high standard of living.
Despite the concentration of the French population in urban areas, nearly 60 percent of French people live in houses, rather than in apartment buildings. Most dwellings are comfortable and have modern conveniences. In 1962 less than 20 percent of French housing had central heating. By the 1990s nearly 80 percent had central heating, at least one telephone, and access to hot water. Housing is in short supply, and housing costs, as a share of household budgets, have risen in recent decades. Outlays for housing absorb about one-fifth of all household spending. The French enjoy a wide range of sports and recreational activities. Millions of people belong to sports clubs, the most common of which are devoted to soccer, tennis, a bowling game called boules, and basketball. The most popular professional sports are soccer and bicycle racing (see Cycling). The monthlong Tour de France, the world’s most famous and prestigious bicycle race, has been held annually since 1903. Horse racing at Longchamps and Auteuil in Paris and automobile racing at Le Mans also draw large crowds. The French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros Stadium in Paris attracts international attention. Many French people enjoy eating, drinking, and socializing at sidewalk cafes, which are prevalent in most cities and towns. The cinema is also very popular, drawing some 15 million patrons each year. Music concerts are well attended throughout France, and many provincial towns host their own music, theater, and dance festivals.
The French are famous for their cuisine, and fine food remains an important part of the French way of life. Thousands of regional dishes are popular in France. Beloved ingredients include generous amounts of garlic, olive oil, butter, cream, and local cheeses and wines. French dishes that have risen to national and international prominence include a seafood soup called bouillabaisse, crepes, quiches, andouillette sausage, and a goose-liver paste called pâté de foie gras. Breads and pastries are a daily staple and are widely available at local bakeries, known as boulangeries. © "France" © Emmanuel Buchot and Encarta
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