Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why is France called France?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why is France called France?
Photo: KOBU Agency / Unsplash

Why is France . . . called France?

What’s in a name? It turns out, in the case of France, quite a lot.

It comes from the Latin Francia which means ‘realm of the Franks’ and referred to a tribe who lived in what is now France during the Roman period. It is still known as Francia in Italian and Spanish, while Frankreich in German, Frankrijk in Dutch and Frankrike in Swedish all mean “Land/realm of the Franks”.

It is thought that ‘Franks’ comes from the Medieval Latin francus, which means free, exempt from service.

Informally, France is sometimes called l’Hexagone (the hexagon) in reference to the rough shape of metropolitan France – the country most people think of when they hear the name.

But it also has several overseas territories informally – and inaccurately these days – referred to as DOM-TOMs.

Collectively, all of France’s inhabited territories overseas – former colonies – are colloquially referred to as DROM-COM. They are home to 2.7 million people, around four percent of the French population.

READ ALSO COM, DOM-TOM and DROM: How to understand French overseas territories

Five former French colonies are officially overseas regions or departments – fully part of France and subject to French laws. 

These include the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the eastern Caribbean, French Guiana, a small country on the northeastern coast of South America and the tropical islands of La Réunion and Mayotte which are found in the Indian ocean.

In fact, the flight from Paris to Réunion is, technically, the longest domestic flight in the world. It’s also true to say that the sun never sets on France, and also offers a pub question along the lines of ‘Which European country has a border with Brazil?’.

Other French territories, known as Collectivité d’outre-mer (COM), are more autonomous and can pass their own laws, although some areas like defence are run from Paris. They include French Polynesia (which includes Tahiti), Wallis and Futuna, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy.

Each of these places has varying degrees of autonomy from Paris, but they remain heavily reliant on French subsidies.

READ ALSO ‘Confetti of an empire’: A look at France’s overseas territories

The collectivité outre-mer sui generis status of New Caledonia gives residents of the island the possibility to have both Caledonian and French citizenship. It also has its own armed forces. Residents recently narrowly rejected the idea of independence from France in a referendum.

In the past, the COM territories listed above were known as TOM territories.

The only French overseas territory still referred to under the TOM label are the uninhabited islands that make up the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. The only visitors are researchers working in scientific stations.


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‘The French have a taste for princes’ – Why British royals are so popular in France

The announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II has naturally caused widespread sadness and an outpouring of tributes in the UK, but also in France where the British royals have long been popular.

'The French have a taste for princes' - Why British royals are so popular in France

Perhaps the best known thing about French history is that they guillotined their own royals back in 1793. There were a couple of brief returns to monarchy, plus a self-crowned Emperor, but these days France is a firmly republican country.

But that doesn’t stop the French from showing huge interest in, and affection for, the royals on the other side of the English Channel.

In addition to fulsome tributes from president Emmanuel Macron and other high profile figures in France, the Union Jack was added to the flags outside the president’s Elysée Palace and the lights on the Eiffel Tower were turned off on Thursday night after the announcement of the death of the Queen, at the age of 96.

French TV channels on Thursday afternoon showed rolling news updates from the UK, while TV historian Stéphane Bern presented a specially recorded tribute programme to the Queen.

On Friday, three of France’s daily newspapers made the royal death their front page story, with Le Parisien using the headline Nous l’avons tant aimée (we loved her so much), Le Figaro saying L’adieu à la reine (farewell to the queen) and Libération opting for La peine d’angleterre (England’s pain, but also a pun on La reine d’angleterre).

But this wasn’t a one-time event sparked by the death of such a long-reigning and much-loved figure, royal fever frequently strikes France, especially during royal weddings. 

In 2021, 6 million people in France watched the funeral of Prince Phillip, 4 million watched the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the royal weddings of princes William and Harry attracted 9 and 8 million French viewers respectively.

Charles de Gaulle once remarked: “The French have a taste for princes, but they will always look abroad”.

French presidents, such as de Gaulle, are both the political leader of the country and the head of state, and have quite a few semi-monarchical trappings to the role, such as accommodation in the very grand Elysée Palace.

Emmanuel Macron, who began his presidency styling himself as an almost royal figure before being forced by public pressure to adopt a more down-to-earth governing style, called the French “a nation of regicidal monarchists” – yearning for a strong leader yet always keen to tear them down.  

One of his predecessors, François Mitterand, also remarked on this difficulty, reportedly saying in 1984: “I must be both Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth.”

Although the monarchy is far from an uncontroversial subject in the UK, where a significant portion of the population believe that the royals should have no official role, in France they are seen as a force for unity.

TV presenter Stéphane Bern, himself an ardent royalist, wrote a special essay in April 2022, to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. He said: “How can we explain this French infatuation with everything related to the British monarchy Nostalgia of the sans-culottes [French revolutionaries] for the monarchic splendor? Curiosity for this unchanging institution which is not afraid to conjugate secular rites in the present? Or a formidable symbolic force that gives hope to an entire people, who believe themselves invincible as long as the queen (or king) watches over them?

“How many events in our country are still capable of bringing crowds together, across political divides, religious beliefs or social affiliations? Apart from the football World Cup, when France wins, moments of national communion are rare and, even on July 14th [France’s Fête nationale] the principle of unity does not always prevail.

“If the British royal family is so popular in France, it is because it embodies the symbolic power capable of bringing together an entire people and of which we feel orphaned. The crown, which unites in diversity, seems to allow the British to find themselves and to commune around the timeless values of their nation.

“Unconsciously, there must be a kind of nostalgia, tinged with a sense of guilt, in this look of admiration and envy.”

French journalist Nicolas Domenach, speaking to The Local during the royal wedding celebrations in 2018, also emphasised the sense of unity, saying: “English royalty serves to maintain the unity of the country. It has immense symbolic power, but no concrete power.

“This monarchical permanence in a democracy fascinates us because we cut off the head of our king and our queen.

“We are proud to have accomplished our Revolution, but we maintain a nostalgia, if not a remorse.”