France is one of the most ethnically diverse countries. Whereas there is a stereotypical Scandinavian, Dutch, German, Irish, Italian or Spanish person, it is impossible to describe what a “typical” French person looks like. This is due to history of France, and its position at the crossroads of Europe.
In ancient times, before the Roman conquest, the territory now known as France was divided between the Celts of Gallia, the Celto-Germanic tribes of Gallia Belgica, the Basques of Aquitania, and the Mediterranean people of Gallia Narbonensis (many of Greek descent).
The Romans came to France and stayed there for 500 years in Gaul, leaving Latin blood in all parts of France.
After them came the Franks, a Germanic tribe from the Low Countries (which had settled in the northern part of Gallia Belgica), that conquered Gaul around 500 C.E. and created the kingdom of France (in 843).
In the far northern part of France live a people of Flemish descent, in and around the marshland town of Dunkerque. Flemings, many of whom speak a dialect of Dutch, harbor no separatist sentiment and have largely been assimilated. In the western region of Brittany live the Bretons, a people of Celtic descent. Many Bretons seek cultural autonomy and recent French dominance. They present an overtly Celtic image to visitors, incorporating bagpipes and Celtic harps into their local musical traditions. Dozens of Breton-language schools opened in Brittany in the 1990s.
In southwestern France, where the Pyrenees and Atlantic meet, live the French Basques. At the eastern end of the Pyrenees, in the Mediterranean region is the Catalan homeland. French Catalans share a language and culture with the peoples of eastern Spain, where Catalan autonomy has been achieved and separatist sentiment is common. The French Catalans, however, are not nearly so numerous, and they do not desire to secede from France. In recent decades, bilingual French-Catalan signs have become common.
In the Alsace-Lorraine area of eastern France live the Alsatians, a people whose native tongue is a dialect of High German. This area has been the object of disputes between French and Germanic rulers since the Middle Ages, and control over the region has changed many times. Since the end of World War II (1939-1945) the region has belonged to France. A desire for cultural autonomy is widespread in Alsace, but there is little sentiment for joining Germany. On the French-ruled island of Corsica in the Mediterranean live a people of Italian ancestry. Corsica’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte, had an Italian surname. A movement seeking independence for Corsica has been active since the 1970s.
Today, approximately five percent of the French population is non-European and non-white. It amounts to at least three million people, and has forced the issues of ethnic diversity onto the French policy agenda. France has developed an approach to dealing with ethnic problems that stands in contrast to that of many advanced, industrialized countries.