The culture of France and of the French people has been shaped by geography, by profound historical events, and by foreign and internal forces and groups. France, and in particular Paris, has played an important role as a center of high culture and of decorative arts since the seventeenth century, first in Europe, and from the nineteenth century on, world wide. From the late nineteenth century, France has also played an important role in modern art, cinema, fashion and cuisine. The importance of French culture has waned and waxed over the centuries, depending on its economic, political and military importance. French culture today is marked both by great regional and socioeconomic differences and by strong unifying tendencies.
Culture, whether in France, Europe or in general, consists of beliefs and values learned through the socialization process as well as material artifacts. Culture guides the social interactions between members of society and influences the personal beliefs and values that shape a person's perception of their environment: "Culture is the learned set of beliefs, values, norms and material goods shared by group members. Culture consists of everything we learn in groups during the life course-from infancy to old age."
The conception of "French" culture however poses certain difficulties and presupposes a series of assumptions about what precisely the expression "French" means. Where as American culture posits the notion of the "melting-pot" and cultural diversity, the expression "French culture" tends to refer implicitly to a specific geographical entity (as, say, "metropolitan France", generally excluding its overseas departments) or to a specific historico-sociological group defined by ethnicity, language, religion and geography. The realities of "Frenchness" however, are extremely complicated. Even before the late nineteenth century, "metropolitan France" was largely a patchwork of local customs and regional differences that the unifying aims of the Ancien Régime and the French Revolution had only begun to work against, and today's France remains a nation of numerous indigenous and foreign languages, of multiple ethnicities and religions, and of regional diversity that includes French citizens in Corsica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and elsewhere around the globe.
The creation of some sort of typical or shared French culture or "cultural identity", despite this vast heterogeneity, is the result of powerful internal forces — such as the French educational system, mandatory military service, state linguistic and cultural policies — and by profound historic events — such as the Franco-Prussian war and the two World Wars — which have forged a sense of national identity over the last 200 years. However, despite these unifying forces, France today still remains marked by social class and by important regional differences in culture (cuisine, dialect/accent, local traditions) that many fear will be unable to withstand contemporary social forces (depopulation of the countryside, immigration, centralization, market forces and the world economy).
In recent years, to fight the loss of regional diversity, many in France have promoted forms of multiculturalism and encouraged cultural enclaves (communautarisme), including reforms on the preservation of regional languages and the decentralization of certain government functions, but French multiculturalism has had a harder time of accepting, or of integrating into the collective identity, the large non-Christian and immigrant communities and groups that have come to France since the 1960s.
The last fifty years has also seen French cultural identity "threatened" by global market forces and by American "cultural hegemony". Since its dealings with the 1993 GATT free trade negotiations, France has fought for what it calls the exception culturelle, meaning the right to subsidize or treat favorably domestic cultural production and to limit or control foreign cultural products (as seen in public funding for French cinema or the lower VAT accorded to books). The notion of an explicit exception française however has angered many of France's critics.
The French are often perceived as taking a great pride in national identity and the positive achievements of France (the expression "chauvinism" is of French origin) and cultural issues are more integrated in the body of the politics than elsewhere. The French Revolution claimed universalism for the democratic principles of the Republic. Charles de Gaulle actively promoted a notion of French "grandeur" ("greatness"). Perceived declines in cultural status are a matter of national concern and have generated national debates, both from the left (as seen in the anti-globalism of José Bové) and from the right and far right (as in the discourses of the National Front).
Source: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_France
An Introduction to French Culture