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.
President: Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande beat the conservative incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, in May 2012 to become France's first Socialist president since Francois Mitterrand in 1981-1995.
A veteran party official who has never held national government office before, Mr Hollande emerged as the Socialist candidate after the favourite, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, saw his political career collapse in 2011 amid international allegations of sexual misconduct.
Born in 1954 in Rouen, Normandy, and a product of the "grandes ecoles" elite education system, Mr Hollande was an economic advisor to President Mitterrand, and became an MP in 1988. He rose to lead the party in the long years of opposition in 1997-2008, and stood down over a party row about the failed presidential campaign of his long-standing partner, Segolene Royal.
Mr Hollande and Ms Royal later split up over his affair with journalist Valerie Trierweiler, who is now Mr Hollande's partner.
After the Strauss-Kahn scandal broke, Mr Hollande became the standard-bearer of the right wing of the party, seeing off a challenge at public primaries from the more left-wing party leader, Martine Aubry, to become the presidential candidate.
Despite his reputation as a moderate, Mr Hollande campaigned on a number of radical proposals, including a 75% top income tax rate, the appointment of 60,000 new teachers, and the renegotiation of the European Union fiscal growth pact agreed by President Sarkozy and the German government.
His main challenges in office will be to satisfy the expectations raised by these policies without fuelling inflation at home and confrontation with Germany within the EU.
Mr Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, cast himself as a moderniser. He promised pro-market reforms and cuts in taxes and public spending. There were regular public sector strikes in protest at planned cuts to pay and pensions.
On foreign policy, Mr Sarkozy was more pro-American than previous presidents, and played a prominent role in the international intervention against the Gaddafi government in Libya in 2011. Mr Hollande, in contrast, announced the withdrawal of French combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, a year earlier than scheduled.
Prime minister: Jean-Marc Ayrault
Jean-Marc Ayrault, a long-standing ally of President Hollande, is a veteran leader of the Socialists' parliamentary bloc and mayor of Nantes. The premiership is his first senior government post.
He has a reputation as a calm consensus-builder. Mr Ayrault is a German-language speaker, seen as an asset for the president in handling France's relationship with Germany.
France enjoys a free press and has more than 100 daily newspapers. Most of them are in private hands and are not linked to political parties.
Public broadcaster Radio France targets the domestic audience, French overseas territories and foreign audiences. Radio France Internationale is one of the world's leading international stations. Its Arabic-language Monte Carlo International service is available on mediumwave (AM) and FM across the Middle East.
The international French-language channel TV5 Monde, financed by Belgium, Canada and Switzerland, is available globally. Global news channel France 24 TV broadcasts in French, English and Arabic. It has said it aims to present "a different point of view from the Anglo-Saxon world".
France's flagship TV, TF1, is privately-owned. The growth of satellite and cable has led to a proliferation of channels. Major satellite pay-TV operator CanalSatellite is controlled by media giant Vivendi Universal.
Digital terrestrial TV, with more than a dozen free-to-air channels, is being rolled out.
France's long-established commercial radios, particularly RTL and Europe 1, command large audiences. They have been joined by a multiplicity of FM stations, often part of successful networks such as those of hit music station NRJ and oldies station Nostalgie.
By March 2011, there were around 45.3 million internet users (Internetworldstats). Facebook and Skyrock are leading social networks.