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6 Facts About France You Might Not Know

How well do you know France? This perennially popular country is the most-visited nation in the world, with 212 million people arriving in 2018 (the most recent year data is available). Here are a few things you might not know about the land of baguettes, crepes, and the Eiffel Tower.

It’s Home to One of the world's Oldest Department Stores

The first department store to open in Paris was Le Bon Marché, which Aristide Boucicaut founded in 1838. Some say it was the first store of its kind in the world, although there had been a small department store in London called Harding, Howell & Co. that operated in the same way, but on a smaller scale, from 1796 to 1820. Boucicaut learned his trade from his father, who had a small shop selling accessories such as ribbons and buttons. At 18, Boucicaut peddled fabric on the streets before moving to Paris in the hope of making it big. He believed in the success of  bulk buying, which would allow customers to browse before purchasing, and insisted on fixed prices with seasonal sales. These ideas were revolutionary and eventually made him a fortune.

There Are a Lot of Weird Laws

France has some peculiar laws. In 1954, the mayor of the wine-growing town Châteauneuf-du-Pape issued a decree banning the “flying over, landing, or taking off of flying saucers.” No one since has thought to overturn it, let alone consider what they’d do if a flying saucer actually landed.

Another famously odd law concerns transporting your pets by train. You need to purchase a ticket for your furry friend, and as long as your fellow passengers don’t object, you can board with your dog, cat, hamster, guinea pig, or even snail. It’s worth an appeal, however, if it’s the latter; in 2008, someone scored a refund after they were forced to buy a ticket for their snails.

The French Eat a Lot of Cheese — But Not the Most

Perhaps surprisingly, the people of France aren’t the top consumers of cheese, nor the biggest exporter. That said, the French do eat and sell a lot of the stuff. In 2018, France was the third-largest exporter of cheese after Germany and the Netherlands, sending approximately 689,000 tons abroad. According to the International Dairy Federation, the French ate roughly 57 pounds of cheese per capita in 2013 alone, though they have since slid down the rankings despite eating more and more of the stuff. The country that consumes the most cheese per capita? Denmark.

There’s a Competition Devoted to Black Pudding

Like many other countries, France has a love of black pudding, which is also known as blood sausage. There’s even a festival devoted to this love-it-or-hate-it culinary treat in the town of Mortagne au Perche in Normandy. The Boudin Noir festival in March features a competition to see who can eat the most, and it’s conducted under the watchful eye of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte-Boudin — which translates to the Fraternity of the Knights of the Blood-Sausage Tasters. It’s common for contestants to consume up to three miles of black pudding between them.

The International Distress Call Has French Origins

“Mayday” is the international distress call and it derives from the French phrase “M’aider,” which translates to “Help me.” Despite its French origins, it’s commonly agreed that the first person to introduce the term was not a Frenchman, but rather a Brit named Frederick Stanley Mockford. He worked at Croydon Airport near London as a senior radio officer. He coined the phrase in 1923 and chose French over English since a significant amount of air traffic at the time originated from the opposite side of the Channel. To this day, if an aircraft is in trouble, the word is repeated three times.

The Country of Pommes Frites Once Made Potatoes Illegal

The French government banned potatoes in 1748, believing that they caused leprosy. In those days, the now-popular tuber was deemed “hog feed” in France and considered unfit for human consumption. But thanks to the work of French pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, who was fed a potato-heavy diet while a prisoner of war and went on to publish a prize-winning, potato-promoting essay called “Inquiry into Nourishing Vegetables That in Times of Necessity Could Substitute for Ordinary Food,” the potato eventually gained both scientific approval and public acceptance. Parmentier also held dinners featuring potatoes in a bevy of different dishes (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson attended a few). In 1794, a woman named Madame Mérigot published the first potato cookbook, and the rest is history. Today, as an alternative to pommes frites, you can eat Parmentier potatoes — named after the man himself.

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