The name France comes from Latin Francia, which literally means "land of the Franks". Originally it applied to the whole Frankish Empire, extending from southern France to eastern Germany.
At the Treaty of Verdun in 843, the Frankish Empire was divided in three parts, and eventually only two: Francia Occidentalis ("Western Frankland") and Francia Orientalis ("Eastern Frankland"). The rulers of Francia Orientalis, who soon claimed the imperial title and wanted to reunify the Frankish Empire, dropped the name Francia Orientalis and called their realm the Holy Roman Empire (see History of Germany). The kings of Francia Occidentalis successfully opposed this claim, and managed to preserve Francia Occidentalis as an independent kingdom, distinct from the Holy Roman Empire. The Battle of Bouvines in 1214 definitely marked the end of the efforts by the Holy Roman Empire to reunify the old Frankish Empire by conquering France.
Since the name Francia Orientalis had disappeared, there arose the habit to refer to Francia Occidentalis as Francia only, from which the word France is derived. The French state has been in continuous existence since 843 (except for a brief interruption in 885-887), with an unbroken line of heads of states since the first king of Francia Occidentalis (Charles the Bald) to the current president of the French Republic (Nicolas Sarkozy). Noticeably, in German, France is still called Frankreich, which literally means "Reich (realm) of the Franks". In order to distinguish from the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne, France is called Frankreich, while the Frankish Empire is called Frankenreich.
The name of the Franks itself is said to come from the Proto-Germanic word *frankon which means "javelin, lance". Another proposed etymology is that Frank means "the free men", based on the fact that the word frank meant "free" in the ancient Germanic languages. However, rather than the ethnic name of the Franks coming from the word frank ("free"), it is more probable that the word frank ("free") comes from the ethnic name of the Franks, the connection being that only the Franks, as the conquering class, had the status of freemen.
According to a tenacious myth, the name of the former French currency, the franc, would not come from the name of the country but from Old French franc, a word which meant "free", because the first coins were minted to pay the ransom of king John II of France, who was captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. This story is highly doubtful, as currencies are usually named after weights (pound, lira, mark, livre, peseta), places (Belga, Sequin, Thaler, Florin), units (As, Sestertius) or after the object or the man engraved on the coin (Crown, Escudo, Écu, Louis, Ducat, Leu). More likely, the name comes from the words engraved on the coins, "Rex Francorum" ("Frankish King" or "Roi des Francs" in French).
At the time of the arrival of the Franks, the land where they settled was called Gaul (Latin: Gallia; French: Gaule). This name continued to be used for a very long time after the Franks arrived in what is now France (their first kings were called "King of the Franks", referring to the people, not the land). In fact, for as long as the cultural elites of Europe used Latin predominantly, the name Gallia continued to be used alongside the name France. In English usage, the words Gaul and Gaulish are used synonymously with Latin Gallia, Gallus and Gallicus. However the similarity of the names is probably coincidental; the English words are borrowed from French Gaule and Gaulois, which appear to have been borrowed themselves from Germanic walha-, the usual word for the non-Germanic-speaking peoples (Celtic-speaking and Latin-speaking indiscriminately). The Germanic w is regularly rendered as gu / g in French (cf. guerre = war, garder = ward), and the diphthong au is the regular outcome of al before a following consonant (cf. cheval ~ chevaux). Gaule or Gaulle can hardly be derived from Latin Gallia, since g would become j before a (cf. gamba > jambe), and the diphthong au would be incomprehensible; the regular outcome of Latin Gallia would have been * Jaille in French.
Today, in modern French, the word Gaule has completely disappeared, and is only used in a historical context. The only current use of the word is in the title of the leader of the French bishops, the archbishop of Lyon, whose official title is Primate of the Gauls (Primat des Gaules). Gaul is in the plural in the title, reflecting the three Gallic entities identified by the Romans (Celtica, Belgica, and Aquitania). The adjective gaulois (Gallic) is still sometimes used when a Frenchperson wants to stress some idiosyncrasies of the French people entrenched in history, such as notre vieux fond gaulois querelleur ("the love of quarrels of our old Gallic stock"), a phrase used when denouncing French propensity for strikes or controversies. During the French Third Republic, the authorities often referred to notre vieille nation gauloise ("our old Gallic nation"), a case in which the adjective gaulois is used with a positive connotation. The word gallicisme is used sometimes in linguistic to express a specific form to the French language. In English, the word Gaul is never used in a modern context. The adjective Gallic is sometimes used to refer to French people, occasionally in a derisive and critical way, such as "Gallic pride".
Note that the family name of Charles de Gaulle (with two "l"s) has nothing to do with the name Gaul (French: Gaule, with one "l"). It seems that "de Gaulle" comes from an old Germanic word meaning "the wall" [cf. van der walle], where w- evolved into g- under the influence of French (cf. William and Guillaume). Nonetheless, contemporary Frenchmen could not help noticing the striking similarity between the two names, and it added to the aura surrounding the famous general.
In almost all the languages of the world, France is known by the word "France" or any of its derivatives. In a few languages (essentially Greek(Γαλλία , Gallia) and Breton (Bro-C'hall)), France is known as "Gaul". In Hebrew it is called צרפת (Tzarfat). In Germanic languages, France is often given a name which means "Realm of the Franks" or alternatively, "Kingdom of the Franks".
Meanings of the name France
The name "France" (and its adjective "French") can have four different meanings which it is important to distinguish in order to avoid ambiguities.
In a first meaning, "France" means the whole French Republic. In that case, "French" refers to the nationality, as it is written on the French ID card: "Nationalité : française".
In a second meaning, "France" refers to metropolitan France only, meaning mainland France.
In a third meaning, "France" refers specifically to the province of Île-de-France (with Paris at its centre) which historically was the heart of the royal demesne. This meaning is found in some geographic names, such as French Brie (Brie française) and French Vexin (Vexin français). French Brie, the area where the famous Brie cheese is produced, is the part of Brie that was annexed to the royal demesne, as opposed to Champagne Brie (Brie champenoise) which was annexed by Champagne. Likewise, French Vexin was the part of Vexin inside Île-de-France, as opposed to Norman Vexin (Vexin normand) which was inside Normandy.
This meaning is also found in the name of the French language (langue française), whose literal meaning is "language of Île-de-France". It is not until the 19th and 20th centuries that the language of Île-de-France indeed became the language of the whole country France. In modern French, the French language is called le français, while the old language of Île-de-France is called by the name applied to it according to a 19th century theory on the origin of the French language - le francien.
In a fourth meaning, "France" refers only to the Pays de France, one of the many pays (Latin: pagi, singular pagus) of Île-de-France. French provinces are traditionally made up of several pays, which are the direct continuation of the pagi set up by the Roman administration during Antiquity. The province of Île-de-France is thus made up of several pays: Pays de France, Parisis, Hurepoix, French Vexin, and so on. Pays de France is the extremely fertile plain located immediately north of Paris which supported one of the most productive agriculture during the Middle Ages and was responsible for the tremendous wealth of the kingdom of France before the Hundred Years' War, making possible the emergence of the Gothic art and architecture which spread all over western Europe. Pays de France is also called Plaine de France (i.e. "Plain of France"). Its historic main town is Saint-Denis, where the first gothic cathedral in the world was built in the 12th century, and inside which the kings of France are buried. Pays de France is now almost entirely built up, being but the northern extension of the Paris suburbs.
This fourth meaning is found in many place names, such as the town of Roissy-en-France, on whose territory is located Charles de Gaulle International Airport. The name of the town literally means "Roissy in the Pays de France", and not "Roissy in the country France". Another example of the use of France in this meaning is the new Stade de France, which was built near Saint-Denis for the 1998 Football World Cup. It was decided to call the stadium after the Pays de France, to give it a local touch. In particular, the mayor of Saint-Denis made it very clear that he wanted the new stadium to be a stadium of the northern suburbs of Paris and not just a national stadium which happens to be located in the northern suburbs. The name is intended to reflect this, although few French people know this story and the great majority associates it with the country's name.