By Lili Bayer
The oldest existing piece of French literature is the epic poem “La Chanson de Roland,” which depicts Frankish knights fighting under Charlemagne in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. On the surface, “La Chanson de Roland” is a tale of valor, loyalty and friendship, but at the core this early poem also illustrates one of France’s enduring geopolitical realities.
In the poem, Roland and his fellow knights fight against Saracens in the Pyrenees Mountains. While rulers from Charlemagne to Napoleon temporarily pushed French control much beyond the boundaries of modern-day France, the country’s core has always been defined by several key geographic features. First, the Pyrenees Mountains to the south separate France from Spain. Invading armies have crossed the mountains, but historically it was the Pyrenees that separated France from North African and Iberian forces. In the east and southeast, France is separated from the Italian Peninsula and from Switzerl