French bread is a contradiction in and of itself. It has just four ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. But it can be such an unholy pain in the ass to make. Loaves take hours to make, but can disappear in minutes. It contributes mightily to the popularity of French cuisine, and yet sometimes you want to go back in time and strangle the Gallic bastard who first devised it.
Speaking of bastards, that's what we're making today! There are three basic types of French bread: the boule, French for "ball, which is a large, round loaf; the baguette, French for "little rod," which we're all familiar with; and the bâtard, which is French for "bastard," and is more in the classic oblong loaf shape.
To make a proper bâtard, you must have patience and respect. Patience, because the dough will require several periods of determined inattention, ranging from 10 minutes to 3 hours. Respect, because the dough is a living thing, and must be treated as such up until the moment you stick it in the oven.
Like any living thing, for a dough to thrive it needs the right amount of water and the right temperature. Yeast love warm environments. At the right temperature, they'll busily chew up sugars and crank out carbon dioxide at an almost alarming rate. This is what you want.
Small amounts of water will have huge effects on your dough so be careful, not just in the water you add, but also with the substances that absorb it i.e. flour. An overhydrated dough will be tacky and lack structure. Underhydrated dough will be tough and have difficulty rising. Find the right balance, and you'll have a soft dough that can be molded into whatever shape you please.