Geography

The Republic of France is the third largest country in Europe, exceeded in size only by Russia and the Ukraine. Its 550,000 square kilometers (213,000 square miles), including the island department of Corsica, is about four-fifths the size of Texas.

Armillary sphere of duc de Chartres

Location

France lies on the western edge of the Eurasian continent, with a latitude*** range between 42°30°N and 51°N and a longitude range of 4°W and 8°E. The country shares borders with eight other countries: Spain and tiny Andorra to the southwest, Italy and Monaco to the southeast, Germany and Switzerland to the east, and Luxembourg and Belgium to the north. It also has extensive coastlines, bounded by the North Sea to the extreme northeast, the English Channel to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. Thus, France enjoys a prime hub location which links much of Europe, as well as having natural outlets to the Americas and Africa.

Political Divisions

Although of human construction, it might be useful to note here that since 1790, continental France has been divided into twenty-two administrative regions, which are further subdivided into ninety-six administrative departments, including the island of Corsica. Created during the Revolution, departments were designed to overcome old province loyalties and to create more uniform administrative units. In addition, it has four overseas departments, considered part of the Republic of France, which include the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, French Guiana in South America, and the island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Departments are further subdivided into numerous local units, historically based on parishes and small communities. Today, the French still often identify themselves most closely with their place of origin. Such local attachments preserve a measure of diversity in France. As other remnants of its once-vast overseas empire, it also has several small territories around the globe which have varying degrees of self rule. It should be noted that unlike the federal system of the United States in which the states have reserved powers of their own, the French national government has centralized power, and none of these administrative divisions have power in their own right unless it has been specifically granted. In this way, French goverment is still influenced by the centralizaiton of politics represented by Louis XIV. Of course, today France is a representative democracy with universal suffrage.

Terrain

The French terrain is noted for its variety as well as its beauty. Extending away from the Pyrenees Mountains that divide it from Spain, the northern portion of France is dominated by the North European Plain, which stretches northeastward through the Aquitaine lowland, and the Loire and Paris Basins into central Europe. This broad and fertile lowland of plains, plateaus, and basins, slopes gently to the Bay of Biscay on its western margin and to the English Channel in its northern French extent. Another major feature of the country includes the Hercynians, a system of forested hill lands that are very old, worn, and rounded. Most of south central France is in one huge region of Hercynian hill lands called the Massif Central, covering about one-sixth of the country. Further to the north and east, the Hercynian formations of the Vosges and Ardennes Forest are found, with yet another in Brittany, called the Armorican Massif. The remainder of France is generally mountainous. The French Alps, like the Pyrenees, are much younger and higher mountains than the ancient ranges of the Hercynians. They have sharp peaks, glacier and river-carved valleys and upland pastures. Located in the southeastern part of France, the French Alps include Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak at 4,807 meters (15,771 feet). But with many mountain passes and man-made tunnels, the Alps do not present a barrier to other countries. The Jura mountains, along the border with Switzerland and separate from the Alps, are much lower in altitude. The 5,500 kilometers of coastline also reflect great diversity and provide France with many ports. Whereas Brittany’s margins are rocky and indented, the northern coast of Normandy is faced with chalk cliffs, the Atlantic is bordered with low-lying sandy beaches, and areas of the Mediterranean coast and Corsica have rugged slopes with pebbly or sandy beaches. With such a large coastal area, France enjoys an economic, as well as a scenic, advantage few other countries have.

Rivers

France is crossed by four major rivers, which aid in transport and development. Descending from the Alps or Hercynians, three of them cut through the hill lands and cross the North European Plain at right angles. The main river of northern France is the Seine, which flows through the heart of Paris before emptying into the English Channel at Le Havre. Directly south, France’s largest river, the Loire, flows west into the Atlantic via the Bay of Biscay, as does the Garonne River. The other major river of France is the Rhone with its river valley dividing the Massif Central from the Alps. It empties into the Mediterranean near the port city of Marseilles. The Rhine River forms the boundary between France and Germany and provides an important link to the rest of Europe.

Climate

The influences of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Eurasian continent itself, as well as its northerly latitude, have given France the advantage of temperate climate regions, usually without many of the extremes that might be associated with any one of these factors. The northeast, influenced by its continental location, has relatively hot summers and cold winters, but its northern ports do not freeze during the short winter. The Atlantic dominates the climate of western France and the North European Plain, where westerly winds bring much moisture and humidity far inland, creating a marine west coast climate. Drizzle and cloudy days are common and there can sometimes be violent winters storms, but generally winters are mild and summers are cool. The Mediterranean Sea influences the south, giving it a mild Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and usually mild winters. Precipitation can be heavy in fall and winter. This region is also know for the mistral, a cold and dry spring wind that blows down the Rhone Valley. The mountain regions have differentiated local climates with temperatures depending on the altitude and moisture depending on prevailing winds. In fact, all of these climates can vary widely within the same region, because local conditions can create unique microclimates.

Forests

Surprisingly, perhaps, forests of beech, oak and pine still cover about twenty-eight percent of the land in France--one of the highest percentages in Europe. The forest industry accounts for about four percent of the nation’s economy, but lumber isstill imported. A current problem for France, as well as for other parts of Europe, is acid rain damage to the country’s forests.

Soils

In areas where forests once flourished, the soil is a rich, dark brown, full of organic content, known as Alfisol. Alfisol soil is found across the North European Plain and is ideal for agriculture. In fact, France has more land suitable for agriculture than any other country in the European Union (E.U.), allowing it not only to support its own population, but to export agricultural products as well. The soil of the region, especially in the Paris Basin, is enhanced by the presence of loess, a fine silty soil blown in from glacial deposits. Inceptisols, found in central and southern France, are soils that are somewhat thinner and younger, but still useful for agriculture where they have formed valleys and on slopes. Mountain soils are differentiated, depending on slope and elevation.

Mineral/Energy Resources

Whereas forests and fertile soils are significant resources for France, the country generally lacks any major mineral or energy resources and must import much of what it uses. For example, both iron ore and coal are still mined in the Lorraine and Saar Basins, both lying on France’s eastern border with Germany, but reserves have declined, and production is not enough to meet national consumption. Oil and natural gas production is even less. Even with tapping the Rhone River for hydroelectricity, France is a leading importer of energy. As a result, France has committed itself to using nuclear power to generate electricity and has become the leading nation in the world in nuclear power, which accounts for about eighty percent of the country's’ electric energy. Nuclear waste, which is an environmental and political issue, must be stored and processed on site. Besides the small reserves of coal and iron, France does have some minerals such as bauxite, zinc, and potash along with sufficient supplies of quarry materials such as slate, sand, and limestone, that are found throughout the country.

Agriculture and Agricultural Exports

The combination of temperate climate and fertile soils has given France vast areas suitable for farming, making it the world’s secon largest agricultural producer, after the United States. It is one of the world’s top wheat producing and exportingcountries, with large farms in the north that have the advantage of a long growing season. The western part of France is noted for its dairy products, as well as pork, poultry, and apples. Most of the milk is made into cheese, a major export, as the French drink very little milk. The central portion of the country is the center of beef production and, along with the south, is where fruits, vegetables and wine grapes are grown. The Hercynian formations in the regions of Burgundy and Champagne, as well as in Bordeaux, are especially suited for growing grapes and have made these names synonymous with wine. While France does import such agricultural products as soybeans, seafood, nuts and snacks from the United States, its exports to the U.S., mainly cheese and wine, are greater in value. Other members of the E.U. account for most of the other exports in these products.

Fishing

Considering its extensive coastline, it is not surprising that commercial fishing is an important industry for France, although not as an export industry, as the catch is consumed domestically. Chief species include tuna, hake, sardines, and shellfish, as well as oysters and mussels. However, France faces lower catches than in the past as its fishing grounds are being depleted from over fishing.

Economy and Trade

With the majority of highways and rail lines converging on Paris and the surrounding region, one finds that most businesses and industries are also located in this portion of the country. France’s highly diversified industries, employing about twety-eight percent of the workforce, include steel, machinery, chemical, autos, aircraft, electronics, telecommunications, and of course, textiles, clothing, and tourism. For the most part, these products are the basis for France’s exports. In turn, the contry imports crude oil, iron and steel products, machinery, and equipment. Nevertheless, for a number of years France has enjoyed a trade surplus in which export value exceeds import value. Chief among the country’s trading partners are other members of he E.U., especially Germany and Italy, although the U.S. ranks third. Although recently the economy has had a reasonable growth rate, the country suffers from chronic high unemployment, which has exceeded twelve percent of the labor force in recent years, as old industries decline and downsizing affects unskilled labor. In addition, the government has a problem maintaining the high rate of social transfer payments to which the French have grown accustomed. As in all developed countries, the service sector employs the largest portion of the population, at sixty-six percent. Per capita GDP is about $24,990 (U.S. $).

Population Statistics

As of mid-1997, France has a population of 58.7 million, of which seventy-four percent is urban. Most of the population, as well as the wealth, is concentrated in the north in the large river valleys, as well as the Rhone River valley. The largest population agglomerations are found in and around Paris, with about nineteen percent of the population, and along the border with Belgium. Paris itself has a population of over five million. There is a much lower population in the Massif Central region as well as in the Southern Alps. Therefore, the population density of 276 people per square mile is misleading, as population is not distributed evenly. Following the trends of other industrialized countries, France has a slowly aging population as birth rates have declined from their post-war high. Today, the birth rate is about thirteen births per thousand of the population, with a death rate of about nine per thousand, giving the country an annual growth rate of about .3%. While low, this rate is still one of the highest in Europe as a whole. Nevertheless, as in all industrialized countries, as the population ages there will be problems of a declining tax base to support social and other governmental programs. Life expectancy is seventy-four years; the infant mortality rate is a low five per thousand; the literacy rate is ninety-nine percent.

Ethnic Composition and Language

Ninety-two percent of the population of France is considered "French", which is predominantly Celtic, Latin, and Teutonic in origin, blended together over the centuries. However, ethnically, there is no such thing as a French race; rather, being French is more a matter of national identity. Other "native" ethnic groups compose only a very small proportion of the population, although culturally, with their own language and customs, their significance is great. These include such groups as Catalans, found in the far southwest along the border with Spain and Andorra, and Basques, concentrated where the French border meets Spain on the curve of the Bay of Biscay. Together they compose less than two percent of the population. Another identified ethnic group is the Bretons of Brittany. Although now less than one percent of the population, there is a strong nationalistic movement in this area to preserve the Breton language and culture. Other language groups include Flemish, Waloon, Alsatian, and Corsican; all are in danger of dying out, as French is spoken everywhere. On the other hand, the French language, derived from Latin with Celtic and Germanic words, has been an international language for centuries and is one of the official languages of the United Nations. In many countries around the world, French is either a primary or secondary language and is a means by which people with various different-languages can communicate.

Immigration

France has had a long tradition of welcoming immigrants, and a relatively significant proportion of its population is either foreign-born or second or third generation. In 1990, foreigners accounted for 6.3% of the continental French population. Even before this century, worker immigrants from other European countries, especially Portugal, sought better opportunities in France. The trend accelerated after each of the World Wars, when so many young Frenchmen died that there was actual population decline and when France lost its empire in the independence movement of former colonies in the aftermath of World War II. With severe labor shortages, over a million and a half workers from its former colonies, primarily Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, were welcomed into the country. In addition, political refugees and others from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Near East—especially Turkey and Indochina—came in record numbers. At the same time, Portuguese immigrants continued to compose th e largest single group of foreigners, and Italians and Spanish also continued immigration to France. Most immigrants settled in the large industrial cities of the north, especially in the Paris Basin, although the southern Rhone Valley and the port city of Marseilles, a gateway for those from the African continent and Middle East, became sites of settlement. The immigration trend reached its height in the 1960's and into the mid-1970's. Then, the labor shortage was over, and industrial jobs began to decline. The result was a backlash against foreigners, even those who were naturalized citizens or who had been born in France. Aside from economic issues, some of the problems were that the "new" foreigners had not been fully integrated into the larger society, that there were cultural differences, and that immigrant birth rates were so much higher than those of the "native" population. Today, the French are trying to come to grips with the issues of racism and economic opportunities as well as attempting to seek a balance between its historic accommodation to foreigners and immigration restrictions.

Religion

Historically, France has been a Roman Catholic country. Although the Revolution tried to break the power of the Church, associating it with the Old Regime, it was not until 1905 that the church and state were officially separated. Today, about ninety percent of the population remains at least nominally Catholic. The second largest religion in France, at two percent, is Islam, a result of the influx of Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Presently, there are over four million Muslims in France. Jews, about one percent of the population, compose the largest single community of Jews outside of Israel and the United States. One percent of the population is Protestant, and the remaining six percent are classified as "other."

Conclusion

France is a study in contrasts, and perhaps therein lies the country’s strength and endurance. As the last President of France, Francois Mitterrand, once remarked, "Man is indeed capable of overcoming any difficulties. . . . My optimism is made up of a myriad of pessimisms." France’s location on the Eurasian continent has always made France an important crossroads, yet it more often exported its own French culture to th outside world. Its physical geography, with its range of climates and physical features, created numerous microenvironments, helping shape distinctive local cultures. Yet the French are supremely conscious of their national identity, while at the same time promoting a European Union that will blur traditional boundaries. France has enjoyed the blessings of natural resources that helped propel it to industrial prominence, yet it has continued to hold a premier world economic position as those resources and industries decline. It saw its colonial empire crumble, yet it continues to be an influence felt around the world. Historically, it moved, if unevenly, from an absolute monarchy to a democratic republic. It is no wonder, then, that this country, forged into one by a welding of diverse strands, will continue to provide the world with the true meaning of grandeur.

Glossary of Geography Terms

Acid rain - When fossil fuels are burned, they release sulphur and nitrogen into the air. These dissolve in atmospheric water droplets to form acid rain when there is precipitation. It has a low pH and is harmful to vegetation and aquatic life.

Alfisol - a soil order; also called brown earth. It is a relatively young, acid soil that is associated with areas where deciduous trees grow. It has a thick layer of humus (organic material) and drains well.

Basin - A lowland depression that is shallow and wide.

Continental climate - A climate type associated with the interior of large land masses in mid latitudes. Without the moderating influence of the ocean, temperatures are extreme in summer and winter and precipitation is low.

European Union - More than a free trade bloc, the E.U. is composed of fifteen European nations which have removed, or plan to remove, all barriers to the movement of people, goods and services. The plan includes a common currency, the Euro, to begin in 1999, although there is some opposition. In addition, it will try to forge a common foreign policy, as well as common legislative and judicial policies. The representative legislative bodies can make decisions that are binding on all member states, meaning that the members are giving up sovereignty in these areas. The purpose is to create a single economic and policy market to be more competitive on a global scale. More information about the E.U. can be found on the European Union Internet site listed in the Resources page.

GDP - Gross Domestic Product. The total value of the production of goods and services in a nation measured over a year.

Inceptisol - a soil order, inceptisols are recently developed soils with weakly developed horizons.

Latitude - Parallels of latitude are imaginary circles drawn parallel to the Equator (0) and measure distance north or south of that line. Measurement is in degrees, which can be subdivided into minutes and seconds.

Loess - Very fertile, silty soil that probably formed from wind-borne glacial deposits. It is ideal for agriculture.

Longitude - Meridians of longitude are imaginary circles that encircle the earth through the poles. They measure distance east or west of the Prime Meridian (0) and are also measured by degrees, minutes and seconds.

Marine West Coast Climate - A climate type usually found on western coasts in the upper mid-latitudes. It has relatively cool summers and mild winters with rain year around because of the moderating influence of the ocean.

Massif - A rather uniform area of highland, clearly distinct from the surrounding lowland.

Mediterranean Climate - A climate type of the lower mid-latitudes, it is characteristic of the Mediterranean countries and western coasts at this latitude, such as California. It is characterized by hot, dry summers and warm, wet winters.

Mistral - Considered a local wind, this wind is the result of cold air from northern Europe forming a high pressure area, which flows down the Rhone Valley towards the low pressure area of the warm Mediterranean Sea. The wind is very cold and strong and can damage spring flowering fruit trees.

Plain - term meaning a broad, extensive flatland

Plateau - term meaning an extensive, relatively flat upland area.

Prevailing wind - the direction from which a wind usually blows. Prevailing winds are named for the direction from which they come.

Region - an area with either natural or man-made characteristics which mark it off as being different from areas around it. In the case of France, its twenty-two regions would have both natural and cultural characteristics that make each unique. These regions, their capitals, and other information about them, can be found at the France: Country Profile Internet site and the recommended site listed in the Resources section.

Terrain - An area of land, often described in terms of its distinctive relief.

Territory - A parcel of land; in the case of France, it has two types of territories that are based on the degree of self-rule; they are not considered an integral part of the French Republic as the overseas departments are. One type of French territory is the territorial collectives, which have a special status in that they have representation in the French parliament. They include Mayonette, St. Pierre, and Miquelon. Overseas territories, on the other hand, have less self-rule in that a governor is appointed by the French government. These territories include French Polynesia, French Southern and Antarctic Lands, Wallis and Futuna Islands, and New Caledonia.

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