Area 212,796 square mi (545,630 square km)
Population 66.20 million 2014
Highest Point 15,863 ft (4,807 m)
Lowest Point -6.6 ft (-2 m)
GDP $2.829 trillion 2014
Primary Natural Resources coal, iron ore, bauxite, zinc, potash, timber.
ONE OF THE DOMINANT nations of Europe since the 9th century, and of the world since the 18th century, France is today one of the leaders of the movement toward European unity that will change the balance of the world economy. It is the largest country in western Europe, occupies some of the richest agricultural land, and has a dual orientation—both toward the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds—that makes it unique among the states of the EUROPEAN UNION (EU).
The French Republic can be divided into Metropolitan France, the historical nation-state in Europe, and its overseas components, known as the DOM/TOMs. The DOMs, or overseas departments, are fully component parts of the republic, and include MARTINIQUE, Guadeloupe, FRENCH GUIANA, and Reunion islands. The TOMs, overseas territories, are not fully incorporated. They include FRENCH POLYNESIA, NEW CALEDONIA, WALLIS AND FUTUNA ISLANDS, and the French Southern and Antarctic Territories. There are also two “territorial collectivities” with special status: Saint-Pierre et Miquelon and Mayotte. These departments and territories are leftovers from the two periods of French colonial expansion: the 18th century in North America and the Caribbean, and the 19th century in Africa. Today, the global French-speaking community, or Francophonie, includes large areas of North and West Africa (ALGERIA, TUNISIA, MALI, and COTE D’IVOIRE, for example), and the Canadian province of Quebec. French linguistic and cultural influences remain to a lesser extent in other countries in the MIDDLE EASt (LEBANON and SYRIA) and Southeast Asia (VIETNAM, LAOS, and CAMBODIA).
Metropolitan France is often called “The Hexagon,” due to its roughly six-sided shape: the Atlantic coast, the English Channel, the northern border with BELGIUM, the eastern borders along the RHINE RIVER and the ALPS, the Mediterranean coast, and the PYRENEES MOUNTAINS that divide France from SPAIN. The axis of the hexagon is generally about 600 mi (960 km).
France’s capital, PARIS, is at the center of the northern part of the country, and has dominated French history, culture, and economics since its founding as the royal capital in the 10th century. The population of Paris (about 10.5 million) outnumbers France’s other large cities by 10—one in five French people lives in greater metropolitan Paris—yet regionalism remains strong in many areas: Marseille and Lyon in the southeast vie for the title as France’s second city, while Toulouse and BORDEAUX are rivals for dominance in the southwest. Nantes, Lille, and Strasbourg are regional hubs at the extremities of France’s western, northern, and eastern borders. Nice is also among France’s largest cities, a center for Riviera tourism, but has been part of France’s territory since only the middle of the 19th century.
This late addition of Nice (or Nizza, in Italian) reflects the composite nature of modern France. Known to the ancients as Gaul, named for its Celtic inhabitants, the country takes its modern name from later immigrants, the Germanic Franks, who settled the northern and eastern parts of Gaul after the 4th century, giving their name originally to the area immediately surrounding Paris, today known as the Ile-de-France. Other parts of modern France retained their separate identities for centuries: Burgundians in the east, Aquitanians and Gascons (Basques) in the south, Normans and Bretons in the northwest. Loosely unified by the Frankish King Charlemagne and his successors in the 9th and 10th centuries, the French kingdom did not take its familiar modern shape until several centuries later, with the incorporation of Provence, Burgundy, and Brittany in the 15th century, followed by Flanders and Alsace in the 17th century, and finally Lorraine and Corsica in the 18th century.
Nice and Savoy were the final additions, in 1860. Since the Revolution of 1789, France has become a highly centralized state, and as a result, much of these regionalisms have lost their intensity. The Breton language, for example, has very few native speakers. New mixtures of culture and language are affecting the cultural landscape of France, however, with increasing numbers of immigrants from former French colonies in Southeast Asia and Africa, particularly from North African states such as ALGERIA and MOROCCO.
Today, between 5 and 10 percent of all people living in France are Muslim, affecting the sights and smells of many of France’s larger cities, particularly in southern cities like Marseille, where the percentage of Muslims is estimated at nearly 20 percent. At roughly five million, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. France also has the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 650,000.
Metropolitan France is divided into 96 departments, created during the French Revolution, named for prominent geographical features like rivers or mountains. In 1985, these were regrouped into their older, historic regions, such as Picardie or Aquitaine. Local government continues to exist at both the departmental and regional level, but the regional governments are increasingly pressing for further autonomy from the central government in paris. Areas with distinct culture are especially interested in greater autonomy, such as Brittany and Alsace, but only Corsica has
a significant movement towards outright independence. The 22 regions are as follows:
Basse-Normandie (Lower Normandy)
Centre (consisting of the former provinces of Touraine, Orleanais, and Berry)
Haute-Normandie (Upper Normandy)
Midi-Pyrenees (including Toulouse, Armagnac and Foix)
Nord (the former provinces of Flanders and Artois)
Pays de la Loire (the former provinces of Anjou and Maine)
Rhone-Alpes (including Dauphine, Savoie, and Lyonnais)
Geographically, France can be divided into several regions of highlands divided by broad plains that follow the contours of France’s four longest rivers: the Loire, 626 mi (1,010 km); the Seine, 477 mi (770 km); the Garonne, 403 mi (650 km); and the Rhone, 324 mi (522 km) within France. Another major river, the Rhine, forms France’s border with GERMANY for 100 mi (161 km). France’s plains cover about two-thirds of the total area. Two major basins dominate: the Paris basin in the northwest, drained by the Seine, and the Aquitaine basin in the southwest, drained by the Garonne.
These two rivers are also the main rivers for transportation in France, not the Loire or the Rhone, which are generally too susceptible to flooding and unpredictable currents. Another river, the Adour, drains the basin at the foot of the Pyrenees in France’s far southwestern province of Gascony.
Several canals connect France’s rivers. The first to be built, the Canal des Deux Mers, was built by Louis XIV in the late 17th century, to connect the Garonne and the MEDITERRANEAN SEA. Today’s canal system links all of France’s major rivers, and goods can be transported to the Mediterranean from the North Sea via the Meuse, Saone, and Rhone rivers. Some large hydroelectric projects were developed in the 1950s, particularly in the swifter mountain rivers of the south. The most famous of these is the Genissiat dam, on the Rhone above Lyon, which was the second largest in Europe when it was built in 1948.
Today, France is dismantling many of these water projects, in an effort to restore wetlands and natural habitats along its riverbanks. There are few large lakes in France. The largest are formed in low-lying areas along the coast, such as the flat, marshy deltas of the Loire and Rhone rivers. Other parts of the coast vary dramatically, between the chalk cliffs of Normandy, the barren rocky shores of Brittany, and the low-lying beaches of Languedoc, and the Cote d’Azur, the area of France’s famous Riviera. The Riviera encloses the sovereign principality of Monaco, a large percentage of whose residents are French citizens.
France’s highest points are along its borders, in the Alps to the southeast and the Pyrenees to the south. The Alpine peak of Mont Blanc, on the border with Italy, is the highest point in Western Europe. Lower peaks are in the Jura and Vosges mountains in the east, plus the Armorican highlands in Brittany. The center of France is dominated by the Massif Central, an ancient weathered PLATEAU with narrow, twisting river valleys. Part of this plateau was once an area of volcanic activity, which left behind the dramatic conic peaks of the Auvergne, such as the Puy de Dome and the Puy de Sancy. The presence of volcanism is still marked in this area by its mineral water springs, the source of famous bottled water like Volvic. Another area of the plateau further to the east was affected by tectonic activity and the upthrust of the Alps, resulting in the steep ESCARPMENTs of the Cevennes, a region known for its dramatic gorges. The island of Corsica, 115 mi (185 km) to the southeast of the mainland in the Mediterranean, is also mostly mountainous.
The climate in France is mostly continental, with considerable influence from winds and moisture from the Atlantic Ocean. Brittany especially is affected by fogs and rains off the ocean. Higher levels of moisture in the north mean denser vegetation and substantial areas of rich forest land, particularly in the Vosges and Jura mountains, and the valleys of the Aisne and Meuse rivers. The drier south has its share of forests as well, particularly in the flat sandy area of the southwest known as the Landes, which is covered with pine groves. Areas in the southeast have a Mediterranean climate, with seasonal winds blowing across the sea from North Africa, known as the mistral. Higher elevations have a mountain climate, particularly in the southeastern regions of Dauphine and Savoie. These variations in climate and topography have developed a rich diversity in flora and fauna across the country.
Most of France is still very rural, covered with some of the largest forested and agricultural land in Europe. France produces much of the grains, fruits, and especially wines that are consumed within the EU. In 2003 France produced roughly 20 percent of the total EU agricultural output. France is also a leader in industrial production—machinery, chemicals, automobiles, electronics, and textiles, among others—though France is not as blessed in raw materials as some of its neighbors are. Coal and iron ore were mined for many years in the Ardennes region and the Saar basin along the northeast frontier, and they were the source of much of the friction between France and Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries. Franco-German cooperation since the end of World War II has been a cornerstone of the economic integration of Europe, including the introduction of the euro in January 2002. Coal’s importance has also largely been replaced because of extensive development of nuclear power.
France is the largest producer of nuclear power in Europe, about half of the EU total, generating 75 percent of France’s electricity. Over 1,860 mi (3,000 km) of coastline means that maritime activities have had a central place in the French economy for centuries, but France’s tourism industry is today one of the principal contributors to the gross domestic product, catering to over 60 million people a year, the world’s most visited country. Since 1995, France has ranked as the world’s fourth strongest economy, with trade surplus continuing to grow, particularly in areas of aerospace, telecommunications, electronics, and software. Companies like Renault and France Telecom have a truly global presence, but French industry is still burdened by an vercentralized bureaucracy. Other products known worldwide include French couture by Dior and Vuitton, fragrances by Chanel and Givenchy, and wines and champagnes from primary areas of French viticulture: Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne.
French history has followed a sequence of tensions and conflicts with its neighbors, first the English, then the Spanish, then the Germans. Political instability has been a norm since the French Revolution overthrew the thousand-year-old Capetian monarchy after 1789. Since then, France has been governed by two restoration monarchies, two empires, five republics, and more than twelve constitutions. Since World War II, however, France has been one of the major engines behind the unification of Europe. The French language continues to be one of the great lingua francas of international diplomacy.