Natural Environments and Landscapes

France possesses a varied and productive physical environment. In this chapter, you will learn about the country's diverse land features, climates, soils, wild vegetation, and mineral resources.


Although considered a lowland country, France's physical geography is, in fact, extremely varied, ranging from high, rugged mountains to low-lying sandy coastal plains. Running northward and eastward through France is a major drainage divide. It runs roughly from the eastern Pyrenees, along the eastern highlands of the Massif Central and the crest of the Vosges Mountains in the northeast. To the north and west of the divide, rivers, including the Seine, Loire, and Garonne, run into the Atlantic Ocean. To the south and east, the rivers—most notably the Rhone—is the major stream draining into the Mediterranean Sea.

Geologic Forces and Landform Building

The mostly gentle and mature landscapes to the west of the drainage divide include the geologically old highlands of the Massif Central and the plateau of the Armorican Peninsula (Brittany), plus the Paris Basin and the Atlantic lowlands of the Aquitaine and Nantes basins. The Massif Central, Armorica, the Vosges, and the Ardennes (on the Belgian border) represent the eroded roots of very ancient mountain ranges. The sea encroached on these mountain roots and deposited thick sediments on and between them. Later still, gentle upward and downward bending, plus faulting, yielded the present highlands and the sedimentary basins adjacent to them.

The Massif Central (central highland), whose core corresponds approximately to the province of Auvergne and part of Limousin, is a high plateau. Parts of the Massif are quite rugged, the result of rivers cutting deeply into the uplands, exposing ancient rocks—and providing sites for modern hydroelectric installations. Later volcanic activity contributed lava flows, magma domes, now-extinct large volcanoes and smaller cinder cones (often with lakes in their craters), and rugged volcanic necks that appear as impressive isolated hills with steep sides. Many popular spas take advantage of the region's hot springs that are of volcanic origin. Dry limestone plateaus are found in the southern Massif and on its southeastern and southwestern flanks. The roughness of a great deal of the Massif, plus the restricted quantity of good farmland, has made much of the region one of relative isolation and limited prosperity. Livestock raising and cheese-making are important.

The Armorican upland of Brittany and parts of Normandy, separated from the Massif by the lower-elevation Poitou Gate, is of lesser size, elevation, and ruggedness. Much of it consists of rolling hills, although parts, in the Breton west, are higher, treeless heaths. The drowned coastlines are rugged, usually rocky and indented by bays and occasionally backed by cliffs. Small islands, including the mariner's landmark of Ushant (Ile d'Ouessant) off the tip, lie scattered around the peninsula. This interesting coast makes Brittany a favorite location for sailing enthusiasts and, of course, is important to commercial fishing.

Dividing the northeastern province of Alsace from adjacent Lorraine to the west, are the low, rounded Vosges Mountains, which contain ancient crystalline rocks. This wooded highland is bounded on the east by a major fault line, or break in Earth's crust along which movement has occurred, and it slopes off more gently toward the west.

Sedimentary basins form the great agricultural areas of France. In the north, the Paris Basin, drained by the Seine and Loire rivers, predominates. There, layers of marine limestone, chalk, and clays have formed a broad, shallow, roughly circular structural depression centering more or less on the capital and extending from the Seine headwaters to the English Channel. Erosion later exposed the various layers of rock, and the more resistant strata, especially in the basin's eastern half, form a series of limestone ridges. These ridges slope gently toward the basin's center. Many of the outward-facing scarps (steep faces) of these remain wooded, but in between are broad plains supporting some of France's richest farmlands.

In the southwest, the sedimentary Aquitaine Basin is also the basin of the Garonne River. The ever-broadening basin slopes northwestward from the Carcassone Gap between the Massif Central and the Pyrenees Mountains, down to the great Gironde estuary. Here, the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers meet near the important port city of Bordeaux and flow on to the Atlantic Ocean. The plains and low hills of parts of the region are planted with the grapes that produce the famous Bordeaux wines.

Alpine-Pyrenean France

The Vosges and the Massif Central are bordered on the east by two valleys created by fault lines. The Rhine River, which has its origin in the Swiss Alps, flows northward down the more northerly edge of these valleys. The other fault-created valley is that of the Rhone River, which flows out of Lake Geneva and then southward along with the Rhone's principal northern tributary, the Saone River. These two fault line-created valleys, of the Rhine and the Rhone, connected by the Burgundian Gate (Belfort Gap), form an ancient corridor for transportation and invasion. They are part of Alpine-Pyrenean France, named for the two truly high and rugged mountain ranges that lie partly within the country: the Pyrenees in the south are shared with Spain; the Alps, in the east, continue far eastward into Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Austria.

These wrinkled and eroded ranges present some of France's finest scenery. Both ranges are relatively young. Some Pyrenean scenery is highly dramatic: there are many abrupt scarps caused by movements along the numerous fault lines. The Pyrenees, however, were not as extensively covered with glaciers during the Ice Age as were the Alps. As a result, their features are not as jagged. Hot springs occurring in the Pyrenees are the basis for several health-spa resorts. Hydroelectric facilities also have been built along a number of the rivers cascading from the range, and the power supports local manufacturing. Over thousands of years, these rivers have created an enormous stream-deposited plain along the mountain front that now supports productive agriculture. The towering and heavily glaciated French Alps offer the country's most spectacular terrain. Alpine country attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists, hikers, skiers, and summerhome dwellers. As in the Pyrenees, many deep Alpine valleys have been dammed and hold reservoirs used to generate hydroelectricity.

The Maritime Alps come right down to the Mediterranean and, in winter, snowy peaks back the resort towns of the Riviera. Despite the latter's fame as a seaside paradise, the steep, rocky coastline there produces small beaches covered with small, rounded stones rather than sand. The streams that descend steeply from the mountainous interior have cut deep limestone-walled gorges in some areas, of which the Grand Canyon of the Verdon is the best known.

Along Switzerland's northwestern border with France, separated from the Alps by the Swiss Plain flanking Bern, lies the Jura, a plateau and flanking ridges reminiscent of America's Appalachian Mountains. Because limestone is soluble under certain conditions, the Jura—like a number of areas in France—is riddled with caves, and much of the surface runoff disappears down sinkholes and into underground caverns. Nevertheless, the region boasts several rivers plus numerous lakes of glacial origin, and also has hydroelectric reservoirs. The Jura lent its name to the geological period known as the Jurassic (as in Jurassic Park).

Delta and Coastal Plain

Much of France's coastline is rocky and cliffed, but there are major exceptions. One such area is the delta at the mouth of the Rhone, where the river meets the Mediterranean and drops its load of sediment. This deposition has created a low, soggy landscape of mudflats and low-lying marshlands laced with stream channels, manmade canals, and landlocked lagoons. The delta, called the Camargue, is famous both for its bird life—notably, its huge flocks of pink flamingos—and for its raising of white horses and fighting bulls and their attendant “cowboys.”Most of the delta area is protected as a national park or national reserve land. To the east of the Rhone delta is the large lagoon called l'Etang de Berre. Here, great oil refineries convert tanker-imported petroleum into gasoline and diesel fuel. There are long stretches of beach and lagoon country to the west of the Rhone as well.

A similar coastal landscape extends for some 125 miles (200 kilometers) along the Bay of Biscay from Bayonne in the south to the Gironde estuary in the north. This line of sandbar beaches forms a broad, low-lying, sandy coastal plain, the Landes, that is backed by lagoons and marshes. Patches of marshland occur to the north of the Gironde as well, notably on the coast of Poitou near the port city of La Rochelle. Some similar landscapes also appear on the coast of Picardy, in France's north.


Soils are formed from disintegrated rock material by the combined influences of climate, vegetation, and slope—all working through thousands of years of time. In France, most soils developed beneath forest cover under conditions of temperate humid climates with relatively mild winters.

Fortunately for France, these brown forest soils generally are excellent for agriculture. Soils formed on limestone (as in much of north-central and southeastern France) are particularly productive, because they are rich in nutrients and are light and easily worked.Many soils formed from volcanic materials (as those of Auvergne) are also fertile. Soils formed on sandy substrates, as in the Landes, are easily worked but low in nutrients, and are more suitable to growing coniferous trees than field crops. Mountain soils are generally thin and poor. Such soils commonly support livestock grazing and forests, rather than crop production.


France is blessed with relatively mild, midlatitude climates. Conditions can conveniently be divided into three main climatic zones: Atlantic France, Mediterranean France, and highland France.

Atlantic France: Marine West-Coast Climate

Although lying at latitudes comparable to Canada's Newfoundland, northern France enjoys a temperate climate. West of the previously mentioned drainage divide, the country falls within what geographers call a marine west-coast climate.

Here, weather is conditioned by prevailing westerly winds that blow in from the Atlantic across the relatively warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, a continuation of the tropical Gulf Stream that flows out of the Gulf of Mexico. Winds pick up moisture evaporated from the warm water and then precipitate that moisture onto the land, mainly in the form of rain.

Much of the moisture comes with cyclonic storms. Thus, gray, cloudy days are numerous throughout the year, especially in winter, and rain is common, though seldom intense or abundant. Autumn is the wettest season in most areas, with rain gradually diminishing into winter. Summer weather is often quite changeable, with clouds, rain, and sun following each other in rather rapid sequence; whatever the weather is doing at the moment, one can be sure that it will soon be doing something else. The farther inland one goes, and thus the farther from the oceanic source of moisture, the drier the air is and the more sunny days there are—although, of course, topography influences the local details of weather and climate.

Because the winds originate over the ocean, and since water moderates temperature extremes, climate in these parts of France is relatively mild, especially along the coasts. Summers are not especially hot, and winters not severely cold. Snow is uncommon, and when it falls it usually melts rapidly, except at higher elevations. Since there are no major land barriers to the inland penetration of the westerly winds until the Alps are reached, the marine west-coast climate extends far into the interior. As distance from the Atlantic increases, however, temperatures become less moderate. The mildest of all of the climates influenced by the Atlantic Ocean is in southwestern France, where the character of the dry-summer climate approaches that of the Mediterranean region.

Mediterranean France: Mediterranean Climate

What many people suggest is the world's most pleasant climate, the Mediterranean, extends along and behind France's Mediterranean Coast. Generally, it occurs in the area south of the Massif Central and the Alps, and extends northward up the Rhone Valley as far as Valence.

The typical Mediterranean climate is characterized by a dry-summer and wet-winter pattern. In parts of France, however, this pattern does not always occur because of mountain influences. Coastal areas experience very dry summers with rainy autumns and somewhat less rainy winters. Farther inland, autumn is the rainiest time as well, but spring also is quite wet and winter is somewhat drier. Summer can experience some rain, although normally not a great deal. In the lower-elevation areas, almost all precipitation falls in the form of rain. In the mountains, however, winter snowfall is common.

In winter, high atmospheric pressure lies over much of the region, keeping out maritime air and resulting in relatively dry conditions. This cold, dense, high-pressure air has a tendency to flow outward from the highlands and down into the valleys. In particular, it spills down the trench of the Rhone Valley in the form of an often strong, cold regional north wind called the mistral. Occasionally, mistrals even occur during summer months.

Highland France: Varied Mountain Climates

Highlands, particularly those facing moisture-carrying prevailing winds, catch moisture since they force winds to rise, cool, and precipitate their moisture loads. So, the mountains (especially, the upwind sides) are much better watered than are the lowlands, especially than those low areas in the south that are cut off from most Atlantic-origin moisture by the country's central uplands belt. Generally, the higher the elevation, the cooler the climate—which, along with greater precipitation, explains why, during the wintertime, snow accumulates in the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Massif Central and, to a lesser extent, in France's other highlands. The spring-into-summer melting of this snow is the principal source of water in many of the country's river systems. The waters of these rivers permit not only boat and barge traffic, but also summertime irrigation of large areas in Provence, Gascony, and elsewhere.


“Wild vegetation” includes both natural, undisturbed vegetation, and spontaneously growing vegetation that reflects human modification of the environment. The distinction between fully natural and merely wild is particularly important in a country like France. Here, humans and their domesticated animals have been altering the land and its plant life for thousands of years. This alteration has included timbering, grazing, draining, agricultural clearing, plowing, burning, and planting, among other actions. Too, migrating humans and their animals have, for millennia, brought in new plant species, including both domesticates and weeds. Before human impacts became profound, most of France was forested, although parts of the south were covered with dense strands of shrubs (maquis). Today, only 27% of the land is wooded,much of which is in the form of deliberately planted tree “plantations.”


France's fauna, like its vegetation, is similar to that of the eastern United States. There are moles, bats, rats and mice, squirrels, rabbits and hares, deer, weasels, bears, and foxes. Unlike the United States, France also has hedgehogs and wild boars, and there are chamois (high-elevation antelope) in the Pyrenees and the Alps.Wild goats called ibex once roamed the Alpine highlands, but they have become extinct in France. Bird life of the United States and France also have a lot in common, but less so than among the mammals. Fish life is also similar. Other than vipers, poisonous reptiles are absent. Hunting is popular in rural France.


France has an abundant supply of many important mineral substances, among them quarried materials and mineral waters. A number of other mineral materials, including ores and fossil fuels, are available in small quantities, but the country must rely on imports to meet the demands of its large population and hungry industries.

Quarried Materials and Ores

All modern countries use large quantities of quarried materials for constructing buildings, highways, and other structures. France has ample building resources. Each year, quarries yield hundreds of tons of construction stone. They also produce dolomite for cement making, gravel and sand for mixing concrete and making glass, and clay for brick, tile, and pottery manufacture. Quarried limestone is used as flux in iron smelting.Most of these materials are very widespread.

France is less well endowed with metallic ores. Iron deposits, which have had great strategic significance in modern times, are concentrated in Lorraine,where ore masses are very large, though of relatively low quality. Foreign ore must now be imported. Additional reserves occur in Brittany and Normandy, and there is some iron in the Pyrenees as well. France is a leading iron producer, and iron and steel, in turn, are the foundation of many manufacturing industries in the north. Large bauxite deposits once placed France among the world's top producers of aluminum as well. However, cheaper overseas ores and declining demand have caused French bauxite mining to cease. The country also mines small quantities of tin, lead, zinc, and tungsten in Brittany and the Massif Central. Most other metals must be largely or entirely imported. Potash, mined for fertilizers, is an important product of Alsace and salt is also mined.

Fossil Fuels and Uranium

Among the energy resources required to operate a modern industrial economy, France is most favored in coal—the fossil fuel that heats homes (although much less today than formerly), smelts ores, and runs electrical power plants, not to mention its role as a raw material for manufacture of synthetics. But France's coal deposits are hard to extract, domestic labor costs are high, and the types of coal domestically available do not correspond well to industry's requirements. Therefore, France imports large amounts of anthracite and coking coals from a number of countries around the world.

France lacks adequate petroleum resources, a major weakness in the country's energy economy. Small quantities of oil have been found and extracted, but the country produces only about 3% of its demand for oil. As a result, France is obliged to import petroleum, most of which comes from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, Nigeria, and the North Sea fields held by the United Kingdom and Norway. This is one reason the country attempts to keep on good terms with the Arab world.

Elf-Aquitaine is a major French producer of gasoline and diesel fuel. There is a high tax on gasoline, intended as a disincentive to consumption. Although this has encouraged fuel-efficient cars, it has not discouraged the French from driving. The country also depends heavily upon natural gas, most of which is imported from Algeria, Norway's North Sea fields, and the former Soviet Union.

Following the petroleum crisis of 1973–1974, France decided that its electrical-energy future lay largely in nuclear power. Uranium, the source of that power, is fairly abundant in the country.Nearly 60 nuclear power plants are now in operation, supplying over three-quarters of the country's electrical energy (compared to 20% in the United States) and making France the globe's most nuclear-dependent country. These plants require large amounts of water, and are concentrated along the Rhone, Loire, and Garonne rivers, and on the English Channel coast. State-owned Electricite de France (EDF) is the world's largest power producer.

Contemporary energy conservation efforts have led to substantial savings of both electrical power and petroleum. Little progress has been made, however, in developing such renewable energy sources as solar-generated power. As a result, France still imports over half of its energy.

Mineral Waters

Perhaps only France, among the world's countries, would include mineral water among its important mineral resources! But the French fixation on food and drink also extends to water. Bottled mineral-rich waters from major springs are widely popular, with different waters having different flavors according to their mineral contents. The waters are either still or sparkling (gaseous), and many of their names—such names Vichy and Perrier—are recognized throughout much of the world. Mineral water is also the resource around which many health spas have been built. They provide therapeutic baths, as well as drinking of the waters.Many of these springs are in the volcanic Massif Central and are naturally heated.