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France - Geography

France is much larger than many people realise! Stretching 1,000km (600 miles) from north to south and the same from east to west, it’s the third largest country in Europe after Russia and Ukraine, covering an area of 551,500km² (213,000 square miles). Metropolitan France has four coastlines – the North Sea, the English Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea – with a combined coastline length of 3,427km (2,129 miles). With the exception of its north-eastern border, the country is bounded either by water or by mountains – namely the Rhine and Jura, the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Outside metropolitan France, the national territory extends to the ‘départements d’outre-mer’ and ‘territoires d’outre-mer’, collectively referred to as ‘DOM-TOMs’. These are French Guiana in South America; the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Barthélemy and Saint-Martin in the Caribbean; the islands of Réunion and Mayotte off the coast of Africa; Saint-Pierre and Miquelon south-east of Canada; and French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna in the South Pacific. With the inclusion of these overseas territories, France’s total land area rises to 675,417km² (254,000 square miles).

Geographically, so far as regards peaceful communications, France is more favorably situated than any other country in Europe, since none other has the same easy access from its own coasts to the North Sea, the Atlantic and also the Mediterranean. Her railroads communicate with every country in central and eastern Europe, and all railway traffic to Spain and Portugal must pass through France. Strategically, her position is weak, for, in addition to her three exposed coast lines, France can be attacked on land by five different countries adjoining her borders.

The variety in the physical geography of France, and in the climate, would be enough already to lead one to expect a corresponding variety in human graphy. characteristics. The mountaineers are unlike the inhabitants of the plains, that the people of the north, whose climate is severe, are in some respects unlike those of the south, whose climate is milder, that the maritime population differs from the inland population and the manufacturing from the agricultural.

t the French Highlands cover an area equal to the whole of Great Britain, that they include fifty peaks above eleven thousand feet, and a much greater number higher than Ben Nevis, a dozen of them in the department of the Ardèche alone. On the other hand, the French plains are so vast that they include the area of three Irelands. Here is evidently one great cause of variety in the conditions of human life, but France has also nearly two thousand miles of sea-coast, with two very distinct maritime populations, one brought up on the shore of the Channel and the Atlantic Ocean, subject to the same influences as those on the English and Irish coasts, the other by the tideless Mediterranean.

Though protected by great natural barriers at most parts where the country is connected with the Continent, France is not enclosed by them. More than half her frontiers face the open seas, and the eastern mountain girdle is open at the gap of the Rhine between the Alps and the Jura; the opening at Belfort; in lower Alsace; and the gorges of the Moselle and Meuse. Her harbors on three shores secure to France a large share in seaborne trade, especially in that most important of all inland seas, the Mediterranean. France is traversed from southwest to northeast by several chains of mountains forming the general watershed of the country. This watershed has two slopes, the one toward the west and north, carrying its waters to the Bay of Biscay, the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel and the German Ocean; the other toward the east and south, carrying its waters to the Mediterranean. The ranges of mountains and hills forming this watershed include the western and central Pyrenees, the western Corbieres in the department of Aude, the Cevennes, the mountains of Vivarais, Lyonnais, Beaujolais and Charollais, the Cote d'Or, the Plateau de Langres, the Faucilles Mountains and the Vosges.

This general watershed is met toward the northeast by the eastern mountain ranges of France, namely, the Jura Range and various Alpine ranges, one of the peaks of which is Mont Blanc, which may be regarded as the culminating point of the European mountains, although not absolutely the highest mountain in Europe. Near the centre of France, and separate from the great watershed of the country, are several groups of volcanic mountains known by the general name of the mountains of Auvergne, the chief peaks of which are the Plomb du Cantal in the southernmost group, the Puy de Sancy in the central group and the Puy de Dome in the northernmost group. The spurs thrown off by the great watershed divide France into six principal basins, five of which are on the northwestern slope and one on the southeastern.

France possesses all the geological formations in a greater or less degree of development. The mountains generally have a nucleus of granite, which accordingly forms a prevailing rock in the Alps, on the east frontier, and their branches south to the shores of the Mediterranean, in the Pyrenees, the Cevennes and the elevated plateau of Langres. In the Vosges it is more sparingly developed, its place being often occupied by porphyry; and in the Jura, where limestone occurs in such enormous masses as to have given its name to a peculiar formation. The other crystalline rocks, consisting chiefly of trachytes and basalts, have received a magnificent development in Auvergne, where whole mountains are composed of them, and where the effects of remote volcanic agency are still presented to the eye in extinct craters and lava streams.

The great rivers of France are the Seine, Garonne, Loire, Charente, Adour, Meuse and the Rhine. In the basin of the Garonne are its affluents, the Ariege, Tarn, Lot and Dordogne on the right bank, and the Gers on the left bank. To the north of the basin of the Garonne is that of the Loire and its tributaries, the Nievre and the Maine on the right bank, and the Allier, Loiret, Cher, Indre, Vienne and Sevre Nantaise on the left. To this basin also belong the secondary basins of the Vilaine and the Blavet. In the basin of the Seine are its tributaries, the Aude, Marne and Oise on the right bank, and the Yonne, Loing, Eure and Rille on the left bank.

The secondary basins are that of the Somme in the north and those of the Orne and Oise in the south. In the basin of the Meuse are its tributaries, the Sambre on its left bank, to which is added the secondary basin of the Escaut or Schelde. The basin of the Rhone occupies the whole of the territory of France which lies to the southeast of the great watershed. The tributaries of the Rhone are the Ain, the Saone, the Ardeche and the Gard upon the right bank and the Isere, Drome and Durance on the left. The secondary basins are those of the Var, Argens and Arc on the east and those of the Tet, Aude and Herault on the west.

France has in all more than 212 navigable streams, with a total navigation of 5,700 miles. The lakes are few in number, and individually limited in extent. The largest, Grand-Lieu, in the department of LoireInferieure, covers an area of only 27 square miles, and is altogether devoid of interest. The next largest, Saint Point, in the Jura, does not cover three square miles. Others of still less dimensions become more interesting from their localities in the lofty regions of the Pyrenees, or in the deep hollows of ancient craters in Auvergne.

Four regional groups are experiencing very different evolutions. Due to their demographic and economic dynamism, Atlantic and Mediterranean coastal areas, along with the Rhone Valley, stand out from the north-eastern quarter of France affected by deindustrialisation, and from a center with sluggish demographics due a very noticeable ageing of its population. Île-deFrance, which still figures prominently in the French landscape, is nonetheless the least attractive of all regions. Finally, Overseas France suffers from major disparities with Metropolitan France as regards its inhabitants’ standards of living.

A second set of interpretation criteria may be applied to these territorial groups, distinguishing major types of areas (metropolises, medium-sized towns, and periurban and rural areas) with differing dynamics and problems, without, however, making it possible to systematise such trends. Overall, metropolises have benefited more from recent economic changes than medium-sized towns and rural areas, and increasing polarisation of the largest urban areas is to be observed in all territories, resulting in expansion of periurban areas. These categories are by no means homogeneous, however, and the situation of the territories that compose them also depends (among other things) on the dynamism of the regions in which they are located.

In France, as in most other European countries, the capital region stands out due to a median standard of living among its inhabitants (€22,500 per annum) a great deal higher than that recorded in other regions, especially Hauts-de-France (€18,800), Corsica (€18,900) and Occitania (€19,400), which record the lowest disposable income per consumption unit in Metropolitan France. Nonetheless, compared with such other countries as Spain and Italy, differences in standards of living between the regions of Metropolitan France are relatively small.

The French population is increasingly concentrated in large agglomerations, alongside the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts and in the southeast of the country: as a result, these areas are faced with often serious problems of congestion and tension. In contrast, various thinly populated areas, most of them located between the Ardennes and the Central Massif, have been experiencing repeated population and employment losses for several decades now: a hundred or so living zones are now in demographic decline.

The economic and demographic dynamism displayed by large agglomerations has nurtured the idea of a territorial divide between metropolises, bastions of the elite that bear up well, and forgotten peripheral areas that have been downgraded and largely abandoned. This view is obviously too schematic.

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Page last modified: 07-08-2018 23:39:50 ZULU