Official name: French Republic
Area: 547,030 square kilometers (211,208 square miles)
Highest point on mainland: Mont Blanc (4,807 meters/15,772 feet)
Lowest point on land: Rhône River Delta (2 meters/7 feet below sea level)
Hemispheres: Northern and Eastern
Time zone: 2 P.M. = noon GMT
Longest distances: 950 kilometers (590 miles) from east to west; 962 kilometers (598 miles) from north to south
Land boundaries: 2,889 kilometers (1,795 miles) total boundary length; Andorra 56.6 kilometers (35 miles); Belgium 620 kilometers (385 miles); Germany 451 kilometers (280 miles); Italy 488 kilometers (303 miles); Luxembourg 73 kilometers (45 miles); Monaco 4.4 kilometers (2.8 miles); Spain 623 kilometers (387 miles); Switzerland 573 kilometers (356 miles)
Coastline: 3,427 kilometers (2,130 miles)
Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)
1 LOCATION AND SIZE
France is the largest country in Western Europe and the third largest in Europe. With an area of 547,030 square kilometers (211,208 square miles), it is surpassed only by Russia and Ukraine. Roughly hexagonal in shape, it is bordered by three different bodies of water (the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel, and the Mediterranean) and three mountain chains (the Pyrenees to the south and the Jura and Alps to the east and southeast, respectively). The tiny principality of Monaco, a self-contained enclave, lies entirely within French borders, at the far southeastern tip of the country.
2 TERRITORIES AND DEPENDENCIES
France has a number of overseas departments and territories throughout the world. They are all islands except for French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. The northernmost of France's island dependencies, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, is the archipelago of St. Pierre and Miquelon, consisting of two islands and a number of rocky islets. Farther south, in the Lesser Antilles, lie the tropical islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
Several French islands are located in the Indian Ocean. Mayotte, part of the Comoros archipelago that lies east of Mozambique, belongs to France (the other Comoros islands declared their independence in 1975). The volcanic island of Réunion, east of Madagascar, administers two other French dependencies in the Mozambique Channel: the island of Europa and the atoll of Bassas da India. France also has an overseas territory farther south in the Indian Ocean, collectively called the Southern and Antarctic Lands. The Southern Lands comprise two individual volcanic islands and two archipelagos. "Antarctic Lands" refers to a section of Antarctica called "Adelie Land." France has three dependencies in the
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Pacific: New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia, which is a group of five archipelagos halfway between South America and Australia.
France's various regions have three major types of climate: oceanic, continental, and Mediterranean. Temperatures generally increase from north to south. The western part of the country, which borders the Atlantic Ocean, has a temperate, humid oceanic climate, characterized by relatively modest annual temperature variations, heavy precipitation, and overcast skies, with cool summers and winters. Average temperatures in Brest, at the tip of Brittany, are 6°C (43°F) in January and 16°C (61°F) in July. Much of eastern and central France has
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a continental climate, with a wider range of temperatures and greater variations between seasons. Winters are cold and snowy, and storms are frequent in June and July. Paris has an average annual temperature of 11°C (53°F). The eastern part of the country has the most severe winters.
The Mediterranean climate predominates in the south and southeast, stretching inland from the coast to the lower Rhône Valley. Winters are mild and humid, with only short periods of frost, and summers are hot and dry. Temperatures above 32°C (90°F) are common. Annual temperatures in Nice, on the Côte d'Azur, average 15°C (59°F). Southern France occasionally experiences a cold northern wind called the mistral.
Average annual rainfall in France ranges from as little as 43 centimeters (17 inches) on the Languedoc coast to 130 centimeters (50 inches) at high elevations in the mountains, on the Massif Central, and in the northwest. Annual rainfall averages 68 centimeters (27 inches) in Paris and 100 centimeters (39 inches) in Bordeaux.
4 TOPOGRAPHIC REGIONS
Although France's topography is varied, it can be broken down into three major types of terrain. At the center of the country are the four Hercynian Massifs, with the Massif Central at their center. The higher mountain peaks of the Pyrenees, the Jura, and the Alps rise in the south and east, forming natural borders with the neighboring countries of Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. Between these geographical
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features are the low-lying plains of the Paris Basin and the regions to the west.
The following ten regions have been identified based on geographical and cultural factors: the Nord; the Paris Basin; the East; Burgundy and the Upper Rhine; the Alps; Mediterranean France; Aquitaine and the Pyrenees; the Massif Central; the Loire Valley and Atlantic France; and Armorica. An additional area of France is the large island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea.
5 OCEANS AND SEAS
The North Atlantic Ocean lies to the west of France, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. In addition, a small portion of its northern coast borders the North Sea.
Sea Inlets and Straits
France has coastlines on the English Channel to the northwest and the Bay of Biscay to the west. In the north, the Seine River empties into the English Channel in the Baie de la Seine, and the Saint-Malo Gulf lies between the Côtentin Peninsula and Brittany. The western part of France's Mediterranean coast borders the Golfe de Lion.
Islands and Archipelagos
France's largest island, and the fourth largest in the Mediterranean, is Corsica. Separated by over 160 kilometers (100 miles) of sea from the mainland, the island rises to over 1,676 meters (5,500 feet) and has a coastal plain only on its eastern side. France also has a number of islands off the Atlantic coast. The largest of these are Ouessant Island, off the tip of Brittany; Belle-Île-En-Mer, to Brittany's south; and Île de Ré and Oléron Island, both of which are near La Rochelle.
Dramatic chalk cliffs mark the northern coastline, dropping abruptly to sandy beaches that border the English Channel. There is a deep coastal indentation north of Bordeaux where the Garonne River and its tributary, the Dordogne, empty into the Bay of Biscay. Fine sand lines the beaches along this coast, and there are dunes in the southern area known as the Landes.
The shoreline on the western edge of the Golfe de Lion consists of sandbars and lagoons. Farther east are headlands and bays, and the marshland known as the Camargue. The eastern part of the Mediterranean coast is the Côte d'Azur, the famous resort area that lies between the hills of Provence and the sea.
6 INLAND LAKES
France's inland waterways include a number of natural and artificial lakes. The largest natural lake, Lake Bourget, lies at the western edge of the Alps, as does Lake Annecy. There are also lakes in the Vosges Massif and in the valleys of the Jura Mountains. Ponds and lagoons lie along the Atlantic coast in the Landes region and the Mediterranean coast in Languedoc.
7 RIVERS AND WATERFALLS
The drainage system of France is based on five major rivers. In the north, the Seine—the most gentle, regular, and navigable of French rivers—flows across the Paris Basin for 780 kilometers (485 miles). Before draining into the English Channel at Le Havre, it is joined by three tributaries: the Yonne, the Marne, and the Oise. It has a number of islands, of which the most famous is the Île de la Cité in Paris.
The Loire, whose river basin occupies the central part of France, is the longest river located entirely in France (1,020 kilometers/634 miles) and covers the largest area (115,000 square kilometers/44,400 square miles). From the Massif Central it flows northwestward to Orléans, then westward to the Atlantic.
The Garonne is the shortest of France's major rivers. It rises in the Pyrenees, across the border with Spain, and empties into the Bay of Biscay at Bordeaux. Its tributaries include the Tarn, the Aveyron, and the Dordogne.
The Rhône is the largest and most complex of French rivers. Rising in Switzerland, it gathers its major tributary, the Saône, at Lyon and flows southward through France for 521 kilometers (324 miles) of its total length of 813 kilometers (505 miles), emptying into the Mediterranean. Lastly, there is the Rhine, which is considered more a European river than specifically a French one. It flows along the eastern border for about 190 kilometers (118 miles), fed by Alpine streams. The Moselle and the Meuse, which drain the Paris Basin, are both tributaries of the Rhine that join it in neighboring countries. There also are some smaller rivers in the northeast; the best known of these is the Somme, which flows into the English Channel.
There are no deserts in France.
9 FLAT AND ROLLING TERRAIN
France's plains are mostly located in the Paris Basin to the north and in a series of lowland regions in the west. The Paris Basin is the cradle of France, occupying one-third of the nation's territory. It is centered among France's four major massifs: the Ardennes, the Vosges, the Massif Central, and the Armorican Massif. At the center of the basin lies Paris itself. Southwest of the Paris Basin, along the valley of the Loire River, lie the plains of Anjou and, to their south, Poitou. Still farther south are the lowlands of Aquitaine, including the basins of the Garonne and the Adour Rivers and the plain of Landes, which borders the Bay of Biscay. The marshes of the Camargue region, on the Mediterranean coast between the two mouths of the Rhône River, are known for unusual fauna, including the pink flamingo. They cover 787 square kilometers (304 square miles).
There are hills in many parts of France. Especially noted for their hilly terrain are the northwest region of Lower Normandy and Brittany, the Champagne region northeast of the Paris Basin, which is one of France's most famous wine-growing areas, and the southern region of Provence.
10 MOUNTAINS AND VOLCANOES
France has three major mountain systems: the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Jura Mountains.
The Pyrenees extend for over 450 kilometers (280 miles), from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and along the southwestern coast of France, rising above 3,048 meters (10,000 feet). The French Alps, in the southeastern part of the country, occupy 38,849 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) and include Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, as well as its greatest expanses of glacier and permanent snowcaps. Extending as far north as Lake Geneva and as far westward as the Rhône River, they form a natural barrier with Italy and Switzerland in the southeast. Among their various sections are the Maritime Alps, the Provence Alps, and the Dauphiné Alps. The limestone ridges of the Jura rise to 1,524 meters (5,000 feet), forming France's eastern border with Switzerland north of Lake Geneva. They cover an area of some 12,950 square kilometers (5,000 square miles), with hills in the south and high plateaus in the north, and extend into Switzerland in the northeast. Their highest peak is Mount Neige, at 1,723 meters (5,653 feet).
11 CANYONS AND CAVES
There are no notable caves or canyons in France.
12 PLATEAUS AND MONOLITHS
The plateaus of the four Hercynian Massifs form a "V" shape that covers much of central France. At its midpoint is the Massif Central, which covers roughly one-sixth of the country's total area and rises to over 1,524 meters (5,000 feet). This granite plateau separates northern and southern France. The Ardennes Plateau in the northeast occupies 1,554 square kilometers (500 square miles). Open valleys lie between its ridges, traversed by the Meuse and Sambre Rivers. Southeast of the Ardennes, the Vosges Massif rises to rounded granite summits which exceed 1,219 meters (4,000 feet). The highest points in the Vosges, called ballons, are located near the Alps; the most elevated is the Ballon de Guebwiller, at 1,423 meters (4,669 feet). The Armorican Massif covers 64,750 square kilometers (25,000 square miles), thrusting out into the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel in two rocky promontories: Brittany and the Côtentin Peninsula. Its hills seldom exceed 365 meters (1,200 feet).
13 MAN-MADE FEATURES
Major reservoirs are found in the Massif Central (Sarrans and Bort-les-Orgues) and in the Alps (Serre-Ponçon). Many of France's cities and towns are connected by a system of canals, including the Canal du Midi, which links Toulouse in the southwest with the Languedoc coast, the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy, and the Nantes-Brest Canal in Brittany. Canals also link the Loire and Seine Rivers.
14 FURTHER READING
Cobb, Richard. Paris and Elsewhere. London: John Murray, 1998.
Edmondson, John. France. Lincolnwood, IL: Passport Books, 1997.
Mayle, Peter. A Year in Provence. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1989.
Michelin France: Landscape, Architecture, Tradition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995.
Ambafrance profile. http://www.ambafrance-il.org/nonflash/english/geography.htm (accessed March 21, 2003).