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Geography of France

Brief presentation

France has a surface area of 550,000 km2, which makes it the largest country in Western Europe - bigger than Spain, Germany and Sweden.  It lies on the western edge of the continent of Europe and shares borders with six neigh-bouring countries: Belgium and Luxembourg to the north; Germany and Switzerland to the east;  Italy to the south-east;  and Spain to the south-west.  This geographical position gives France two salient advantages.  On the one hand, partly due to its excellent communications network, it is a sort of crossroads at the heart of the European Union, linked to the east with the vast industrial and urban area stretching from the mouth of the Rhine to the plains of the Po River; to the north-west, it is within easy reach of the industrial centres of the United Kingdom and to the south it forms an integral part of the Mediterranean arc running from Catalonia to central Italy. The French coastline provides access by sea to Northern Europe, America and Africa via the North Sea, the Atlantic   Ocean and the Mediterranean, which are amongst the world's busiest waters.  Mainland France is compact and forms a hexagon of which no side is longer than 1,000 km.  Within these boundaries, France has exceptionally varied scenery; this, together with its rich cultural heritage, helps make it popular with tourists.

Varied landscapes and topography

West of a diagonal line from Bayonne to Sedan, France is relatively low-lying, with altitudes mostly below 200 metres.  The plains and plateaux of the Paris basin and the Aquitaine basin cover most of this area.  Although there are no high mountains, the landscapes are strikingly varied, partly because they have been formed in quite different ways.  Some coastal plains, such as those in Flanders, emerged from the sea as tides and rivers left deposits.  The low plains of Beauce, Brie and Picardy were created by sedimentation:  they were formed by limestone and clay being deposited on the sea-bed during the Mesozoic Era and Tertiary Period.  There are also lush alluvial plains like those of the Seine and Loire rivers.  The land rises around the rim of the Paris basin.  To the north lie the Ardennes, an ancient Hercynian massif worn down by a long period of erosion;  to the north-east is the Lorraine versant of the Vosges;  to the south, the Massif Central;  and to the west the Massif Armoricain.  The pattern is repeated around the Aquitaine basin, which is bordered by the Massif Central to the east and the Pyrenees to the south.
The relief of the south-eastern half of the country is more undulating.  There are medium-altitude mountains ranging from 500 to 1,700 metres, of which some are ancient Hercynian massifs.  This is the case of the Vosges and the Massif Central, which were thrown outwards at the time of uplifting of the Alpine ranges.  They have rounded peaks and steep-sided valleys which make access extremely difficult.  The Massif Central also contains many extinct volcanoes, such as the Cantal and the Puy de Dôme.  Other ancient massifs which are less extensive, such as the Maures and the Estérel with their ravines carved out by Mediterranean downpours, have more impressive scenery, even though their peaks reach no higher than 900 metres.  The Jura is also medium-altitude, but it is a comparatively recent massif which was formed in the Tertiary Period.  It is made up of folds of sedimentary rock containing large amounts of limestone and is more dramatic, with alternating mountains and valleys and some breathtakingly high peaks.  Many of the rock-folds are crossed by narrow transverse valleys called cluses, which make communications easier than is usual in mountain areas.  This medium-altitude mountain scenery is also found in the northern and southern Pre-Alps, where the mountains often reach heights of over 2,000 metres.  More violent folding and greater erosion have resulted in steep slopes which in places make the mountains look higher.

Two large moutains chains

France’s high mountains are found especially in the central Alps and Pyrenees.  Both ranges began to form over 50 million years ago, in the Tertiary Period, in the zone where the crustal plates supporting Europe and Africa collided.  The tops of these mountain ranges, which extend beyond France’s borders, reach high altitudes – Mont Blanc, in the Alps, rises to 4,807 metres and Vignemale, in the French Pyrenees, to 3,298 metres (though Aneto, in the Spanish Pyrenees, is higher at 3,404 metres).  The scenery is majestic, largely as a result of glacial erosion - craggy summits, jagged rows of peaks and deep U-shaped valleys.  In the south-eastern part of the country, all these mountains, be they ancient or more recent, leave little room for plains.  Such plains as there are follow the coastlines as, for example, in the Languedoc and eastern Corsica, or stretch between mountains, as in the Saône and Rhône valleys.

France is drained by four major rivers, which provide focal points for industrial and urban development.  The Loire (1,012 km. long) and the Garonne (575 km.) flow somewhat unevenly and are therefore unsuitable for modern river transport, but their estuaries shelter thriving ports like Nantes-Saint-Nazaire and Bordeaux.  The other rivers, which flow more evenly and have been provided with the requisite structures on and around them, are important waterways.  These are the Seine (776 km.), which has made Rouen and Le Havre the major ports serving Paris and the surrounding area, and the Rhône (522 km. in France) which is well maintained between Lyon and the sea.  In addition, the Rhine, which forms the border between France and Germany for a distance of 190 km., is one of the most important navigable waterways in the world.

Famous coastline

The same degree of diversity is found along the coasts, of which France has 5,500 km, with extremely varied scenery.  Along the Channel, in the regions of Artois, Picardy and Upper Normandy, the coastline is made up of steep, often vertical cliffs.  These are cut into by estuaries such as those of the Somme and the Seine and are being eroded by the force of the sea.  Rocky coasts, which fringe the ancient massifs and the younger mountains, have a more complex history.  The sea has sculpted them into bays and promontories, sometimes bordered by islets, as in Brittany, Provence and western Corsica.  This has produced a jagged coastline which has provided harbours for ports but requires consummate navigation skills.  Sandy beaches are found along the edges of plains and plateaux in Flanders, Les Landes, the Languedoc and eastern Corsica.  Although popular with tourists, these make it difficult to build harbours.  Lastly, marshy coastlines such as the Camargue and Poitevin areas, which were historically unsuitable for human habitation, can now be visited by tourists and are often part of nature reserves.



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