A country in balance between tradition and modernity
Fourth world economic power – which also wants to remain great in international politics – France represents the cultural tradition of Europe from many points of view. An advanced country, rich in well-being and culture, with a varied and fascinating geography, for centuries capable of blending together the most diverse human contributions, aiming at material and spiritual progress of which it has been, and still is, one of the fundamental references
A European land
If in Europe a continental, an Atlantic and a Mediterranean area are distinguished, France is the only country that includes all three of those environments: its vast territory is essentially a synthesis of the European one.
According to Politicsezine, the northern half of the country and the Southwest are part of the plain that extends into north-central Europe, from the Urals to the Atlantic. Some hilly formation (Ardennes) barely interrupts the vast plain, crossed by rivers such as the Rhine – on the border with Germany -, the Seine – which crosses the Parisian region -, the Loire and the Garonne. The climate of the plain is ‘Atlantic’, that is to say humid and with moderate temperatures, both in the north and in the west; in the eastern regions, on the other hand, it is more ‘continental’, with less abundant rainfall and marked temperature differences between summer and winter. This region is fertile and cultivated everywhere; the forests are very extensive, especially in the East.
The South-East, more lively, is occupied by reliefs: the Massif Central, not very high, and the Alps; in the middle flows the Rhone, which flows into the middle of the Mediterranean shore. In this area the effects of altitude are mixed with maritime ones, which are sensitive along the coast, on the hills of the interior (especially in Provence) and in the Rhone valley, where the climate, crops and spontaneous vegetation are typically Mediterranean.
The southern edge of France is marked by the Pyrenees, which rise suddenly, quite distinct from the other regions, on the two seas and on the plain. France also belongs to Corsica, in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and then the ‘external’ territories (almost 120,000 km 2 in total, about 2,300,000 residents): islands in America (Guadeloupe, Martinique and others), in Africa (Reunion), in Oceania (New Caledonia, Polynesian Islands) and Antarctica, and French Guiana in South America. These are remains of the vast colonial empire, which today are part of the territory of the state in all respects.
The grandsons of the Gauls
When, in the seventeenth century, France began to be the most powerful state on the European mainland – and its culture to become its reference point, replacing the Italian one – the French population was the largest in Europe. The French territory is very suitable for agriculture, already practiced by what the Romans called Gauls and very developed in five or six centuries of Roman rule. The population of Gaul was already numerous then, and lived in rural villages of Celtic tradition and in the many cities of Roman foundation (almost all French cities date back to that time): they had vast rural territories under them and were connected to each other. by an efficient road network, which soon allowed Gaul to develop trade and manufacturing.
But the strongest growth was in the modern age: at the beginning of the 19th century the French were about 28 million – still the largest people in Europe – and Paris was, with London, the most populated city in the world.
The centralization of the population in the Paris area, however, is more ancient: the formation of the French state took place starting from the county of Paris (10th century) and the capital has always maintained a role of absolute pre-eminence over the rest of the country, attracting residents – today there are about 9.7 million in the agglomeration, but they are slightly decreasing – and economic activities.
The other French cities are much less populous: Lyon and Marseille both have agglomerations of about 1,350,000 residents; the ‘conurbation’ of Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing does not reach 1,200,000. There are also many medium-sized cities, such as Strasbourg, Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse.
The centralization soon led also to cultural unification, almost eliminating the regional languages (still spoken but by very few people, apart from the Corsican). Even the numerous immigration, ancient and recent, has been ‘assimilated’; at the beginning of the 21st century, foreigners in France are about 6% of the population, but their assimilation is more difficult.
The great development of agriculture and livestock has been a fundamental factor in the growth of well-being in France, already in centuries in which many European countries, on the contrary, experienced frequent famines and did not have a stable and sufficient food production. Furthermore, small peasant ownership spread very early in French agriculture, when large estates resisted elsewhere. The spread of peasant owners led to an increase in productivity and a great care of the territory, but then also to the excessive fragmentation of the property; with a sort of agrarian reform, the companies then returned to an adequate size and, moreover, many farmers had preferred to move to cities and industrial areas. The plains produce mainly cereals, sugar beets, potatoes and fodder, and cattle breeding and cheese production are supported. In the Mediterranean and hilly regions, where sheep farming is still practiced, mainly vegetables and fruit are grown. Vine is widespread almost everywhere, from which famous wines exported all over the world are made.
The capital generated by agriculture and the presence of mineral deposits (especially in the North and East) have allowed an early industrialization. France is today one of the most important industrial countries in the world, with increasingly sophisticated production (mechanical, textile, chemical, electronic, clothing), carried out by often very large companies, with factories all over the world.
The wealth accumulated over the centuries, also thanks to the colonies, has also led to the formation of a financial sector of great importance, which has made it possible to invest heavily in culture and in scientific and technological research, which are treated more carefully than in other countries; these expenses are considered a long-term investment, which is necessary for a system that wants to remain modern.
Wealth and well-being
Material wealth, as we all know, is an essential starting point, but by itself it does not guarantee true ‘well-being’: it must be used well.
A good use of wealth is also what has led France to carefully safeguard its heritage of landscapes, cities, monuments and works of art, so much so that today it is by far the first tourist destination in the world (almost 80 million visitors every year).
What is sought – and found – in France, however, are not just ‘things to see’: they are the way of life, refined cuisine, widespread education, the elegance of large and small cities, the search for modernity without erasing the past, cosmopolitanism: the atmosphere, in short, typically French but also typically and deeply European.
All this does not mean that France has no problems – the economy has its crises, the integration of immigrants is difficult, poverty has not disappeared – but it has the ability to design good solutions, as it has shown for centuries to know how to do it.