1902 Encyclopedia > France > France: Situation and Extent; Face of the Country; Climate and Soil; Population.

(Part 1)


Situation and Extent. Face of the Country. Climate and Soil. Population.

This important part of continental Europe extends from the 43d to the 51st degree of north latitude and from longitude 7° 35’ E. to longitude 4° 43’ W. The boundaries of France are – on the N. the English Channel (Manche), the Straits of Dover (Pas-de-Calais), Belgium, and Luxembourg; on the E. Germany (Alsace-Lorraine), Switzerland, and Italy; on the S. the Mediterranean and Spain; on the W. the Atlantic Ocean. From north to south its length is about 576 miles, measured from Dunkirk to the Col de Falgueres; its breadth from east to west is about 494 miles, from Month Donon to Cape saint-Mathieu at the extremity of Brittany, which projects into the Atlantic, like a wedge, and without which France would approach in form to a square; and its superficial extent, is 204, 147 English square miles, nearly twice the total area of the British Isles.

Though in point of extent of coast and ready access from the interior to the sea France is far inferior to Great Britain and Ireland, it is, on the other hand, more fortunate in these respects than the vast inland territories of Austria and Russia, - its coast-line extending 395 miles on the Mediterranean, 572 on the North Sea, the Straits of Dover, and the Channel, and 584 on the Atlantic. The country has the advantage likewise of being separated from its neighbors by natural barriers of great strength, the Pyreness forming a powerful bulwark on the southwest, the Alps on the south-east, and the Jura and the Vosges mountains on the east. The boundary line on the side of Belgium is the only one which nature has left unprotected.

Orography. – The line which separates the basins of the Meditarranean and the Atlantic runs to the north from the Pyreness through the Cevennes and Vosges, and finally joins the Alps in the south-east. The most remarkable summits in the Pyreness are the Pic du Midi d’Ossau (9734 feet), not far from the favorite town of Pau, the Pic d’Anie (8219 feet), the cirque of Gavarnie, Mont Nethou (11,168 feet), Mont Perdu (10,995 feet), the Pic Long (10,476 feet), the Vignemale (10,995 feet), the Pic Long (10,476 feet), the Vignemale (10,820 feet), the Tour de Marbore (9861 feet). An offshoot of the Pyreness, the Corbieres, deserves mention, on account of the huge granitic mass that it contains, called the Canigou. The Cevennes are about 600 kilometers (373 miles) in length, lying between the Rhone on the east and the Garonne and Loire on the west; here, proceeding from south to north, we have Mont Naurouze, the Pic of Montant (3412 feet), the Malpertus (5512 feet), the Hort de Dieu (5135 feet), Mont Pila (4474 feet, Vivarais), Gerbier des Jones (5121 feet), Mezenc (5820 feet), Tarare (4757 feet), Haute-Joux (3262 feet, Charolais). Smaller chains detach themselves from the Cevennes, among which may be noticed the Montagnes d’Auvergne, the Plomb du Cantal (6095 feet), the Puy-de-Saucy (6220 feet), the Puy-de-Dome (4806 feet), the Mont Dore (6187 feet), the mountains of Limousin, and those of Velez, Forez, and Madeleine. The Vosges, which reach no great height, trend northward between the Rhine and the Moselle. Their ramifications are the hills of Belfort, the Facucilles mountains, the Langres plateau, the Montagnes de la Cote d’Or, which are continued by the mountains of Morvan, the Orleans plateau, and the hills of Picardy, Normandy, and Brittany. The Vosges end in the north with the Argonne and the Ardennes, which separate the Seine from the Meuse. The Jura is a chain of the Alps extending between the Rhine and the Rhone from the north-east to south-west. Its principal summits are the Cret de la Neige (5656 feet), the Reculet (5630 feet), Mont Tendre (5518 feet), and the Dole (5514 feet). Mont Blanc (15,780 feet), the highest mountain in Europe, is in the Alps of Savoy, which project the Graian Alps, the mountains of Maurienne (Mont Cenis), the Cottian Alps, the Maritime Alps, the Alps of Dauphine, and the Alps of Provence. As may be seen from these particulars, the surface of France exhibits, in general, an advantageous succession of high and low ground. Less level than Poland, the north of Germany, or the greater part of European Russia, it is, on the whole, less mountainous than Spain or Italy, and may with great propriety be compared to England, with this distinction that, whilst in the latter the mountainous tracts are in the north and west, in France they are in the south and east. Throughout Flanders, Picardy, Normandy, and the countries to the north and south of the Loire, we find plains, diversified occasionally by hills (either insulated or rising in succession), but having none of those massy elevations entitled to the name of mountains. The south and east of France, on the contrary, are rugged and elevated tracts, and may be said to be to that country what Wales and Scotland are to Great Britain.

Hydrography. – The course of the great rivers is easily connected with this view of the surface of the territory of France. With the exception of the Rhone, they all flow either from south to north or from east to west, and discharge themselves into the North Sea, the Channel, and the Atlantic. The Rhine, which not long ago formed the boundary between France and Germany, has part of its basin in France; the Moselle, one of its affluents, takes its source in the Vosges (Ballon d’Alsace), and waters Remiremont, Epinal, Toul, and Pont-a-Mousson, before entering the German terriotyr; the Valogne, the Meurthe, and the Seille are its tributaries. The Meuse rises not far from Bourbonne-les-Bains, and becomes a Belgian river at Givet. During its course, it receives on its right bank the Chiers and the Semoy, an don its left the bar and the Sambre. The Escaut (or Scheldt) has its source near Le Catelet (Aisne), and leaves France after having watered Cambrai, Valenciennes, and Conde; the upper courses of its two affluents, the Scarepe and the Lys, also belong to France. The Somme, which receives the Avre, rises near St Quentin, and empties itself into the Channel between St Valery and Le Crotoy. The Seine, one of the four large rivers of France, the others being the Loire, the Garonge (Gironde), and the Rhone, descends from the Langres plateau, flows north-west down to Mery, turns to the west, resumes its north-westerly direction at Montereau, passes through Paris, and discharges itself into the Channel between Le Havres and Honfleur above Rouen and Quilleboeuf. Its affluents are, on the right, the Aube, the Marne (which joins the Seine at Charenton near Paris, after having received the Ourcq and the Saulx), the Oise (which has its source in Belgium and is enlarged by the Aisne), and the Epte; on the left the Yonne, the Loing, the Essonne, the Eure, and the Rille. The Orne is a short river, which waters Argentan and Caen (Normandy), and flows into the Channel. The Vilaine, not much more considerable, passes Rennes, Redon, and Las Roche-bernard (Britany), near which it falls into the Atlantic. The Loire rises in Mount Gerbier des Jones, in the range of the Vivarais mountains, flows due north to Nevers, then turns to the north-west as far AS Orleans, where it takes its course towards the south-west, and lastly from Saumur runs west, till it reaches the Atlantic between Paimboeuf and St Nazaire. It passes through several large towns, as Nevers, Orleans, Tours, Angers, and Nautes. On the right the Loire receives the waters of the Furens, the Aroux, the Nievre, the Maine 9formed by the Mayenne and the Sarthe with its affluent the Loir), and the Erdre, which joins the Loire at Nantes; on the left, the Allier (which receives the Dore and the Sioule), the Loiret, the Cher, the indre, the Vienne with its affluent the Creuse, the Thouet, and the Sevre-Nantaise. The Loire, the longest of French rivers, is navigable for about 512 miles of its course. It is often in many places dried up during the hot season of the year, while, on the other hand, it is subject to frequent and disastrous floods at the time when the snows melt in the upper valleys, or as a consequence of the long rains of autumn. The Charente descends from Cherounac (Haute-Vienne), traverses Angouleme, and falls into the Atlantic not far from Rochefort. The garonne rises in the valley of Aran (Spanish Pyreness), enters France near Bagneres-deLuchon, has first a north-west course, then bends to the north-east, and soon resumes its first direction. It flows through Toulouse, Agen, and Bordeaux, and joins the Atlantic between Royan and the Point de Grave, opposite the tower of Cordouan. In the lower part of its course, from the Bec-d’Ambez, where it receives the Dordogne, it becomes considerable wider, and takes the name of Gironde. The principal affluents are the Ariege, the tarn with the Aveyron and the Agout, the Lot, and the Dordogne, which descends from the Mont Dore-les, Bains, and joins the garonne at Bec’d’Ambez, to form the Gironde. All these affluents are on the right; the Gers in is the only one of note which joints it on the left. The Ador rises near the Pic-du-Midi in the Pyrenees, and discharges itself into the Bay of Biscay at Bayonne; the mass of its waters is much increased in winter by several mountain streams, of which the gave de Pau, the Bidouze, and the Nive may be mentioned. The Herault is the first river of France which runs south and discharges itself into the Mediterranean. It comes from the Mont Laigonat in the Cevennes, and debouches into the Gulf of Lyons. The Rhone, the source of which is in Mont St Gotthard, in Switzerland, enters France by the narrow defile of L’Ecluse, and has a somewhat meandering course, first flowing south, then north-west, and then west as far as Lyons, whence it runs straight south till it reaches the Mediterranean, into which it discharges itself by two principal branches, which form the delta or island of the Camargue. Lyons, Vienne, Valence, Avignon, Beaucaire, Arles, ar ethe chief towns passed by the impetuous waters of the Rhone. The Ain, the Saone (which passes through Macon, receives the Doubs, and joins the Rhone at Lyons), the Ardeche, and the gard are the affluents on the right; on the left we may mention the Arve, the Isere, the Drome, and the Durance. The Var, a large and rapid stream, descends from Mont Cameleon (Alpes Maritimes), and flows into the Mediterranean near Saint-Laurent-du-Var.

Lakes. – France has very few lakes. The Lakeof Geneva, which forms 32 miles of the frontier, belongs to Switzerland. The most important French lake is that of Grand-Lieu, between Nantes and Paimboeuf (loire- Inferieure), which presents as surfaces a surface of 17,300 acres. We may also mention the lakes of Bourget and Annecy (both in Savoy), St Point (Jura), Paladru (isere), and Nantua (Ain). The lakes, or etangs, of Villers (Cher), Indre, Stock, Condrexange (Meurthe), Horre (Aube), Chaussee (Meuse), Floermel (Morbihan), La Pelaque (maine-et-Loire) are artificial creations. The costs present a number of maritime inlets, forming inland bays, which communicate with the sea by channels of greater or less width. Some of these are on the south-west coast, in Gascony, as Carcans, Lacanau, Biscarosse, Cazan, Sanguinet; but more are to be founding the south and south-east, in Languedoc and Provence, as Leucate, Sigean, Thau, Maguelonne, Berre, Courthezon, Citis, Pourra, &c. Their want of depth prevents them from serving as roadsteads for shipping, and they are useful chiefly for fishing, or for the manufacture of bay-salt.

Forests. – The artificial or ornamental plantations of France are much fewer in number than those of England, its natural forests far more numerous, the total extent of ground covered by wood being computed at 32,250 square miles, about one-sixth of the surface of the country. There are forests in almost every department., Lower Normandy contains several of considerable extent. There is a large one at Fontainebleau, only 45 miles from Paris, and a larger to the north of the Loire, in the vicinity of Orleans. The department of Ardennes and the mountainous tract that forms the boundary of France on the side of Switzerland abound in forests. The state possesses 991,766 hectares (3830 square miles); 1,903,258 hectares (7348 square miles) belong to the communes or to public institutions, and are managed by the state; the rest are private property. They represent a total value of about three thousand millions of francs (120,000,000 pounds sterling), the annual revenue of which exceeds 38,000,000 francs.

Climate. – The climate of France is generally temperate, but by no means uniform. The division into the north, west, south, and central regions, although it seems the most natural, does not satisfactorily correspond to the actual differences. A more convenient division is that of the following four regions or zones: - the region in which the olive tree is cultivated, which is limited by a line from Bagneresde-Luchon (Haute-Garonne) to Die (Isere); the region of the maize, or Indian corn, from the mouth of the Gironde to Raon-L’Etape (Vosges); the region of the vine, from the mouth of the Loire to Mezieres (Ardennes); and the northern region, which is characterized by the culture of the apple-tree. These limits are, however, far from being absolute; the Indian corn, for example, is successfully cultivated in Brittany, and vineyards are to be found much farther north than the mouth of the river Loire. The north and north-west of France bear a great resemblance, both in temperature and produce, to the south of England, rain occurring frequently, and the country being consequently fit for pasture. In the interior the rains are less frequent, but, when they occur, are far more heavy, so that there is much less difference in the annual rainfall there as compared with the rest of the country than in the number of rainy days; but, on the whole, the climate of the interior is the most pleasant in France, that region being exempt equally from the oppressive heat of the south and the frequent humidity of the north. The great current of wind which prevails in France blows from west to east, from the Atlantic, over the whole surface of the country, except the lower basin of the Rhone, where the mistral ( a cold wind coming from the north-north-west), the east wind blowing form the Alps, and the south winds to considerable damage both to the produce of the soil and to the health of the inhabitants. Pau, Cannes, Nice, &c., in the south, are much resorted to by invalids, and by English families for winter quarters.

Geology. – In a geological point of view France may be divided into three great regions, which comprehend a nearly complete series of the different kinds of soils.

1. Mountains
a. Granite and Schist.
Alpes. – Part of Isere (S.E.); Drome; Hautes-Alpes; part of Basses –Alpes (E.); Savoie; Haute- Savoie.
Pyrenees . – Part of Aude (S.E.); Pyrenees-Orientales; part of Ariege (S.), of Haute-Garonne (S), of Hautes-Pyrenees (S.) and of Basses-Pyrenees (S.W.)
Vosges – part of Vosges (E.)
Maures . – Part of Var (S.E.)

b. Limestone
Jura. – Doubs; Jura; part of Ain (E.)
Provence. – Part of Basses Alpes (W.) and of Var (N.W.), Vaucluse: Bouches-du. Rhone.

2. Plateaus.
(a.) Granite and Schist
Central Plateau – Part of Nievre (E.) and of Saone-et-Loire (W.); Rhone; Loire; Ardeche; part of Gard (W.),of Allier, and of Puy-de-Dome (E. and W.); Haute Loire; part of Lozere (N); Creuse, Haute-Vienne; Correze, Cantal, part of Aveyron (N.) and of Tarn (E.)
Ardennes. – Part of Ardennes (N.)
Bretagne. – Part of Orne (W.); Mayenne; part of Maine-et-Loire (W.) and of Deux-Sevres (N.W.); Manche;Ille-et-Villaine; Loire-Inferieure; Vendee, Cotes-du Nord; Morbihan; Finistere.

(b.) Limestone.
Causses. – Part of Lozere (S.) and of Aevyron (S.)
Languedoc. – Part of Gard (E.) ; Herault.
Quercy. – Lot.
Haut Poitou. – Part of Vienne (S.) of Charente (N.) and of Deux-Sevres (N.)
Bourgogne. – Haute-Saone, Haute-marne; cote d’Or.; part of Yonne (S.E.) and of Nievre (W.)
Lorraine, - Moselle; Meurthe; part of Vosges (W.); Meuse

3. Level Tracks.
Champagne. – Aube; Marne; Ardennes.
Neustrie. – Nord; Aisne; Seine-et-Marne; part of Yonne (N.W.); Pas-de-Calais;
Neustrie. – Nord, Aisne; Seine-et-Oise; Seine; Loiret; Cher; Seine-Infereure; Eure; Eure-et-Loire; Loire-Cher; Indre; Calvados; part of Orne (E.); Sarthe; Indre-et-Loire; part of Vienne (N.) and of Maine-et-Loire (E.)
Aquitaine. – Part of tarn (W.) and of Auder (N.W.); tarn-et-garonne; part of Haute-Garonne (N.) of Ariege (N.) and of Charente (S.) Dordogue; Lot-et Garonne; part of Hautes-Pyrenees (N.) Charente-Inferieure; Landes; part of Basses-Pyrenees (N.E.)
Limange. – Part of Allier (W>) and of Puy-de-Dome (central part.)
Bresse. – part of Cote-d’Or (E.) of Saone-et-Loire (E.) of Ain (W.) ad of Isere (N.W.)

The following table shows the same districts classified according to the nature of their soils. It will be remarked that the Tertiary rock forms nearly the third part of France, whilst the coal-fields are scarcely the two hundredth part of it.

Primitive rock. – Vendee part of Brittany, part of the Maures, the Vosges, and the Alps – 10,416,000 hectares (40,217 square miles).
Transitionrock. – Pyrenees, central part of Brittany, Cotentin, Ardenne, part of the Vosges – 5,200,000 hectares (20,077 square miles).
Porphyritic and Carboniferous rocks. – North of Ardennes; north-west of the central plateau; the maures; small portions of the surface in the Corbieres, Brittany, and the Vosges- 520,000 hectares (2007 square miles).
Triassic and Permian rock. – east of Lorraine, and a small part of the Vosges- 3,480,000 hectares (12,436 square miles).
Jurassic rock. – The Causses, Quercy, and Haut-Poitou; Lorraine and Burgundy; part of the Alps – 10,371,000) hectares (39,943 square miles).
Chalk. – Champagne, west of Neustrie, and some places in Aquitaine and the Pyrenees – 6,245,700 hectares (24,115 square miles).
Tertiary rock. – The greater part of Neustrie, Limagne, Aquitaine, Bresse, part of Languedoc, Provence, and some places in Brittany and Vendee – 14,853,500 hectares (57,350 square miles).
Volcanic rock. – Several masses in the central plateau, and various places in the Causes, Languedoc Provence, the Maures, and Lorraine- 520,000 hectares (2007 square miles).
Alluvial soils. – These are to be found in all valleys, but chiefly near Dunkirk and Niort, and on the Mediterranean coasts – 520,000 hectares (2007 square miles).

The Statistique generale of France divides the soil thus:


Or, considering the use rather than the nature of the soil, the surface of France may be divided thus:



The population of France, which in 1801 was 27,349,003, was 36,905,788 in 1876, of whom, 11,405,000 were living in towns. The following table shows the extent of each department and the population in 1861 and 1876.


The annual increase of population in France between 1801 and 1876 has been very small. Allowing for the alterations in extent of territory which took place in 1860 and in 1871, it amounts to about 0.43 per cent; so that while in England the population during the same period has been doubling in about 53 years, it would require 161 years to bring about at a similar result in France. The census of 1876 returned 18,373,639 males and 18,532,149 females, of whom 9,805,761 males and 8,944,386 females were single. In 1874 there were 954,652 births, 981,709 deaths, and 303,113 marriages; of the births 69,294 were illegitimate, and 44,613 were children stillborn. Population is not so dense in France as in the United Kingdom, the proportions being about 181 and 270 inhabitants respectively to the square mile.

The following table of the population arranged according to employment (exclusive of children and servants) is taken from the census of 1872:


The first of the following tables shows the population for 1832, 1851, and 1876 of the towns in France that had upwards of 50,000 inhabitants in the last mentioned year: -


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