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Country profile (France)

What distinguishes the country?

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011


France comprises a mainland area located in the western part of continental Europe, plus the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea and several overseas territories in North and South America, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Covering a total area of 543 965 km2, mainland France is the largest country in the European Union. Together with the overseas departments, France covers 632 834 km2. The other overseas communities and New Caledonia cover 22 481 km2.

Mainland France borders on the North Sea to the north, the English Channel to the northwest, the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean to the southeast. The southern and eastern borders are marked by mountain ranges.

The structure of mainland France is marked by a variety of geological and mountainous features. The great sedimentary basins in the west and north of France are the continuation of the vast plains of northern Europe. The predominant geological features southeast of a line running from Bayonne to Metz are crystalline limestone mountain ranges that culminate at Mont Blanc, the summit of the alpine system. To the southeast, the continental coastline and Corsica establish France firmly among the Mediterranean countries.


Relief of mainland France.

Relief of mainland France.


Climate and bio-geography

Located in the temperate area of the northern hemisphere, France has several climate zones caused by oceanic, continental, Mediterranean and mountainous features. It is the only country in Europe covered by four bio-geographical zones: Atlantic in much of the west of the country; continental in the centre and east; Mediterranean in the south; and alpine (or mountainous) in the Alps and Pyrenees.

These natural features (geology, geomorphology and climate) and different human activities have shaped an extremely diversified landscape.

Overseas France is also subject to very varied climates: tropical, equatorial, oceanic and polar, and therefore has a great variety of landscapes.

This variety of climates in continental and overseas France goes hand in hand with a wealth of biodiversity, and therefore France has a great responsibility to protect natural habitats.


The four bio-geographical zones of the mainland territory.

The four bio-geographical zones of the mainland territory.


Water resources

France has an abundance of renewable freshwater resources, with around 280 000 km of watercourses. The Loire, the Garonne, the Seine and the Rhône are the four main rivers flowing through the country. Part of the course of the Rhine is shared with Germany and part of Lake Léman with Switzerland. It also has large freshwater lakes. However, the geographical or seasonal availability of these resources is somewhat irregular, and can expose the country to floods or periods of drought, which in turn can cause forest fires.


Political organisation

Under Article 1 of its Constitution, France is ’an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It ensures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs and is organised on a decentralised basis.’

Throughout their history, the French have always been especially sensitive to social issues. In 2003, a Charter for the Environment was added to the Constitution to enhance the legal rules for a country that today is firmly committed to sustainable development in its economic, social and environmental dimensions. Increased decentralisation has also enhanced the role of regional authorities in implementing policies handed down by the ministry of the environment and town and country planning.

France comprises 22 mainland regions and four overseas communities. The mainland regions are split into 96 departments.



On 1 January 2010, the population of mainland France and its overseas departments was 64.7 million, of whom 62.8 million live on the mainland. Counting all the residents of the overseas communities, the total population of the French Republic is 65.4 million.


Environmental governance

In France, the consultation process for the Grenelle de l’environnement, or Grenelle Environment Round Table, launched in 2007, has placed the environment at the heart of national policy through a new form of governance. This is a novel approach for a number of reasons:


-        The consultation involved five panels of equal size, each representing an equal part of the general interest. Four of these panels were ‘classic’: the State, local authorities, companies and trade unions. The fifth was new and involved environmental protection associations that highlighted environmental problems and the needs of future generations.

-        The scope of this exercise was very broad, as it encompassed all the environmental issues as well as energy, transport, construction or agriculture, considered from the point of view of their environmental impact.

-        No supporting documents had been prepared for the discussions, to enable the proposals to come directly from the stakeholders.

-        As a result of this exercise in participatory democracy, 268 commitments were noted, and this ’five-party governance’ system was established as a new way of conducting public affairs in a sustainable way.

-        The Grenelle Environment Round Table led to the adoption by Parliament of two ’Grenelle Acts’ (3 August 2009 and 13 July 2010). The first act sets the aims, defines the scope and lists the policy instruments set up to combat and adapt to climate change, preserve biodiversity and associated services, and contribute to a healthy environment. It smoothes the way towards a new competitive economy in which development goes hand in hand with fewer needs for energy, water and other natural resources. The second Grenelle Act is a ’classic’ piece of legislation, describing the instrument and providing it with the legal, economic and legislative means to achieve the aims laid down in the first Grenelle Act.



c) What are the main drivers of environmental pressures and how do these contribute to multiple impacts on people and the natural environment?


The combined direct environmental pressures exerted by industry have fallen in recent years, although some, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, are still significant. Industry is one of the main sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in France. Between 1990 and 2007, the link between industrial production and CO2 emissions was progressively reduced. Nonetheless, advances in technical development have mostly been offset by the increase in production levels.

Evolution des émissoins de CO2 par le secteur industriel

En indice base 100 en 1990

1990 base index = 100

Emissions de CO2 de l’industrie

Industrial CO2 emissions

Emissions de CO2 de la branche énergie

Energy sector CO2 emissions

Production industrielle

Industrial production

Production d’énergie (combustibles/carburants, électricité/gaz/chaleur)

Energy production (fuels, electricity/gas/heat)

Source: emissions de CO2 (NAMEA) : Citepa, SOeS – production en volume (prix chaînés, base 2000) : Insee

Source: CO2 emissions (NAMEA): Citepa, SOeS – production by volume (chained prices, base 2000) Insee.



The utilised agricultural area (UAA) was 29.3 million hectares (ha) in 2008, or 53 % of mainland France. This area is shrinking every year and has lost more than 1 400 000 ha in 20 years. Agriculture provided 707 991 jobs in full-time equivalent employment in 2007, or 2.5 % of the active population. There were just over 326 000 professional farms in 2007. This number has halved in the space of 20 years. This development goes hand in hand with a trend towards larger farms, the average size of which was 77 ha in 2007 compared to 42 ha in 1988. Farms of over 100 ha (27 % of the total in 2007) occupy most agricultural area (59 %).

Whilst performing its primary role of providing food, French agriculture is having to manage with less land, owing to reforestation and artificial environments, coupled with a growing demand for industrial crops for biofuel production. Despite this difficult situation, pressure on the environment is easing. Water extraction, fertiliser use and the amount of pesticides applied appear to have been stable for quite a long time. However, there is still a great deal of room for improvement, particularly in reducing the use of fertilisers, in line with the real needs of crops.



Transport activities represent 4.1 % of France's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), although the effect of transport is far more significant if non-commercial, particularly household, activities are taken into consideration: the transport function accounted for nearly 15 % of household consumption costs in 2007. Road transport has the lion's share of the sector: cars represent 83 % of internal passenger transport (in passengers/km) and heavy goods vehicles account for 82 % of internal goods transport (in tonnes/km). Energy consumption in passengers/km shows private cars to be far more energy-consuming than buses, underground trains or surface trains.

Road is by far the most polluting transport mode in terms of atmospheric emissions. The progressive transition towards diesel engine vehicles and technological innovations has affected atmospheric emissions in different ways. The small proportion of vehicles powered by alternative energies confirms the dependency of road transport on petroleum products. Pollution levels were cut between 1990 and 2007 as a result of technical progress made in engines and fuels. However, greenhouse gas emissions, particularly CO2, rose in line with an increase in road traffic.



The share of renewable energies in the total primary energy consumption in France was close to 7 % in 2008 out of a total of 20 Mtep. Following a slow decline up to the turn of the millennium, this share increased as a result of the emergence of new sectors, particularly biofuels, wind power, heat pumps and solar energy. Nonetheless, the two traditionally large sectors, wood and hydroelectric power, continue to represent close to three-quarters of renewable energy consumption. The supply of hydroelectric power depends on the effects of weather conditions on water resources, which were extremely low in 2005, gradually returning to normal by 2008.

Biofuels supported by the 2006 Biofuel Development Plan have recently attained a significant share (12 % of renewable energy consumption in 2008).

The other renewable sectors, some of which are making great progress, nonetheless make a limited contribution to overall energy sources (less than 8 % for wind, heat pumps, biogas, harvest residues, geothermal and solar combined).

Nuclear power is a source of energy for the civilian sector that is used widely in France for electricity generation. This power source was developed in parallel to an energy-saving programme after the oil crises and has made it possible to reduce dependency on hydrocarbons, improve security of supply and ensure competitive and stable electricity prices.

France's shortage of fossil fuels also explains the great national sensitivity to energy/climate issues and the simultaneous desire to save resources by reducing CO2 emissions.


Construction and housing

Whilst there was considerable construction activity in rural and sparsely urbanised areas at the start of the 1980s, construction became more common in the city centres up to the end of the 1990s, particularly through increased construction of housing blocks. Generally, since the turn of the century, construction has again started to move further from city centres. This national trend in development can also be seen at the local level.

Progression of the average distance from new house building projects to the city centre between 1980 and 2008


Evolution de la distance moyenne de la construction neuve de logements par rapport à la ville-centre entre 1980 et 2008

Progression of the average distance from new house building projects to the city centre between 1980 and 2008

Tous types de construction neuve

All types of new construction

Logements individuels

Detached houses

Logements collectifs

Housing blocks

Ensemble des 71 principales aires urbanes

All 71 main urban areas


From 1992 to 2004, housing areas have grown roughly five times faster than the population. The increase in the number of households and the search for greater comfort by increasing the size of housing units can help to explain the trend towards artificial land uses.

The main factor driving this trend is urban sprawl, which is encroaching upon agricultural land and natural habitats, disturbing the water cycle, spoiling landscapes and fragmenting natural environments. It also leads to greater car use, thereby increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Comparative increase in the population and the area used for housing 1992 – 2007



Evolution comparé de la population et de la surface consacré à l’habitat entre 1992 et 2007

Comparative increase in the population and the area used for housing 1992 – 2007

Surface au sol consacrée à l’habitat

Land area used for house building

Logements (nombre)

Number of housing units

Ménages (nombre)

Number of households



Note: La surface au sol consacrée à l’habitat de 1992 à 2004 correspond aux postes 21 (habitat individuel) et 22 (habitat collectif) de la nomenclature fonctionnelle du territoire de l’enquête Teruti. A partir de 2005, l’enquête Teruti est remplacée par une nouvelle enquête Teruti-Lucas. Les résultats ne sont pas comparables entre les deux enquêtes qui utilisent des échantillons différents.

NB: The land area used for house building from 1992-2004 corresponds to headings 21 (detached houses) and 22 (housing block) of the functional land nomenclature in the Teruti survey. From 2005, the Teruti survey was replaced by the Teruti-Lucas survey. The results cannot be compared with each other as they use different samples.



Tourism is an important economic activity in France and is based on a varied and attractive environment. Since the mid-1980s, France has been the world’s number one tourist destination, receiving 81.9 million foreign tourists in 2007. Tourist numbers are equivalent to 1.4 billion overnight stays, 65 % of which are by nationals and 35 % by foreigners.

Tourism causes significant environmental impacts, of which travel to the holiday destination is the most significant, as it is concentrated in certain periods of the year and along certain routes to favourite spots (sea and mountain areas). Not all modes of transport have the same impact on the environment, and the nuisances caused may be local (pollution or noise) or global (greenhouse gas emissions).

The impact of tourists at holiday sites is linked to the type of accommodation used - fixed (holiday homes) or temporary (hotels, camp sites, motor homes) -, and to the leisure activities performed (sports practiced, equipment used). Coastal and mountain areas, which receive the most visitors and are also the most developed, are the most vulnerable.

The share of tourist trips in global mobility is particularly important and is increasing. Short trips are on the increase and are taking people further and further from home. This trend towards shorter, more frequent stays has been increasing since the mid-1980s. It is particularly linked to the development of faster means of transport (plane, high-speed train and motorways), low-cost air transport, greater access to tourist information, and improved living standards.

More and more French people are travelling abroad. Trips abroad and overseas increased by 25 % between 2000 and 2007, which can be explained by the strong euro-dollar exchange rate and the competitive nature of the world tourist market. There has been a significant increase in short trips, which have risen 5.7 % per year since 2000. The development of low-cost airlines and the use of the Internet have brought about new travelling behaviours, increasingly guided by last-minute offers rather than destinations chosen well in advance. These changes in behaviour have led to an increase in the intensity of tourist traffic (more kilometres travelled per overnight stay) and greenhouse gas emissions, as most journeys were made with oil-powered modes of transport.

In mainland France, most French tourists travel by car (82 % in 2007), with train travel a distant second with a mere 13.5 %. Trips outside Europe are almost exclusively made by plane (93 %). Within Europe, 40 % of trips are made by car, 37 % by plane and 9 % by train. Speed, convenience and cost are still the main factors influencing the choice of the mode of transport for the trips made. Environmental criteria have very little influence when the mode of transport is chosen.


d) What are the foreseen main developments in coming decades that could be expected to contribute most to future environmental pressures?


Demographic progression

If recent population trends continue, by 1 January 2050 the population of mainland France will be 70 million, which is 9.3 million more than in 2005. The population would increase over the whole period, but would slow down over time. In 2050, one in three people would be aged sixty or more, compared to one in five in 2005. There would be fewer young people, and a smaller population of people of working age. By 2050, there would be 69 people aged 60 or more for every 100 people aged 20 to 59, twice the figure in 2005. These results depend upon the hypotheses used, but no scenario calls into question the ageing population, which is an unavoidable fact.

Population projections for mainland France in 2050

Source: Population projections for mainland France in 2050,; a trend-setting scenario, as it extends trends observed in the past.

Population au 1er janvier (en milliers)

Population on 1 January (thousands)


Resources for regional forward planning:

Discussions on the future of French regional policy are carried out by a number of public service stakeholders, namely:

1. The forward-planning unit of the Department of the Commissioner-General for Sustainable Development (CGDD): set up in November 2008 within the Delegation for Sustainable Development (DDD) of the Department of the Commissioner-General for Sustainable Development (CGDD), it provides three cross-cutting functions


• It drives the forward studies of the central administration and the decentralised services of the ministry, providing this administration with a resource centre for forward studies. It acts as an interface with the main forward studies networks at national and international level: forward studies networks, agencies, think tanks, Europe and international organisations.

• It provides information on the forward-planning challenges and long-term developments linked to sustainable development.

• It drives and carries out forward-planning work on models and long-term transitions towards sustainable development. For the period 2009-2010, the work programme is structured around the following topics:

-  Programme 1: the post-carbon city

-  Programme 2: transition towards a green economy

-  Programme 3: sustainable territory 2030; priority will be given to bolstering regional forward studies specifically relating to the agriculture ministry's areas of responsibility, a more general forward planning exercise covering French territory up to 2030, aiming to discuss different views – sustainable or otherwise - and taking into account all the economic, social, ecological, climate and institutional dimensions, inter alia

-  Programme 4: sustainable development

-  Programme 5: multi-level governance and its outcomes.



2. The Strategic Analysis Centre ( has published an on-line report ‘France 2025. 10 Challenges for France’ ( It provides a series of analyses particularly underlining that the two main challenges to be met in the near future are controlling climate change and energy supply.

3. Datar (Agency for Spatial Planning and Regional Action) has undertaken a new round of forward planning called ’Territories 2040, managing change’, the results of which are published on



The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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