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France has a fortunate location in the European continent– not detached from it like the British Isles, nor projecting away like Iberia or Greece, nor set deep in its interior like the countries of Central Europe, yet in touch with the resources and the life of the whole of Western Europe and the seas around it, Atlantic, Channel, Mediterranean and North Sea. These seas together with the other natural frontiers, the Alps and Pyrenees and the River Rhine, define the compact shape of the French “hexagon”.

There are four main river systems: in the east is the Valley of the Rhone, (813km/505mi), which together with its tributary the Saône, (480km/298mi,) links the Paris basin with the Mediterranean; in the north, the Seine (776km/482mi) drains into the English Channel; in the west, the longest of all, the Loire (1010km/630mi) rises in central France and flows into the Atlantic as does its southern cousin the Garronne (575km/357mi) which rises in the Pyrénées and drains into the Gironde estuary. Within this unified and robust framework there flourishes a geographical identity which is unmistakably French yet of an unrivalled local richness and variety. Less a paradox than a wonderful synthesis, this coexistence of unity and diversity is the work of both Nature and Man.

Geological history

It has been said that the whole of Earth’s history – the building of the planet – can be traced within the confines of France. The country’s complex geological history starts in the Primary Era (600 million years ago), when the Hercynian folding was responsible for the raising up of the great mountain ranges which were the ancestors of today’s Massif Central, Armorican Peninsula, Vosges and Ardennes.

In Secondary Era times (beginning 200 million years ago), the Paris region, Aquitaine, the Rhône and Loire valleys and the southern part of the Massif Central all lay under the sea which gradually filled them with sedimentary deposits.

New mountain ranges reared up in the Tertiary Era (beginning 60 million years ago): the Alps, Pyrenees, the Jura and Corsica. The shock-waves of this violent mountain-building were felt far afield, particularly in the Massif Central where great volcanoes erupted.

The Quaternary age (2 million years ago) saw an alternation of warm and cold periods; glaciers advanced and retreated and rivers swelled and shrank, sculpting much of the land surface into its present forms.

Climate and Relief

In climatic terms too, France gathers into herself each of the contrasting patterns of the continent as a whole; Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean influences are all present (in northern and western France, central and eastern parts of the country, and the south), contributing decisively to the formation of soils and their mantle of vegetation as well as to the processes which have shaped the geological foundation into the patterns of today’s relief.

The north of the country is largely composed of great sedimentary basins, scarp (côtes) and vale country, drained by slow-flowing rivers like the Seine and the Loire. At the extremities of these lowlands are rugged areas formed of Primary rocks, the much-eroded granites of Brittany and the gneisses and schists of the Ardennes, and the higher massifs of the Vosges and the centre. Beyond lie the fertile plains of Aquitaine and Languedoc while the corridor carved by the Rhône and Saône links the north and south of the country. Finally come the “young” mountains of the Jura, Alps and Pyrenees; their high peaks and ranges, while forming fine natural frontiers, are by no means impermeable to political, commercial and cultural currents.

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