One of Europe's most centralized states, with a distinctive and influential culture
France has the largest territory in Western Europe. Around two-thirds is lowlands, chiefly to the north and west, including the Paris basin and the Loire Valley. But there are also dramatic mountain ranges. To the south-west the Pyrenees mark the border with Spain. To the south, occupying one-sixth of the territory is the Massif Central, consisting mostly of plateaux at between 600 and 900 metres. And to the south-east, forming a barrier with Italy and Switzerland, are the French Alps, beyond which to the south is the Mediterranean coastline—the Côte d'Azur.
Though France has an increasingly diverse population the government has been determined to sustain a national identity. Thus for more than 250 years, the Académie Française has protected and promoted the French language. The French government has also made strenuous efforts to resist the encroachment of American culture. Nevertheless France does have strong regional identities, and even regional languages such as Breton and Catalan.
The French population continues to be stimulated by immigration. Around 6% of the population have foreign nationalities, the majority coming from Algeria and Morocco. But millions more immigrants have become French citizens. There may also be up to half a million unauthorized immigrants. Rather than encouraging multiculturalism, France has been determined to ensure assimilation, a policy which has led to conflict over girls who wear Muslim headscarves to school.
The education system has also promoted a centralized style of management: most of the country's leadership has been processed through the ‘grandes écoles’, so they tend to share the same values.
Most French workers are now employed in services and often work for the government. The French state continues to play an important part in the economy—spending around half of GDP and employing more than one in four workers. Many service workers are involved in tourism. France is by far the world's leading tourist destination, with over 160 million visitors per year.
Agriculture nowadays employs only 4% of the labour force—chiefly on smaller farms. Even so, output has increased and France is the EU's leading food producer. The country is largely self-sufficient in food and is a leading exporter of wheat, beef, and other foodstuffs—as well as the world's leading exporter of high quality wine. France is also one of the main supporters of the EU's expensive system of agricultural protection.
Exporting high-speed trains
France is the world's fourth largest industrial power and has many globally important companies. Danone, for example, is the world's largest dairy products firm, and Peugeot-Citroën is Europe's second largest car maker. One distinctive manufactured export has been the high-speed train, the TGV. France has also been a leading arms exporter. With no oil, France has invested heavily in nuclear electricity, some of which it exports.
Like many other European countries, France has been afflicted by high unemployment—around 10% overall, but often above 25% for young people. Many employers blame this on over-regulation of the labour market and a high minimum wage. To reduce unemployment and share work more widely, the government in 2000 introduced an official 35-hour week.