Natural resources play an important part in France's prosperity. Fertile soils are the country's most important natural resource. More than 90 percent of France's total land area is fertile. The richest farmlands lie in the north and northeast, where wheat and sugar beets are the chief crops. The rainier northwest consists mainly of grasslands, used for grazing cattle and sheep, and orchards. Many of the drier areas of southern France have good soils for growing grapes. Soils are generally poor in the Central Highlands and on Corsica.
France is the most important agricultural nation of Western Europe. Its extensive areas of rich soils, especially in the Paris Basin, plus generally moderate climates and vast extents of flat to gently rolling terrain help provide an agricultural industry that has always been a mainstay of the country's economy. In addition, the unusual variety of climates, from the cool, wet plains of the north to the dry-summer warmth of the Mediterranean, makes possible a great diversity of crops and agricultural products. France lacks only a suitable climate for purely tropical crops.
France also is the only major European nation to be generally self-sufficient in basic food production, and one of the few with an excess of agricultural export income over import expense. The importance of agriculture to the French economy is reflected by the 8.4 percent of the labor force employed in farming, a relatively high figure for the industrially developed European nations. The chief agricultural region of France is the Paris Basin, where such productive districts as the Beauce, Picardy, and Île-de-France form the nation's traditional breadbasket. Wheat has always been the leading crop on the comparatively large farms here, although it is grown throughout the lowlands. In most years France produces almost 5 percent of the world's wheat, and it ranks fifth among the wheat-growing nations. France grows more than twice as much wheat as does Italy, the second most important European producer, and wheat is a major export.
Other grains grown by French farmers include barley, which is especially important to the brewing industry, and oats and rye. These crops tend to be raised in poorer soils or in areas where the climate is less well suited for wheat. Since World War II corn has become a very popular crop in the Paris Basin and nearly everywhere else in France. Traditional types of corn have been grown in Aquitaine and the Pyrenees in southwestern France, and in the Rhône-Saône Valley, since the 16th century. However, the recent introduction of new hybrid varieties from the United States, and the greatly increased demand for animal fodder as meat consumption has risen, have made cornfields a common sight in France.
On the northern edge of the Paris Basin, where the flatlands of the North Sea plain lead into Picardy and Flanders, sugar beets and potatoes have been important crops since Napoleonic times. The cool, moist regions of Normandy and Brittany are noted for dairy products; early spring vegetables, which are highly prized in the Paris markets; and apples.
After the Paris Basin, the principal French agricultural regions are in the south and southwest, particularly Aquitaine and Languedoc, and the Rhône Valley. The generally good soils and warm, dry summers of these regions make them ideal for cultivating grapes, and they are the nation's major wine producers. Europe produces about three fourths of the world's wine, with France and Italy each accounting for slightly more than 20 percent. The relatively high value of wine has led many farmers in the south to substitute grapes for other crops, resulting in overproduction and bitter competition with Italy, Spain, and other nations. Other fruits, such as peaches, plums, and apricots; and vegetables, particularly tomatoes, are also widely grown in these regions. The basis of canning and processing industries there, they are also sold fresh in city markets.
Better-quality wines, many with famous names and high prices, are also the basis of agricultural prosperity in such regions as Burgundy, Bordeaux, Alsace, Champagne, and the Loire Valley. These wines, together with wheat and other crops, often create a more balanced rural economy. In the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Massif Central, where the soils and climate are less suited to agriculture, many low-producing farms have been abandoned.
Forestry and Fishing
The land that became France was covered by thick forests before people lived there, but most of the original forest was cleared for agriculture or for domestic and industrial uses at the beginning of the 19th century. Today, economically important forests thrive in remote regions that are difficult to reach, notably the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Jura, and the Vosges mountains, and in many regions with reforestation programs. These programs were established to reclaim abandoned lands, provide watershed protection and wildlife habitats, and create a commercial alternative to marginal agriculture. The tendency to plant conifers such as pines and firs has created landscapes that differ greatly from the original ones. Production does not meet national demands for wood pulp, paper, lumber, and other forest products, and so France must import these items.
With its lengthy coastline on the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic Ocean, and English Channel, France has historically supported a flourishing fishing industry that provided an important food resource, as well as employment for thousands of people living in the coastal areas. Today, the fishing industry is a declining employer as large, more efficient ships squeeze out small independent fishermen, but it continues to provide food to the nation. Refrigeration, quick freezing, and rapid transportation combine to bring fresh seafood to all sections of the country. The leading fishing ports are in northern France at Boulogne, where the catch of the highly productive North Sea is landed; in Normandy and Brittany at Douarnenez, Lorient, Concarneau, and La Rochelle, from which fishermen depart to ply the Atlantic waters of the Grand and Georges banks off North America; and along the African coast. The catch consists mainly of cod, sardines, tuna, herring, halibut, and mackerel.
The Mediterranean, though the base of many traditional fishing economies, is a poor fishery compared with the Atlantic. Important Mediterranean fishing ports in France include Sète and Marseilles, where the variety of the catch compensates somewhat for the small volume. Shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels, are profitably raised along the Atlantic coast from Brittany to Bordeaux.
Farm families make up much of the rural population in France. Most farmers own their land. Some rent all or part of their land. A few French farmers are wealthy. But many farmers require other sources of income to support their families. A spouse or another family member may hold a job as a factory worker, office worker, or teacher. In poorer areas, such as Brittany, some farmers earn barely enough to support themselves.