France - Enviornment
Slightly larger than California, France is one of the largest countries in Europe. The English Channel lies to the northwest and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Spain broils across the Pyrenees to the south, the Mediterranean (including Corsica) is to the southeast, and over the eastern Alps and Jura ranges lie Switzerland and Italy. France's relatively flat northeastern borders abut Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium.
The country's longest river, the Loire, runs 1020km (630mi) from the Massif Central to the Atlantic. The Seine, Rhône, Garonne and Rhine are France's other major waterways, draining the plains and funnelling huge mountain run-offs.
The French Alps include Mont Blanc, which at 4800m (15,750ft) is Europe's highest peak. The most spectacular of France's ancient ranges is the Massif Central, a huge region in the middle of France that covers one-sixth of the country. Over 3200km (1985mi) of coastline ranges from the chalk cliffs of Normandy and the promontories of Brittany to the fine-sand beaches along the Atlantic. The southeastern Mediterranean coast tends to have pebbly, sometimes rocky beaches, though the Languedoc and some of the Roussillon beaches have sand-castle potential.
Forests - mostly beech, oak and pine - cover roughly one-fifth of the country. Storms in 1999 uprooted over 60 million trees throughout France; replanting is underway. These wooded areas, as well as vast wetlands, support the bulk of the country's mammals and birds.
France's mix of climates and terrains endowed it with a rich variety of fauna. Unfortunately, due to agricultural overkill, pollution and encroaching urbanisation, many fragile species such as the Pyrenees ibex, Corsican deer, brown bear, wolf and otter now face extinction. Some animals and birds - the chamois (a mountain antelope), the larger bouquetin (a type of ibex), beaver, stork and vulture - still live in the wild thanks to re-introduction programs based in national parks.
France has a predominantly temperate climate, with mild winters, except in mountain areas and the northeast. The Atlantic has a profound impact on the northwest, where the weather is characterised by high humidity, often violent westerly winds and lots of rain. France's northeast has a classic continental climate, with fairly hot summers and cold winters. Midway between the two, the Paris basin boasts the nation's lowest annual precipitation, but rainfall patterns are erratic. Paris' average annual temperature is 12°C (52°F), but the mercury sometimes drops below zero in January and can climb to the mid-30s°C (95°F) or higher in August. The southern coastal plains are subject to a pleasant Mediterranean climate: frost is rare, spring and autumn downpours are sudden but brief and summer is virtually without rain. The south is also the region of the 'mistral', a cold, dry wind that blows down the Rhône Valley for about 100 days a year. Relentless and unforgiving in spring, it is blamed for sending people into fits of pique.
Since 1790, France has been divided into administrative units of about 6100 sq km (2380 sq mi) called départements. There are 96 départements in France and a further five overseas, expanses of ocean being no impediment to French administrative zeal. The départements d'outre-mer (overseas departments) are the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; the Pacific island groups of New Caledonia, Tahiti and French Polynesia; French Guiana, in South America; Réunion, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar; and Saint Pierre and Miquelon, in the Atlantic Ocean just south of Newfoundland.