Since the end of World War II, France has been dramatically transformed from a war-torn country into a leading industrial nation. Between 1970-1980, economic growth was relatively steady, with the greatest gains occurring in manufacturing, construction, and 3 services. Since then, however, a rising rate of unemployment has slowed the country's economic growth.
Among the many factors that have contributed to France's prosperity are postwar reconstruction, aided initially by the United States through the Marshall Plan; a series of government-sponsored economic plans, between 1940-1950; and membership in the European Union (EU). Also contributing to French prosperity is the high level of its agricultural production.
The economic system of France is a mixture of private enterprise and government ownership, with most French businesses being privately owned. Among the government's diverse industrial and commercial activities are coal mining, petroleum production and refining, automobile and aircraft manufacturing, the production of electricity, rail and air transportation, banking, insurance, and broadcasting. Some industries have been totally nationalized.. Whenever the Conservatives have come into power, they have sought to increase private ownership and decrease government control and whenever the Socialists have come into power, they have sought to decrease government ownership.
As in most industrial nations, the private sector of the economy includes a relatively small number of large, highly diversified corporations and numerous small enterprises. Large companies predominate in heavy industries. Small-scale industries are particularly important in light manufacturing and commerce.
Northern and eastern France, especially the Paris Basin, have long been the most highly developed parts of the country. However, decentralization has received special priority in the government economic plans. The government has located state-owned industries in the more underdeveloped areas and has greatly improved transportation, communications, power facilities, and social services in these areas in order to attract private companies. During the last few decades of the 20th century, the economic predominance of the north and east slipped as the economy of southern France, especially along the Mediterranean coast, continued to grow.
France is one of the world’s leading manufacturing nations. Much of France's postwar prosperity is linked to the rapid growth of manufacturing, which normally employs about a fifth of the labor force and accounts for a similar share of the gross domestic product. Manufacturing also provides most of the nation's exports.
France's oldest and most important manufacturing areas are in and around Paris and cities along the Belgian border. However, such cities as Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, and Bordeaux have grown tremendously as industrial centers since the mid 20th century. An outstanding example of development in outlying areas is the huge Fos-sur-Mer industrial complex at the mouth of the Rhône River, just west of Marseille.
France is a leading producer of automobiles in the world with brands such as Renault and Peugeot renowned throughout the world. The Paris Basin and near Lyon, Rennes, and Douai is the main center for the automotive industry. France is also renowned for the manufacture of the world’s fastest trains known as TGVs. The French aerospace industry is one of the most advanced in the world, with it being a world leader in the production of sophisticated military and commercial equipment, aerospace equipment, electronic defense systems, and many kinds of weapons, the launching of rockets and several communication satellites. It also has an expanding electronics industry that is chiefly noted for the manufacture of televisions, radios, computer and telephone equipment.
Its chemical industries produce a variety of industrial products from chemicals to medicines and cosmetics. French glass making and tyre manufacturing industries are also well known.
France is a world leader in the production of industrial machinery and its mechanical and engineering industries the most important in terms of production value and value added by manufacturing. From them come such diverse items as motor vehicles, aircraft and missiles, ships, electrical machinery, electronic equipment, machine tools, robotic equipment and industrial and agricultural machinery. The aluminum industry uses bauxite mined in France. Furniture, lumber, pulp and paper are made of both local and imported wood. Foremost among the basic metallurgical industries is the making of iron and steel, which is centered mainly in the northeast, from Dunkirk to the Moselle valley, and depends partly on local coal and iron ore.
The manufacturing of chemicals and petrochemicals is a major industry in France. It relies primarily on crude oil imported from the Middle East and North Africa and on domestically produced coal and natural gas. Petroleum refineries are concentrated in the coastal areas, especially around Marseille and Le Havre.
France has large, well-developed textile, clothing, leather goods, and cosmetics industries, which produce both luxury and utilitarian items for domestic use and export. Cotton, silk textiles, nylon and artificial fibers have long been France’s important textile products with Lyon being an important center for these products. Paris remains a leading world fashion center. Excellence in design and workmanship characterizes many handicraft items made in France. These include ceramics, glassware, and jewelry.
Food processing and the making of beverages is another industry for which France is renowned. French food like breads, meats, fruit preserves, sugars, wines and many types of cheese like Brie, Camembert, and Roquefort are famous. France is especially famous for its wine-making industry, which, in output, is rivaled only by that of Italy. French wines and cheeses are among the finest in the world.
About 70 per cent of France’s workforce is employed in services. Community, business, and personal services form the core of the service industry in France with 45 per cent of workers being employed by these industries. Education and health care, financial services, and transportation and communication are the main industries in this category.
The second most important service industry in terms of employment generation is the trade, restaurants, and hotels industry. This industry is greatly helped by the large number of tourists that visit France every year.
Government related activities ranks third in France’s service sector. This activity includes public administration and defense. Finance, insurance, and real estate; transportation and communication; and utilities are the remaining activities that come under the purview of the service sector.
France is western Europe's leading agricultural country and has benefited greatly under the agricultural policy of the European Union. Agriculture employs about 5 per cent of the labor force, supplies virtually all the basic food required by the nation, and provides valuable exports. About 55 per cent of the land is used for farming, mostly for the production of crops.
Farms average about 70 acres (28 hectares) in size. Since World War II the farm population has declined while average farm size and mechanization have increased, resulting in more efficient farming and greater production. Almost all French farms have modern machinery and electric power.
About 45 per cent of farm income is derived from lmeat and diary animals. Beef cattle (including calves), lambs, sheep, hogs, butter, milk and cheese are the chief products. France is the EU's leading producer of beef and dairy products and exports substantial amounts to other member nations. Most of the output, however, is consumed within France. Large numbers of sheep and poultry are raised.
Cereals are widely grown on more than a third of France’s land. Wheat is the leading crop grown mainly on large farms in the Paris Basin and the north; potatoes and sugar beet, barley, corn, oats and rapeseed, which are used mainly for livestock feed, are also grown in large amounts. France is western Europe's largest producer and exporter of wheat, and accounts for about 40 per cent of the annual EU production. Sugar beets follow cereals in both acreage and production and are the chief industrial crop. Other important crops include oilseeds and flax.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in abundance. Wine grapes, partly from premier vineyards in the Bordeaux area and the regions of Burgundy and Champagne, Alsace, and the Loire Valley, are the most important fruit crop. The Mediterranean region produces grapes used in cheaper wines and grapes in southwestern France are used in making brandy. Other fruits and vegetables grown in large amounts include apples, peaches, pears, and melons, beans, carrots, cauliflower and tomatoes.
The mining of coal and iron ore are France’s most important mineral deposits. The majority of Iron ore comes from the Lorraine region and is used in the steel industry. Bauxite is found in southeastern France. Potash, a substance used in making fertilizers, is found in Alsace. Large quantities of natural gas have been discovered at Lacq, in southwestern France. However, as far as petroleum and natural gas are concerned, France remains heavily dependent on imports of these fuels. A variety of other minerals are produced, including zinc, gypsum, salt, sulfur, tungsten, and uranium..
With its nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of coastline, France has long been a prominent fishing nation. It usually ranks among the top five nations in Europe in total catch, which consists chiefly of crabs, lobsters, monkfish, sardines, scallops, pollock, tuna, hake, whiting, cod, pilchard, haddock, mussels, and oysters. Much of the catch is sold fresh; the rest is cured, canned, or frozen, partly for export. The fishing fleet consists of both oceangoing and coastal vessels, which operate mainly out of ports on the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay, Brittany and Normandy and the waters of Iceland and Newfoundland.
Forests cover about a fourth of France with the Northeastern Plateaus, the Central Highlands, the southwest coastal areas, and the slopes of the Alps, Juras, Pyrenees, and Vosges being some of France’s heavily forested areas. The Landes area of southwestern France is the chief source for much of the pulp and paper used in France. The nation is a major European producer of lumber and wood products. Cork, oaks, olive trees, and pine trees, ashes, beeches, and cypresses are some of the trees that grow in forested areas in France.
France has a modern, well-developed transportation system that is centered primarily on Paris. It has a fine highway system with many multilane expressways. It also has two of the world’s longest highway tunnels cutting through Mount Blanc and Frejus Peak connecting it to Italy. The government owned and operated French National Railways system is one of the most modern and efficient rail systems in the world. TGV trains—high-speed trains that began operating in the first part of the second-last decade of the 20th century—are among the fastest trains in the world, averaging about 200 miles per hour (300 km/h). Ferries transport passengers and automobiles across the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel (opened in 1994), also known as the Chunnel, provides a rail link between Calais, France, and Folkestone, England.
France's primary and secondary roads link virtually all cities and towns. Modern superhighways connect the major cities of France.
Marseille and Le Havre are the largest of many excellent seaports in France and together handle much of the nation's oceanborne foreign trade. Other prominent ports include Dunkirk, Rouen, Nantes-St-Nazaire, and Bordeaux. Ships and barges operate on navigable rivers and canals throughout France. These rivers include the Rhine, Rhone, and Seine. Northern and eastern France have well-developed canal systems.
Air France, which provides both domestic and worldwide service, is the French national airline and one of the largest airlines in the world. There are also several privately owned carriers. Scores of foreign airlines serve France, chiefly through two international airports at Paris known as Charles de Gaulle and Orly. Other airports are located at Marseille, Nice, and Lyon.
Broadcasting and mass media were for long the monopoly of government-owned companies. Since the late 20th century, however, the government has allowed private radio and television stations to compete with government-owned broadcasting companies. France has several radio and television networks, most of which are operated by government agencies. More than 80 daily newspapers and thousands of periodicals and weekly newspapers are published in France. representing a wide range of political opinions. Ouest-France of Rennes is the largest and most well known newspaper and comprises of 45 different editions, each with local news. Le Figaro, France-Soir, Le Monde, Liberation, and Le Parisien Libere of Paris; Sud-Ouest of Bordeaux; La Voix du Nord of Lille; Le Progres of Lyon; Le Provencal of Marseille; and Le Dauphine Libere of Grenoble are other major dailies. L'Express and Le Nouvel Observateur are two of the most widely read weekly magazines. The motion picture industry is regulated by a government agency which provides financial aid to film producers. The Cannes film Festival, an annual event, is the world’s largest international film event.
France relies increasingly on a large volume of foreign trade to sustain its economic growth and rising standard of living. The nation imports mainly machinery, crude petroleum, chemicals, automobiles, iron and steel, nonferrous metals, and such foods as meats, fruits, and vegetables. Leading exports include chemical products, electrical equipment, machinery, automobiles, aircraft, iron and steel products, textiles, clothing, cereals, and wine. The EU countries, especially Germany and Italy, are France's most important trading partners, accounting for about 60 per cent of the nation's foreign trade by value. The European Union (EU) is an organization of European nations that aims to promote political and economic cooperation among its members. Other major trading partners include the United States, Japan, and Switzerland.
France's great historic, cultural, and scenic attractions have long made it a leading tourist destination. Millions of foreigners visit each year, and growing numbers of French travelers also contribute significantly to tourist revenues. Paris is the leading attraction for foreign visitors. Prominent resort areas include the Riviera and the Alps.
France's basic currency unit is the euro, which replaced the franc in 2001.