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The modern French population is largely native-born and represents a fusion of many peoples of Celtic, Germanic, Latin, and Slavic origins. Contrary to what has happened in many other countries, the immigrants have blended so well into existing French society that today it is difficult to determine the ethnic origins of most French citizens. More ethnically prominent are the 20th-century immigrants, including an estimated 4 million foreigners--mainly Portuguese, Spanish, and Italians--and many French citizens, a large number of them Arabs, who entered France in the 1960s from former French colonies in Algeria and sub-Saharan Africa. In 1990 an estimated 2.5 million North Africans lived in France.

The French language is understood and spoken by virtually the entire population, although other languages and dialects persist alongside French in peripheral areas; they include BASQUE, Alsatian, Corsican, Breton, Provencal, Catalan, and Flemish. About 80% of the population nominally belongs to the Roman Catholic church, although only a minority of these participate regularly in church activities. Protestants constitute less than 2% of the population; Jews, about 1%; Muslims, who have entered France recently from former North African colonies, about 4%.


In 1801, France, with a population of 28 million, was the most populous country in Europe; by 1850, the population had grown to 36 million. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, the French birthrate dropped to levels lower than those in the rest of Europe, and France experienced a much slower rate of population growth than the rest of the continent. At the end of World War II the population was only 40 million. After 1946, however, the birthrate rose to 21 per 1,000, a higher rate than had existed for more than a century. Although the rate fell to 18 per 1,000 in 1963 and to 13.6 per 1,000 in 1989, the last few decades have witnessed an unprecedented expansion that added millions of people to France's schools and, later, to the labor force and consumer markets.

This unusual demographic evolution explains why population densities in France today are only one-half to one-third that of other Western European nations. Within France, the population distribution is uneven and closely reflects levels of economic development. Regions without industry or with poor soils are only sparsely populated. On the other hand, the regions with the largest populations are the great centers of economic activity: the industrial north; Lyon, where industry is important; along the Cote d'Azur, which depends on tourism; and especially Paris, where diverse economic activities are concentrated.

Since 1950, France has experienced extremely rapid urbanization. Almost all cities have increased in size, at the expense of the rural population. In the early 1990s, more than three-quarters of the country's population lived in cities, and the figure is even higher when commuters are included. France has, therefore, now largely caught up with the rest of Europe in its urbanization. The country is unusual in its urban structure. Metropolitan Paris is the home of one-sixth of France's population and is the largest urban agglomeration in Europe outside the Russian federation. Other French cities are small by comparison, the largest being the metropolitan areas of Lyon (1.2 million) and Marseille (1.1 million); next in size is LILLE, which has a metropolitan area of 1,020,000; after that comes Bordeaux, which has 640,000, Toulouse (541,000), NANTES (465,000), NICE (450,000), and STRASBOURG (400,000).

Daniel Noin; Reviewed by Anne Depigny and Agnes Jolivet.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #6, ©1993

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