Among the countries of Europe, France ranks third in size behind Russia and Ukraine. France is a highly complex and diverse land. It includes a wide range of natural environments, cultural backgrounds, and economic activities that present an ever-changing perspective to the observing traveler.
The diversity begins with the French landscape itself, broken by extensive highlands that include the Alps and their highest peak, Mont Blanc, and descending into lush, fertile valleys and level plains. France's area of more than 210,000 square miles (543,000 square kilometers) includes the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea.
France faces the major seas of Europe the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean. It lies across the English Channel from England and shares boundaries with Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Andorra, and Spain. France has thus been open to ideas, immigrants, and invasions from many directions, and its own culture, products, and philosophies have spread throughout the world.
A major manufacturing country that employs some of the world's most advanced technology, France is also Europe's most important agricultural nation, providing wheat, wine, and other products to the world. The French language ranks second only to English in international use; and the nation's great cultural vitality gives it an international importance far exceeding its size or population. Liberal political traditions, with emphasis on human rights and national independence, make France a leader in world affairs.
France has many visible traces of its richly varied past. Beginning with the Stone Age monuments at Carnac and the cave paintings of Lascaux, artists have recorded the flow of centuries down to some of today's most advanced creative expressions. The French people have also molded almost every part of the country, creating the hedgerows of Normandy, the vast open fields of the Paris Basin, and the miles of carefully tended vineyards in many regions. This humanization of the landscape has sometimes gone against nature, resulting in deforestation, bleak mining areas, and high levels of air and water pollution. Today, however, France is committed to protecting and restoring both its natural environment and its rich cultural heritage.
Reference is often made in this article to the historical provinces of France, which include such well-known names as Brittany (Bretagne), Burgundy (Bourgogne), Normandy, Provence, and Champagne.