Throughout most of its history France, like other European countries, was predominantly a rural society, its population concentrated in villages or clustered around castles or manor houses. A few larger communities began to develop early in the Middle Ages as sites with certain features became settlements. Many of these sites were at river crossings and mountain passes and on trade routes and harbors.
Paris, as the administrative, economic, and cultural center of an expanding nation, grew steadily. By 1500 Paris had a population of about 225,000 and was Europe's largest city. In general, however, French cities remained small. Lyon, Rouen, and Tours were the only others with as many as 60,000 people in 1500, and many relatively important communities had no more than 5,000. The rapid growth rate of urban France, as elsewhere in Europe, came with the Industrial Revolution. Beginning near the end of the 18th century and continuing through the 19th, French cities grew quickly. The 1911 census showed that its population had become nearly half urban.
Most of the population growth consisted of migration from the countryside. Rural people, many of them impoverished by the machines and manufacturing methods of the Industrial Revolution, flocked to take advantage of the growing job prospects of the cities, which also offered social and educational opportunities. The construction of railroads increased this flow during the late 1800s. By the mid-1900s many rural areas, especially in Brittany, the Massif Central, and the Alps, had lost much population.
Since 1960 the population of French cities has changed in several ways. Internal migration from the provinces has diminished, while at the same time people from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, and other European nations joined the French urban-industrial labor force. There have also been numerous arrivals from former French colonies, especially those in Africa and Indochina.
The central districts of many French cities have begun to show population declines as the cost and inconvenience of life in crowded older quarters exceed the advantages. At the same time, suburban living has become more accessible with an increase in automobile ownership. The government has attempted to decrease the overwhelming influence of Paris by encouraging the decentralization of industry, promoting the economic and cultural development of many regional centers, and building new towns far from the capital. The 1975 census showed that the largest cities of France were Paris, Marseilles, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, St-Etienne, and Le Havre. (See also Bordeaux; Le Havre; Lyon; Marseilles; Nice; Paris; Strasbourg.)