The ten great parks of France reach as far as the Indian Ocean, but all share a natural beauty and abundance of plant and animal life.
You can fall in love with France for many reasons, but the country’s landscape is one of its biggest attractions. It’s not for nothing that we call it la belle France. From the rugged coastline of Normandy to the mountains of the Alps, from the lavender loveliness of Provence to the glitzy beaches of the Cote d’Azur, surely there is nowhere else that can offer such natural beauty and diversity in one thrilling package.
Of course, it is mainly thanks to Mother Nature’s whims that France is so blessed. But even she can do with a little help from time to time, which is where the Parcs Nationaux de France come in.
Chosen for their remarkable biodiversity and natural beauty, there are currently ten French national parks, though three are actually situated in the overseas departements of French Guiana, Guadeloupe and La Reunion. They cover vastly differing landscapes, but in total account for almost 9.5 per cent of France’s overall territory, which is the equivalent of 60,728 square kilometres.
Their raison d’etre? To allow the largest number of people to share this remarkable territorial heritage, specifically because “it is by being in contact with nature that we learn to respect nature”. The plan seems to be working, too.
The parks attract more than seven million visitors every year with an impressive number of options to help them enjoy the very best experience.
Guided visits, signposted rambles that teach you about the landscape, films and exhibitions, and workshops explaining local crafts are all on offer.
Individual national parks often provide distinctive experiences. For example, in the Cevennes, at Saint-Jean-du-Gard, you can head out at nightfall on a guided tour to hear the unforgettable sound of stags in the rutting season.
Recommended hotels and gites are always available, of course, but the parks can even provide shelter and accommodation in ‘refuges’ for those adventurous hikers and climbers who want to discover the parks’ more mountainous and demanding areas.
The original idea of creating a national park (and even the name itself) came from an American artist and author, George Catlin. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1796 and can lay claim to being the first white man to depict Plains Indians in their native territory.
As early as 1832, Catlin recognised the need to preserve Earth’s natural beauties “by some great protecting policy of government… in a magnificent park”. In the same year, the US Congress proclaimed the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas as America’s first Natural Reserve. In 1872, the year of Catlin’s death, Congress decreed that the Yellowstone area, cutting across the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, would be the world’s first national park.
France lagged behind in creating its own national parks, but at least the famous Touring Club de France was pushing the idea at the World Forestry Congress, which it organised in Paris in 1913. The club’s enthusiasm led to the founding of the Association des parcs nationaux de France and the development of the Parc de la Berarde in Rhone-Alpes.
The outbreak of World War I delayed the project and it was not until 1923 that the park project finally grew wings, changing its name to Pelvoux and announcing itself as a pare national.
What actually constituted a national park was not enshrined in French law until 1960, when legislation was passed agreeing on its definition. The fruits of this new legal status were finally witnessed in 1963, when the first officially sanctioned French national park, the Parc National de la Vanoise, was created in Rhone-Alpes.
So, what exactly constitutes a national park in France? The state classes an area as such when it has an exceptional patrimoine, a word that is difficult to translate into English. The best attempt is probably ‘heritage’. But patrimoine has a deeper, more emotional connotation for French people, covering not only the landscape of an area, but also its traditions, produce and artisans.
Once a proposal for the creation of a national park has been submitted for public scrutiny, the decision on whether to grant the status is taken by France’s Conseil d’Etat, the supreme court of appeal for administrative justice.
The court will decide on the park’s surface area and approve its charter.
Once approval has been granted, a public body will take on the planning, development and management of the park, with a board made up of regional and local authorities, and representatives of the state, local associations and inhabitants. The primary objective is to preserve the park’s biological, territorial and cultural diversity.
“What’s exciting about our national parks,” says Veronique Caraco, who is the project’s communications director, “is that they are a real partnership between the state and all the local communities. We like to think of our national parks as comprising three important elements; territory, people and project. And a park’s charter is a marker of an agreed and shared governance and vision.”
Each project has a conservationist strategy, designed to restore an ecological balance that will in turn re-establish biodiversity, particularly in areas where it has been harmed by human activity.
In the long term, the strategy will play a role in wider issues, such as combating the effects of climate change.
“It’s important that the conservationist policies don’t turn our ten sites into museums,” Veronique adds. “We’re trying to bring nature alive in an organic way. Making these exceptional and fragile areas accessible to everyone in the right way is at the heart of what we’re trying to do.”
Of course, if the national parks are to flourish and show that living, breathing, working landscapes can be sustainable, they need to be open for business to investors, future homeowners and tourists who share the same core values. To that end, in 2015 all of the parks were brought together under the collective banner of Esprit Parc National.
The Esprit Parc National is a sign of quality that is awarded exclusively to products and services created or practised within the boundaries of any of the French national parks. In order to qualify, businesses must respect numerous regulations and show that they have genuine passion for quality and authenticity, not to mention a real appreciation of nature.
Tourist accommodation and activities, free-range produce, traditional arts and crafts; all these diverse activities have the right to display the Esprit Parc National logo once they have fulfilled a number of criteria and passed an inspection of their practices.
Veronique said: “By bringing all of these like-minded people together under one sign, the French national parks can contribute to the sustainable development of these unique territories and give millions of people a fantastic experience at the same time.”