Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Midi-Pyrénées (Occitan: Miègjorn-Pirenèus; Gascon: Mieidia-Pirenèus) is the largest région of metropolitan France, larger than the Netherlands or Denmark, twice larger than Massachusetts, and half the size of Indiana.
Midi-Pyrénées is best known worldwide for three local "products" that have achieved world fame: Airbus aircrafts, Roquefort cheese, and the Catholic pilgrimage center of Lourdes. This goes a long way into unveiling the extreme contrasts and diversity that exist within the very heterogeneous région of Midi-Pyrénées.
Indeed, Midi-Pyrénées has no historical or geographical unity. It is one of these régions of France created artificially in the late 20th century to serve as an hinterland and zone of influence for its capital, Toulouse, one of a handful so-called "balancing metropolises" (métropoles d'équilibre)¹. Another example of this is the also artificial région of Rhône-Alpes which was created as the région for Lyon.
The name chosen for the new région was decided by the French central government without reference to the historical provinces (too many of them inside the région) and based purely on geography: Midi (i.e. "southern regions", in a Parisian perspective) - Pyrénées (Pyrenees mountains that are the southern limit of the région). The French adjective and name of the inhabitants of the région is: Midi-Pyrénéen.
Historically, Midi-Pyrénées is made up of several French provinces:
- 24.2% of Midi-Pyrénées is Gascony: western half of Haute-Garonne département, southwest of Tarn-et-Garonne, Gers in its entirety, extreme north of Hautes-Pyrénées. Gascony here includes the province of Comminges, which historically was a Pyrenean province, but later expanded all the way north to Muret in the southern suburbs of Toulouse, then was fragmented, and became a sort of eastern fringe of Gascony. Gascony also extends over the Aquitaine région.
- 23.4% of Midi-Pyrénées is Languedoc: eastern half of Haute-Garonne, southeast of Tarn-et-Garonne, Tarn in its entirety, northwest and northeast of Ariège. Languedoc includes the sub-province of Albigeois (Tarn département), which is sometimes considered as a province separate from Languedoc. Languedoc also extends over the Languedoc-Roussillon région.
- 19.9% of Midi-Pyrénées is Rouergue: Aveyron département in its entirety, and extreme east of Tarn-et-Garonne. The province of Rouergue is entirely contained inside Midi-Pyrénées.
- 15.4% of Midi-Pyrénées is Quercy: département of Lot in its entirety, and northern half of Tarn-et-Garonne. The province of Quercy is entirely contained inside Midi-Pyrénées.
- 16.6% of Midi-Pyrénées is a collection of small Pyrenean provinces, from east to west: County of Foix (eastern half of Ariège), Couserans (western half of Ariège), Nébouzan (extreme south of Haute-Garonne and extreme east of Hautes-Pyrénées), Quatre-Vallées (i.e. "Four Valleys") (east of Hautes-Pyrénées), and Bigorre (west and center of Hautes-Pyrénées). All these provinces are entirely contained inside Midi-Pyrénées.
- 0.5% of Midi-Pyrénées is Agenais: extreme west of Tarn-et-Garonne. Agenais extends essentially over the Aquitaine région.
It should be noted that the historical make-up of Midi-Pyrénées is even more complex, as the provinces listed here are further subdivided into pays (i.e. "countries"), with each their peculiarities and particular identities, such as Armagnac, Astarac , or Lomagne inside the Gascogne part of Midi-Pyrénées, Lauragais or Volvestre inside the Languedoc part of Midi-Pyrénées, Bonezan inside County of Foix, Lavedan inside Bigorre, and so on.
The Pyrenean provinces of Couserans, Nébouzan, Quatre-Vallées, and Bigorre (but not County of Foix) are sometimes considered to be part of Gascony. These Pyrenean provinces were all born out of the old Roman province of Novempopulana , later known as Vasconia (because of the Basque influence), and later as Gascony, from which they seceded over time. Furthermore, after the 16th century these Pyrenean provinces were made part of the gouvernement (military region) of Gascony, and later in the 18th century they were ruled from Auch by the intendant of Auch, like the rest of Gascony. If these Pyrenean provinces are included inside Gascony, then 35.4% of Midi-Pyrénées is Gascony, outweighing Languedoc and its 23.4%.
This point is still a matter of debate. The Pyrenean provinces developed strong peculiarities over time, protected by their isolated valleys, and they looked quite distinct from the rest of Gascony. What's more, Bigorre, Quatre-Vallées, Nébouzan, and even Comminges kept their provincial states until the French Revolution, while Gascony had no provincial states. These Pyrenean provinces sent their representatives to the Estates-General of 1789 in Versailles at the beginning of the Revolution, whereas the various other parts of Gascony sent their own representatives.
Finally, it should be noted that in demographic terms, given the overwhelming demographic weight of Toulouse (located in Languedoc), the majority of the inhabitants of Midi-Pyrénées live in the Languedoc part of Midi-Pyrénées. As a matter of fact, the historical flag of Languedoc, the Occitan Cross, was adopted as the official flag of the Midi-Pyrénées région by the regional council. This historical flag of Languedoc is itself derived from the coat of arms of the old county of Toulouse.
Elements of unity
Indeed, in the Middle Ages most of what is now Midi-Pyrénées was ruled at some time or another by the counts of Toulouse (except for Hautes-Pyrénées and the west of Gers), either directly or through vassals (such as in the case of Foix). After the French conquest in the 13th century, the county of Toulouse was dismantled, and eventually Languedoc was born as a remnant of the old county, but quite smaller than it. Nonetheless, until the French Revolution the Parlement (supreme court of justice) of Toulouse extended its jurisdiction over not just Languedoc, but also all the other territories that are now Midi-Pyrénées. Thus, towns like Tarbes (Bigorre), Auch (Gascony), or Rodez (Rouergue) were already under the jurisdiction of Toulouse before the Revolution, although only for judicial and legal matters.
Midi-Pyrénées is divided in two by its traditional languages, Occitan and Gascon, with Toulouse lying by the limit between the two languages, on the Occitan side. Gascon (in its many local variants) was traditionally spoken in the west and southwest of the région: Gascony, Bigorre, Quatre Vallés, Nébouzan, Comminges, Couserans. Occitan (also in its many local variants) was spoken in the east and northeast of the région: Languedoc, Rouergue, Quercy, and Comté de Foix.
However, French is now paramount in the région, and Midi-Pyrénées is nothing like Catalonia or northern Wales where the regional languages are still very much part of everyday life. Occitan had already disappeared from the Garonne and Tarn valleys in the beginning of the 20th century. More distant and isolated regions resisted longer, and as late as in the 1970s it was still possible to hear Gascon or Occitan on the farmer markets of Gascony or Rouergue. Nonetheless, even there, changes in the last 30 years of the 20th century have been dramatic, despite regional efforts to revive Occitan and Gascon and teach them in schools. Today, Occitan is only spoken by the older people in the distant areas of Quercy, Rouergue, and Comté de Foix. Gascon is also only spoken by older people in distant areas of Gascony and the Pyrenees valleys.
However, there is still a significant part of the population in Midi-Pyrénées that is able to understand some Occitan or Gascon, even in the urban areas at the center of the région. The regional channel France 3 broadcasts programs in Occitan (but not Gascon) a few hours per week. Speakers of Gascon complain of the hegemony of Occitan and its cultural center of Toulouse, and they reject the classification of Gascon as a dialect of Occitan.
Today, although the regional languages of Midi-Pyrénées have for the most part disappeared, they have left a strong imprint on the French language that is spoken in the région. French in Midi-Pyrénées is pronounced with a distinct southwestern pronunciation (with many variants from Rouergue, to Toulouse, to Bigorre). Moreover, people in Midi-Pyrénées use some words and expressions coming from Occitan or Gascon which are different from standard French and are not easily understood outside of southwest France. On that respect, the linguistic situation in Midi-Pyrénées may be compared with that of Ireland, where the native Irish Gaelic has for the most part disappeared, but has left a strong imprint on the accent and the vocabulary of the English that is used in Ireland.
Here again, Midi-Pyrénées is a région of sharp contrasts. While the metropolitan area of Toulouse at the center of the région is a highly densely populated area, with densities reaching 300 inh. per km² (115 inh. per sq. miles), the rest of the région is sparsely populated, with densities ranging from 25 to 60 inh. per km² (10 to 23 inh. per sq. miles), which are among the lowest densities in western Europe. Toulouse is often presented as an oasis in the middle of a desert. Driving a mere half-an-hour away from Toulouse, one goes from the hustle and bustle of the busy metropolitan area to the slow pace and timelessness of the hilly countryside of Gascony or Lauragais and their narrow winding roads with seldom any traffic.
This contrast of density has increased in the last decades. Although Midi-Pyrénées is one of the fastest growing régions of France, with +0.54% annual population growth in the 1990s (compared to only +0.37% for France as a whole), the growth in Midi-Pyrénées is due only to the metropolitan area of Toulouse. Discounting the metropolitan area of Toulouse, Midi-Pyrénées actually had a decline in population in the 1990s, with – 0.02% annual population growth, while the metropolitan area of Toulouse had a +1.5% annual population growth. Without Toulouse, Midi-Pyrénées would rank among the declining régions of France, such as Limousin or Champagne-Ardenne.
The population in the metropolitan area of Toulouse is significantly younger and with a higher level of education than in the rest of Midi-Pyrénées. Outside of Toulouse, Midi-Pyrénées is an ageing région, which combines with a loss of population, as can be also seen in Limousin or other declining areas of France. Incomes are also rather high in the Toulouse metropolitan area, among the highest in France outside of the metropolitan area of Paris, whereas outside of Toulouse incomes in Midi-Pyrénées are rather low, among the lowest in France.
Finally, Midi-Pyrénées is the only région in France where the largest city (Toulouse) is so much dominating the other towns and cities. The metropolitan area of Toulouse (1,000,000 inhabitants) far outweighs the second largest metropolitan area of Midi-Pyrénées, Tarbes, with only 110,000 inhabitants.
For all these reasons, Midi-Pyrénées is often dubbed "Toulouse and the Midi-Pyrenean desert", in reference to the famous phrase "Paris and the French desert" coined by the French geographer Jean-François Gravier in 1947, when it was felt that the ever expanding urban area of Paris, so much larger than any other city in France, would soon attract all the French population and economy, turning the rest of the country into a desert. Cities and towns in Midi-Pyrénées complain of the overwhelming weight of Toulouse inside the région, and they resent the fact that so much is done for Toulouse by the regional council, turning the Midi-Pyrénées région into a "Région of Toulouse". Indeed, the city of Toulouse adopted the Occitan Flag as its official flag, thus Toulouse and Midi-Pyrénées are currently sharing the same flag. Despite the controversy, most researchers agree that far from distracting resources and men from the rest of the région, Toulouse is actually acting as a locomotive for the whole région. Without Toulouse, Midi-Pyrénées would probably be declining much more than it has in the recent decades, both demographically and economically.
Midi-Pyrénées has a long tradition as a stronghold of the left, a tradition which goes back to the beginning of the Third Republic. Places like Ariège regularly return the highest percentage of votes for the left in the whole of France. Midi-Pyrénées was for a long time the home base of the Radical Party, one of the leading parties of France, now disappeared. In fact, the successor of the Radical Party, the center-left PRG, has completely vanished from national politics, but is still keeping some ground in Midi-Pyrénées. The Toulouse-based regional newspaper, La Dépêche du Midi , one of the oldest newspapers in France, which was the largest French newspaper just after the end of the Second World War, extremely respected for its refusal of Collaboration and read well beyond the limits of the region, has always been a strong voice of the left, and is still overtly supporting the left parties, as does The Guardian in England.
This left tradition can probably be linked with the decline in religious practice that happened rather early in Midi-Pyrénées, much earlier than in the rest of Europe or France. As early as the beginning of the 19th century, sharp decline in religious practice was noticeable. This itself can probably be linked to the old rebellious attitude of the region towards the established church and institutions imposed from outside the region. Notable instances of this are the Cathar heresy in the Middle Ages, and Protestantism during the Renaissance, with the areas of Montauban and Castres massively converting to Protestantism.
On the other hand, the outlying areas of Bigorre and Rouergue have remained fiercely catholic until today. Lourdes, in the heart of Bigorre, has even become one of the most famous Catholic pilgrimage center in the world, attracting every year hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all around the world. These areas are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, stronghold of the right, contrasting sharply with the rest of Midi-Pyrénées. So here too Midi-Pyrénées lacks unity.
Elements of unity
Despite all these differences, it is wrong to assume that Midi-Pyrénées exists only on paper. Since the région was activated in the 1970s, a certain sense of a "Midi-Pyrenean" identity has emerged. Inhabitants of the région share common cultural or social features, some of them not just particular to Midi-Pyrénées, but common to the whole of southwest France, such as rugby game (Rugby union). There are images that come spontaneously to the mind of Midi-Pyrénées people when thinking about their région, such as the Airbus planes leaving their factories in Toulouse, the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees, or a game of rugby. These three images were used for some time by the regional council in video clips to promote the distinct identity of the région. The regional council has also played a key role in developing a network of motorways/freeways to bring all the different areas of Midi-Pyrénées together. As of 2005, there are seven motorways/freeways that radiate from Toulouse and link all the most distant corners of the région with its capital city (with two of this seven motorways/freeways only partly built and scheduled to be completed by 2010-2015). A network of Regional Express Trains (Trains Express Régionaux, or TER) was also set up by the regional council to ensure frequent train connections between the different parts of the région.
Perhaps more importantly, the dynamism of Toulouse, as well as the fact that many young people from Midi-Pyrénées move to Toulouse after high-school, means that the inhabitants of Midi-Pyrénées identify more and more with the regional capital, which acts as a strong bond between people and areas otherwise quite diverse. When traveling away from southern France, someone from Midi-Pyrénées will in most cases introduce oneself as coming "from Toulouse". Contrary to other régions of France, in Midi-Pyrénées there exist no other regional city that can rival Toulouse, so all turn toward Toulouse, which is seen as the cultural, economical, and political center.
An interesting phenomenon is that Midi-Pyrénées is one of the very few areas in France where young people, when thinking about "making it" in life, still prefer in their majority to move to their regional capital rather than to Paris. In most other régions of France, such as Champagne-Ardenne, Centre, or even Burgundy, some of which exist more on paper than in reality, young people always prefer to move to Paris rather than to their regional capital. The phrase monter à Paris (literally "to ascend to Paris") was even coined to describe this phenomenon of young people leaving their régions to move to Paris. Here, Midi-Pyrénées stands clearly apart, with Toulouse being largely favored by young people over Paris, which is another proof of the strong identity that has developed around the regional capital.
Future of the région
The administrative division of France is currently in debate. Many think that the communes are too small and should be merged, that the départements are outdated and should disappear, and that the régions are too small and too numerous (22 in metropolitan France) and should be merged. Regarding Midi-Pyrénées, there are two kinds of thoughts.
There are those who stress the Aquitaine nature of Midi-Pyrénées, often referring to Midi-Pyrénées as being mostly made up of Gascony, minimizing the importance of Languedoc in the région. The Midi-Pyrénées and Aquitaine régions share a common destiny it is explained, linked by the Garonne River, and were artificially separated. It is thus proposed to merge the two régions into a large région of southwest France. There have even been talks about building a single international airport of southwest France that would be located half-way between Toulouse and Bordeaux (capital of the Aquitaine région), which are 240 km. (150 miles) from each other. Without entering into the debate over whether such a distant airport would make any sense at all, it is quite clear that merging both régions would create strong rivalries between Toulouse and Bordeaux, which are competitors economically speaking, not to mention the almost impossible task of choosing which of the two cities should become the capital of the new région.
On the other hand, there are those who stress the past of Toulouse, referring to the County of Toulouse which extended to the Mediterranean Coast, and who would like to merge Midi-Pyrénées with Languedoc-Roussillon in order to create a large Languedoc région. This indeed would reunify the old province of Languedoc, which was split between Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon, and it would also make sense historically speaking, creating a région roughly corresponding to the old county of Toulouse. There seem also to be less economic competition between Toulouse and the cities of Languedoc-Roussillon. However, political leaders of Montpellier (capital of Languedoc-Roussillon) may disagree with the merger, opposed to losing their status of regional capital in favor of Toulouse, and loath to have Toulouse dominate the Mediterranean coast after it has dominated Midi-Pyrénées for more than 30 years already. Also, people in Roussillon, with their particular Catalan culture, might object to being incorporated into a very large Languedoc région where their distinct culture would become diluted.
The debate is still going on, and there will probably be no changes in the boundaries of French régions for some time. What is sure is that Midi-Pyrénées, located half-way between the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, shares aspects of both worlds, and cannot be easily classified as either Mediterranean or Atlantic, being more like a blend of the two.
¹ In the 1960s, eight large regional cities of France (Toulouse, Lille, Nancy, Strasbourg, Lyon, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Marseille) were made "balancing metropolises", receiving special financial and technical help from the French government in order to counterbalance the excessive weight of Paris inside France.
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