Understanding what my country looks like administratively will help you understand what we are like as a people. Our civilization is a product of our environment (and of our hefty and elaborate bureaucracy). Also, my country is far more diverse (and larger) than you might expect.
France is, in fact, more than twice the size of the United Kingdom and 1.5 times the size of Germany. Of course size comparisons pale when the US comes into play although we are roughly the same size as Texas, and similarly modest.
France is divided into 18 administrative regions, 13 of them in mainland France and the rest, products of colonial adventures, scattered around the Caribbean or Indian Ocean. A region would be, say, like a grouping of US states, for example, the Southwest, or the South. A department would be more like a state.
Perhaps these maps will give you a better idea, and if not, we'll be exploring my country in a lot more detail!
Our 18 regions are broken down into 101 departments, which we are supposed to know by heart but which we don't, except for those that are near where we either live or spend our summer vacations.
These departments have evolved over time and every so often, a politician decides to leave his mark by changing the boundaries, confusing everyone.
For example, in 1964, the area around Paris was made up of three departments: Seine, Seine-et-Marne, and Seine-et-Oise. For a variety of administrative reasons, the Seine and Seine-et-Oise were replaced by SEVEN NEW departments and France went from 94 departments to 99. Not content to leave well enough alone, in 1996 Corsica was split in two, raising the number of departments to 100. Then all sorts of complicated things happened to our overseas departments and we ended up with 101, which is what we have now. But before getting a map tattoo, wait a while. It will change again, I promise.
These are the regions of Metropolitan France (meaning the bit that's in Europe), and the departments they contain. Because we are thus organized, someone might one day mention you should visit the 06 - and what on earth is that? This list should help make sense of it all.
Ain (01) ■ Allier (03) ■ Ardèche (07) ■ Cantal (15) ■ Drôme (26) ■ Isère (38) ■ Loire (42) ■ Haute-Loire (43) ■ Puy-de-Dôme (63) ■ Rhône (69) ■ Savoie (73) ■ Haute-Savoie (74)
Côte-d'Or (21) ■ Doubs (25) ■ Jura (39) ■ Nièvre (58) ■ Haute-Saône (70) ■ Saône-et-Loire (71) ■ Yonne (89) ■ Territoire de Belfort (90)
Côtes-d'Armor (22) ■ Finistère (29) ■ Ille-et-Vilaine (35) ■ Morbihan (56)
Centre-Val de Loire
Cher (18) ■ Eure-et-Loir (28) ■ Indre (36) ■ Indre-et-Loire (37) ■ Loir-et-Cher (41) ■ Loiret (45)
Corse-du-Sud (2A) ■ Haute-Corse (2B)
Ardennes (08) ■ Aube (10) ■ Marne (51) ■ Haute-Marne (52) ■ Meurthe-et-Moselle (54) ■ Meuse (55) ■ Moselle (57) ■ Bas-Rhin (67) ■ Haut-Rhin (68) ■ Vosges (88)
Aisne (02) ■ Nord (59) ■ Oise (60) ■ Pas-de-Calais (62) ■ Somme (80)
Paris (75) ■ Seine-et-Marne (77) ■ Yvelines (78) ■ Essonne (91) ■ Hauts-de-Seine (92) ■ Seine-Saint-Denis (93) ■ Val-de-Marne (94) ■ Val-d'Oise (95)
Calvados (14) ■ Eure (27) ■ Manche (50) ■ Orne (61) ■ Seine-Maritime (76)
Charente (16) ■ Charente-Maritime (17) ■ Corrèze (19) ■ Creuse (23) ■ Dordogne (24) ■ Gironde (33) ■ Landes (40) ■ Lot-et-Garonne (47) ■ Pyrénées-Atlantiques (64) ■ Deux-Sèvres (79) ■ Vienne (86) ■ Haute-Vienne (87) ■
Ariège (09) ■ Aude (11) ■ Aveyron (12) ■ Gard (30) ■ Haute-Garonne (31) ■ Gers (32) ■ Hérault (34) ■ Lot (46) ■ Lozère (48) ■ Hautes-Pyrénées (65) ■ Pyrénées-Orientales (66) ■ Tarn (81) ■ Tarn-et-Garonne (82)
Pays de la Loire
Loire-Atlantique (44) ■ Maine-et-Loire (49) ■ Mayenne (53) ■ Sarthe (72) ■ Vendée (85)
Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04) ■ Hautes-Alpes (05) ■ Alpes-Maritimes (06) ■ Bouches-du-Rhône (13) ■ Var (83) ■ Vaucluse (84)
These regions are not in Metropolitan France (meaning they are on other continents) but they are fully integrated politically into France (they pay taxes, send representatives to the Legislative Assembly and so on):
Because of history, France has an additional set of overseas possessions of various categories which you might not know 'belong' to us. These include...
The idea of departments has a long history.
We first floated the idea to our then king, Louis XIV, in 1655, but it took until the French Revolution to sort things out. At that time, France was a mish-mash of administrative, military, religious, legal or fiscal territories that overlapped one another.
Finally, in 1789, the French Revolution brought some order to the confusion and 83 departments were created. Their sizes were determined so that one could ride from anywhere in the department to its capital on horseback in less than a day.
Today, some departments are urban, some are rural, and their size varies wildly. In densely populated ones, you can cross the entire department in half an hour on a bus or tram. In the more rural areas, like mine, you'll have to drive a full hour-and-a-half to reach the capital. Given France's excessive bureaucracy, you will have to do this more often than you think, since much interaction with the government involves gathering tons of paperwork to be presented in person at a given time and date. If you don't have a car, well... you can spend up to half a day on public transport just getting there.
Most departments are named after rivers and mountains (with a few exceptions such as Savoy, which always likes to go its own way and sometimes doesn't believe it is part of France at all). Each department has a two-digit number, except Corsica, which has one digit and one letter (2A and 2B) and the overseas departments, which have three digits. Making the numbering system uniform would perhaps have been simpler...