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Regions of France



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Alsace has an area of 8,283 km², making it the smallest région of metropolitan France. It is almost four times longer than it is wide, corresponding to a plain between the Rhine in the east and the Vosges mountains in the west.

It includes the départements of Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin (known previously as Sundgau and Nordgau). It borders Germany on the north and the east, Switzerland and Franche-Comté on the south, and Lorraine on the west.

It contains many forests, primarily in the Vosges and in Bas-Rhin (Haguenau Forest). Several valleys are also found in the région. Its highest point is the ballon de Guebwiller in Haut-Rhin, which reaches a height of 1426m.

Alsace has a semi-continental climate with cold and dry winters and hot summers. There is little precipitation because the Vosges protect it from the west. The city of Colmar has a sunny microclimate; it is the second driest city in France, with an annual precipitation of just 550 mm, making it ideal for vin d'Alsace (Alsatian wine).


Roman Alsace

In prehistoric times, Alsace was inhabited by nomadic hunters, but by 1500 BC, Celts began to settle in Alsace, clearing and cultivating the land. By 58 BC, the Romans had invaded and established Alsace as a center of viticulture. To protect this highly valued industry, the Romans built fortifications and military camps that evolved into various communities which have been inhabited continuously to the present day. While part of the Roman Empire, Alsace was part of Germania Superior.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Alsace became the territory of the Alemanni. The Alemanni were agricultural people, and their language formed the basis of the modern-day Alsatian dialect. Clovis and the Franks drove the Alemanni out of Alsace during the 5th century, culminating with the Battle of Tolbiac, and Alsace became part of the Kingdom of Austrasia. Under Clovis' Merovingian successors the inhabitants were Christianized. Alsace remained under Frankish control until the Frankish realm was, following the Oaths of Strasbourg of 842, formally dissolved in 843 at the Treaty of Verdun; the grandsons of Charlemagne, formally known as the founder of the Frankish realm, divided the realm into three parts. The Low Countries, Alsace, and Lorraine formed the new Frankish Middle realm which was ruled by the youngest grandson Lothar I. Lothar died early in 855 and his realm was divided into three parts. The part known as Lotharingia, or Lorraine, was given to Lothar's son. The rest was shared between Lothar's brothers Charles the Bald (ruler of the West Frankish realm) and Ludwig the German (ruler of the East Frankish realm). The Kingdom of Lotharingia was short-lived, however; the region that was to become Alsace fell to the Holy Roman Empire as part of the Duchy of Swabia in the Treaty of Meersen in 870.

At about this time the entire region began to fragment into a number of feudal secular and ecclesiastical lordships, a situation which lasted into the 17th century and was a common process in Europe. Alsace experienced great prosperity during the 12th and 13th centuries under these Hohenstaufen emperors. Frederick I set up Alsace as a province (a procuratio, not a provincia) to be ruled by ministeriales, a non-noble class of civil servants. The idea was that such men would be more tractable and less likely to alienate the fief from the crown out of their own greed. The province had a single provincial court (Landgericht) and a central administration with its seat at Hagenau. Frederick II designated the Bishop of Strasbourg to administer Alsace, but the authority of the bishop was challenged by Count Rudolph of Habsburg, who received his rights from Frederick II's son Conrad IV. Strasbourg began to grow to become the most populous and commercially-important town in the region. In 1262, after a long struggle with the ruling bishops, its citizens gained the status of free imperial city. A stop on the Paris-Vienna-Orient trade route, as well as a port on the Rhine route linking southern Germany and Switzerland to the Netherlands, England and Scandinavia, it became the political and economic center of the region. Cities such as Colmar and Hagenau also began to grow in economic importance and gained a kind of autonomy within the "Decapole" or "Dekapolis", a federation of ten free towns.

The prosperity of Alsace was terminated in the 14th century by a series of harsh winters, bad harvests, and the Black Death. These hardships were blamed on Jews, leading to the pogroms of 1336 and 1339 . An additional natural disaster was the Rhine rift earthquake of 1356 , one of Europe's worst. Prosperity returned to Alsace under Habsburg administration during the Renaissance.
La Petite France, Strasbourg
La Petite France, Strasbourg

German central power had begun to decline following years of imperial adventures in Italian lands, ceding hegemony in Europe to France, which had long since centralized power. France began an aggressive policy of expanding eastward, first to the Rhône and Meuse Rivers, and when those borders were reached, aiming for the Rhine. In 1299, the French proposed a marriage alliance between Philip IV of France's sister and Albert I of Germany's son, with Alsace to be the dowry; however, the deal never came off. In 1307, the town of Belfort was first chartered by the Counts of Montbéliard. During the next century, France was to be militarily shattered by the Hundred Years' War, which prevented for a time any further tendencies in this direction. After the conclusion of the war, France was again free to pursue its desire to reach the Rhine and in 1444 a French army appeared in Lorraine and Alsace in 1444. It took up winter quarters, demanded the submission of Metz and Strasbourg and launched an attack on Basel.

In 1469, following the Treaty of St. Omer, Upper Alsace was sold for money by Archduke Sigismund of Austria to Charles of Burgundy. Although Charles was the nominal landlord, taxes were paid to Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor. The latter was able to use this tax and a dynastic marriage to his advantage to gain back full control of Upper Alsace (apart from the free towns, but including Belfort) in 1477 when it became part of the demesne of the Habsburg family, who were also rulers of the empire. The town of Mulhouse joined the Swiss Confederation in 1515, where it was to remain until 1798.

By the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Strasbourg was a prosperous community, and its inhabitants accepted Protestantism in 1523. Martin Bucer was a prominent Protestant reformer in the region. His efforts were countered by the Roman Catholic Habsburgs who tried to eradicate heresy in Upper Alsace. As a result, Alsace was transformed into a mosaic of Catholic and Protestant territories. On the other hand, Mömpelgard (Montbéliard) to the southwest of Alsace, belonging to the Counts of Württemberg since 1397, remained a Protestant enclave in France until 1793.

This situation prevailed until 1639 when most of Alsace was conquered by France to prevent it falling into the hands of the Spanish Habsburgs, who wanted a clear road to their valuable and rebellious possessions in the Spanish Netherlands. This occurred in the greater context of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Beset by enemies and to gain a free hand in Hungary, the Habsburgs sold their Sundgau territory (mostly in Upper Alsace) to France in 1646, which had occupied it, for the sum of 1.2 million Thalers. Thus, when the hostilities finally ceased in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia, most of Alsace went to France with some towns remaining independent. The treaty stipulations regarding Alsace were Byzantine and confusing; it is thought that this was purposely so that neither the French king or the German emperor could gain tight control, but that one would play off the other, thereby assuring Alsace some measure of autonomy. Supporters of this theory point out that the treaty stipulations were authored by Imperial plenipotentiary Isaac Volmar, the former Chancellor of Alsace. The transfer of most of Alsace to France at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 marked its start, along with Lorraine, as a contested territory between France and Germany (French-German enmity).

Because warfare had caused large numbers of the population (mainly in the countryside) to die or to flee away, numerous immigrants arrived from Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Lorraine, Savoy and other areas after 1648 and until the mid-18th century. Between 1671-1711 Anabaptist refugees came from Switzerland, notably from Bern. Strasbourg became a main center of the early Anabaptist movement.

France consolidated her hold with the 1679 Treaties of Nijmegen, which brought the towns under her control. In 1681, France occupied Strasbourg in an unprovoked action. These territorial changes were reinforced at the 1697 Treaty of Ryswick which ended the War of the Grand Alliance, although the Holy Roman Empire did not accept and sign the document until 1697. However, Alsace had a somewhat exceptional position in the Kingdom of France. The German language was still used in local government, school, and education and the German (Lutheran) University of Strasbourg was continued and attended by students from Germany. The Edict of Fontainebleau, which legalized the suppression of French Protestantism, was not applied in Alsace. In contrast to the rest of France, there was a relative religious tolerance, although the French authorities tried to promote Catholicism and the Lutheran Strasbourg Cathedral had to be handed over to the Catholics in 1681. There was a customs boundary along the Vosges mountains against the rest of France while there was no such boundary against Germany. For these reasons Alsace remained marked by German culture and economically oriented towards Germany until the French Revolution.

The year 1789 brought the French Revolution and with it the first division of Alsace into the départements of Haut- and Bas-Rhin. Many of the residents of the Sundgau made "pilgrimages" to places like Mariastein Abbey, near Basel, in Switzerland, for baptisms and weddings. During the last decade of the 18th century, many Alsatians were in opposition to the Jacobins and sympathetic to the invading forces of Austria and Prussia who sought to crush the nascent revolutionary republic. When the French Revolutionary Army of the Rhine was victorious, tens of thousands fled east before it. When they were later permitted to return (in some cases not until 1799), it was often to find that their lands and homes had been confiscated. These conditions led to emigration by hundreds of families to newly-vacant lands in the Russian Empire in 1803-4 and again in 1808. A poignant retelling of this tale based on what he had himself witnessed can be found in Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea.

In response to the restoration of Napoleon I of France, in 1814 and 1815, Alsace was occupied by foreign forces, including over 280,000 soldiers and 90,000 horses in Bas-Rhin alone. This had grave effects on trade and the economy of the region since former overland trade routes were switched to newly-opened Mediterranean and Atlantic seaports.

The population grew rapidly, from 800,000 in 1814 to 914,000 in 1830 and 1,067,000 in 1846. The combination of factors meant hunger, housing shortages and a lack of work for young people. Thus, it is not surprising that people fled, not only to Russia, but also to take advantage of a new opportunity offered by the Austrian Empire. Austria had conquered lands in Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Empire and offered generous terms for colonists in order to consolidate their hold on the lands. Many Alsatians also began to sail for the United States, where after 1807 slave importation had been banned and new workers were needed for the cotton fields.

Between France and Germany

France was defeated by the Kingdom of Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). During the Prussian-led unification of Germany, Otto von Bismarck added Alsace and northern Lorraine to the new German Empire in 1871. The imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine was administered directly by the imperial government in Berlin, and was granted some measure of autonomy in 1911. An estimated 50,000 people (of a total population of about a million and a half) immigrated to France.

Alsace remained a part of Germany until the end of World War I, when Germany ceded the region to France under the Treaty of Versailles. However, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson insisted that the région was self-ruling by legal status, as its constitution had stated it was bound to the sole authority of the Kaiser and not to the German state.

Correspondingly, the government of Alsace-Lorraine declared independence as the Republic of Alsace-Lorraine, but could not fight off the French who took it over a week later. France tolerated no plebiscite, as granted by the League of Nations to some eastern German territories at this time.

After World War I, the establishment of German identity in Alsace was reversed, as Germans who had settled in Alsace since 1871 were expelled. Policies forbidding the use of German and requiring that of French were introduced. Curiously, the région was not considered to be subject to some changes in French law from 1871 to 1919, such as the 1905 Law of Separation of Church and State.

The région was effectively annexed by Germany in 1940 during World War II and reincorporated into the Greater German Reich. Alsace was merged with Baden, and Lorraine with the Saarland. The annexation, while putting a halt to the anti-German discrimination in the région, subjected it to the cruel Nazi dictatorship, which was loathed by most of the people. The German government never negotiated or declared a formal annexation, however, in order to preserve the possibility of an agreement with the West. France regained control of the war-torn area in 1944 and resumed its policy of promoting the French language with uncompromising vigor. For instance, from 1945 to 1984 the use of German in newspapers was restricted to a maximum of 25%.

In more recent years, as nationalistic emotions have receded, cultural freedom has gradually been restored. For instance, several citizens' initiatives promoting the teaching of German in some form in local kindergartens and schools have been tolerated by the Paris government.


Alsace is one of the most conservative régions of France. It is one of just two régions in metropolitan France where the conservative right won the 2004 région elections and thus controls the General Council. The president of the General Council is Adrien Zeller, a member of the Union for a Popular Movement. The frequently changing status of the région throughout history has left its mark on modern day politics in terms of a particular interest in national identity issues.


According to INSEE, Alsace had a gross domestic product of 44.3 billion euros in 2002. With a GDP per capita of €24,804, it was the second-place région of France, losing only to Île-de-France. 68% of its jobs are in the services; 25% are in industry, making Alsace one of France's most industrialised régions.

Alsace is a région of varied economic activity, including:

* viticulture (mostly in the centre of the région, between Sélestat and Colmar);
* hop harvesting and brewing (half of French beer is produced in Alsace, especially in the vicinity of Strasbourg, notably in Kronenbourg, Schiltigheim and Obernai);
* forestry development
* automobile industry (Mulhouse)
* life sciences, as part of the Alsace Biovalley and
* tourism

* Alsace has many international ties and 35% of firms are foreign companies (notably German, Swiss, American, Japanese and Scandinavian).

* 570 million tons of potassium chloride and phosphates have been mined in the past century and a museum of the industry can be found in Wittelsheim.


Alsace's population increased to 1,734,145 in 1999. It has regularly increased over time, except in wartime, by both natural growth and migration. This growth has even accelerated at the end of the 20th century. INSEE estimates that its population will grow 12.9% to 19.5% between 1999 and 2030.

With a density of 209/km², Alsace is the third most densely populated région in metropolitan France.


The road network

Most major car journeys are made on the A35 autoroute (with intermittent areas of dual carriageways), which links Saint-Louis on the Swiss border to Lauterbourg on the German border.

The A4 toll-road (towards Paris) begins 20 km northwest of Strasbourg and the A36 toll-road towards Lyon, begins 10 km west from Mulhouse.

Spaghetti-junctions (built in the 1970s and 1980s) are prominent in the comprehensive system of motorways in Alsace, especially in the outlying ares of Strasbourg and Mulhouse. These cause a major buildup of traffic and are the main sources of pollution in the towns, notably in Strasbourg where the motorway traffic of the A35 was 170,000 per day in 2002.

At present, plans are being considered for building a new dual carriageway west of Strasbourg, which would reduce the buildup of traffic in that area by picking up north- and southbound vehicles and getting rid of the buildup outside of Strasbourg. The line plans to link up the interchange of Hoerdt to the north of Strasbourg, with Innenheim in the southwest. The opening is envisaged at the end of 2011, with an average usage of 41,000 vehicles a day. Estimates of the French Works Commissioner however, raised some doubts over the interest of such a project, since it would pick up only about 10% of the traffic of the A35 at Strasbourg.

To add to the buildup of traffic, the neighbouring German state of Baden-Württemberg plans to impose a tax on heavy-goods vehicles using their roads. Thus, HGVs travelling from north Germany to Switzerland or southern Alsace would most probably bypass the A5 on the Alsace-Baden-Württemberg border and use the untolled, French A35 instead.

The train network

TER Alsace is the rail network serving Alsace. Its network is articulated around the city of Strasbourg. It's one of the most developed rail network in France, financially sustained partly by the Frenck railroad business SNCF, and partly by the région Alsace.

Because the Vosges are surmountable only by the Col de Saverne, it has been suggested that Alsace needs to open up and get closer to France in terms of its rail links. Different plans are due to be implemented:

* the TGV Est (Paris - Strasbourg); (ongoing, to be brought into service by 2007);
* the TGV Rhine-Rhône or a Dijon-Mulhouse line (to start in construction in 2006, with anticipated completion in 2011);
* an interconnection with the German InterCityExpress, as far as Kehl and/or Ottmarsheim;
* a tram-train system in Mulhouse (May 2006), then Strasbourg (2011).

However, the abandoned Maurice-Lemaire tunnel towards Saint-Dié-des-Vosges was rebuilt as a toll-road.

The river network

Port traffic of Alsace exceeds 15 million tonnes, of which about three quarters is centred on Strasbourg, which is the second busiest French fluvial harbour. The enlargement plan of the Rhine-Rhône channel, intended to link up the Mediterranean Sea and Central Europe (Rhine, Danube, North Sea and Baltic Sea) was abandoned in 1998 for reasons of expense and land erosion, notably in the Doubs valley.

There are two international airports in Alsace:

* the international airport of Strasbourg in Entzheim;
* the international EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, which is the seventh largest French airport in terms of traffic.

The city is also two hours away from one of the biggest European airports, Frankfurt Main.


Most of the Alsatian population is Roman Catholic, but largely because of the région's German influence, a significant Protestant community also exists. Unlike the rest of France, the Alsace-Moselle région still adheres to the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801, which provides public subsidies to the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches, as well as to Jewish synagogues; public education in these faiths is offered. This divergence in policy from the French majority is due to the région having been administered by Imperial Germany when the 1905 law separating the French church and state was instituted (for a more comprehensive history, see: Alsace-Lorraine). Controversy erupts periodically on the appropriateness of this legal disposition, as well does the exclusion of other religions from this arrangement.

Following the Protestant Reformation, the principle of cuius regio, eius religio led to a certain amount of religious diversity in the highlands of northern Alsace. Landowners, who as "local lords" had the right to decide which religion was allowed on their land, were eager to entice populations from the more attractive lowlands to settle and develop their property. Many accepted without discrimination Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Jews and Anabaptists. Multiconfessional villages appeared, particularly in the region called Crumpled Alsace (fr: Alsace bossue). Alsace became one of the French regions boasting a thriving Jewish community, and the only region with a noticeable amount of Anabaptists. The schism of Amishes under the lead of Jacob Amman from Mennonites happened in 1693 in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. Ultra-catholic Louis XIV tried in vain to force them out of Alsace. When Napoleon imposed military conscription without religious exception, most emigrated to the American continent.

From 1707 on, following the taking of control over Alsace by the Catholic kingdom of France, the simultaneum was instaured, by which many Reform and Lutheran churches were forced to allow time-slots for the Catholic Church. About 50 such "simultaneous churches" still exist in 21th century Alsace, while Catholic services are held nowadays only occasionally.


Historically part of the Holy Roman Empire, the région has passed between French and German control numerous times, resulting in a rich cultural blend.


Although German was the official language for a part of the Middle-Age Era, the language spoken in Alsace nowadays, is standard French.

The traditional language of the région is Alsatian, an Alemannic dialect of Upper German and thus closely related to Swiss German. Some Frankish dialects of West Middle German are also spoken in the extreme north of Alsace. Neither Alsatian nor the Frankish dialects have any form of official status, as is customary for regional languages in France, although both are now recognized as languages of France and can be chosen as subjects in lycées.

Since 1945, the influence of standard French has been ever increasing in Alsace, and today Alsace is largely a French-speaking area. More often assumed to be a bilingual area (French/Alsatian), Alsace is actually evolving fast toward situation of total French monolingualism. This situation is documented in Le declin du dialecte alsacien, a study funded by the General Council of Alsace and carried out in twenty secondary schools by Calvin Veltman and M.N. Denis. People above 70 still speak Alsatian at home, but the younger generations use French even at home, and the vast majority of people below 30 do not understand Alsatian anymore.[citation needed] This situation has provoked a sort of desire to preserve the traditional Alsatian language, which is perceived as endangered by French, a situation paralleled in other régions of France with regional languages such as Brittany or Occitania. Alsatian is now taught in French high schools, but the overwhelming presence of French media make the survival of Alsatian uncertain among younger generations.

The linguistic situation of Alsace can be summed up like this: the région is fast evolving toward a situation where standard French is the only language used at home and at work, whereas an increasing number of people have a good knowledge of standard German as a foreign language learned in school.

Additionnally, it can be underlined that the local language, Alsatian, has also been influenced by Yiddish, the Ashkenazi Jew language. Witness to that is the language used in The Nanny specifically by Fran, to use some words in Alsatian, like the way she calls the biscuits and cookies her mother makes.


Alsatian cuisine, strongly influenced by the Germanic culinary traditions, is marked by the use of pork in various forms. Traditional dishes include baeckeoffe, tartes flambées (flammekueche), choucroute, and fleischnackas. The south of Alsace, also called Sundgau, is characterized by carpe frite.

The festivities of the year's end involve the production of a great variety of biscuits and small cakes called bredalas as well as pain d'épice (gingerbread), especially from Gertwiller, which are given to children starting on Saint Nicholas Day.

A wine-producing région, Alsace wines are primarily white. Its wines, which have a strong Germanic influence, are called vins d'Alsace. It produces some of the world's most noted dry rieslings and is the only région in France to produce mostly varietal wines identified by the names of the grapes used (wine from Burgundy is also mainly varietal, but not normally identified as such), typically from grapes also used in Germany. The most notable example is gewurztraminer.

Alsace is also the main beer-producing région of France, thanks primarily to breweries in and near Strasbourg. These include those of Kronenbourg, Fischer, Heineken, Météor, and Kanterbräu. Hops are grown in Kochersberg and in northern Alsace. Schnapps is also traditionally made in Alsace, but it is in decline because home distillers are becoming less common and the consumption of traditional, strong, alcoholic beverages is decreasing.

Alsatian food is synonymous with conviviality, the dishes are substantial and served in generous portions and it has one of the richest regional kitchens. The gastronomic symbol of the région is undoubtedly Sauerkraut.

The word "Sauerkraut" in Alsatian has the form "Sûrkrût (Saurkraut)", which means "sour cabbage" as its German equivalent. This word was included into the French language as choucroute.

To make it, the cabbage is finely shredded, layered with salt and juniper and left to ferment in wooden barrels. Sauerkraut can be served with poultry, pork, sausage or even fish.

Traditionally it is served with pork, Strasbourg sausage or frankfurters, bacon, smoked pork or smoked Morteau or Montbéliard sausages or a selection of pork products. Served alongside are often roasted or steamed potatoes or dumplings.

Additionally, Alsace is known for its fruit juices and mineral waters.

A jewish influence can also be noted in its goods, and in the names of them, through the Yiddish language.


The traditional habitat of the Alsatian lowland consists of houses constructed with walls in half-timbering and cob and roofing in flat tiles. This type of construction can be seen in other areas of France, but their particular abundance in Alsace is owed to several reasons:

1. The proximity to the Vosges where the wood can be found.
2. Wood was used more than stone because it resisted earthquakes better, due to its greater flexibility.
3. During periods of war and bubonic plague, villages were often burned down, so to prevent the collapse of the upper floors, stone ground floors were built and the upper floors built in half-timberings to prevent the spread of fire.
4. During most of the part of its history, a great part of Alsace was flooded by the Rhine every year. Half-timbered houses were easy to knock down and to move around during those times (a day was necessary to move it and a day to rebuilt it in another place).

However, half-timbering was found to increase the risk of fire, which is why from the 19th century, it began to be rendered. In recent times, villagers started to paint the rendering white in accordance with Beaux-Arts movements. To discourage this, the régions's authorities gave financial grants to the inhabitants to paint the rendering in various colors, in order to return to the original style and many inhabitants accepted (more for financial reasons than by firm belief).


The stork is a main feature of Alsace and was the subject of many legends told to children. The bird practically disappeared around 1970, but re-population efforts are continuing. They are mostly found on roofs of houses, churches and other public buildings in Alsace.


* Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg
* Musée de l'automobile de Mulhouse
* Ungersheim open air museum
* Cité du train museum in Mulhouse
* The EDF museum in Mulhouse
* Christmas markets in Kaisersberg, Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar
* Departmental Centre of the History of Families (CDHF) in Guebwiller
* Struthof concentration camp
* Schoenenbourg fort of the Maginot line
* Mount Ste Odile: see Odile
* Alsace Wine Route
* Musée de la déportation in Schirmeck, near the Struthof, the only deportation camp on the French terrotory during WWII
* Mémorial d'Alsace-Lorraine, reminding both areas history in Schirmeck


* Colmar
* Haguenau
* Molsheim
* Mulhouse
* Ribeauvillé
* Saint Louis
* Saverne
* Selestat
* Strasbourg
* Thann
* Wissembourg


Source: Wiki under GNU

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