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Midi-Pyrénées has no historical or geographical unity. It is one of the regions 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 of so-called "balancing metropolises" (métropoles d'équilibre)¹. Another example of this is the region of Rhône-Alpes which was created as the region for Lyon.
The name chosen for the new region was decided by the French central government without reference to the historical provinces (too many of them inside the region) and based purely on geography: Midi (i.e. "southern regions", in a Parisian perspective) - Pyrénées (Pyrenees mountains that are the southern limit of the region). The French adjective and name of the inhabitants of the region is: Midi-Pyrénéen.
Historically, Midi-Pyrénées is made up of several former French provinces:
* 24.2% of Midi-Pyrénées is Gascony: western half of Haute-Garonne department, 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 an eastern fringe of Gascony. Gascony also extends over the Aquitaine region.
* 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 department), which is sometimes considered as a province separate from Languedoc. Languedoc also extends over the Languedoc-Roussillon region.
* 19.9% of Midi-Pyrénées is Rouergue: Aveyron department 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: department 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 region.
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 region by the regional council. This historical flag of Languedoc is itself derived from the coat of arms of the old county of Toulouse.
While the metropolitan area of Toulouse at the center of the region is a highly densely populated area, with densities reaching 3500 inhabitants per km² (9000 inhabitants per sq. miles), the rest of the region is sparsely populated, with densities ranging from 25 to 60 inh. per km² (65 to 155 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. Midi-Pyrénées was 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 region: Gascony, Bigorre, Quatre Vallés, Nébouzan, Comminges, Couserans. Occitan (also in its many local variants) was spoken in the east and northeast of the region: Languedoc, Rouergue, Quercy, and Comté de Foix.
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 region. 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.
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 region, 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.
Despite all these differences, it is wrong to assume that Midi-Pyrénées exists only on paper. Since the region was activated in the 1970s, a certain sense of a "Midi-Pyrenean" identity has emerged. Inhabitants of the region 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 region, 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 region. 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 region 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 was also set up by the regional council to ensure frequent train connections between the different parts of the region.
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.
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