Whatever the language, weather is always a talking point. Kate McNally looks at the diverse weather conditions across France
If there’s one thing the French do almost better than us English (and that’s saying something!), it’s talking about the weather. They talk about it a lot – in the street, in the shops, in the bars, at work and it enjoys a hallowed place in French media, especially when there is the drama of an ‘orange alert’ in extreme weather conditions.
But then, there is good reason for all the interest. Due to the varied geography of France, with borders along four different seas (the North Sea, the Channel, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean) and three mountain ranges (the Jura, the Pyrénées, and the Alps) plus a large central mountainous area (the Massif Central) and low-lying areas to the west, France boasts all kinds of weather conditions and always an element of surprise.
In the more hilly areas, the weather can change within just a few kilometres, with snow as you climb above 500 metres and sunshine further down in the valley. Similarly, some areas have their very own micro-climate thanks to the peculiarity of their position; for example the coastal port town of La Rochelle in Charente-Maritime enjoys more sunshine during the year than some parts of the Côte d’Azur, though summer temperatures are milder. Simply talk to the locals anywhere and you will discover there are hundreds and thousands of these atypical micro-climates throughout the country.
Broadly speaking however
In the north, much of the land is low-lying and the north-western areas in particular are affected by weather coming in from the Atlantic coast. The result is that when you see the weather map of northern France and south-eastern England, there are distinct similarities year-round between the maritime climates. Summers are not that hot, winters are not that cold and you can expect rain at any time of the year.
In the south-west, as you might expect, temperatures are warmer than further north and there is more sunshine. However, there is still a fair amount of rain, especially around the Pyrénées where the clouds like to gather.
In central and eastern France, winters tend to be cold as there is no warming effect from the sea and, it goes without saying, the high-altitude areas of the Jura, the Alps and the Massif Central experience long, cold and snowy winter weather. Rainfall is less than in many parts of the country, with much of it falling as part of the summer thunderstorms. Similarly, summers are warmer, even hot across the more southern parts and sometimes stifling in the centre with no cooling effect from the sea or the mountains.
The south of France enjoys a Mediterranean climate coming up from the southern coast. So it’s mild winters and hot summers most of the way, but beware the famous Mistral wind blowing down from the north through the Rhône valley, and the summer storms heralding high levels of rainfall.
As in the UK, regular weather bulletins punctuate the day’s national and regional media coverage. Most mainstream television channels provide a nationwide five-day forecast (including Corsica) following the main midday and evening news programmes, often delivered at breakneck speed to fit into the allotted time slot. Sound familiar? According to the television ratings aficionados, the brevity of the bulletin is the key to its popularity.
That said, France 3 has a successful daily hour-long programme for those requiring more in-depth weather information. Météo à la Carte goes out just before one o’clock from Monday to Friday and offers a holistic look at the weather, from how it affects your health to its implications on nature and the environment.
France also has a dedicated weather channel. La Chaine Météo, launched in 1995, broadcasts round-the-clock weather information. Bought in 2006 by Météo Consult, La Chaine Météo brand is available across the range of communication platforms – telephone, SMS, internet…
Needless to say, French television, has its fair share of pretty young things springboarding their careers from the weather slot, à la Ulrika, coining the term ‘Miss Météo’ in France. However, there is also a good number of specialist weather presenters who have garnered a popular following of loyal viewers over the years. The most popular by all accounts is Évelyne Dhéliat, at the helm of TF1’s flagship weather bulletin for more than 20 years. Even fellow professionals cite TF1 as the benchmark for clearly and accurately imparted weather information, perhaps thanks to Mme Dhéliat’s thorough preparation – she starts every morning with a visit to the headquarters of Météo-France, the French equivalent of the Met Office.
There are numerous internet sites dedicated to weather updates, the most widely used and probably most reliable being Météo France. This site is hosted by the national meteorological service and provides five-day forecasts for almost everywhere in the country. Simply type in the village or town name plus postcode and see what meteorological delights are in store. As you might expect, the site is very on the ball, reflecting changing weather predictions throughout the day.
Given the importance of the weather to France’s tourist trade, numerous specialist sites provide micro weather information related to your holiday, from how much snow is falling in the ski resorts (ausommet.fr, skiinfo.fr, hauteurdeneige.com) to how the wind affects surfing conditions along France’s coastline (surf-report.com, allosurf.net, marine.meteoconsult.fr).
And, of course, every self-respecting French tourism-related site provides constant temperature and sunshine updates throughout the summer months.
Extreme weather conditions
Parts of France are subjected at various times of the year to extreme weather conditions.
The southern and central regions, for example, can experience heatwave temperatures in the 40s in July and August, for example in 2009. The French term for sustained high temperatures is la canicule, and weather bulletins will indicate an orange alert, highlighting the potential threat to the old and frail as well as the very serious risk of forest fires. The old-fashioned-looking yellow aircraft, known as canadères, are a regular sight in the hot summers flying overhead on their way to spray water across spreading fires.
As for extreme rainfall, ironically the departments lining the Mediterranean coast get the worst of the very heavy downpours – that is, more than 200mm rainfall in one day. Some southern areas further inland are also indicated as most prone to sporadic heavy rain, including Aveyron, Lozère, Ardèche, Drôme and Vaucluse. Often, these sudden bouts of heavy rain occur during the summer electrical storms.
Météo France has set up a website (pluiesextremes.meteo.fr) which classifies the heaviest downpours recorded over a 24-hour period in France, including all the historical data back to 1958. Their records from the past 50 years indicate that Gard and Ardèche are most susceptible to sudden heavy rain, effectively the area directly north from almost the mid-point of the French Mediterranean coast.
The worst event in recent history, however, was the flooding in Var in June 2010 which caused widespread damage in Draguignan and the surrounding area, claiming 26 lives.
Sunniest places in France
It is no secret that the sunniest and warmest part of France is the Côte d’Azur, in particular the coastal area of Var. This is thanks to its position at the foot of the Alps, which protect the area from the wind and inclement weather descending from the north.
Other top sunny places in France include the Bouches-du Rhône department, notably Marseille and Aix-en-Provence; southern parts of Ardèche and Drôme, particularly Aubenas (protected by the Cévennes mountains) and Montélimar respectively; in the south-west, La Rochelle and Perpignan fare as well on the sunshine front, as does the Arcachon basin.
And let’s not forget the French island of Corsica, an extremely popular tourist destination where the sun is almost always shining, even in autumn.
As for the snow
If it’s guaranteed snow you’re looking for, then your best bet is to head for the French Alps. Here is where the greatest amount of snow falls in the country, often from October through to the end of May, which is why the Alps are home to France’s most developed and impressively run ski resorts.
Effectively, if the snow falls for eight months of the year, then it is worth investing in all the relevant infrastructure, commerce and hospitality that makes up the pre, après and during ski! Hence the larger domains, such as Les 3 Vallées in Savoie, which offers the largest skiable area in the world, linking together more than 300 slopes.
For English people especially, most of whom have to book travel and accommodation well in advance for a ski holiday, it is important to choose a mountain range that never fails to come up trumps with the white stuff. Plus, if you opt for the start or the end of the snow season, you’re very likely to find a bargain.
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