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 a 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") - Pyrénées (Pyrénées mountains that are the southern limit of the region). The French adjective and name of the inhabitants of the region is: Midi-Pyrénéen.
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 military region of Gascony, and later in the 18th century they were ruled from Auch by the intendant of Auch, as with 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 region by the regional council. This historical flag of Languedoc is itself derived from the coat of arms of the old county of Toulouse.
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 was divided in two by its traditional languages, Languedocian Occitan and Gascon Occitan, with Toulouse lying by the limit between the two dialects of Occitan language, on the Languedocian side. Gascon (in its several local variants : Bearnese, Aranese) was traditionally spoken in the west and southwest of the region: Gascony, Bigorre, Quatre Vallées, Nébouzan, Comminges, Couserans. While other variants of Occitan (but primarily Languedocian) was spoken in the east and northeast of the region: Languedoc, Rouergue, Quercy, and Comté de Foix.
However, French is now dominant in the region, and Midi-Pyrénées is unlike Catalonia or northern Wales where the regional languages are still very much part of everyday life in urban areas at least. Occitan was still very much used on a daily basis in the Garonne and Tarn valleys by the beginning of the 20th century though. More distant and isolated regions resisted longer, and as late as in the 1970s it was still possible to hear Occitan in 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 the language by teaching them in schools (calendretas). Today, Languedocian Occitan is only spoken by the older people in the distant areas of Quercy, Rouergue, and Comté de Foix and Gascon is only spoken by older people in distant areas of Gascony and the Pyrenees valleys. The regional channel France 3 broadcasts programs in Occitan (but not its Gascon dialect) a few hours per week. Speakers of Gascon complain of the hegemony of Languedocian Occitan and its cultural center of Toulouse, and some followers of a self-proclaimed linguist, Mr. Lafitte, even reject the classification of Gascon as a dialect of Occitan.
Today, although the daily use regional languages of Midi-Pyrénées have for the most part strongly diminished, 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 which are different from standard French and other languages used in France and which are not easily understood outside of southwest France. In that respect, the linguistic situation in Midi-Pyrénées may be compared with that of Ireland, where the use of Irish Gaelic has for the most part decreased, 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 aging 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, Lyon and Marseille whereas outside of Toulouse incomes in Midi-Pyrénées are rather low, among the lowest in France.
Finally, Midi-Pyrénées is the only region in France where the largest city (Toulouse) is so much more populous than the other towns and cities in the region. 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 region, and they resent the fact that so much is done for Toulouse by the regional council, turning the Midi-Pyrénées region into a "Region 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 workers from the rest of the region, Toulouse is actually acting as a locomotive for the whole region. Without Toulouse, Midi-Pyrénées would probably be declining much more than it has in the recent decades, both demographically and culturally as well as economically.
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 with the Rhône-Alpes region around Lyon and maybe also the Bouches-du-Rhône around Marseille. In most other regions 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 regions 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.
Midi-Pyrénées is the largest region of France. It occupies a strategic position between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. In 2006 its total GDP was 87,915 billions $ for a population of 2,755,000 people. It had a GDP/capita of $32,519 a year with an unemployment of 8.9%, the GDP per employment was equal to $80,103 a year. The economy of Midi-Pyrénées can be divided into three sectors.
Primary sector: Because of its size Midi-Pyrénées has the largest number of farms of all France with 60,000 farms in active use. It has also the largest amount of land readily usable with 2.6 million hectares. This is however being reduced by both the increasing population and the CAP. The departments of the Gers, Aveyron, Lot and Tarn-et-Garonne have the most significant agriculural activity of the region. Wine production has suffered in recent years from declining demand, reducing prices and over-production. There are 19 AOC wines in the region. A policy of merging producers into wider groups has been initiated.
Secondary sector: The second largest part of the industrial production of the region is the food industry. 4.6bn Euros are generated each year agriculture. It is however evolving as it received the fourth largest amount of foreign investment of France and is the region of France that created the largest number of entreprises in 2005 with 14,398 new entreprises. Excluding the construction and civil engineering field the secondary sector uses 15% of the regional ressources. There are several groups who have important offices and structures in the region like: Airbus, EADS, Alcatel, Siemens, Bosch and Pierre Fabre. Aerospace industry is an important source of income for the region and employs 57,000 people not to mention all the surrounding entreprises (more than 3,000) which work on the engineering, electronic, telecommunication and computing infrastructure for this industry. However there is a large restructuring plan ongoing and about 10,000 new jobs are expected to be lost outright and partners will be regrouped into larger entities.
Tertiary sector: The region has been behind the other French regions for a long time on services. However this has changed a lot in the recent years and there are many important consulting and telemarketing companies based in the area or with important offices, such as France Telecom, IBM and CapGemini. It is Toulouse, the largest city and capital, that currently concentrates the largest amount of employment however with the progressive extensions of transportation this has been grown considerably in recent years. In late 2006 a large plan was initiated to replace older train, the circulation of regional train has kept on increasing and has now reach the amount of ten million journeys each year. With 80,000 students and 15,000 scientists divided into 400 laboratories the region ranks in France's top three for scientific research. Technology transfers to small-business-entreprises is therefore substantial. Tourism is an important source of incomes for the region, partly due to a sunny climate and the presence of the Pyrénées. It is well known for its gastronomy and quality of life. Aside of casual tourism the small town of Lourdes, because of religious pilgrimage, is France's second largest tourist destination after Paris and has more hotels than any other city but Paris.
The administrative division of France is currently in debate. Many think that the communes are too small and should be merged, that the departments are outdated and should disappear, and that the regions are too small and too numerous (22 in metropolitan France) and should be merged. Regarding Midi-Pyrénées, there are two 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 region. The Midi-Pyrénées and Aquitaine regions share a common destiny it is explained, linked by the Garonne River, and were artificially separated. It is thus proposed to merge the two regions into a large region 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 region), 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 regions 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 region.
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 region. 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 region 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 region 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 regions 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.