I see Bordeaux and Nantes, but they are a short ways inland. The U.S. has several like New York, Boston, Miami, Charleston.

  • 17
    I'm going to guess it's to do with trade. France got most of her trade either overland or via her northern (channel) and southern (Mediterranean) ports during the period when her cities were developing, while the US colonies did most of their trade with Europe through coastal ports and major cities grew up around those trade centers.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 0:28
  • 6
    I'd guess it's largely a matter of good harbors. Boston has its sheltered bay, as does New York. Other major coastal cities, like Philadelphia and Baltimore are a good way upriver. (Miami doesn't really count, since it's recent and tourist-oriented.) France just doesn't seem to have many good harbors right on the Atlantic coast.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 20:32
  • 5
    The question might still be interesting, but comparing the urban development of France with more than 2000 years of relative continuous development with the USA with relatively recent development from outside is probably not a very good idea. Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 20:42
  • New York is also a short way inland.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 23:12
  • Lack of harbors / peculiarities of the coastline?
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 3:55

7 Answers 7


First because most cities in France are much smaller than cities in the US. Compare a list of French cities by population with the same for the US. There are 11 cities in the US bigger than the 2nd largest in France (Marseille at ~855,000) and 34 bigger than the 3rd largest (Lyon at ~500,000).

Second, it does have big Atlantic coastal cities... by French standards.

Nantes and Bordeaux are both definitely ports, they're just up large, navigable rivers. Bordeaux is up the Garonne River and Nantes is on the Loire. An oceanic port on a river is a great advantage for transportation inland, and by being far up river away from the coast they provide a sheltered harbor. Portland, Oregon is the same way, a major port located 70 miles up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean.

Finally, the Atlantic coast of France is about 3 times shorter than the Atlantic coast of the US. So there's less space for cities.

I'm going into speculation here, but geography may also play a part: it's possible the Atlantic coast of France contains less natural harbors than the US does, or the winds in the Bay of Biscay made it difficult to obtain landfall. I'd love for someone to address that.

But even with all that, France just isn't very Atlantic-centric and that's where it's history comes in. When cities in France were being founded there was nobody to trade with across the Atlantic. Gaul (what the Romans called the area) was conquered by the Romans in 51 BC and by the time Europeans started trading with America France had already established her cities for a thousand years.

Her oceanic trading partners would be to the north (Britain, Norway, Germany, Baltic States, Russia) or to the south (Italy, North Africa, Balkans, Ottoman Empire). Being a continental nation inland trading along rivers was more important. Of the 10 most populous cities in France, 5 are on inland rivers (Lille, Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, and Strasbourg), 3 are on the south coast (Nice, Montpellier, Marseille), and 2 are on the Atlantic (Bordeaux, Nantes).

  • 7
    Are these two tables directly comparable? In France typically big tows are split up in many little cities, so for example the city of Marseille itself has 855,000 people only (the number displayed in the table), but in truth the metropolitan area has 1.8 million people. Is it also happening in the US table?
    – user14610
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 11:35
  • 3
    @NajibIdrissi: Yes, they are comparable. The list linked for the US is of incorporated places which is comparable. If you want to compare metropolitan areas (includes additional areas beyond the actual city), then there are lists for that (for the US see multiple links in the right sidebar on the Wikipedia page linked). Example: Incorporated area: New York:8,491,079; Paris: 2,229,621. Metropolitan area: New York:23,484,225; Paris: 12,341,418.
    – Makyen
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 21:41
  • 3
    @DavidRicherby I addressed that directly. Bordeaux and Nantes are up large, navigable rivers which lead directly to the sea. They are Atlantic ports. Portland, Oregon, 70 miles from the ocean up the Columbia, is a Pacific port. London, 20 miles from the sea up the Thames, is a port.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 22:50
  • 2
    @NajibIdrissi The absolute sizes don't matter, what matters is the size relative to other French cities. Nantes, by French standards, is a major city.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 22:53
  • 5
    Also, for a great length of time, Atlantic has been a bigger source of trouble than wealth. Vikings wreaked havoc until 11th century, then France was at war against England, for more than 200 years over 8 centuries. There were countless invasions on the Atlantic side. Cities had to be walled and were always under threat, hampering their growth. Check out the history of La Rochelle, an emblematic coastal city, which was the largest French harbour on the Atlantic until the 15th century.
    – spectras
    Commented Jan 25, 2016 at 3:08

Bordeaux and Nantes are major cities and their proximity to the Atlantic coast was key to their development so there is nothing unusual about France in this respect, it does have some major port cities on the Atlantic coast.

The question, then, is really one of local geography. Those cities are located a few tens of kilometres away from the actual coastline, mainly because they are much older than US cities. Estuaries were convenient places to build ports and it's only recently that ship size became an issue.

In fact, Saint-Nazaire, a port/city located near Nantes and very closely associated with it was developed in the 19th century specifically because it's closer to the open seas. You could look at Bremen/Bremerhaven for a somewhat related development in Germany and even Rotterdam, while it does reach all the way to Hoek-van-Holland actually has a center that's located some 40 km from the current coastline, with the most recent parts of the harbour extending ever further towards the sea. Hamburg is similar too.

Another question is why French Atlantic ports are relatively small (compare Le Havre and Dunkerque - Nantes and Bordeaux are even smaller - with Rotterdam, Hamburg or Antwerpen). Here the major factor is a lack of a good connections to a large hinterland, something French ports still suffer from (by contrast, Rotterdam is extremely well connected to the Ruhr area for example). It's not a coincidence that Marseille (at the end of the Rhone valley, a major transit axis) is the largest port in France and one of its largest cities too.

  • 6
    This is it - the age of the cities. Think of the sea as an open road and ships as the fastest, most efficient form of transport. It makes sense to sail as far inland as you can before transferring goods and passengers to slow, tedious road systems. Thus major ports will be up rivers. It's also safer, since the open Atlantic coast is a dangerous place for a ship. (That's less of a problem in the Mediterranean, so Mediterranean ports can be coastal) Only when rail and then motorised road transport increased speeds on land did it make sense to build seaports on the coast itself. Commented Jan 24, 2016 at 14:31

Cities in the USA were built quite recently. When the first cities were being founded, the major trading partners were Europe - all located East of the East coast.

Cities in France were built a long time ago. When the first cities were being founded, the French could.

Travel North and meet the English.

Travel East and meet Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Travel South and meet Spain and Africa.

It would be surprising if there were some of France's larger cities on the West.


As French ports were well established on the channel and Mediterranean a long time before there was any real trade across the Atlantic. The French population therefore lived close to these channel and Mediterranean ports.

So we then need to ask what is the benefit of a port on the Atlantic? The goods would still need to be transported to the population centres, over land transport is more expensive then leaving them on a ship for a short additional distance.

The additional distance by sea to get to a channel or Mediterranean port in France is not that great due to the Atlantic coast of France being times shorter than the Atlantic coast of the US.

So ports that could be crated cheaply on estuaries made sense for serving the population close to them, but it never made since for a great investment to create large ports to serve population in the rest of France.

The French population had already moved to cities before trade across the Atlantic become an issue and as shown above, there was little real benefit in them moving again. In the USA, there was no (white) population before the trade across the Atlantic started.


Short answer: There are few rivers in France flowing to the Atlantic in France, and few natural harbors on the Atlantic.

In the case of Bordeaux and Nantes, there are rivers that flow into inland waterways. These are technically not on the Atlantic, which is the point of part of your question.

In the case of America, there are several cities that are located either at the mouths of rivers or at excellent natural harbors. Boston and Miami are "harbor" cities. New York is at the junction of Hudson and East Rivers, Charleston at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.

  • Not to forget that the US Atlantic coast is also much longer than the French coast - a handful of major ports (Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle) could be sufficient for France. OTOH, goods imported to, say, Boston harbor are still half a continent away from Miami, transport by sea is still helpful there.
    – Chieron
    Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 14:02

Remember as well that Viking raids were devastatingly common for several hundred years. Coastal towns and cities were hit especially hard in Northern Europe. This raiding dissuaded coastal settlement for several hundred years ~800-1100- the time period which saw Europe crawl out of the Dark Ages. Since there were no competent state-level actors to protect vulnerable communities, some were abandoned after being attacked rather than re-built.

As many others have noted, France's long history tended to point in all directions except west. Until the age of exploration- beginning in the middle of the 15th century- no one, France included, was sailing west. This is not to say, however, that the Atlantic wasn't an important economic resource. It just didn't require large port cities.


As mentioned by @Schwern, the treacherous conditions of the Bay of Biscay make the area difficult for even modern day shipping operations. I cite the recent trouble the car carrier Modern Express:

"Winds blow from America to Europe and the waves grow all the way as they travel from west to east," says Prof Adrian New, from the National Oceanography Centre.

"These swell waves can be felt in the Bay of Biscay if you're still in deep water 100 miles out. They then become shorter choppier waves when you hit the continental shelf."

Swell waves are long sloping waves that are around 20ft high, but high winds can make them both bigger and steeper. Gales are most likely in the bay from October through March.

Source: BBC, 1st Feb 2016

  • Downvote without a comment? Thanks...
    – user13203
    Commented Feb 1, 2016 at 20:19

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