National park

A national park is an area within which the conservation of fauna, flora, soil, subsoil, the atmosphere, water bodies and the natural environment in general is of special interest. In order to protect national parks from degradation, no artificial interventions likely to alter their appearance, composition and development are permitted. The April 2006 law introduced the terms “core” (“cœur”) and “partnership area” (“aire d’adhésion”) to describe the central and peripheral zones of parks respectively. For all parks, it provides for the establishment of a charter and a conservation and development plan for the whole area concerned (a description of strict protection measures for the core and authorised development in the partnership area).

A long gestation

The act of nature conservation is a social construct that occurs when people become aware of the risk of losing elements which they value and wish to save, without economic motivation. This threat to nature was first perceived in the Western world in the mid-19th century. In 1857, an imperial decree in France ringfenced 122 hectares around the Grande Chartreuse monastery to be protected from logging activities.

The so-called “réserves artistiques” or “artistic reserves” of the Fontainebleau Forest were the world’s the first areas to be protected for the purpose of nature conservation, following the imperial decree of 13 April 1861. Whilst this milestone preceded both Yosemite State Park and Yellowstone National Park in the United States, by three years and over ten years respectively, it took ten years of negotiation by artists from the Barbizon School to achieve. This forest (Ill. 1) was in fact considered for “national park” status in 1892, without success (although relaunched in 2009, the project was abandoned at the end of the 2010s, partly because of the need to create the park’s “core” and have stakeholders agree upon its principles).

Ill. 1. Poster for Fontainebleau promoting the castle and forest on equal terms, late 19th century (coll. BNF, cote EST ENT DN-1 (CAMIS/8))

In 1906, the first law in this area (the Beauquier law) established departmental classification commissions to enable the protection of picturesque sites and natural monuments. Tourism stakeholders were quick to take advantage of the law, finding it equally apt for promoting monuments and sites as for limiting urban development associated with new settlements (Vincent, 2013). It is incorporated in the law of 2 May 1930 which officialised registered and classified natural sites.

In 1913, E. A. Martel, a member of the Club Alpin Français (French Alpine Club) and the Touring-Club de France proposed a motely list of 355 sites that could be classified as national parks, to protect them from “damage” caused by industry and tourism. The associations played a very active role: the Club Alpin Français, the Société des Touristes du Dauphiné and the Touring Club de France promoted the “spectacle of nature” (nature show) and contemplation. Their approach was emulated enthusiastically around the world. The 1922 creation of the Grand Paradiso national park in Italy was used as an argument to promote the setting up of a similar one in France, in Vanoise (Laslaz et al., 2020: P. 18-19). National parks were established in France by the law of 22 July 1960. The first French national park, Vanoise, was created in 1963.

And yet, however “natural” these areas were declared to be, their selection and elevation were strictly societal achievement. Our Romantic heritage dictated that manifestations of sublime nature are worthy of interest while flatter expanses are excluded from the pantheon. When we forget this factor and fetishize natural places, we end up ignoring the social groups who live in these areas and who hold on to them dearly.  From time to time, particularly when wild animals are reintroduced to an area, these groups remind us of their presence and contest the situation imposed upon them.

A very restrictive instrument

The rationale behind national parks is conservation not preservation. A national park consists of a core, uninhabited or sparsely populated, where strict regulations protect the environment (fauna, flora, landscape), and of a partnership area subject to looser regulations (Ill. 2). In this second area, municipalities located within an optimal perimeter defined by the decree creating the park adhere to the park charter. Parks fall under the Environment Ministry and each park is managed by a public body (Violier et al., 2021: P. 148-149).

Nature reserves can be associated with both “zones”, as a form of transition from one to the other. National parks also provide for the possibility of establishing non-intervention reserves. These three non-intervention reserves, established following a complicated procedure involving validation by the Council of State, the highest national jurisdiction, now prohibit all human activity within their boundaries, with the aim of preservation.

Ill. 2. Map showing the locations of nature parks in France in 2020. Of the eleven French national parks in existence in 2022, seven are located in mountainous regions and three protect coastal environments. There are also nine marine parks as well as regional nature parks (Collectif, 2004-2015-2019. Map by Jean-Benoit Bouron, Samuel Depraz and Pierre-Marie Georges, 2015-2020, extracted from the Géoconfluences glossary, 2022).

An ambiguous relationship with tourism

While tourism promoters have been particularly active in achieving the creation of national parks, there is a degree of mistrust regarding the operating conditions of nature sites.

Since 2000, a cause for concern among decision-makers has been the idea of an “explosion in tourist attendance” at natural sites (an expression included in the mission letter of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in view of Jean-Pierre Giran’s report, Les parcs nationaux: une référence pour la France, une chance pour ses territoires, 2003, quoted by Jolivet, 2020). French national parks received 8.5 million visitors in 2018, almost double the figure from ten years before. The question of new sources of funding is also being raised, with a particular focus on visitors, since, unlike in other countries (such as the United States), there is no entrance fee for French natural parks.

While welcoming the public is one of the ten missions of a national park, as promoted by the federation (missions 5 and 6), it should be noted that the words “tourist”, “tourism” and even “visitor” are not mentioned on the dedicated page of the website.

Johan VINCENT and Philippe VIOLIER


  • Site Internet de la fédération des parcs nationaux:
  • Collectif, 2004-2015-2019, «Parc national en France, parc naturel régional (PNR)», Géoconfluences. en ligne.
  • Jolivet Simon, «Le tourisme dans les parcs nationaux  itinéraire d’une ambiguïté», Revue juridique de l’environnement. vol. 45, n°4, p. 667-671, en ligne.
  • Laslaz Lionel, Cadoret Anne et Milian Johan, 2020, Atlas des espaces protégés en France. Des territoires en partage? Paris, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 120 p.
  • Vincent Johan, 2013, «Origine des rapports complexes à la nature dans les stations balnéaires françaises», VertigO, la revue électronique en sciences de l’environnement. vol. 13, n°13, en ligne.
  • Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le tourisme en France 1, approche globale. Londres, ISTE Éditions, 273 p.