From Dijon to Besanqon and almost to MontÉlimar, from Clermont Ferrand to ChambÉry, the greatest part of the industries are directed, controlled and financed by societies, boards, and banks of Lyon. The city also supplies all this region with products for its factories and its wholesale houses and serves as the intermediary for the export of goods outside the region. Finally, through its stations there pass in transit goods from all directions. The Lyon region is thus a remarkable economic unity.
Dijon and Besançon are capitals for the ancient provinces of Burgundy and the frontier province of the Franche ComtÉ; Strasbourg, Nancy and Metz in the east are the capitals of Alsace and Lorraine, the latter of special modern economic importance owing to the development of the iron and steel industry; Reims, Amiens and Lille are capitals in the north of France, the last in particular being the centre of the great textile industrial area and the coalfield which serves as the hinterland for the port of Dunkirk. This gives a total, excluding Paris, of twenty-five cities, and it includes almost all the leading cities of the country.
Two other cities, however, might be added. Their claims to be independent centres of a high order are evident from their insistence on being treated as separate units in the regional organization of the chambers of commerce. They are SaintÉtienne, and Nice. The first is an ancient and modern industrial centre complementary to, but in large measure independent of, Lyon. Saint-Étienne is the centre of a small conurbation on a coalfield with about 320,000 inhabitants, and the focus for the industries -- engineering, ribbon wear and knitted goods -- in the homes and small workshops of the pays of Velay and Forez. The Saint-Étienne district long lay outside the organization of economic regions and did not accept till lately absorption into the Lyon region. The second, Nice, is a new city, the centre of a horticultural and luxury residential area, which has become the capital for the whole of the Maritime Alps north to the Var river; it may be noted that in the organization of the economic regions, it preferred union with Grenoble rather than with Marseille.
In the schemes for fewer larger regions on the lines of Vidal's plan, the following cities appear almost always as the suggested capitals, and may, therefore, be regarded in fact as the outstanding cities with real metropolitan character: Clermont Ferrand, Limoges, Bourges, Dijon, Rennes, Grenoble, Lille, Toulouse, Nancy, Lyon, Marseille, Rouen, and Nantes. These are the cities of the first order in France; the remainder, noted above, are of the second order.
The sequence of the historical development of these natural capitals of France is much the same in all cases. Each began as the centre of a Gallic tribe, usually on a hill-top. This was followed by the location of the Roman settlement on the flatter land by the river-side commanding the river crossing, the centre being the headquarters of a civitas that in turn was based on the area of the Gallic tribe. The same centres and areas were used in the Middle Ages for the siting of bishops' seats and their dioceses. In the same period they became outstanding commercial and industrial centres for their surroundings. Under the ancien rÉgime they were capitals of Provinces, several had their own Parlements and were seats of the nobility. They also had Universities, thus enjoying the fullest status of a great city. Deprived of many of their functions in 1789, they obtained a new lease of life with the coming of the railway and the growth of industry and commerce, and have in general regained their historical status, in modified character and degree, as metropolitan centres, and regional seats of commerce, industry, culture, and administration.