Toulouse: The awakening of sleeping beauty

Toulouse is the capital of “Midi-Pyrénées”, the largest region in France located in the South Western part of the country. The city is crossed by the Garonne River and situated half way between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, very near the Pyrénées Mountains and the Spanish border.


Toulouse is the 4th largest city in France after Paris, Marseille and Lyon. Occupying a large territory characterised by low-density, the municipal area has a population of 427,000 inhabitants and covers some 12,000 hectare (just a little more than Paris). The city is also spreading: the metropolitan area (1,05 million inhabitants according to 2004 estimates) includes 342 communes and stretches over 4,000 km2.

Urban growth is fuelled by a large number of new inhabitants, estimated to 20,000 each year. Population in Toulouse increases by 1,5% per year (compared with 0,37% for the whole France). Population in the metropolitan area doubled between1960 and 2000.


Founded in the 4th century BC by a Celtic tribe (Volques Tectosages), the town later became a secondary city of the Roman Empire. Many remains of this period can be seen. Later on, Toulouse grew to be the third-largest city in Roman Gaul. From the 5th century A.D., the Visigoths made the city their capital. By 500, the Visigothic Kingdom, centred at Toulouse, controlled Aquitania and Gallia Narbonensis and most of Hispania. A century later, the Franks in their turn took possession of the city. During the early Middle Age, it became the capital of the “County of Toulouse”, which was ruled by the same dynasty from 849 until 1271. Toulouse quickly expanded, due to a large influx of settlers from rural areas. The city then stretched beyond its walls to the north (Saint-Sernin), to the south (Saint-Michel) and to the west on the left bank of the Garonne. In the 12th century, the nobility lost the city to the “Capitouls” or city consuls.


In the 12th century, a great number of local lords and prominent people joined the religious movement of the Good People (later known as Cathars). A crusade (1209-1229) was initiated by the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate the heresy. In 1215, the crusaders entered Toulouse for the first time.

The count of Toulouse eventually signed a treaty with the representatives of King Louis IX (1229). The region was now firmly under the control of the King of France. The Inquisition was established in Toulouse, and the process of ridding the area of heresy began. As he was suspected of sympathizing with the heretics, Count Raymond VII had to finance the teaching of theology. A University was founded in the same year 1229, in which 14 masters from Paris first taught. Local lecturers quickly replaced them. This university became rapidly the second French university after La Sorbonne in Paris.

In the 15th century the medieval city enjoyed a period of prosperity thanks to the pastel, a plant-derived blue dye that was exported throughout the world. The red brick mansions constructed by the rich merchants, which gave Toulouse its name of “The Pink City”, date back to this period of time. The city was still governed by a bourgeois elite among which the ruling “capitouls” were recruited.

In the middle of the 16th century, a less expensive dye, indigo, arrived from America and pastel trade declined. At that time France was tore apart by a religious civil war between Catholics and Calvinists. Toulouse remained a Roman Catholic city.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, the main regional production was wheat. The major achievement of that period is the building of the 240 km long Canal du Midi (1662-1681), which runs from the city of Toulouse down to the Mediterranean port of Sète. The original purpose of the Canal du Midi was to be a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, avoiding the long sea voyage around Spain, a trip that in the 17th century required a full month of sailing. It also enabled the local merchants to export a great quantity of wheat.

The French revolution of 1789, which saw the fall of the monarchy (1792), marked the end of the Capitouls’ reign. The first mayor of Toulouse was elected.

In the following period of time Toulouse economy entered a declining phase. Rural estates belonging to the local bourgeoisie did not generate enough income and the Industrial Revolution did not really take off. Once a major metropolis of Western Europe, Toulouse therefore sank into a sleepy regional-level status. At the beginning of the 19th century there were only 52,000 inhabitants in Toulouse, 150,000 in 1911. Toulouse was a commercial and administrative centre with no hard industries except chemistry. The city has stayed behind major accumulation processes that occurred in industrial cities such as Lyon, in seaport and trading cities such as Marseille or Nantes, or in wine region such as Bordeaux.

The rise of the city in the 20th century

In the early 20th century, the relocation of key military and aerospace industries has awakened the city again.

During World War 1 the localisation of Toulouse, far away from the battlefront, made it possible to establish two major industrial firms in the field of chemistry and aeronautics construction (Latécoère, initially a wagon manufacturer, played an important role in promoting aeronautics by turning into a plane manufacturer). In addition to electricity a specialisation in chemical engineering developed.

After World War 1, population in Toulouse has increased mainly due to the arrival of immigrants fleeing Fascist regimes (especially Italy and Spain).

The period following World War II saw the emergence of a scientific research pole and a further growth of aeronautics and space industry. Political decisions, in particular from the central state, played a major role in the economic expansion of the 1960’s. The policy of “métropoles d’équilibre” [balancing metropolises] set up the basis for industrial growth outside Paris. These policies took place in the context of economic prosperity, which characterized the thirty-year boom period from 1945 to 1975. A large number of investment operations, encouraged by bonuses and exemptions led to the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the provinces. image

In Toulouse, this policy aimed in particular at strengthening aeronautical activities through the relocation of several education institutions specialised in engineering and research (in particular the National Centre for Spatial Studies, CNES). At the same period, the Airbus European consortium (founded in 1970, headquarters located in Toulouse in 1974) modernized the local aircraft industry by introducing digital technology. Motorola (a major manufacturer in electronics) established a factory in the area of Toulouse. All this contributed to foster Research & Development activities.

Major urban development projects such as the New City programme in Le Mirail were implemented. Significant investments were made in urban infrastructures.

The local higher education system also experienced major change. Aeronautics had been the first industry to connect with local research and higher education system (which explains its high level of integration of computer science and an early specialisation in digital calculation). After 1981, the new left-wing government supported cooperation between firms and academic research and several spin-offs from laboratories were created, especially in the fields of software engineering and biotechnology.

Toulouse is today the second largest university centre after Paris. All together it represents 110,000 students, 500 laboratories, and 20,000 research employees. Composed of three Universities and a Polytechnics school, it also includes many engineering schools (INSA, SupAéro, ENSICA, ENSEEIHT, INPT...), which have recently decided to join and constitute a single research and education pole.

Recent economic developments

Highly specialised firms in satellite decks (Alcatel, Matra Marconi Space), satellites programmes (SPOT, Argos) or satellite imaginery and localisation system (SPOT Images, CLS Argos) as well as Météo France, with its high-tech meteorological computer centre, settled in the area of Toulouse from the 1980’s onwards.

With Airbus having its headquarters in Toulouse, the city has become known as “Europe’s capital of aerospace industry”. The A320 is manufactured locally, as well as the assemblage of the A340, a second factory being located in Hamburg (Germany). The Aeroconstellation site -created in 2004- has been developed for the assemblage of the A380 (550 to 800 passengers) north of the agglomeration.

The explosion of a fertilizer firm in 2001 in Toulouse put an end to local chemistry industries and opened the way for the development of biotechnologies on the very site of the former chemical plants (Canceropole project) and a move towards diversification (information sciences, nanotechnology, health sector).


Since the 19th century left-wing politicians had ruled the city. From 1971 onwards the Baudis dynasty, which gave Toulouse two mayors (Pierre, the father, 1971-1983; Dominique, the son 1983-2001), succeeded in shifting the balance of power towards moderate right-wing parties. Jean-Luc Moudenc (center-right) has been the mayor since May 2004, after Philippe Douste-Blazy left his seat to become ministry of Foreign Affairs (although remaining president of the Greater Toulouse Council). Since the Baudis rule the city, the municipal debt has been reduced to zero, turning Toulouse into the only large city in France that ever achieves solvency, however with perceived risk that maintaining this financial situation might prevent from further investments in the city.


One of the major infrastructure investments was the construction of the subway in the early 1990’s. The first line of this modern metro system, the VAL, a driverless rubber-tired tram, was inaugurated in 1993 and further expanded in 2003. A new second line with 20 more stations is due to open in June 2007.

One of the key challenges for Toulouse is to reduce sociospatial segregation and socio-economic inequalities. Social housing estate, mainly located in the western part of the city, stands as a relevant example of such challenges. Developed in the early 1960’s in order to accommodate middle-income households these neighbourhoods (40,000 residents) have in the long run been inhabited by low-income populations (foreigners, unemployed persons, part-time workers) who have seen how the city has prospered without being able to benefit from it. Although these neighbourhoods are now well connected to the city centre via the metro major riots took place in these areas in 1998 and more recently in 2005, as was the case in other parts of France. It is expected that current major restructuring and rehabilitation processes carried out in these neighbourhoods will contribute to alleviate social and integration problems.



In addition to urban renewal programmes Toulouse invested much in the field of culture, which was left behind for many years. The architectural heritage was renovated (the roman basilique of Saint-Sernin, the gothic convent of the Jacobins, the elegant mansions from the 19th century belonging to the bourgeoisie and the aristocrats). Cultural facilities and events were also promoted, leading to a diversified offer: a national classical orchestra, the Capitole Theatre specialising in opera (since the 18th century), a national theatre TNT, a Zenith (9000 seats) as well as numerous museums (Les Augustins, Saint-Raymond, Les Abattoirs, La Fondation Bemberg and a Museum of Natural History soon to be open), a large multi-media library, a cinematheque. Small structures also contribute to the animation of the city, especially late at night, such as theatres and cafés, as well as various associations and festivals. The influence from Southern Europe (Spain in particular) and the large share of student population in the city make Toulouse a very lively city.