In this paper, we use mainly field data from the Massif Central area, which have been presented in a companion paper [Michon and Merle, 2001], to discuss the origin and the evolution of the West European Rift system. It is shown that the tectonic event in the Tertiary is two-stage. The overall geological evolution reveal a tectonic paradox as the first stage strongly suggests passive rifting, whereas the second stage displays the first stage of active rifting. In the north, crustal thinning, graben formation and sedimentation at sea level without volcanism during the Lower Oligocene, followed by scattered volcanism in a thinned area during Upper Oligocene and Lower Miocene, represent the classical evolution of a rift resulting from extensional stresses within the lithosphere (i.e. passive rifting). In the south, thinning of the lithospheric mantle associated with doming and volcanism in the Upper Miocene, together with the lack of crustal thinning, may be easily interpreted in terms of the first stage of active rifting due to the ascent of a mantle plume. This active rifting process would have been inhibited before stretching of the crust, as asthenospheric rise associated with uplift and volcanism are the only tectonic events observed. The diachronism of these two events is emphasized by two clearly distinct orientations of crustal thinning in the north and mantle lithospheric thinning in the south. To understand this tectonic paradox, a new model is discussed taking into account the Tertiary evolution of the Alpine chain. It is shown that the formation of a deep lithospheric root may have important mechanical consequences on the adjacent lithosphere. The downward gravitational force acting on the descending slab may induce coeval extension in the surrounding lithosphere. This could trigger graben formation and laguno-marine sedimentation at sea level followed by volcanism as expected for passive rifting. Concurrently, the descending lithospheric flow induces a flow pattern in the asthenosphere which can bring up hot mantle to the base of the adjacent lithosphere. Slow thermal erosion of the base of the lithosphere may lead to a late-stage volcanism and uplift as expected for active rifting.