In Europe, exotic species are assessed for their potential threat only after they have already become weeds. To test hypotheses underlying risk assessment procedures, 274 North and South American exotic species naturalized in France were compared to differentiate environmental from agricultural weeds and to characterize weeds of several crops. Most agricultural exotic weeds belonged to the Asteraceae and the Poaceae, but proportionally to the total number of invasive species from a family the most successful families were the Amaranthaceae, Euphorbiaceae and Poaceae. Weed status in North and South America was the best predictor of agricultural weed status in France, and a pre-1900 date of introduction was associated with a greater likelihood of having become a major weed. The characteristics of 78 species present in field crops were examined in relation to management practices. In annual crops, the life-cycle compatibility of weeds appeared to be the main factor of selection. Exotic species differed in their C4 photosynthesis pathway in maize and rice. In vineyards, many ecological strategies are possible because the habitat is heterogeneous. Intrageneric comparison of exotic and native species showed a superior relative growth rate and higher biomass production under nutrient-rich conditions for exotics. However, it is still difficult to find a predictive function that fits well with all observed cases of weed invasion.