The contrasted tectonics of the western/central Alps is examined using a synthesis of 389 reliable focal mechanisms. The present-day strain regime is mapped and interpolated for the entire Alpine belt based on a newly developed method of regionalization. The most striking feature is a continuous area of extension which closely follows the large-scale topographic crest line of the Alpine arc. Thrusting is observed locally, limited to areas near the border of the Alpine chain. A majority of earthquakes within the Alps and its forelands are in strike-slip mode. Stress inversion methods have been applied to homogenous subsets of focal plane mechanisms in order to map regional variations in stress orientation. The stress state is confirmed to be orogen-perpendicular both for σ3 in the inner extensional zones and σ1 in the outer transcurrent/transpressional zones. Extensional areas are well correlated with the part of the belt which presents the thickest crust, as shown by the comparison with the Bouguer anomaly and the average topography of the belt. In the northwestern Swiss Alps, extension is also correlated with currently uplifting zones. These observations and our strain/stress analyses support a geodynamic model for the western Alps in which the current activity is mostly a result of gravitational ‘body’ forces. Earthquakes do not provide any direct evidence for ongoing convergence in the Alpine system, but a relationship with ongoing activity of complex block rotations of the Apulian microplate cannot be ruled out.