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READER QUESTIONS

Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why is France so popular?

In this mini series, The Local answers some of the most common questions that appear when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

A woman reads a book on a deckchair as people walk next to parasols on the
Photo: Iroz Gaizka / AFP

Why is France . . . so popular?

This is a rather vague question – but one that’s high on the autocomplete when you type in France into the search engine. There can be no doubt that France was, before the pandemic, the world’s number one tourist destination, and it is very open in its ambition to retain that title when travel reopens fully.

Here are some of the many reasons tourists flock to France.

The City of Light

For many, but by no means all visitors, Paris and France are one and the same. The French capital is a huge draw for foreign visitors – before Covid, the city attracted more than 30 overseas tourists a year in fact, more than any other city in the world.

There’s the city’s romantic image, the stunning architecture, the Louvre museum, the iconic Eiffel Tower as well as the simple pleasure of sitting at a café terrace and watching the world go by. 

European and US visitors flocked here for years. And, prior to the pandemic, the appeal of Paris had started to grip new markets, with wealthy Chinese nationals flocking to the Champs Elysées and its array of boutiques.

And don’t forget Disneyland, which is a destination in itself for foreign visitors. With around 15 million visitors each year, the theme park, just to the east of the French capital, is Europe’s top tourist destination.

Sun, sea, mountains, castles

Many French people shun international destinations for their summer holidays and instead choose to travel within their own country. Why? Because France has everything, from sandy beaches, to snow-capped mountains and vast expanses of rolling, dramatic, ever-changing countryside.

Basically France offers something for everyone. You want beaches? France has Atlantic or Mediterranean ones. You want snow-capped mountains? No problem – there’s the Alps, Pyrenees, Jura, Voges, or the Massif Central. You want fairytale castles and culture? Just throw a stone.

The weather is a big factor, too. On the whole, France is Goldilocks country for weather – it’s generally not too hot, or too cold, but just right for whatever you’re after.

Food, glorious food

France and cuisine are inseparable. The chance to dine on French specialities, even the clichéd snails or steak tartare, is a major attraction. 

France knows this and is keen to protect its status as the world’s food capital, as evidenced by its “homemade” food label scheme designed to discourage chefs from using frozen or ready-prepared ingredients.

No proper French meal is complete without a few glasses of ‘vin’ and the country’s vast array of home-produced wines is another draw for tourists. 

Culture, n’est pas?

France is proud of its long – and often tumultuous – history, from the French Revolution to Napoleon and the two world wars, and historical sites are often on the itinerary for visitors.

There are the battle sites of the Somme and the D-Day landings, as well as the stunning chateaux, churches and cathedrals that decorate the landscape.

France has dozens of Unesco World Heritage sites, dotted around the country. Museums and art galleries are also a major pull for tourists. The Louvre is home to the Mona Lisa among around 35,000 other artefacts and artworks and is the world’s most-visited museum.

Escape to the country

We’ve mentioned the countryside already. But it deserves its own slot. Around 80 percent of France is rural – and most of it stunning and tranquil. 

The most popular areas are the chateaux-heavy Loire Valley and lavender-scented Provence.

The countryside is particularly popular with those from the UK, who have a romanticised vision of quiet rural life in la France profonde, to where they escape from the hustle and bustle of their lives in Britain’s busy towns and cities.

An accident of geography

Let’s end with the one the French don’t like to talk about. The fact that France is where it is may account for part of its appeal. 

For UK holidaymakers it’s long been a relatively easy and short cross-Channel hop, while 13 million German visitors can’t be wrong, either, surely? 

Not all of France’s foreign visitors actually spend much time, or money, here, beyond that needed to pay motorway tolls en route to somewhere else – such as Italy or Spain.

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Member comments

  1. France is a global power with language schools all across the world promoting French culture and politics, a nuclear country and a leading member of the EU, one of the signatories of the treaty of Rome in 1957. For these reasins France is a respected and much loved country.

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

‘The French have a taste for princes’ – Why British royals are so popular in France

The announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II has naturally caused widespread sadness and an outpouring of tributes in the UK, but also in France where the British royals have long been popular.

'The French have a taste for princes' - Why British royals are so popular in France

Perhaps the best known thing about French history is that they guillotined their own royals back in 1793. There were a couple of brief returns to monarchy, plus a self-crowned Emperor, but these days France is a firmly republican country.

But that doesn’t stop the French from showing huge interest in, and affection for, the royals on the other side of the English Channel.

In addition to fulsome tributes from president Emmanuel Macron and other high profile figures in France, the Union Jack was added to the flags outside the president’s Elysée Palace and the lights on the Eiffel Tower were turned off on Thursday night after the announcement of the death of the Queen, at the age of 96.

French TV channels on Thursday afternoon showed rolling news updates from the UK, while TV historian Stéphane Bern presented a specially recorded tribute programme to the Queen.

On Friday, three of France’s daily newspapers made the royal death their front page story, with Le Parisien using the headline Nous l’avons tant aimée (we loved her so much), Le Figaro saying L’adieu à la reine (farewell to the queen) and Libération opting for La peine d’angleterre (England’s pain, but also a pun on La reine d’angleterre).

But this wasn’t a one-time event sparked by the death of such a long-reigning and much-loved figure, royal fever frequently strikes France, especially during royal weddings. 

In 2021, 6 million people in France watched the funeral of Prince Phillip, 4 million watched the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and the royal weddings of princes William and Harry attracted 9 and 8 million French viewers respectively.

Charles de Gaulle once remarked: “The French have a taste for princes, but they will always look abroad”.

French presidents, such as de Gaulle, are both the political leader of the country and the head of state, and have quite a few semi-monarchical trappings to the role, such as accommodation in the very grand Elysée Palace.

Emmanuel Macron, who began his presidency styling himself as an almost royal figure before being forced by public pressure to adopt a more down-to-earth governing style, called the French “a nation of regicidal monarchists” – yearning for a strong leader yet always keen to tear them down.  

One of his predecessors, François Mitterand, also remarked on this difficulty, reportedly saying in 1984: “I must be both Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth.”

Although the monarchy is far from an uncontroversial subject in the UK, where a significant portion of the population believe that the royals should have no official role, in France they are seen as a force for unity.

TV presenter Stéphane Bern, himself an ardent royalist, wrote a special essay in April 2022, to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. He said: “How can we explain this French infatuation with everything related to the British monarchy Nostalgia of the sans-culottes [French revolutionaries] for the monarchic splendor? Curiosity for this unchanging institution which is not afraid to conjugate secular rites in the present? Or a formidable symbolic force that gives hope to an entire people, who believe themselves invincible as long as the queen (or king) watches over them?

“How many events in our country are still capable of bringing crowds together, across political divides, religious beliefs or social affiliations? Apart from the football World Cup, when France wins, moments of national communion are rare and, even on July 14th [France’s Fête nationale] the principle of unity does not always prevail.

“If the British royal family is so popular in France, it is because it embodies the symbolic power capable of bringing together an entire people and of which we feel orphaned. The crown, which unites in diversity, seems to allow the British to find themselves and to commune around the timeless values of their nation.

“Unconsciously, there must be a kind of nostalgia, tinged with a sense of guilt, in this look of admiration and envy.”

French journalist Nicolas Domenach, speaking to The Local during the royal wedding celebrations in 2018, also emphasised the sense of unity, saying: “English royalty serves to maintain the unity of the country. It has immense symbolic power, but no concrete power.

“This monarchical permanence in a democracy fascinates us because we cut off the head of our king and our queen.

“We are proud to have accomplished our Revolution, but we maintain a nostalgia, if not a remorse.”

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