Paris is the world: Why Arabs love the French capital

One of the most visited cities in the world, Paris offers Arab visitors culture, monuments, museums, gastronomy and style
Paris is the world: Why Arabs love the French capital
Les Champs Elysees, 2km long and 70m wide, and one of the most beautiful avenues in the world, receives 300,000 visitors every day.
By Dr Mona S. AlMunajjed
Tue 02 Jul 2019 04:42 PM

In 1734, French novelist Pierre de Marivaux declared: “Paris is the world. The rest of Earth is nothing but its suburbs.” Later, in 1880, English writer, Charles Dickens stated: “What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world!”

Yes, Paris is magnifique! Strolling on a hot June day along the River Seine, and watching enthusiastic tourists singing on the Joie de Vivre, a bateaux mouche or open excursion boat, made me smile. I find Paris marvelous with its 19th-century architecture, boulevards, bridges and the wide Seine crossing it from East to West.

As a tourist destination, Paris is the third most visited city in the world after Thailand and London. Dubai is in fourth place (Traveler 2018). Nearly 18 million tourists visited the city of Paris in 2018, but a record of over 40 million visited the Greater Paris region in 2017 generating €20.8 billion ($23.64 billion).

Why so many tourists? That’s obvious: Paris has so much to offer in culture, monuments, museums, gastronomy and style. Paris has enjoyed past glories and survived invasions, plagues and two world wars. Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe's major centres of commerce, fashion, science, arts and finance. Paris was nicknamed “La Ville–Lumière,” or The City of Light, originally because it was a centre of ideas during the Age of Enlightenment. And this name was reinforced when, in 1828, Paris became the first city in Europe to begin lighting its streets with gas lamps.

Les Champs Elysees, 2km long and 70m wide, and one of the most beautiful avenues in the world, receives 300,000 visitors every day. The symbol of Paris, the Tour Eiffel, often described as steel and lace, celebrated its 130th anniversary last May. Built by Gustave Eiffel in 1889 for the World Expo to mark the centenary of the French revolution, it receives seven million visitors a year. It is the tallest monument in France (324m); it is higher than the Statue of Liberty although it can’t match the Burj Khalifa (828m).

The Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame, more than 850 years old, usually receives 14 million visitors per year, although, very sadly, this iconic landmark suffered a fire on 15 April 2019, which gutted its roof. Hundreds of millions of dollars have since been donated to restore the beloved cathedral, which has played a role in key moments of French history.

Paris has 250 museums. I always visit the Musée du Louvre, originally built as a fortress in 1190 and reconstructed in the 16th century as a royal palace. It is now one of the world's largest art museums, with more than 380,000 objects and 35,000 works of art. In 2018 it had 10.2 million visitors and has 2.3 million followers on social networks. The portrait of Mona Lisa, valued at $830 million, smiles at more than six million tourists a year. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the result of cultural collaboration between the two countries, celebrated its first anniversary on November 8, 2018, and received one million visitors in its first year.

Montmartre, the “balcony of Paris”, is famous for its basilica, its restaurants, its village-like atmosphere and its artists. German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche declared: "An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris”. During the “Belle Époque”(1872 to 1914) Paris became the centre of modern art and Montmartre provided the home and studios for Modigliani, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Dufy, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Mondrian, Picasso, Braque, Pissaro, Utrillo, Van Gogh, Dali … the list is endless.

For years I have been going to paint in Montmartre at an atelier near Place des Abbesses. I walk every day past Le mur des je t'aime (the I love you wall), created by Frédéric Baron and Claire Kito and made up of 612 tiles of enameled blue lava on which 'I love you' is featured 311 times in 250 languages. It captures the essence of love and romance so redolent of Paris.

Paris has always been the home of great French writers: Moliere, La Fontaine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Balzac, Baudelaire, Zola, Proust, Colette, Camus, Beauvoir, and Sartre, to name but a few. But Paris was also the capital of famous expatriate writers such as James, Wilde, Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.

Since childhood, we have been taught to emulate the elegance of the French and to be chic like a Parisian. France is internationally renowned for fashion, whose turnover is €150bn, including €33bn in exports. Paris is the capital of fashion from chic boutiques to haute couture. Fashion represents at least 30 percent of tourist expenditure in Paris. More than 300 fashion shows are held annually in Paris and its Fashion Week garners €1.2bn. Dior, Chanel, Cardin, Balmain, Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Lanvin, Lacroix, Gaultier, Rykiel and Celine: the whole world knows the names of top French designers.

I find French cooking exceptional, and I am not alone. In 2019, France has 27 restaurants with three Michelin stars, and is first in the world. Paris has 114 Michelin-starred restaurants, including nine three-star crème de la crème: l’Ambroisie, Guy Savoy, Arpège, Alléno Paris au Pavillon Ledoyen, Epicure, Le Cinq, Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee, and Le Pré Catelan.

Cheese features heavily in the French diet: 96 percent of French people consume it regularly and more than 47 percent eat it daily. Each French person consumes almost 26kg per year. In 2017, France produced almost two million tons of cheese and the cheese sector generated €5.5bn. Charles de Gaulle once asked how anyone could govern a nation that had 246 varieties of cheese. Today, this number has increased to 1,200. More than 137 fromageries (cheese stores) are found in Paris and while the most popular cheeses are still Camembert, Emmental, Comte, Brie de Meulin, Epoisses, Roquefort, Pouligny Saint Pierre and Reblochon, the new wave of Paris cheeses are made with 100 percent raw milk to create Bûche and Crottin de Chèvre, Fondant de Brebis, St-Félicien and many others.

Bread is another important element of French culture. More than 220 million people visit bakeries annually as 95 percent of French people buy bread daily. However, bread consumption is declining and the number of bakeries in France has decreased from 32,000 bakeries in 2017 to 29,600 in 2018. In Paris there are more than 1,800 bakeries.

The baguette, a symbol of France governed by law, is consumed by French at every meal: 10 billion baguettes are produced annually. In Paris, the winner of the 25th edition of the Best Parisian Baguette 2019 went to Fabrice Leroy who will have the privilege of supplying the presidential Élysée Palace for one year. Nothing satisfies the appetite more than a fresh, warm and crisp baguette eaten with Abondance, a fruity and buttery Haute Savoie cheese or a soft creamy Camembert.

Another delicacy is the French croissant, a national product since 1920. This crescent-shaped buttery roll was supposedly introduced into France by Marie Antoinette of Austria in 1770. Today, the croissant is the favorite Viennoiserie of French people: three out of four consume it regularly and 97 percent consider it pure pleasure, especially women and young people. I was thrilled to eat a morning croissant, from La Maison d’Isabelle, which received First Prize for Best Croissant AOP 2018 for Paris and Ile de France. I visited the bakery at Boulevard St. Germain to taste this incredible rich, buttery, flaky and soft croissant that melts in the mouth.

In Paris, French pastry chef and chocolatier, Pierre Herme, known as the Picasso of Patisserie, was awarded the title of World's Best Pastry Chef in 2016. I tasted at La Maison Pierre Herme, rue Bonaparte, a sober dark chocolate patisserie, Carrement Chocolat, which is pure decadence and seduction: it is soft, mellow and smooth, with a melting chocolate mousse on a crunchy crisp base. His spring macarons collection 2019 brings original flavours and new taste sensations. A chocolate lover (you may have guessed), I tasted at Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse, Le Comptoir St Benoit located in the heart of St Germain des Pres, the best 75 percent dark chocolate which is the very essence of pure cocoa bean chocolate.

In global terms, the city of Paris is not large; its population of 2.1 million (2019) is less than Dubai (3.1mn), Riyadh (7mn), London City (8.1mn) and New York City (8.5mn). The dynamic Paris region has a population of 12.2 million, accounting for 23.2 percent of France’s labour force and 30.5 percent of national GDP (2019). Offering good economic opportunities with 6.3 million jobs, and an important concentration of higher educated students (26.4 percent of students in France), it attracts a young population where 55 percent of inhabitants are under the age of forty.

France is a global economic power, with strong banking and insurance sectors. The 2018 Global Entrepreneurship Index ranks France 10th out of 137 countries, and 86 percent of foreign business leaders consider the education and qualification of the French workforce attractive.

With the UK’s departure from the Europe Union (EU) seemingly inevitable, and the commercial fight between China and the USA, the Paris region is gaining leadership in finance, business and investment. It is now the number one Eurozone financial centre, and a leading Eurozone stock market.

The region leads economically in France; 80.6 percent of its enterprises are in commerce and services, 6.5 percent in construction and 3.8 percent in industry. Its GDP (gross domestic product) is one of the highest in the EU, calculated at €681bn in 2016. The region is the headquarters to 29 of the 31 of the largest French companies.

Companies are specialised in aeronautics, aerospace, information technology, telecommunications, biotechnology, nanotechnology, sciences and automotive industries. Moreover, there are around 13,000 foreign companies, including British, German and American. It is also the number one innovation centre in Europe with the highest research and technology development expenditure and excellence in education.

And will London be losing out for Paris post Brexit? The British have a remarkable financial services sector which the French do not have. But with Brexit on the way, rapid steps are now being taken to shift it to Paris, with a €57bn plan (2018–22) for structural reforms including ecological transition, training for a skills-based society, innovation in sciences and business, building of a digital state. Reviews of financial regulations and lower corporate tax rates are in motion. The offices of the European Banking Authority are moving this year to La Défense, the new business district of Paris. Major efforts are being made to develop a pool of highly skilled staff and to make Paris a digital hub and centre of the European tech ecosystem. A €10bn national innovation fund has been launched with a fast-tracked international tech visa system.

So the centuries old rivalry between London and Paris continues. There has always been a debate with my friends about why some prefer London and some Paris. As English writer, G.K. Chesterton said: “London is a riddle. Paris is an explanation.”

London is a global business centre and Paris is the capital of romance. London is 33 percent green space whereas Paris is only 9.5 percent. Paris is more budget friendly than London. Paris is made for shopping while London is made for sales. Arab Gulf tourists love to visit and stay in London, with a high spending power. They consider it their second home. It may be partly due to language, and the multinational melting pot of London, where Arab culture is visible in the city. But they also love Paris with its culture, fashion, and high end activities.

Whichever capital one prefers, Paris is undeniably for those who want to experience joie de vivre just like the people I saw on the bateau mouche on the Seine. Every day spent in Paris is a feast day, a delight and a joy. And as American writer, Ernest Hemingway said: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

Dr Mona S. AlMunajjed is an award-winning sociologist, author and advisor on social issues. (Email: mona.almunajjed@gmail.com)

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