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.


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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Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections.