France remains one of the world’s most hyped and written-about destinations. It can inspire a masterpiece—and has on countless occasions. Even the cantankerous James McNeill Whistler would allow his masterpiece, a portrait of his mother, to hang in no other city save Paris.
Although not large by North American standards (about the size of Britain and Germany combined), France is densely packed with attractions, both cultural and recreational. Even better, it’s permeated with cool and known for its joie de vivre.
As for style, it has always been foolhardy to try to compete with the French on their terms. The theatrical backdrops of the sometimes-silly Gallic monarchs have been interpreted by latter-day aesthetes as history’s crowning achievement when it comes to conspicuous displays of wealth and prestige.
In politics and ideology, France has long been a leader and remains so today. Fueled by Enlightenment writings, whose most articulate voices were French, the 1789 Revolution toppled Europe’s most deeply entrenched regime and cracked the foundations of dozens of other governments. In 1968 the revolutionaries were on the streets again: the original political spring.
Newcomers have commented (often adversely) on the cultural arrogance of the French. But despite its linguistic and cultural rigidity, France has received more immigrants and political exiles than any other European country. Part of this derives from France’s status as one of Europe’s least densely populated nations per square mile, and part of it from the tendency of the French to let others be until their actions become dangerous or obnoxious, not necessarily in that order.
If you’re a first-timer, everything in France, of course, is new. But if you’ve been away for a long time, expect changes. Taxi drivers in Paris may no longer correct your fractured French but address you in English—and that’s tantamount to a revolution. Part of this derives from the country’s interest in music, culture, and films from foreign countries, and part from France’s growing awareness of its role as a leader of a united Europe.
Yet France has never been more concerned about the loss of its unique identity within a landscape that has attracted an increasing number of immigrants from its former colonies. Many worry that France will continue to lose the battle to keep its language strong, distinct, and unadulterated by foreign slang or catchwords (and good luck with banning such terms as l’email and le week-end). But as the country moves deeper into the millennium, foreign tourists spending much-needed cash are no longer perceived as foes or antagonists. Au contraire: France welcomes the world to its palaces, parks, beaches, and UNESCO World Heritage sites. And if those tens of millions of guests spend a few euros—and soak up a little local culture while they’re here—that’s all to the good.
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