In the past few years, the dollar has lost about 20 percent in value compared to the French franc. Coupled with an average 10 percent French annual inflation rate since the oil crisis, this more or less accounts for the bad name Paris has been given for its high prices.
Prices are not low -- Italy and Spain are cheaper; Oxford Street price tags still beat those on Avenue de I'Opera. But hotel rooms and meals now cost more in London than in Paris. And in Hamburg, Geneva, Amsterdam, Brussels or Berlin, those bills can run to about twice the Parisian equivalent. The rest of France certainly is. If you avoid the Riviera and resorts like Deauville or La Baule, prices in the provinces are much lower than in Paris or the United States -- and as an extra, you'll meet with the traditional old French courtesy that modern life has somewhat eroded in Paris.
The French domestic airline, Air Inter, has come up with a very good bargain: a two-week pass for unlimited flying on all their routes in France and to Corsica. Called France-Pass, it costs $210, and must be purchased in the United States before you leave (at Air France offices). A one-week pass costs $135. Since the normal return fare from Paris to Nice, for instance, is already $245, you just can't lose -- and if you combine three or four trips to different parts of France in a fortnight, you will be getting several times your money's worth.
A widely held notion is that Paris hotels are packed in summer. They aren't -- on the contrary, July and August are traditionally slack because no fairs, shows or "salons" are held and no business meetings take place during the sacrosanct French summer holidays. April is also a good time to come (except for the Easter period, when all hotels are overbooked) but definitely reserve in May, June or September for the Riviera (quite full in mid-summer) as several shows, including the huge Le Bourget Air Show and the Salon du Pret a Porter (ready-to-wear fashion show) will pack Paris hotels tight for most of these months.
Last year, France was visited by 27 million tourists (1.22 million of them Americans). More are expected this year, since new air fares and packages have triggered an upward trend for the past two years. Government officials at the Ministry of Tourism (recently renamed Ministry of Youth, Sports and Leisure) think that the present rate of growth (about 3 percent per year) will soon increase with still more packages being planned by Air France. The ministry's credits for 1979 have increased by 30 percent, and most of the funds will be devoted to Brittany -- which suffered from the Amoco Cadiz oil slick last year -- and to Guadeloupe and Martinique, the French West Indies.
The spring may bring more social unrest in some areas hard-hit by unemployment and the labor crisis, such as the steel-producing Lorraine or the industrial zone of Fox Sur Mer near Marseilles. But this is not likely to affect visitors, since those regions are very distinct from the touristic beat. At any rate, French demonstrators, unlike their Iranian counterparts, would certainly not turn against foreign tourists. And, however tense the spring may have been, July and August will be traditionally quiet. Even the "revolution" and the strikes of May '68 had to stop when all of France left for their traditional four-and-a-half-weeks' holiday.
As the winter -- exceptionally harsh by French standards, rather mild for Americans -- ends, most monuments in Paris are being washed clean again, probably as part of an overall seduction campaign by Mayor Jacques Chirac, would-be challenger of President Giscard d'Estaing in the elections of '81. Trees are being planted all over the capital, flowers bloom on the Champs-Elysees (in big "Marie de Paris" pots), gardens are being planned. Les Halles, the one-time meat and vegetable market of Paris, replaced by a big hole surrounded by trendy boutiques and fashionable restaurants, may even become a park (the last three architects' projects for a commercial center have been rejected).
The largest Chardin retrospective ever is currently exhibited at the Grand Palais, while the Louvre plans for this summer a Napoleon III -- Mid-Nineteenth Century Exhibition. Musical buffs and critics hail the premiere of the complete version of Alban Berg's opera "Lulu," 43 years after the composer's death, conducted by Pierre Boulez, at the Opera de Paris. After almost a hundred years' existence in the same spot, Maxim's has bought the adjacent building in the Rue Royale and has just completed enlargement and embellishment works (without touching, of course, the original 'salle').
All good reasons, one would suppose, to come to Paris this year.
A group of independent French hotel owners have decided to make it easier for middle-income tourists or for foreigners who want to live in more French surroundings than those of the Hilton or the Sheraton hotels. They have created an association through which reservations can be made in 34 independent hotels in Paris (one-star to four-star) and 220 independent hotels in France (generally three-star). They have agreed on rates (averages are for double occupancy in a double room, plus breakfast) in Paris: $23 for a one-star hotel; from $20 to $37 in a two-star hotel; from $33 to $71 in a threestar hotel, and from $64 to $109 in a fourstar hotel. Prices are likely to be substantially lower in the provinces).
They call themselves "Hotel Service-Paris-France" and reservations can be made through most American travel agencies. Their clients won't be the businessmen who pack the Concorde from and to Paris (the supersonic daily flights are 100 percent full from Paris to New York, and 83 percent full from New York to Paris), or the jet-set elite and Arab sheiks who live in $400-a-night suites at the Crillion or the Plaza Athenee. But they have good expectations this year of hosting more ordinary mortals -- who will discover that the plumbing is no longer noisy in most French hotels.