Like many foreign tourists here this summer, the three Americans eating a Sunday dinner on a Saint-Germain-des-Prs sidewalk found a few surprises.
Kathryn Urban, a US State Department employee, said the strong dollar allowed her to shop at Galeries Lafayette and to "go to wonderful restaurants."
Susan Phillips, who owns a gift business in Atlanta and was heading to the Maison de L' Objet fair in Paris, was fascinated by how the French, or at least the Parisians, seem to have picked up English. "They all speak enough that I can make myself understood. Even the police!" she said.
Beverly Paul of Salem, Ore., who hasn't been to France since the early 1970s, was staying at a hotel on Place Saint-Sulpice (on the square where actress Catherine Deneuve lives). Besides the room's "moderate" price of $90 a night, she was delighted to find it clean.
Tourists are finding better values, cleanliness, and the speaking of English in large cities (despite efforts to the contrary by the Acadmie Franaise), says a study released this week by the Maison de la France in Paris.
These trends may help explain the rise in tourism. Projections show that by the end of 1997, some 65 million people will have visited France, 8 million more than actually live there and an notable increase over 1996 (62 million). France is yet again the No. 1 tourism destination in the world.
Some 2.8 million Americans are expected this year, up 7 percent from 1996. The British are coming in even greater droves (up 20 percent to 10 million, largely due to a strong pound and the opening of three-hour direct train service via the channel tunnel between London and Paris).
This year, for the first time, more hotel nights will have been spent by foreign visitors than by French ones.
The reason? A depressed French economy in the middle of a booming international one. And the permanent lure of what New York advertising guru Jerry Della Femina once called "the most off-the-wall country in the world."
The No. 1 destination is Paris, of course, followed by the sunny Riviera. The French and the British, however, are increasingly deserting the Mediterranean. They see the Riviera as overbuilt, overcrowded, overpriced, and unsavory, with its extreme-right-wing mayors and tales of corruption. Trips to unspoiled areas like Brittany are growing in popularity.
"This is too pessimistic a view," protests Marc Bonnefoy of the Provence-Alps-Cte-d'Azur regional tourism office. "Figures for tourism in 1997 are stable from last year."
When pressed, Mr. Bonnefoy does admit that rentals, restaurant receipts, and leisure activities are down from last year and that only an influx of newly rich Eastern European tourists has helped keep a grin on hotelkeepers' faces.
"To some extent, the Russians have replaced the British and even the Americans, but I'm not complaining," says Paul Schiamacchi of the Cte d'Azur hoteliers federation. "They're as free-spending as [the pre-1917] grand dukes my grandmother used to tell me about."
In fact, so ubiquitous are the Russian "noo-vo-rish" that signs in Cyrillic characters have sprouted in Cannes, Nice, and Monaco boutiques. Guidebooks and maps to the region are also available in Russian.
In a first-class car of the TGV high-speed train between Paris and Cannes last month (one-way ticket: $140), travelers were treated for almost the entire trip to a fluid Russian commentary by a pretty Russian girl dressed in the height of current fashion: lime-green spandex pants, clinging Prada blouse, and four-inch-soled fashion sneakers.
"Oh, we get them all the time," said the conductor in a blas voice.
Actually, Eastern European tourists still account for only a little under 2 million visitors to France annually. But that figure climbed by 17 percent from last year. Their economic profile has also changed sharply.
"In the early '90s you saw those rustic diesel commuter buses full of Czechs or Poles who camped in the Bois de Boulogne because they could not afford the cheapest hotel rooms," says Jean-Marc Morez of the Paris traffic office. "Now they all have these sleek air-conditioned tour buses, sleep in two-star hotels, and indulge in a little shopping. And that's the average lot, not the ones with Mercedeses and BMWs double-parked in front of the Crillon or the Ritz."
There are no luxury sedans with Moscow plates at the Ile de R, the most fashionable of the Brittany islands, where Prime Minister Lionel Jospin as well as former Justice Minister Jacques Toubon, Princess Caroline's ex-beau Vincent Lindon, and many other representatives of the Paris establishment spend their holidays.
But property prices at Ile de R have shot above those of waterfront real estate in St. Tropez or Cannes, to an average of $3,800 a square meter. The main buyers so far, after the French themselves, are the British. But can the rest of the tourist hordes be far behind?