Gay life in France
Gay Life in France: There’s Paris, and then there’s “Province.” Our advice: Gay visitors should experience both.
France is one of the most centralized countries in the world and Paris is the capital of all things French. Exhibiting perhaps a tiny bit of chauvinism, Parisians divide their country into two parts: Paris and “province”, the provinces. It is true, at least in terms of gay life, that the rest of France tends to follow Paris’s lead. But by no means should you as a gay visitor in France limit your stay to Paris, which would be like going to the USA and only seeing New York. France with a capital “F” exists outside the Paris city limits, and is a far cry from the gay cultural desert that Parisians would have you believe.
In Paris, the Marais neighborhood close to the City Hall (Hotel de Ville) has blossomed into the city’s indisputable gay center. There you’ll find countless gay bars and restaurants, gay-oriented shops and hotels, and throngs of gay people from all over the world. All of this is a relatively recent phenomenon, so it hasn’t yet lost its novelty, its energy.
A late afternoon stroll down the Rue St. Croix de la Bretonnerie, stopping along the way to window-shop or have a drink, constitutes a gay Paris ritual and a “must” for any gay visitor. After your stroll, you can have a dinner in one of the area’s all-gay restaurants before heading to a nightclub, or to one of the more libidinous venues (keeping in mind that sauna-going tends to be an afternoon activity).
But in no way is gay life in Paris limited to the Marais. Gay people live all over the city, and you’ll find some kind of gay-oriented business in virtually every neighborhood of the capital. Plenty of guides exist to help you choose your course.
Paris is also rife with gay associations, ranging from bridge clubs to political groups to fetishist organizations. In recent years, gay-owned or gay-oriented establishments have taken to identifying themselves with displays of rainbow flags. You’ll see them everywhere, a constant reminder that you’re in “gay Paree.”
In 2001 Paris elected its first openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, affirming the city’s tolerance towards us. Indeed, gay life in Paris is inextricably intertwined with dominant (straight) culture, in spite of the Marais’ reputation as a “ghetto”. Straight Parisians often frequent gay-identified bars and clubs, reputed as the trendiest, most happening places in town, and social gatherings (dinner parties are a high sacred rite of life in France) are usually mixed. It is safe to say, overall, that the French genuinely like gay people, so you should feel welcome everywhere.
Of course you’ll still encounter the famous Parisian attitude, the so-called “arrogance.” But this has more to do with deeply engrained behavioral codes rather than the way they actually feel about you. (For more on this see link). Foreigners fascinate the French, and Paris is full of them. One advantage to gay venues in Paris is that you’ll seldom, if ever, be the only outsider. And if you don’t speak French, chances are someone will speak English.
And keep in mind that this “Parisian” attitude is not unique to Paris. You’ll run into it in many places in France. The people of Lyon are famous for their “froideur” (coldness); Bordeaux is considered snobby and small-minded; and the inhabitants of the Loire Valley are deeply proud of their conservative traditions. All of these places — and plenty more — have thriving gay scenes, where as a foreigner, you’ll be much more of a novelty than in Paris. Are the aforementioned reputations unfair? You be the judge!
If you’re planning to visit the Mediterranean coast, Nice and Montpellier are the major gay cities. (Strangely, the much larger Marseille has less of a gay scene.) You’ll find the people far friendlier and laid-back in this part of France, closer in spirit to Italy or Spain than to Paris. Other interesting French gay centers are found in the southwest (Toulouse, Biarritz), the Alps (Grenoble, Annecy), Brittany (Nantes) and Provence (Avignon). All in all, gay life in “the provinces” is becoming more and more visible and open, with endless choices for the visitor.
French provincial gay life exists outside of the cities as well. Often a region’s most popular gay club stands in the middle of a wheat field or a forest, miles from any town. This way there is room for parking, and no neighbors to worry about. Remember, though, that nightclubs don’t open until eleven or later, and often reach their peak at around two or three a.m. Expect expensive drinks and a lot of standing around feeling invisible in a very smoky room.
You may prefer other rural gay rituals, like cruising in the forest or finding sun and fun on one of France’s many gay-designated beaches. St. Tropez is possibly the most famous of these, a little “A-gay” universe unto itself. More “populaire” options include L’Espiguette (near Montpellier and Nimes), Hossegor (near Biarritz) and Les Vaches Noires (in Normandy near Caen). Even if you’re not a beach-lover, a trip to a gay nudist beach in France is recommended for its anthropological interest, its sexual potential, and a chance to breathe the fresh sea-smelling air — a welcome antidote to exhaust-choked Paris!