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 The Brancatelli File

joe THIS APRIL,
IN THIS PARIS


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

April 8, 1999 -- If you haven't been to Paris on business in a while--and I haven't--the changes are so dramatic that even the most oblivious frequent flyer can't help but notice.

Every third restaurant is Italian and everyone seems to be munching on pizza and panini for lunch. You may order a Lillet at the cocktail hour, but your Parisian business companions will most likely be drinking Budweiser. Haute couture still matters here, of course, but Paris street fashions today look remarkably like what people are wearing in Rome or Frankfurt or Manhattan. Cabbies don't always snarl at foreigners anymore.

The once-reviled McDonald's outlets are packed and Parisians now speak with rapture and reverence about Paris Disneyland. Everyone--store clerks, shopkeepers, even waiters--speaks some English these days. And nobody makes fun of your French anymore, even if you come from Maine, not Marseilles.

If you haven't been here in a while--and I haven't--you can't help but notice that the culture war is over. The surrender may not have been gracious, and it certainly isn't unconditional, but Paris these days seems resigned to the fact that the world no longer eats, drinks, thinks, dreams and dresses in French. Parisians even seem to realize that most of the planet cares more about Compaq than Camus and that HTML, not Hugo, is what people are reading.

This April, in this Paris, Parisians understand that France no longer sets the global agenda.

"It's hard to fight a culture war when you have 12 percent unemployment and a government that has not realized that 1960s style socialism has failed in the 1990s," says Jean-Marie Dassault, a 51-year-old Parisian who returned home last year after a decade in Boston. "French culture is stagnant, French ideas are stale and young people find more excitement in America or London or even Germany."

In an odd way, this cultural and economic ennui has made Paris more manageable for a visiting business traveler. Shorn of its sense of superiority, Paris is friendlier, less supercilious, and much more accommodating to ideas from elsewhere. Paris still revels in its architectural, stylistic and culinary glories, of course, but it no longer judges you by your accent, your knowledge of obscure Bordeaux, or the designer of your clothing.

"We want people to come to Paris now," says Alain Dionne, a department-store executive. "We need foreign money, so we have become accepting of many things."

PLANE TALK
Air France serves 10 U.S. gateways. With its code-share partners, Delta and Continental, it covers 89 U.S. destinations, up from three dozen last year. This cozy arrangement will probably end after the summer, when Air France and one of the U.S. carriers get into an "alliance" arrangement. … Tower Air operates one flight a day to Paris from New York/Kennedy. The unrestricted coach fare of $991 gets you a seat in Tower's comfy, if basic, business-class cabin. That's about a third of what the big guys charge for a seat in business.

HOTEL SCENE
The recently renovated Millennium Commodore is primed for business. Rooms have U.S. and European power receptacles and dataports at desk level. Located in the 9th arrondissement, the hotel is close to Paris' leading banking and insurance firms. The Special Introductory Rate of $245 a night includes a room upgrade, wine and breakfast… Including its airport property, Sofitel operates 10 hotels in Paris. "Spring Sale" rates, valid until May 31, range from $130-$250 and include breakfast.

DINING DIARY
Many of the $300-a-head haute gastronomie palaces are hurting for business, but they remain the last bastion of infuriating French snobbery. Call to book and you may be asked your nationality because the owners insist their customer bases remain largely French. Should you feel compelled to darken one of their doors, start with Taillevent, considered the top of the heap among Parisian business people. Have a French friend book weeks, or even months, in advance. … Alain Ducasse is the only man to garner six Michelin stars (three for his eponymous place in the 16th arrondissement and three for his original in Monaco). His latest gig, however, is Spoon Food & Wine, a curious mixture of "comfort" foods from Italy, Asia and the Americas. Unless you want to eat the world's most expensive BLT, or see the French marvel at macaroni and cheese, the concept may escape you… The casual Chez Babu serves late and specializes in Moroccan fare. The couscous is spectacular; dinner for two with wine runs less than $80… L'Alsaco is small and unprepossessing, but it turns out genuine Alsatian fare, including gargantuan platters of choucroute garni. ... There are half a dozen L'Amanguier outlets scattered around town. They are inexpensive, reliable, friendly--and perfect for a meal and a bottle of wine when you don't want to be challenged by French gastronomic one-upsmanship.

LOCAL COLOR
The mayor of Paris has floated the radical idea of banning cars from the Place de la Concorde, one of Europe's most congested intersections. … A company called TicketsTo.com sells passes for everything: the Metro, the museums, telephones, even bistros and restaurants. One or more may be valuable if you're on a tight budget. … Speaking of the Metro, make sure you have an updated map. A new line opened last year. … Paris remains the world's capital of jazz. Hundreds of albums by artists forgotten in the United States are routinely available on high-quality CDs pressed for French fans.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.