How four French Towns Compete in the 21st Century

The European perspective

european union mapThe European Union has a combined population of over 500 million inhabitants, which equals 7.3% of the world population.

In 2011, the European Union generated a nominal GDP of 14 trillion euro (larger than any single country in the world), representing approx. 20% of the global GDP when measured in terms of purchasing power parity.

This means that no matter how fragmented Europe is, or how the EU currently lags behind other continents in the worlds economic development, it is still the major powerhouse of the world.

In the 20th century, Europe transformed itself from a largely rural to a predominantly urban continent. In the European Union, 74% of the total population lives in cities and towns with more than 5.000 inhabitants. In other words, only a quarter of European citizens lives in a rural environment.(1) Although the speed of transformation has slowed down, the share of the urban population continues to grow.

visbyThroughout the history of Europe, in ancient Greece, in ancient Rome, and in the Middle Ages, long before the national states, a city or town represented as much a political entity as a collection of buildings. And this collection of buildings was usually surrounded by fortified walls.

As cities grew, the walls were expanded. In the modern era, the significance of the city walls as part of the defense system declined and most of them were demolished.

The boundary of the city as a political entity and the boundary of the built-up area were no longer linked and the location of these boundaries is no longer clearly evident on the ground. Yet, the city as a concept inhabitants identify with and bond to remains.

Europe is no longer in a situation of continuous economic growth and many cities, especially non-capital cities in Central and Eastern Europe, but also old industrial cities in Western Europe, face the serious threat of economic stagnation or decline.

Population density in Europe in 2001Population density in Europe in 2001.

The European town

At the core of the European Union economy is the European Union town. Small and medium-sized towns should not be underestimated. A large part of Europe’s urban population live in towns spread across the continent.

the european townThese towns play a key role in the well-being and livelihood not only of their own inhabitants but also of the rural population surrounding them. They are centers for public and private services, as well as for local and regional knowledge production, innovation and infrastructure.

Small and medium-sized towns often play a pivotal role within regional economies. They constitute the building blocks of urban regions and lend character, history, culture and distinctiveness to their regional landscapes.

In Europe, there are more than 100.000 local and regional city and town authorities. More than one third of them are located in France.

The commune is the lowest level of administrative division in the French Republic. French communes are roughly equivalent to incorporated municipalities or villages in the United States, Gemeinden in Germany or Kommun in Sweden. French communes have no exact equivalent in the United Kingdom, but are closest to parishes, towns or cities.

As of January 9, 2008, there were 36,781 communes in France, 36,569 of them in metropolitan France and 212 of them overseas.

Despite enormous differences in population, each of the communes of the French Republic possesses a mayor (maire) and a municipal council (conseil municipal) who jointly manage the commune from the mairie (city hall), with exactly the same powers no matter the size of the commune. Thus every French commune have an empowered  place manager.

Competition between cities and towns

place competitionCities and towns compete with other places for attention, investment, tourists, visitors and talents. Accelerated and intensified globalization has lead to a situation where the main competition is no longer the city down the road or the town across the valley, but where competitors can be places half a continent away.

Entire towns in Italy and Spain have lost their raison d´etre as their furniture or clothes making industry clusters are wiped out by towns in Turkey or China who produce the same products at much lower costs.

To survive globalization, cities and places must have a well constructed, unique and competitive brand.

In order for a town to be a good brand, it must possess defining and distinctive characteristics that can be readily identified. These are functional as well as non-functional qualities, tangible as well as non-tangible, including appearance, peoples experience of the place, peoples belief in the place, what the place stands for and what kind of people inhabit the place.

Most great cities and towns have a brand that has developed organically. Branding a city is not just about the logo but the intricate details — as small as clean streets and as deep as getting the towns residents to feel proud to be brand ambassadors. When citizens are proud, visitors are encouraged to find out what the fuss is all about and then tell the world.

This blog is about four small communes in France, that have developed excellent place brand identities based on the historic origins of the villages.

Four small towns in France

The historic village

trophyI live in a small village in France called La Turbie. It is unique as it is has been famous since Roman times for the Trophy of the Alpes, the huge monument that the roman Emperor Augustus built in 6 BC to celebrate his victory over the 45 ancient tribes who populated the Alps. The alpine populations were defeated during a military campaign conducted by the Romans between 16 and 7 BC.

Trophy imageThe monument as partially restored by archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century, is 35 meters high. When built, according to the architect, the base measured 35 meters in length, the first platform 12 meters in height, and the rotunda of 24 columns with its statue of an enthroned Augustus is 49 meters high. Today the bulk of the construction remains, even if most sculptures and inscriptions are gone.

On one side of the trophy, an inscription reads: “To the emperor Caesar, son of the deified [Julius] Caesar, Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, hailed as Imperator for the 14th time, in his 17th year of tribunician power, the Senate and people of Rome [built this], in commemoration that, under his leadership and auspices, all the Alpine peoples, from the upper sea to the lower sea, were submitted to the Roman Empire. Conquered Alpine peoples.”

Only two Roman trophy’s remain outside of Rome. The one in La Turbie and one built by Trajan AD 109 at Adamclisi in eastern Romania.

The area surrounding the Trophy is rich with remnants of the Roman empire such as the famous Roman roads. The Trophy is situated on the Via Julia Augusta, named after the emperor Augustus, which is a continuation of the Via Aurelia which linked Vintimille to the Cimiez hill in Nice. Various fountains within the territory of the communes of Beausoleil and Roquebrune-Cap-Martin are also said to be Roman.

La TurbieThe central part of La Turbie village, along the busy Moyenne Corniche road, has shops, and half-dozen restaurants and two hotels, a handy place for a rest, if you can find a place to park during the summer season.

Although La Turbie has a healthy content of tourists, it is really an active French village. The lower parking lot is often filled with with parents dropping off or picking up the kids from the centrally located school, and the Mairie, just above, is prominent in it’s Provençal pastel.

In the city center there is also a post office, an office of the French bank BNP, a pharmacy, and like in most French towns also a Casino market store, a couple of bakeries, a butcher shop and a place to buy wine. There is no need for the residents to leave the village to do shopping.

La terrasseClose to the lower parking is the restaurant La Terrasse, suspended above the Mediterranean Sea and with spectacular panoramic views of the French Riviera, where our friends Helen and Jacques Barraja have created a happy, warm and friendly atmosphere where each guest is welcomed with friendliness and true pleasure.

La Terrasse is a great little place to get a bite while exploring the area. It has a wonderful view, relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff, and very good food. Across the village is the gourmet restaurant Cafe de la Fontaine with outstanding food, however with a terrace facing the busy road.

The old village, rising up the hillside towards the Trophy is well restored, with the original medieval gates, including the one where the ancient Via Julia Augusta entered, carved lintels over doorways, ancient houses and narrow streets paved with stone and brick. Wandering through, you will discover 12th and 13th-century defensive walls, picturesque arched passages and lovely plants and flowers just about everywhere.

Dante quoteFrom a place branding point of view, La Turbie is a lucky place. Ever since the foundation of the place, the Trophy of the Alpes has been a unique destination for tourists to visit. Even Dante Alighieri was here in his days.

At the entrance of the old village is an inscription with a quote from Dante from “La Divina Comédia” that speaks about the difficulties in accessing the village long ago. The text can be translated as “The most solitary and deserted road between Lerici and La Turbie is close to this one with large and easily climbed steps”. It was the first literary mention of La Turbie and an excellent example of place branding.

So due to its origins, La Turbie´s place attraction target market is tourists  and the town has its fair share every year. The town may even attract talents, as some classic history buffs like myself have even settled here, in part because of the timeless and unique brand of the place.

The village of perfume

GrasseAnother town not far from where I live is Grasse. Having an ideal climate for the creativity of the great fragrance experts, or “noses”,  with their legendary sense of smells, it is considered to be the worlds capital of perfume. Great perfumes, such as Chanel N°5, were born and continue to be developed here.

Grasse is the birthplace of the world’s perfume industry, which grew out of the local rose and jasmine horticulture industry, and expanded to encompass fast-growing sector of aromatic substances.

The fragrance industry emerged around a few local companies, some over a hundred years old, which have become international multinationals. More than 60 companies producing raw materials, flavors and fragrances employ almost 3.500 workers, and 13.000 indirect jobs.

The approximately 60 companies in the cluster generates over 650 million euros in turnover, which equals nearly 8% of the world’s turnover of the perfume industry. Specialized educational programs, such as The Grasse Institute of Perfumery, ensures a supply of trained talents.

fragonardAbout one million tourists visit the hilltop town every year to visit the boutiques of perfume producers Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard, enjoy the vestiges of an industry that blossomed out of the town’s 17th century tanneries.

Jasmine, roses, tuberoses, mimosa and other flowers are still cultivated on the foothills of the Estérel Massif. But the industrial-scale producers of fragrances and flavors that make Grasse a global force sit outside the old town, in modern business parks, such as the Sainte-Marguerite business park, covering eight-hectares, having 60.000 square meters office space dedicated to fragrances, perfumes, scents, flavors and related activities such as cosmetics, and being at the nerve-center of an international supply chain.

molinardGrasse is and its perfume companies are planning to stay on top by increasingly develop the industry cluster and its intellectual capital. The incremental innovation rate is high. Aided by an ecosystem of suppliers around Grasse, who can provide specialized services and materials, the industry is thriving.

Major companies have long established themselves around the town, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques. In particular, Riviera-based companies excel in the most cutting-edge field of the industry where the exclusive expertise of those in Grasse predominates.

flowersExports account for more than 60 per cent of output, and for the remaining 40% the French luxury groups are important customers, with leaders such as LVMH and Hermès sourcing ingredients for perfume brands from Grasse suppliers.

Like Tuttlingen which my colleague Michael Deutsch wrote about recently, Grasse is a strong example of how focused development of an industry can create a strong industrial cluster which resists economic cycles and competition from other places.


The village of gastronomy


mouginsA third town in the area is Mougins, which like Grasse and La Turbie is perched on a hilltop. It is on a 15-minute drive from Cannes and is surrounded by forests. In the village there are pines, olives, and Cyprus trees.

In modern times, Mougins has been frequented and inhabited by many artists and celebrities, including Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Fernand Léger, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Arman , Yves Klein, César Baldaccini, Paul Éluard, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Winston Churchill, Catherine Deneuve, Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel, to name but a few. Pablo Picasso spent the last 12 years of his life living in Mougins (1961–1973), where he died.

restaurant rowMougins has a strong culinary history with such great chefs as Roger Vergé and Alain Ducasse having managed restaurants in the village. Both were synonymous with the restaurant L’Amandier, which is situated in the heart of the old village.

In 1969, when Roger Verge came to Mougins, the commune had only seven restaurants, today, it has about fifty. The L’Amandier restaurant still exists today and is housed in an important ancient building, which during the Middle Ages this was the court house of the Monks of Saint Honorat, before becoming an almond mill in the 18th/19th centuries.

Other prominent restaurants are Le Mas Candille, Le Relais a Mougins, Le Moulin de Mougins and Aux Trois Etages, to name but a few. A Mougins restaurant menu rivals the most acclaimed restaurants in the world.

The history of the restaurant cluster in Mougins began in the 1930s, when Célestin Véran, a fisherman and owner of a sea taxi, organized and prepared bouillabaisse for the “beautiful people”. The Duke of Windsor was one of his faithful customers. Célestin Véran was the first royal cook in Mougins.

mougins_terraceDenis Fetisson, who received the Jacquart Trophy for the Rising Star in Gastronomy in 2006, now manages L’Amandier and is also the manager and head chef at La Place de Mougins (previously Le Feu Follet, regularly frequented by Picasso) which is another important restaurant in the heart of the old village.

Fetisson moved to Mougins in April 2010 having just been the head chef at the two-Michelin Star restaurant, Le Cheval Blanc, in Courchevel just prior. Like Ducasse, Fetisson worked at L’Amandier in his early career before returning to Mougins again in 2010.

Mougins hosts the annual ‘International Gastronomy Festival of Mougins’, or ‘Les Étoiles de Mougins’, an international gastronomic event taking place every September in the village and during the International Film Festival in nearby Cannes in May, stars from all over the world honor the village with their presence.

With its amazing restaurants and culinary schools, Mougins is maybe the foremost example of a culinary cluster in France and the world.

The village of art

sant-paul-de-venceSant-Paul-de-Vence is a commune in the Alpes-Maritimes department in southeastern France, half way between La Turbie and Mougins.

One of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera, it is well known for its modern and contemporary art museums and galleries such as its main attraction; Foundation Maeght which is located nearby, a museum dedicated to 20th century modern and contemporary art.

Saint-Paul has always promoted art and creativity and have become a magnet for artists.  the village bear traces of art produced here by Soutine, Léger, Chagall and Calder. Other creators, such as Jacques Prévert and James Baldwin, wrote their finest texts here.

foundation maeghtThe Foundation Maeght is situated in a garden decorated with outdoor sculptures and exhibits works of Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti.

Built in the 1960s, painters and sculptors collaborated closely in the realization of the Foundation with Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert, by creating monumental works integrated into the building and gardens: the Giacometti courtyard, the Miró labyrinth filled with sculptures and ceramics, mural mosaics by Chagall and Tal-Coat, a pool and stained glass window by Braque, a Bury fountain, and so on.

A true museum in nature, the Foundation Maeght is an amazing site that contains one of the most important modern art collections in Europe. More than 200 000 visitors come each year.

copie-de--chagall---la-vieThe exceptional light and quality of life in Sant-Paul-de-Vence has inspired many famous artists, painters, writers and poets, including Marc Chagall who is buried in the village cemetery.

As you venture through the village streets, it becomes clear that Saint-Paul de Vence remains synonymous with art. Modern, contemporary, fringe, naive… on gallery walls talented artists from all schools rub shoulders with their illustrious peers including Folon, César and Niky de Saint-Phalle.

The village is flooding with artists at work in their studios and staging exciting exhibitions in the many galleries on the main pedestrian street.  A painting hung in the morning can find a buyer among the well-off tourists before evening falls… if it captures the heart of a visitor.

The hallmarks of Place Excellence

placeFour French communes, La Turbie, Grasse, Mougins and Sant-Paul-de-Vence. Four winning concepts of place branding anchored in the villages historic past and well recognized as world leading brands within their areas of specialization.

It is clear that these four villages are and will remain winning places in Europe.

However Europe is full of places with a historic past, where the opportunities of the place have not been utilized as they could. To balance and develop all the assets of a place and make it attractive in the global marketplace as these four communes have is a necessity for growth and wealth creation. The certain alternative is stagnation.

(1) Eurostat 82/2008.

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