The ten largest cities in France are Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, Nice, Nantes, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Bordeaux and Lille. Here, we profile each of them and look at the sectors in which they excel.
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Population: 2.19 million (metropolitan population: 12 million)
Paris is a major world city, and one of the most popular tourism destinations on the planet, attracting 38 million visitors in 2019. It is also an international finance hub, home to the headquarters of Société Générale, BNP Paribas and Crédit Agricole, among others. Paris has strengths across numerous industries, however, in fields as diverse as media and technology to automotives and energy, playing host to the headquarters of the likes of Total, AXA, Carrefour and EDF. The city also hosts most of France’s leading universities.
Population: 863,000 (metropolitan population: 1.75 million)
Marseille’s economy has historically been based around its busy Mediterranean port, but in recent decades it has moved to be based around services, high-tech industries and light manufacturing. The city has also garnered a reputation as a strong domestic hub for small and medium-sized enterprises. Marseille’s location on France’s south coast means that tourism is an important sector within the city, both for employment and its economy. In a Covid-dominated 2020, Marseille attracted 3.8 million tourists, a 30% reduction on its 2019 figure.
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Population: 516,000 (metropolitan population: 2.31 million)
Lyon is situation in France’s centre-east, and its industrial strengths lie in banking, the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and biotech, and software (the city being a video games development hub). Lyon is home to the headquarters of companies such as Groupe SEB, Sanofi Pasteur, Renault Trucks and Euronews, and like Paris and Marseille it is a popular tourist location in France, being granted Unesco World Heritage status in 1998 and widely considered one of the gastronomic capitals of the world.
Population: 480,000 (metropolitan population: 1.35 million)
Located in the south of France on the River Garonne, Toulouse is just 120km from the border with Spain. The University of Toulouse was established in 1229, making it one of the oldest in the world, although it is now split into three separate seats of learning. It is in the aerospace industry, however, that Toulouse is particularly renowned. Airbus’s head office is located near the city, its France division has its main office in Toulouse, and companies such as ATR and Sigfox are headquartered there. Toulouse has a rich history in aeronautics, with the Concorde also constructed in the city.
Population: 340,000 (metropolitan population: 1 million)
Nice sits on France’s south coast, a mere 13km away from the principality of Monaco, and just 30km from the Italian border. The city has a port and a busy international airport, while also serving as a popular tourism destination in both summer and winter months, receiving approximately four million visitors every year. Nice has several business parks and is noted as a retail hub, particularly for high fashion. Its industrial strengths lie in computing, electronics, pharmacology and biotech.
Population: 309,000 (metropolitan population: 962,000)
Nantes, located in France’s north-west, is considered to be the country’s largest food producer, and is globally renowned for its expertise in food security. The city is also widely regarded to have an excellent quality of life, and it has strong green credentials, having received the European Green Capital Award in 2013. Nantes’s other industrial strengths lie in finance, transport/logistics and services.
Population: 285,000 (metropolitan population: 607,000)
Located on France’s southern coast, Montpellier is a major tourist destination and is recognised as having one of Europe’s richest cultural offerings. The University of Montpellier – renowned for its teachings on science and medicine – is one of the oldest in the world, having been founded in 1160, and the city hosts a vast number of students, estimated to make up about one-quarter of its population.
Population: 281,000 (metropolitan population: 786,000)
Strasbourg is located in the east of France, on the border with Germany. It is an important political centre, being one of the de facto four main capitals of the EU (along with Brussels, Luxembourg and Frankfurt), and it hosts several European institutions, including the European Parliament. Its historic city centre was classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998. When it comes to industry, Strasbourg thrives in manufacturing and engineering, as well as being a transport hub.
Population: 254,000 (metropolitan population: 1.23 million)
Bordeaux may be known the world over for its wine production, but its industrial strengths don’t stop there as the city is a hub for the aeronautics, military and space sector, and home to many international companies. It is a major tourism destination, a Unesco World Heritage Site and it hosts a large student population. Access to its port from the Atlantic comes through the Gironde estuary, with some nine million tonnes of goods passing through the city every year.
Population: 233,000 (metropolitan population: 1.19 million)
Lille is situated in the north of France, on the border with Belgium. It is one of the country’s industrial capitals, historically strong when it comes to textiles and and mechanics. In the 21st century, Lille is known for its finance and retail sectors. It too hosts a large student population, estimated to number about 110,000.
Note: all figures for city populations as of 2017 (INSEE). Metropolitan populations are from 2016 (Geopolis).