I’ve written elsewhere about the persistent stereotypes that French people have in mind when they think about the Auvergne – that gorgeous, wild region that dominates the deep heart of France. Auvergnats are isolated, people say; they mash their words so you can’t understand them, the only eat cheese, they’re stingy…
So I was particularly amused to see this new video, "The Truth About Clermont", online last week. In it, a young woman announces to her friends that she has decided to go to the Université Clermont Auvergene. They scoff – “mais, c’est super nul!”, they say as they mock her choice. Then they trot out all the specific stereotypes French people think of when they think of Clermont-Ferrand, the historic capital of the region:
It’s cut off from the modern world – there’s not even any internet service there!
It’s too cold and snowy.
Their friend will be completely lost. There’s no one there to meet or have fun with.
All the buildings are black and grimy.
(I especially love the visual cues that accompany all these stereotypes in the video – the polar bear wandering through Clermont’s central square, the hillbilly character standing in front of a movie theater, the young woman trying to get phone reception in front of an old-fashioned “internet café”, and especially the dark, smokey skyline looming behind industrial smokestacks.)
Setting the record straight
As with all good stereotypes, there’s perhaps a grain of truth behind some of these. Clermont-Ferrand does have an industrial past, and when we first moved there in 1997 internet service was still virtually non-existent. (It’s still pretty slow in some parts away from the center of the city.) But this video goes on to reveal the REAL truth about Clermont: it is one of France’s most dynamic cities, worthy of the #6 spot on L’Express’s list of the “Best Places to Live in France “(outside Paris). The video points out that it rains less here than in Nimes or Toulouse, as well as the fact that the University is among the 18 best in the country, “alongside the Sorbonne and Paris-Saclay”.
So off the young woman goes to start her university career in the Auvergne. As we last see her, she is having so much fun with a big group of friends that she doesn’t hear her old copains and copines trying to call her; they hang up, frustrated, saying, “you see, we were right – they don’t even have cell service in Clermont.”
Here’s why they’re wrong – and why Clermont-Ferrand is so attractive to expats, university students, and entrepreneurs from France and the rest of the world:
#1 – Clermont-Ferrand is among France’s “most innovative” cities (outside Paris)
Le Figaro studied the list of patents issued in France in 2015, among other indicators of “innovation”, and found (to their evident surprise) that Clermont-Ferrand comes in at number seven nationally. All the other “usual suspects” – Alcatel, Renault, L’Oreal, and others – are located on the west side of Paris. And why would such a town in the center of the country count for 325 patents? Almost all of them came from the fact that …
#2 – It hosts an industrial powerhouse that’s rich in history
Of France’s 30 biggest companies in the CAC 40 Stock Index, only 2 have headquarters outside Paris and its suburbs. One is Arcelor-Mittal, the steel and mining giant, with its siège social in Luxembourg. The other? The Group Michelin, which goes back and forth with Bridgestone in claiming its place as the world’s #1 tire manufacturer.
The company has been in Clermont-Ferrand since its founding by Andre and Edouard Michelin in 1889. It’s a business that has been driven by amazing technical advances throughout its rich history – the first dismountable pneumatic tire in 1891, the first radial tire in 1946, the only tires to be installed on America’s space shuttles, and hundreds of “firsts” in motor sports and racing. (I can attest, too, that its one of the best-run companies anyone could ever have the opportunity to work for!)
Michelin’s influence on the modern history of Clermont-Ferrand is legendary – I have an acquaintance, a 3rd-generation employee of the company, who says proudly that he was born in a Michelin hospital, raised in a house owned by Michelin, in a family that shopped in Michelin stores and went to Michelin doctors. Almost every vestige of that old paternalism is gone, and the company’s industrial presence in town is greatly reduced now – but it’s still one of the most recognized and most important elements of life in this part of the Auvergne. The headquarters campus in the Place des Carmes looked like a scene from a Dickens novel when I first arrived there in 1997, but it has been systematically updated over the last 20 years and today it is an appropriately sleek and impressive campus for a massive global business.
#3 Then there's that university...
As this video so clearly illustrates, to outsiders, this may be one of the least well-known aspects of life in this city: The Université Blaise Pascal (recently renamed the Université Clermont Auvergne) the has its roots in a college founded here in 1854, and it was significantly expanded when the faculty and many students of the University of Strasbourg were forced to flee here by the Nazi occupation in 1939.
Today it has 35,000 students studying in all the fields you’d expect from a university, although it’s becoming particularly noted as a center for medical research. Almost 5,000 of these students come from foreign countries, so the school adds a distinctively young and international air to the culture of Clermont-Ferrand.
(I have a particular interest in this since I’m from Oklahoma, and Blaise Pascal is a “sister school” of the University of Oklahoma, with several exchange students every year. When we first moved to France, you can imagine my surprise when I pulled up behind a weather-beaten Renault Clio bearing a “Boomer Sooner” bumper sticker. And when my son walked through the Place de Jaude wearing his T-shirt from the Oklahoma City Thunder, a guy stepped aside from an approaching group of students to give him a nod and say “Thunder Up, dude!”)
#4 Clermont is home to one of France's most significant cultural events (and it's online right now!)
Of course, the most famous film festival in France is the annual big event down in Cannes…but the annual Festival du Court-Metrage (International Short Film Festival) usually brings around 160,000 people to town every February – producers, directors, buyers for TV networks and movie houses, critics, and lovers of the art form known as “the R&D department of the cinema.” This year is different, 0f course; because of the pandemic, the festival has moved entirely online. It's in progress now (through February 6th) so you can check out some of the best work of short film from around the world from wherever you are!
It’s a “gateway” event – films shown here often go on to feed other major festivals like the one at Sundance, and the auteurs who create short films for this occasion go on to produce and direct the kind of features that get shown at Cannes.
#5 Clermont-Ferrand is a great base for exploring the rest of France
One of the most surprising aspects of our expat life in France was just how central our adopted home in the Auvergne turned out to be. (By way of analogy: France is roughly the same size as the American state of Texas, and Clermont-Ferrand is centrally positioned about where you would find the mid-point between San Antonio and Austin.)
It’s at the intersection of several major high-speed autoroutes – Paris is 4 or 5 hours to the north, but you can be on the beaches at Cap d’Agde on the Mediterranean, in Geneva on the Swiss border, or in Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast in about the same amount of time. (And places like Barcelona are not that much farther away!)
Sadly, there’s still no direct TGV high-speed train service (the debates rage on), but the busy train station does provide regular service to most of the rest of France; the airport at Aulnat has multiple flights every day to Paris, and occasional service to Amsterdam, London, and some other cities.
We took advantage of this central location to travel aggressively both times we lived in Clermont-Ferrand. It’s easy to leave on a Friday evening, spend 2 nights in Paris or Lyon or Bordeaux and be back in time for work on Monday morning.
#6 This is a spectacularly beautiful part of France.
I never got tired of looking out a conference room window at the volcanic Puy Pariou or walking from Clermont-Ferrand’s great cathedral down the Rue de Gras toward the spectacular Puy de Dome, one of the most iconic symbols of central France. (It's also the only "natural" site in mainland France that's recognized as a World Heritage Site.) That backdrop – the chain of 80 or so ancient extinct volcanoes that rise behind the city, the plateau of Gergovie looming to the south – make this one of the most instantly recognizable urban skylines in France.
All of that means Clermont-Ferrand is a gateway to some of the best “wild” spaces in the country. Whether your thing is jumping off a mountain top on a parasail, hiking along waterfalls in the deep gorges of the region’s rivers, biking on twisty mountain roads, or camping in a pine forest so dark that day seems like night, you’ll likely find what you want in this part of France’s Massif Central.
#7 Clermont has a vibrant city center.
It’s true that Clermont-Ferrand has something of an industrial character once you’re outside the city’s center – but true, too, that its medieval quarter is large and well-preserved. (And Michelin has gone a LONG way to transform its Dickensian-looking factory sites into the contemporary campus of a world-class enterprise!) As in so many European towns, there are places where you can walk down a small street and touch the walls on both sides. There are half-timbered houses and a few Renaissance gems. And, as everywhere else in the Auvergne, many of the buildings are built of the characteristic gray/black lava blocks quarried from local volcanic sites, all giving the city a distinctively somber cast.
The beating commercial heart of the city, the Place de Jaude is a vast open space surrounded by stores, cinemas, and restaurants. On any reasonably nice day (even Sundays when most stores are closed) crowds of people stroll the square, which is book-ended by the 17th-century Church of Saint-Pierre-des-Minimes at one end and by a multi-story, contemporary shopping complex at the other. This is where people gather to celebrate, to party, to learn, or just to get out of the house and into the company of other people. (And I swear, even in the coldest part of winter, there are NEVER any polar bears in the Place!)
#8 Oh, the history!
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m enthralled by history in general and by French history particularly, so you won’t be surprised to know that the long record of events in this region stretches at least back to the Iron Age.
The Romans came through here – in fact, the only battle Julius Caesar ever lost in ancient Gaul was to an Arvernii chieftain named Vercingetorix on the plateau de Gergovie south of town. Vikings invaded in their time.
Pope Urban II famously came to Clermont to launch the First Crusade to Jerusalem. Blaise Pascal tried out his science experiments in laboratories here and up on top of the Puy de Dome. And for one extraordinary weekend, the city was actually the capital of France; on June 29, 1940 the Petain government came to town as it fled the Nazi advance in Bordeaux before eventually settling in for its infamous reign in Vichy.
So yes, there’s a lot of history here. Check out the Bargoin Museum on rue Ballainvillier for a dazzling archeological overview of the long chain of human habitation and the earth-shaking events that took place here over the centuries.
Still not convinced?
Clermont-Ferrand is a welcoming center for expats. Michelin usually has dozens of families from all over the globe on assignment in town, and the thousands of foreign students at Blaise Pascal add to the mix. There’s an international women’s society that meets regularly, an international branch for schoolchildren at the Ecole Massillon, and even a small Anglican congregation with a full-time rector at Christchurch in Royat.
The city has a growing national reputation as a place to find progressive music, and it’s easy to find movies in English at several of the city’s theaters (look for the label “VO” for version originale). If you like sports, check out the ASM’s professional rugby team – national champions of France in 2010, and when they won again in 2017, 40,000 people gathered in the Place de Jaude to celebrate. Seismologists in the local observatory noted a sharp spike in their records at the exact moment the final whistle blew in Paris!
Here's another video that will give you an idea of what it feels like to walk through the medieval center of Clermont-Ferrand.
All of this is to say that, for us and for many of our closest friends, it’s not surprising to find Clermont-Ferrand on a list of “Best Places to Live in France”. It’s not Paris, but for anyone looking for all the amenities of city life in a spectacular natural setting, this is the place to be!
Have you visited Clermont-Ferrand or any of the other “best places to live in France”? What were your impressions? Take a second to tell us your experience in the comments section below – and please share this post with someone else who might be thinking about living or traveling in central France.