Given that they are usually at the centre of both the political and business worlds, it is no wonder that investors gravitate towards capital cities. In France, however, the proportion of FDI into the capital, Paris, is particularly high, with more than one-third of all new projects launched in the country between 2008 and 2012 located in the capital, according to greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets.

Such an overriding dominance is not reflective of the opportunities to be found outside of the capital though. Leaders from other French cities, including Toulouse, Nice, Marseille and Lille, are on the investment promotion trail and are working hard to shake the image of their cities as Paris's 'ugly sisters'.


Toulouse takes flight

The south-western city of Toulouse, although six times smaller than Paris, has established itself as the country's leading aerospace hub. Widely considered as the centre of the European aerospace industry, Toulouse is home to aircraft manufacturing behemoth Airbus, as well as aeronautical hub Aerospace Valley, which has more than 120,000 employees and 500 companies.

It also boasts Europe's largest cancer research centre, l'Oncopole de Toulouse, and the European headquarters of US semiconductor chip-maker.

According to fDi Markets, between 2008 and 2012, Toulouse was the second largest French city in terms of FDI-related job creation. Not content with this success, the city's mayor, Pierre Cohen, is eager to encourage yet more investment and help Toulouse establish itself across even more sectors.

“We are the city of knowledge, and that means we look at future opportunities. We see them in e-healthcare clusters, as well as in digital media,” he says. “Now, we are gathering our academic institutions, local economic development agency, chamber of commerce and residents to find ways in which we can deliver excellence, both globally and locally."

Mr Cohen is keen to stress that Toulouse is not all work and academia. France's third largest university city, Toulouse boasts a vibrant nightlife, as well as a growing number of art festivals and fairs. “More than anything we are the city where people are happy to live in,” says Mr Cohen.

Nice's warm welcome

France's fifth largest city, Nice, which is situated in the south of the country on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, also counts quality of life among its main selling points. When asked why investors are attracted to the city, Christian Estrosi, the city's mayor, needs only to point to the beach and tree-lined esplanades. “That is why," he says. "Just look around."

As appealing as the view is, he is also keen to point out that Nice offers more than just sun, sea and sand. “We have superb infrastructure and we are well connected with the world. Our airport is the second busiest in France [after Paris] and directly serves 105 destinations in more than 40 countries,” says Mr Estrosi.

In a bid to combine the city's business aspirations with its natural beauty, the local authorities have recently launched 'Eco Valley', an ambitious project aimed at creating a business district that meets the needs of sustainable development.

“We invite companies from all over the world to come and invest in fields such as renewable energy, hydro electricity, geothermic, solar and sea energy, as well as wood and waste recycling,” says Mr Estrosi. He is planning to travel extensively in 2013, in order to attract investors to Eco Valley.

The making of Marseille

Marseille may share the same coastline as Nice, but in some ways that is where the similarities end. Unlike the picturesque city of Nice, Marseille suffers from image problems. Rising unemployment and crime rates have gained the city the nickname, 'the Detroit of France'.

Jean-Claude Gaudin, the city's mayor, is undeterred, however. He says that Marseille has broad expertise in high-tech sectors such as life sciences and energy, and that it should serve as a magnet for investments. Given that, historically, Marseille's growth has been closely connected with its port, the mayor believes that there is investment potential in redeveloping the port and the surrounding areas.

“There is an important district around the port, and with nearly 4 million cruise passengers [annually], there is a strong growth potential there,” he says.

Redevelopment is already under way in some parts of the city. This year, Marseille was chosen by the EU to be the 2013 European Capital of Culture, which saw it undergo a makeover worth more than $9.3bn involving world-renowned architects such as Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster. Whether this will be enough to create momentum for Marseille's revival remains to be seen.

Little Lille thinks big

Nearly a decade ago, the north-eastern city of Lille was awarded the title of the European Capital of Culture. Now, the city is riding high on a wave of popularity among foreign investors. Despite its relatively small size – its 226,000 residents make it the 10th largest city in France – Lille ranked as the fifth most popular destination in France for FDI between 2009 and 2012.

"In Lille, we went directly from the 19th to the 21st century. We have been able to revitalise the areas where, historically, we have been strong. For example, in the textiles sector we brought unique skills, while at the same time investing in new areas," says Martine Aubry, the city's mayor.

Apart from textiles, Lille has also been pushing to attract blue-chip companies and, according to Ms Aubry, it has had great success in doing so. And, there is even more to come. “Lille is at the heart of the life sciences sector and I strongly believe in the development of the software and IT sector. The city has more than 20,000 employees in more than 2000 technology companies already,” she says.