RUNGIS, France — Around midnight, as most Parisians head to sleep after a long day at work, a parallel universe rouses to life inside a giant food market — slightly larger than the size of Monaco — five miles south of the French capital.
In a refrigerated hall the length of a soccer field, Pascal Dufays wiped a layer of crushed ice off the silvery flank of a Saint-Pierre fish and pointed to its eyes. They were perfectly clear — a sign of freshness.
“See that beauty?” said Mr. Dufays, his breath forming clouds in the glacial air. “It was caught this morning in Brittany, by independent fishermen in small boats.”
A buyer from a swank Parisian restaurant came by to inspect the fish, haggle over the price and secure delivery in time for a well-heeled lunch crowd later that day.
Throughout the early morning, thousands of similar deals were unfolding inside more than 30 hulking meat, fruit, vegetable, dairy and flower pavilions nearby.
By the time the sun peeked over the Paris skyline, throngs of workers had consumed nearly 3,000 coffees at Le Saint Hubert cafe, a local hangout, squeezed elbow-to-elbow at the horseshoe bar.
“This is a working-class place,” said Pascal Rolland, 56, a butcher, sipping white wine in a bloodstained apron at 5:30 a.m. after hacking meat carcasses all night. “There’s no one here who doesn’t work hard.”
It was just a typical morning scene at one of Europe’s best-kept secrets: Rungis, the world’s largest wholesale food market.
Spread over 573 acres, with 13,000 employees, 19 restaurants, banks, a post office and even its own police force, Rungis is a city within a city, and a global gateway to the Continent and beyond for millions of tons of fresh gastronomic fare.
Revered in culinary circles, Rungis is barely known to most visitors to the French capital. But many have heard of its fabled predecessor, Les Halles, the sprawling, cacophonous, rat-infested food market that fed Paris for over 800 years, and was immortalized in Émile Zola’s novel “The Belly of Paris.”
When Les Halles outgrew its soaring glass-and-steel halls in central Paris, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the president at the time, ordered it relocated to the suburb of Rungis.
The police helped orchestrate the big move in 1969, down to the last cabbage, in just three days — a feat the French compared to the Allied landing in Normandy during World War II.
Today, Rungis is an ultramodern market, generating nine billion euros in annual sales (about $10.4 billion). With pavilions divided among the four major food groups, a system for recycling biowaste and a global platform for e-commerce, the operation is so efficient that Moscow, Abu Dhabi and other capitals are recasting their food markets on the Rungis model.
But as competition from Amazon, Google and other online food shopping conglomerates grows, the state-backed company that runs the market, Semmaris, wants wholesalers to move more of their business into the cloud.
“If we don’t press the fishmonger, the vegetable seller and the butcher to go digital, we’ll disappear,” said Stéphane Layani, the president of Semmaris.
The company recently created a start-up incubator in the heart of Rungis hosting two dozen firms like Mandoline, which makes office lunches for French companies that are gravitating to American work habits — including eating behind a desk.
But the idea of becoming cybermerchants has stirred a subtle “résistance” among many of Rungis’s longtime denizens, most of them second- or third-generation sellers. Their forebears negotiated tête-à-tête with buyers in Les Halles, a pen behind their ears to mark up orders and ledgers.
“It’s naïve to think this can be done by computer,” said Mr. Dufays, 58, pointing to stacks of brill and monkfish waiting to be sold. “People need to see the fish, touch it, make sure it’s fresh. You can’t do that through a screen.”
The only remote purchases he fielded were telephone orders from buyers who knew the quality of his goods.
The prospect of earning fatter profits online, though, is alluring to many merchants here.
Around 5 a.m., a dozen salespeople at Pierre Desmettre & Fils, Rungis’s biggest produce wholesaler, monitored online orders at banks of computers inside an enormous fruit and vegetable hall.
Jérôme Desmettre, the president and a fourth-generation produce seller, said his grandfather traveled to farms with a wooden carriage to gather apples for resale. Today, Mr. Desmettre goes online to buy his cherries from Brazil, and has peaches delivered by train from southern France.
Others aren’t convinced of the online approach. Aurore Boussac, 30, a Parisian florist, stopped ordering online after receiving wilted flowers. Since then, she has resumed visiting Rungis to inspect tulips, roses and other blooms personally.
“We’re artisans,” Ms. Boussac said. “We need to know what we’re buying.”
Most important, she added, gesturing to the longtime flower sellers in the hall, “we have a relationship with the people here.”
Whether a deal is sealed among wheels of cheese or over a bottle of Bordeaux in a wood-paneled Rungis restaurant, such bonds are indispensable. And that extends to the relationships among the workers. Despite the market’s vastness, it’s more like a Provençal village where food, work and pride transcend boundaries and bind people together.
Francis Fauchère, 58, the president of Eurodis Viande, is a meat wholesaler who employs 40 people. He grew up in a poor family, he said, and hires people from similar straits — many from the gritty banlieues ringing Paris, where unemployment is as high as 40 percent.
“If you’re willing to work hard, you’ll find a job,” he said as a man swung a cleaver at a veal carcass. Mr. Fauchère said he paid his workers nearly twice the minimum wage, and passes on his savoir-faire to give them skills for continued employment.
Antoine D’Agostino, 82, began working at age 12 in the teeming food pavilions in Les Halles, hauling produce in wooden carts.
“I never had time to go to school,” said Mr. D’Agostino, lingering with his memories over an early morning cappuccino. “But I knew how to count.”
Mr. D’Agostino, a celebrity at the market, offered some memories of his early days in the business.
At Les Halles, he said, you had to sell produce fast because there was no refrigeration. He would wheel his cart from one store to another, hustling carrots or lettuce until everything was sold. The worst off were the glaneurs — scavengers who competed with rats for food scraps on the ground.
Today, Mr. D’Agostino helps his son run a wine wholesale business at Rungis, with Champagnes and Château Pétrus available on site and online.
Still, with e-commerce, “there’s no one who says hello or even thank you,” he observed.
“People want to be treated like humans,” he added. “The market is where that happens.”
Emma Bubola contributed reporting.