LYON, FRANCE — IN the pastel oranges, pinks, greens, and ochres of some of Lyon's fine old buildings is a clue to the city's past - and perhaps to its future as well.
The very un-Parisian architectural colors provide a reminder of the economic and cultural influence that northern Italy historically had here. At the same time these and other grand riverfront monuments hint at Lyon's past as an important center of industry and finance, and as a crossroads for European trade.
Lyon's place in Europe - as Northern Italy's financial capital, as a center of silk trade and fine textile weaving - was gradually eclipsed over the last century as France's hyper-centralized political and economic system ensured that all roads led to Paris.
That system guaranteed that some of France's financial and industrial giants that got their start here - Credit Lyonnais and Rhone-Poulenc, to name two - would shift headquarters to Paris.
Yet this city of more than 1 million people at the confluence of the Rhone and Soane rivers is beginning to pull out of the Parisian shadow and reassert its historic role as a center of European business and industry. Partly the fruit of France's 10-year-old regional and decentralization policies, partly the result of the single European market and blurring national borders, Lyon's reemergence is an example of how historic, if not ancient, regional ties are being rebuilt.
For many observers, it is a return to the natural commercial, financial, and cultural ties that marked Europe in past centuries.
"Under France's centralized system, Lyon was a big city, but it was still, well, in province," says Robert Maury, director of ADERLY, the Lyon region's economic development agency. "Everything was reasoned out in terms of how Lyon stacked up against Paris, and in those terms Lyon was always the loser.
"But under the new perspective," he adds, "the reasoning is on a European scale, and there Lyon - cheaper than Paris, in the very heart of a major European business region - can win." According to Mr. Maury, it's a "return, for Lyon, to the role it played going back to medieval times."
The latest indication that Lyon is winning some battles in its quest to become more than Paris's handmaid is the recent choice of Lyon as home of Euronews, Europe's response to American CNN. A project of 12 European public-television stations, Euronews plans to begin broadcasting nonstop news in five languages as of 1993. Sights set on `Eurofed'
Having taken the Euronews prize - against such competitors as Munich, Germany; Valencia, Spain; and Charleroi, Belgium - Lyon now has its sights set on "Eurofed," the European Community's central bank. The bank will set monetary policy and manage the EC's single currency sometime around the end of the decade. It will be preceded by a European Monetary Institute to guide Europe's economies during the transition.
"Winning Euronews is a sign of something new for Lyon, that its competition is now at the European level," says Jacques Moulinier, assistant mayor for new technologies and communications. "The project itself is an indication of the kind of competition that is going to develop in Europe."
In recent decades, Lyon's competition was within France. Ten years ago, war raged between Lyon and Marseille as to which was France's true second city. Before Interpol, the international-law-enforcement agency, moved here in 1987, it considered other French cities, including Nice.
But in the late 1980s Europe saw the emergence of the "Eurocities" movement, a lobbying and promotional effort by a number of dynamic regional cities that saw their chance in the EC's push for regionalization and the single market. Lyon quickly emerged as the most dynamic French member of the group.
"What we're seeing now is the emergence of a strong, coherent region made up of northern Italy, southern Germany, part of Switzerland, and south-central France," says Michel Foucher, director of the European Geopolitical Observatory here. "Lyon is a part of a triangle of cities that are leading that region."
Mr. Foucher says Lyon's role as a junction between the traditional economic and financial powerhouse of northern Europe, and a southern Europe of developing dynamism, will grow. The EC's interest in integrating those two Europes is in fact one of the reasons Lyon promoters like Foucher say their city should become home to Eurofed.
"Right now the competition is pretty much down to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Lyon, but putting the bank in either of the first two would only reinforce the north's economic dominance," Mr. Foucher says.
"Lyon can argue its independence and neutrality much better than a city like Frankfurt, which is so intertwined with the Deutschemark," says Mr. Maury, "and those qualities will be important for countries yielding their monetary sovereignty." Paris's lengthy shadow
Landing the central bank - a decision anticipated around the end of the year - will not be easy. German officials and financial heavyweights, growing jittery over criticism of plans to give up the Deutschemark for a European money, insist that the bank, since it will manage a money based on the stable Deutschemark, should be in Germany.
Whether or not Lyon wins Eurofed, city leaders say they will continue working to overcome their city's shortcomings that keep it from equaling the stature of regional cities like Milan, Geneva, Munich, or even Barcelona.
Topping the list is France's still-strong centralization: Despite decentralization policies, the Paris region today accounts for nearly 30 percent of French GNP, while the runner-up, the Rhones-Alpes region where Lyon sits, accounts for less than 10 percent. Air traffic is well below that of its European competitors (although France's Very Fast Train may be one factor there).
That concentration continues to rob Lyon of the intellectual level and cosmopolitan spirit that one might expect in a city of its size and economic performance. "We simply lack the decision-makers that help make a city count," says Foucher.
But Lyon is shedding its historic resistance to intellectual pursuits and culture that dates from its anti-French-Revolution sentiments. It now has one of France's most prestigious scientific universities, 80,000 university students, and dozens of research centers. It is refurbishing and expanding its art museum, and expanding its opera.
And soon the city will greet Euronews, becoming the center of a much-needed European news and communications network. That has led to comparisons of Lyon with Atlanta, home of CNN. It's a comparison people here don't mind at all.
"Atlanta has been very successful at developing a dynamic regional role in the US," says Foucher. "A certain number of cities are building similar roles in Europe, and we intend for Lyon to be among them."