City sends 'commandos' to trade fairs to attract business and create jobs

Panicked Over Rise of Reunited Berlin, Paris Battles for Status as Star of Europe

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR Paris, being beautiful may not be enough anymore. The city boasts broad boulevards, splendid museums and public monuments, 300 groomed and flowered parks, 86,000 trees, and a score of bridges so often photographed that they could claim supporting actor nominations in a spate of recent Hollywood films.

For most of France's 1,000-year history, Paris has been France's undisputed political, cultural, and economic center. And for several centuries, it was arguably the most influential city in Europe.

After World War II, the economic imbalance between Paris and the provinces (dubbed "the French desert" in a popular text of the period) was so great that a new bureaucracy was set up to help send businesses elsewhere in France.

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But now the City of Lights is looking for business for itself - and is not ashamed to say so. In the last 10 years, Paris has lost a third of its large businesses, some 30,000 industrial jobs - mostly to the new industrial suburbs that ring the city. In the same period, the greater Paris region lost 430,000 industrial jobs and saw more and more Japanese and American firms locate in Germany rather than France.

But to Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi, it makes little difference whether a business moves to Berlin or to La Defense, a modern office complex four subway stops outside the Paris city limits. Loss of businesses means loss of tax revenues and jobs for Parisians.

This year, the city expects to pay a soaring $1.2 billion out of its $6 billion annual budget to support the unemployed. About 13 percent of the city's workers are jobless, and 11.4 percent in the Paris region as a whole. The city also pays $700 million a year on subsidized housing. "All the rest has gone to make the city beautiful. But the priority of priorities for this new mayor is creating jobs," says City Hall spokesman Thomas Saugnac.

This month, he mobilized the capital's first economic expansion committee to promote the image of Paris overseas and attract business. Since the 1950s, all major cities in France have had regional development efforts, but this marks the first time Paris has formally entered the race to attract business.

Last weekend, the new head of the city's economic expansion committee, Isabelle De Kerviler, led a group of "commandos" - City Hall's preferred term for the development team - to lobby for Paris at an international real estate trade fair in Cannes, France. Backed by a $50 million annual budget, they competed with the cities of Moscow (which sent its mayor) and Amsterdam, as well as with representatives from La Defense and other greater Paris development agencies.

"Paris has only 10 to 15 years to become the capital of Europe," Ms. De Kerviler told the newspaper Le Figaro. "By that time, Berlin will have rejoined the core of the world's great cities. We need to position ourselves as the capital of know-how and innovation."

A year ago, such a concerted effort to boost Paris would not have been politically possible. During much of his 18 years as Paris mayor, Jacques Chirac was preparing his campaign for the French presidency. For a politician with national aspirations, to pit Paris against other French cities or even against industrial areas in greater Paris would have been political suicide, says a City Hall spokesman.

Then-Mayor Chirac presided over an office-building boom in the second half of the 1980s and spent billions to make the city more attractive. Some 8,600 workers on a city payroll of 40,000 are assigned to clean the streets. At night, lime-green uniformed city workers sweep sidewalks with color-coordinated plastic brooms.

A Parisian cab driver recalls seeing Mr. Chirac conduct spot checks at 3 a.m. to make sure workers swept under parked cars. "I heard him say that the taxpayers of Paris were paying for this, and they deserved nothing less," he says.

Paris is the No. 1 city for tourism in the world, drawing some 18 million to 20 million visitors annually. The city is the leading European convention center, attracting some 6 million business visitors a year. But the problem is that a speculative real estate boom in the 1980s drove up the price of office space, sending many businesses fleeing from the city. Mega-development projects, such as Paris Rive Gauche in the east of the city, cost billions but failed to attract new businesses.

Small businessmen resented what they saw as a political effort to draw international headquarters into the city and push industries out. Two years ago, the city classified many small streets in the congested Le Sentier garment district as pedestrian walks in what locals describe as a bid to gentrify it.

"They made these walks for tourists, but it made our business more difficult," says Moise el-Maalem, who manages a wholesale clothing shop in the district."

"They did it to get rid of us," says spokesman for V Fortuna, a local manufacturer who has been in the Sentier neighborhood for 18 years. "City Hall wanted to make a more beautiful neighborhood, and they wanted to move us to the suburbs."

But Sentier businessmen can take heart. City Hall plans to unveil a development plan to defend artisans and small businesses in April.

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