France's trendy Grenoble leads the way by slowing down
Grenoble, France — In his office in the large, steel-and-glass tourist office, secretary-general Christian Rochette's attire reflects Grenoble's reputation as a pioneering French community. Unlike most French executives, he is wearing jeans and a pullover. ``It's a little like California here: Everything is open, informal, and egalitarian,'' he says.
He points to the jagged, snow-covered peaks that rise just behind the window. ``I'm going to a ski area there this afternoon and you can't wear a tie and jacket there.''
In the 1960s and '70s, Grenoble's touch of California culture made it the site of a high-tech boom, then of the 1968 Winter Olympics, and finally of a novel experiment in Socialist urban planning.
Today, the city again suggests the outlines of France's future. While the young, dynamic, right-wing mayor, Alain Carrignon, has caught the national fancy by preaching the virtues of free enterprise, Grenoble of the 1980s teaches above all the need to accept an era of higher unemployment, slower growth, and less innovation.
``The boom days are over,'' says Bernard Montergnole, the town's Socialist deputy in the National Assembly. ``Even if the new mayor makes the private sector king, we must learn to live with limits.''
Such limits call for a gigantic change in attitude. Ever since the 1860s, when some engineers experimented with the idea of drawing electric power from the nearby waterfalls, Grenoble's growth has been explosive. By 1945, hydroelectric power had turned a little village into an industrial city of 80,000 people. Over the next three decades, that figure multiplied by five.
Grenoble grew into a scientific university center, breaking down the old French tradition that keeps industry and academics separate. In 1892, the world's first university course in industrial electricity was taught here. Since World War II, companies here have commissioned the local institutes and science faculties to do research jobs, and professors have used the firms' laboratories and experience.
This research tradition fostered high-tech growth. In 1956, the government chose Grenoble as the site of France's principal nuclear research laboratories. During the '60s, prestigious electronics companies, even the US computer giant, Hewlett-Packard, followed.
This economic and scientific energy soon was channeled into civic life. Old Grenoble was ruled by conservative notables, local lawyers, doctors, and businessmen born and raised in town. New Grenoble -- the professors, scientists, and entrepreneurs flooding into the city -- demanded more high-powered municipal leadership.
In the 1965 elections, nuclear engineer Hubert Dubedout brought together some of his friends from the scientific elite, allied them with the Socialists, and swept away the old Gaullist rulers. Dramatic changes followed.
Preparing for the 1968 Winter Olympics at breakneck speed, the new municipal team overrode objections from conservatives and constructed a modern infrastructure -- a new airport, highway, train station, post office, and Olympic village designed to house 4,000 people.
Mr. Dubedout didn't stop there. He was the first French mayor to link suburban communes with the big city in a voluntary association for planning and management. He poured money into diverse cultural activities, constructing a large, contemporary House of Culture. And he built a model ``new town,'' public housing designed to mix the social classes.
``We tried to create an entirely new style of urban life,'' explains Mr. Montergnole, a key player in the Dubedout administration. ``There would be more conviviality between people from different backgrounds, more ties between the rulers and the ruled.''
But as with other Utopias, the Socialist experiment eventually soured. As Grenoblois explain, the French penchant for privacy held residents back from the kind of voluntary participation in neighborhood associations that is common in Anglo-Saxon countries. The ``new town'' became a ghetto for North African immigrants.
The recession also hurt. Social experimentation was possible, even popular, during the high-growth days of the 1960s and early '70s. After the oil crisis, though, older firms, notably in textiles, machinery, and building, closed down. New investment became rare, and Utopia-building funds disappeared.
Meanwhile, political infighting increased. Dubedout had dreamed of a broad popular consensus, but the French tendency for political polarization soon took hold. To keep power following the 1977 elections, the Socialists were forced into a tenuous alliance with the Communists.
``The Communists were always saying that `a new bourgeoisie' had taken over,'' Montergnole recalls. ``Their sniping destroyed our effervescence: We became defensive, closed.''
In the 1983 municipal election, the conservatives took advantage of this Socialist malaise. Their candidates, led by Alain Carrignon, were young and dynamic. Promises of a more open municipality and less government interference produced a comfortable majority -- and a strong reaction throughout the country. First there was astonishment, then a feeling that once again Grenoble was pioneering.
``Just like the conservatives in America, we're leading a national wave,'' says Jacqueline Bon, an adviser to the mayor. She says that -- for the first time in a generation -- rates will not rise this year.
Soon, she says, municipal facilities such as the Olympic stadium will be privatized.
But nobody envisages a conservative revolution `a la Ronald Reagan. The new conservative rulers have spared social programs. Cultural spending may even rise, as the conservatives restore such traditional festivals as Bastille Day dancing and the town carnival.
``Dramatic changes would not be accepted,'' Ms. Bon explains. ``We don't want a civil war.''
Instead of divisive battles, the talk is of making better use of existing resources. The days of dynamic economic expansion are over. The population has leveled off.
Psychologically, too, Grenoble may help France learn how to live with higher unemployment, lower purchasing power, and less grandeur. -- 30 --