When thinking of Atlanta, businesspeople in France still conjure up images of the Old South, but the city’s airport is putting Atlanta on the map as an international business center, Christine LaGarde, France’s trade minister, told GlobalAtlanta.

“The traditional idea that the [French] business community would have [of Atlanta], if solicited, would have a lot to do with the past – beautiful novels, Olympic games, a few drinks that are made around here. Then, the next thought would be the airport,” Ms. LaGarde said of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest passenger airport.

Ms. LaGarde spoke with GlobalAtlanta about the future of the world’s airport industry, Atlanta’s quest to be a gateway to Latin America and France’s growing research and development sector after a March 20 luncheon held for her at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. She was on a three-city tour of the U.S., exploring French business interests in New York and Houston in addition to Atlanta.

Her visit coincided with the maiden trans-Atlantic commercial flights of the super jumbo jet, Airbus A380. The biggest of all passenger airliners, capable of carrying 555 travelers, the European-made aircraft arrived in New York and Los Angeles March 19.

The size of the aircraft prevents it from flying into Hartsfield-Jackson, however, which like many American airports, is not equipped to handle a 560 ton aircraft with a wingspan 50 feet wider than the average commercial airplane.

But Ms. LaGrade is convinced that the aircraft’s size will not keep Toulouse, France-based Airbus from making a profit. In fact, she envisions an increasing number of airports making the structural changes necessary to accommodate the A380.

“My suspicion is that we’ll move towards a specialization of airports,” she said. “Some airports will actually focus on receiving large jumbos, and they will then operate as hubs for smaller airports in their region,” she said.

Ms. LaGarde also spoke about Atlanta’s efforts to become a hub for businesses headed toward Central and South America. Again, she cited Hartsfield-Jackson as being the city’s best asset in the endeavor.

“The reliability of the connections and the hospitality that you encounter when you first arrive in Atlanta…those are real pluses,” she said of the airport, adding that it topped the experience foreign travelers receive when they arrive in Miami, Atlanta’s preeminent rival in its quest to become known as a “gateway” to Latin America.

But Atlanta should also be concerned about Panama, which is also considered a viable contender as a gateway to Latin America, Ms. LaGarde said, indicating that she was well aware of the competition for that title.

In addition to meeting with some 100 businesspeople at the metro chamber, Ms. LaGarde also visited the Georgia Institute of Technology during her trip here.

She commended Georgia Tech for having a business and academic partnership with the city of Metz in the northeastern Lorraine region of France.

She was also particularly interested in the university’s nanotechnology work, which is a focus in France’s growing R&D industry, she said.

France is encouraging the growth of cluster-focused R&D parks that combine the expertise of the public, private and academic sectors, and nanotechnology development is a particular interest to the country, Ms. LaGarde said.

The cost-savings opportunities that nanotechnology innovations could provide is driving France’s support for the industry, she said, noting that nano-size chips could facilitate preventative healthcare for human beings and maintenance for automobiles and machines.

France’s focus on innovation and the future growth set it apart from the clichés and antiquated images that, like Atlanta, it is often perceived to embody, Ms. LaGarde told the businesspeople at the luncheon.

The country, which is a top trade and investment destination for the U.S., is more business oriented than its “savoir-vivre” reputation often portrays, she said.

She said that the country was the world’s sixth largest economic power and had more than 2,400 French subsidiaries in the U.S.

It also bought more than $33.7 billion of U.S. exports in 2006, she said.

The country still needs to undergo labor reforms to become a more business friendly environment, she said. For starters, business managers should have more flexibility to hire and fire employees and the price of overtime for working more than 35 hours a week should be reduced, she said.

Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s minister of the interior, who is running for president in the country’s upcoming elections, is the best candidate to push through such reforms, Ms. LaGarde said.

Trade Minister since June 2005, Ms. LaGarde is a lawyer, specializing in anti-trust and labor law. Named one of the world’s 100 most powerful women by Forbes Magazine, Ms. LaGarde was working in Chicago as chairman of law firm Baker & McKenzie’s Global Executive Committee when she was appointed to her current position.

Story Contacts, Links and Related Stories
French Consulate in Atlanta
Natacha Constable, attachee de presse (404) 495-1682