Editor’s note: This event was part of Global Atlanta’s Consular Conversations, a series of monthly luncheons where we interview diplomats in the city about their objectives and what’s happening in their countries.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed often says that cities are where the global economy is most readily influenced and where its impacts are most easily felt.
The mayor, who visited the Paris climate talks last year for a city leaders forum, has an ideological ally in the newly arrived French consul general in Atlanta, Louis de Corail.
“Cities deal directly with each other, strike deals, exchange companies … any kind of international relation can be extended to the local level,” Mr. Corail told Global Atlanta in Nov. 15 Consular Conversations interview.
Mr. Corail would know: Though a more than 20-year veteran of the French diplomatic service, he was seconded to a city-level post heading up international relations for the city of Bordeaux for nearly four years before arriving in Atlanta.
“It’s actually very interesting to get out of your comfort zone in the ministry for awhile and to see what others do, including in international relations, because cities now deal directly and do not have, in most cases –not all—to be controlled by the state,” he said in a wide-ranging conversation that covered efforts to bolster innovation, how to fight extremism and political challenges facing France today
Bordeaux, famous as a wine-growing region, is also one of the most dynamic metro areas in France and has more than 20 official city partnerships around the world, Mr. Corail said. (It doesn’t hurt that the mayor, Alain Juppe, was previously a prime minister and minister of foreign affairs for France, he added.)
The bullishness on cities is backed up by prevailing research that shows a rapidly urbanizing world where cities are gaining more political and economic influence. For the first time in history, the world’s population in recent years became more urban than rural, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Less encumbered by the national politics of globalization, cities are crafting their own international strategies, working through pragmatic partnerships.
Still, sometimes it’s difficult to sustain city ties or ensure their effectiveness.
“Because of history, sometimes this is lost in time. You don’t know why the partnership was struck in the first place, and cities develop in different directions, so they don’t find the common ground any longer,” Mr. Corail said. “If there’s a common will, things go really well.”
He recalled working on projects tailored for each urban pair. It might be cataloging emissions in a neighborhood of Wuhan, China, peace initiatives in Ramallah, West Bank, or something else entirely in Bristol, England.
With its 18 official sister cities from Lagos, Nigeria, to Fukuoka, Japan, Atlanta has also been intensifying urban collaborations in recent months, but recently opting to sign informal partnerships with Cape Town, South Africa, and Lodz, Poland.
One of its most active sister cities is its 40-year tie with Toulouse, France, which has blossomed into both a cultural and commercial success. Toulouse artists played a key role in the recent Elevate arts festival downtown, while Atlanta-Toulouse corporate connections were featured in this year’s France-Atlanta series in October, led by the consulate and Georgia Tech.
Toulouse is home to the global headquarters of aviation giant Airbus, one of the hosts for this year’s 2016 Atlanta-Toulouse Startup Exchange.
Building on Georgia Tech Ties
Educational partnerships are both an offshoot and a contributor to both urban and binational ties, and France’s consulate in Atlanta hopes to facilitate even more around the Southeast U.S.
The Georgia Tech campus in Metz, France, was a pioneer and remains one of the only American universities to have a full-blown campus in the country. Established in 1990 and known as Georgia Tech-Lorraine, the campus offers year-round degree programs in computer science and engineering. It’s also a study abroad destination for Georgia Tech students and pursues research and development with European partners.
Georgia Tech is also at the center of an annual celebration of Atlanta’s ties with France. Having recently completed its seventh year, the France-Atlanta collaborative recognizes and promotes research, educational, cultural and economic ties between France and Atlanta. The 2016 program included scientific symposiums, cultural events, roundtable discussions on humanitarian issues, a business awards ceremony and more.
Arriving in August, Mr. de Corail said his job in helping organize the events was simple: just step into the shoes of his predecessors.
One of his highlights of the series was a presentation by Cartooning for Peace, a grassroots movement that started in France to celebrate the freedom of expression and satirical form embodied by political cartoonists. Jean “Plantu” Plantureux, the organization’s founder, and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shared insights on the issue of free speech in society at a Georgia Tech event and hosted an outdoor exhibition as part of Elevate.
Innovation in France
France is now trying to better connect its high-level research with startups, and to tell the story of what’s already happening in the innovation ecosystem of a country already strong in advanced industries like biotechnology, energy and manufacturing.
[pullquote]“We need to underline again and again France is not simply a country with good food, landscape and heritage sites. We are working in the top tier of tech.”[/pullquote]
“We need to underline again and again France is not simply a country with good food, landscape and heritage sites. We are working in the top tier of tech,” said Mr. Corail when asked where French innovation stands today.
Mr. Corail highlighted the government’s La French Tech initiative, established in 2013 to bolster French innovation at home and abroad.
La French Tech provides a public-private framework to accelerate and grow French digital startups. The program awards the French Tech accreditation to cities recognized for their startup ecosystems, and provides a common identity for French startups in France and abroad.
France views the creation of new businesses as paramount to tackling unemployment. Additional efforts to promote innovation and entrepreneurship include lowering the tax burden on small business since 2009 and implementing research and development tax incentives. In 2012, the country launched the Public Investment Bank to help small and mediu- sized businesses get loans.
The efforts seem to be moving things in the right direction. Between 2007 and 2011, France had the fastest rate of new business creation in the European Union, according to research firm RSM. In an interview, earlier this year, the country’s minister for economy, Emmanual Macron, said France created 1,500 startups in 2015.
Secularism, Combating Terrorism and Bilateral Relations with the U.S.
Mr. Corail acknowledged that French tourism has suffered in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice and elsewhere in2015 and 2016. The government has implemented a variety of measures to boost security in public areas, fight radicalization and shore up border security.
However, Mr. Corail strongly opposes the suggestion made by some that French Secularism, or laïcité, legitimizes discrimination against minority populations, leading to grievances that may spur extremist views. He added that France has the largest Muslim population in continental Europe, eclipsing 5 million by some estimates.
“This [secular] system is precisely what allows you to be free,” said Mr. Corail. “Everyone is equal and each individual has the same obligations.” He recognized that while it may be difficult to explain abroad how France’s secular system guarantees equality, he said that the French public is “very, very attached to this model.”
Still, some immigrants have struggled with balancing their French identity with their Muslim expression/ Since 2010, a law intending to enhance security has banned wearing of full face veils and burqas in public places. And lately, tensions in this regard have risen along with the influx of refugees on European shores and rising nationalist sentiments in politics.
Fighting global terrorism is one area where France foresees continued, and strong partnership with the U.S. under president-elect Trump’s administration. While it is too early to draw definitive conclusions about the future Trump administration and its relations with France, Mr. Corail struck a positive note.
“Our two presidents have spoken to each other,” He said. “We have made it very clear we are willing to continue our relationship, which is the oldest western relationship between two allies.”
-With editing, reporting by Trevor Williams