As Brexit Looms, Paris Tries a Business Makeover

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PARIS — The phone rings a lot at Paris Region Entreprises, a one-stop shop for companies deciding whether to move employees to the City of Light. Typically, callers ask about visas and minutiae of employment law. But not long ago, an executive from Japan called with a stumper: Where, he asked, are the dancing clubs?
“It was a certain kind of club that nobody here had ever heard of,” said Robin Rivaton, the organization’s chief executive. “Kind of a social club for executives and their wives. One of the guys here called around and found one in the western part of Paris.”
Until recently, this kind of personal service was unimaginable. France has long been known for its open hostility to corporations and its suspicion of personal wealth. Taxes were high, regulations were baffling and “It’s not possible” was the default answer to any question — if a company could even find the right person to ask.
Now, the country is in the midst of a sweeping attempt at national rebranding. Labor laws are being changed to make hiring and firing easier. New legislation has slashed a “wealth tax” that was said to drive millionaires out of the country. Courts with English-speaking judges are in the works, and a new international school is under construction to cater to the children of foreign executives.

French leaders, most notably President, Emmanuel Macron, are vigorously trying to shed the country’s anti-capitalist reputation.CreditLudovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
There’s a sense of urgency behind these changes. Hundreds of financial companies may need to relocate thousands of London-based workers before Britain leaves the European Union by the end of March 2019, the withdrawal known as Brexit. Otherwise, these companies could lose their financial passporting rights, which grants them privileged access to the 27 countries that will remain in the European Union.
That has set off a high-stakes international competition among a handful of cities hoping to become Europe’s financial capital. Decision time is looming. The Brexit negotiation breakthrough announced on Friday merely solved preliminary issues that allow the next round of talks to commence. Under the current timetable, a final agreement must be signed well before the March 2019 deadline.
Paris is vying against Dublin, Frankfurt and Luxembourg in a pageant that is not primarily about beauty. What is prized most in boardrooms is an array of business-friendly laws, regulations and culture — the sort of warm welcome that Paris once defiantly refused to offer.
“When you grow up in France, none of the heroes you learn about are entrepreneurs,” said Brigitte Granville, a professor of economics at Queen Mary University of London, who was raised in France. “When someone gets rich in France, people immediately ask, ‘What did he do to make this money? He must be a nasty person.’”

Paris is in the midst of a rebranding, offering business-friendly laws, regulations and culture — the sort of warm welcome that the city once defiantly refused to offer.CreditYoan Valat/European Pressphoto Agency
The origins of this attitude are usually traced to the French Revolution, which, Ms. Granville explained, elevated equality to a kind of religion. When François Hollande announced during his presidential campaign in 2012 that “My enemy is the world of finance,” he was summing up a fairly common sentiment.
Now, a new crop of French leaders, most notably the free market-supporting president, Emmanuel Macron, are vigorously trying to shed this anticapitalist reputation. During his campaign, he visited London, home to as many as 400,000 French expatriates, urging them to return to France and “innovate.” And since his election, the government has started a highly aggressive campaign to poach jobs from London.
It began the same day that the Brexit vote results were announced, on June 24 of last year. That afternoon, Paris Region Entreprises splashed banner ads on dozens of websites (“Choose Paris Region” was a not very catchy slogan). A few weeks later, 4,000 letters were mailed to companies around the globe.
By that October, officials with a business district in Paris had posted cheeky billboards in London’s airports and train stations, quipping, “Tired of the Fog, Try the Frogs!” Then came schmoozing and briefings. In February of this year, a delegation of French leaders in politics and business met with more than 80 executives on the 37 floor of the Shard, a landmark building in London’s financial district.

The French government has appointed Christian Noyer, a former Bank of France governor, to be the country’s Brexit point man.CreditAndrew Testa for The New York Times
The French government also appointed Christian Noyer, a former Bank of France governor, to be the country’s Brexit point man. A born diplomat, he cannot be baited into belittling the competition, beyond calling Frankfurt “small and provincial,” hastening to add, “some people may like that.”
He rarely promotes what is most celebrated about Paris, like its gorgeous streetscapes and stellar restaurants, but he believes they will factor, at least a little, into some companies’ relocation decisions.
A company can send staff members to any city they want, Mr. Noyer said, during a brief interview in the lobby of a London hotel. “But if they have a competitor who is going to a nicer place, the best staff might, if they are offered a job in a better city, leave after a few months.”
Local politicians have predicted that 10,000 Brexit-related jobs will eventually move here, creating another 10,000 indirect jobs. Whether the city will come close to that figure is unclear, but a handful of announcements suggest that Paris is at least in the game.

The kitchen inside the French Finance Ministry is led by a chef who once worked at Michelin-starred restaurants.CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
HSBC said this summer that it might move 1,000 employees to Paris from London. In September, Bank of America was in talks to lease office space not far from the Arc de Triomphe, with plans to initially move 300 employees there.
Within France, the legislative changes and Brexit efforts have their share of critics, many of whom consider it further evidence that Mr. Macron is the “president of the rich.”
“The idea that companies won’t settle in France because of high taxes is a false argument, that they tell us to pass policies that are difficult to justify in the eyes of the population,” said Alexandre Derigny a spokesman for the General Confederation of Labour, a group of trade unions.
France’s economic makeover has inspired some derision outside of the country, too. It has the faint smell of desperation to people like Nicolas Mackel, the chief executive of Luxembourg for Finance, a public-private partnership that promotes the country as a business hub. He is proud to say that the grand duchy has not resorted to the tactics deployed in Paris.

The Bercy Lab at the Ministry of Finance was renovated to look like the brainstorming space of a start-up.CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
“You’ll accuse me of bashing the French,” he said over tea recently, “but earlier this year, they announced that they would have regulators who speak English. We didn’t need to do that because our regulators already speak English and always have.”
For France, English-speaking government officials would be little more than a promising start. The country has so many bewildering layers of regulations that its system is known, unaffectionately, as mille-feuille, a reference to a densely layered pastry.
Some attempts to address this problem are happening behind closed doors. One of those doors is on the fourth floor of the French Finance Ministry, an immense Brutalist building that is home to thousands of civil servants and acres of standard-issue offices.
A room here was recently renovated to look like the brainstorming space of a start-up. The Bercy Lab — “Bercy” is the nickname of the ministry — has sleek furniture and whiteboards, along with a few touches that seem a bit goofy. A sign on the entrance door reads, in French, “On your mark, get ready, innovate!”

Since the Bercy Lab opened in October, executives have been conferring with members of Parliament on drafting a law to improve the business environment in France.CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
Since the lab opened in October, executives have been conferring with members of Parliament on drafting a wide-ranging law to improve the business environment, expected to pass next year. Among the participants is Eric Kayser, founder of the Maison Kayser chain of bakeries. As mundane as such face-to-face discussions might sound, they are a first.
“It’s really useful,” says Alice Zagury, president of the Family, a firm that invests in European start-ups and another Bercy Lab participant. “And it’s what we need to do in France — to participate, to feel responsible, and not to believe that the government will fix everything.”
But the ministry also offers a public reminder of one of Paris’s enduring draws: great food. Ten chefs cook here every weekday in a 5,400-square-foot kitchen under the direction of Bruno Gricourt, who once worked at Michelin-starred restaurants. Executives who visit for Brexit-connected discussions, and stay for a meal, feast on Mr. Gricourt’s menu — which changes daily.
“Grilled scallops with an emulsion of pumpkin and fresh hazelnuts,” he said, describing an appetizer he had made that day. “A very simple preparation that respects the ingredients.”
It could take years for France to truly alter its image, if it is able to at all. But in addition to the commitments already made by several banks, there are small signs of a payoff.
In a mid-November Twitter post, Goldman Sachs’s chief executive, Lloyd C. Blankfein, praised the French government’s commitment to economic changes, describing them as “first steps.”
“Struck by the positive energy here in Paris,” he wrote. And just to underscore what his audience already knew, he added, “And the food’s good too!”

Correction: 
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name and surname of the chief executive of Luxembourg for Finance. He is Nicolas Mackel, not Nicholas Mackal. The article also misstated where the Shard building is located. It is in the center of London, not specifically in the financial district.

Eloise Stark contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Paris Tries On A Fresh Look: Less Red Tape. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Source: NYT EUROPE

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