Peter Wilsher praises the efforts of the Rhone-Alpes region to sell itself as a separate entity.
The year 1992 approaches but as more and more towns, cities, regions and individual businesses are starting to realise, not all problems are likely to be resolved by the provision of a level playing field. As the barriers go down, and the protection hitherto afforded by local loyalty and national preference starts to erode, horizons will need to be widened. And it is far from clear that people's interests will be best served by cultivating only those who share the same language and culture.
One place where this message seems to have been thoroughly taken on board is the Rhone-Alpes region of south-east France. This is the vast and diverse area, centred on Lyon, Grenoble and the dour old coal-mining community of St Etienne. But despite the variety - and often disparity - of its interests and problems, it decided, nearly four years ago, that it was worth making a serious and sustained effort to sell itself, as an entity, to the rest of Europe. The payoff is already gratifying and there may be lessons here for others as they start honing their own strategy for the 1992 winners-and-losers league.
The first step was to get the region in focus, so that it would be possible to enumerate its many natural advantages. This was not as easy as it sounds, even for the locals. Though Paris, under the decade-long government of Francois Mitterrand, has been forced to relax some of its traditional centralising grip, France's regions, as such, have little political weight, and the real power is devolved to much smaller units, the "departements". Rhone-Alpes has eight of these and their natural relationship is one of bitter and suspicious rivalry. Persuading them to lay this aside was the first essential.
The knocking of heads was carried out by a galaxy of organisations, some long established and some specially created for the purpose. Most of these are pretty localised in their interests. But with only one or two exceptions they have been successfully persuaded to pool their resources. Welded together, under the leadership of the region's powerful Chamber of Commerce and Industry and a publicity co-ordinating outfit called ERAI, which stands for Entreprise Rhone-Alpes Internationale, they are finding ways to present a collective image, and this is beginning to pay dividends. In the past couple of years their economic strength has been boosted by the arrival of such heavyweights as Hewlett-Packard, Schering, Unilever and most recently ICI, which have all agreed to site major new operations in the region.