France: A matter of singular importance in the Rhone-Alpes. (2 of 2)

France: A matter of singular importance in the Rhone-Alpes. (2 of 2) - The originality of the Rhone-Alpes approach has been to build on the notion of "twinning" and to negotiate what are in effect commercial treaties with like-minded regions elsewhere in

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The originality of the Rhone-Alpes approach has been to build on the notion of "twinning" and to negotiate what are in effect commercial treaties with like-minded regions elsewhere in the European Community, so that they can offer mutual support, market intelligence and expansion opportunities. Three such deals are already in being and there are hopes that a similar pattern of co-operation can be built up with Britain's West Midlands.

One of the key catalysts there is an English girl, Karena Buckingham, who founded a public relations and industrial consultancy company in St Etienne, which she unashamedly calls L'Accent Anglais, which took full advantage of the encouragements which exist in France to foster fledgeling concerns. Under the country's "pepinieres", or corporate nursery system, she qualified for an absolute tax holiday in her first 12 months, and will not start paying the full rate until she has completed five years. In the meantime, she entered the national competition for entrepreneurs under 25, the "Defi jeunes", won the regional title and almost carried off the overall award. So when she is in Birmingham and the Black Country preaching the virtues of the Rhone-Alpes commercial climate, she can speak with first-hand experience.

The assets are real and solid, though, not just the inventions of a silver tongue. For 2,000 years, since the Romans conquered Gaul, the Rhone valley has been one of the crucial routes linking northern Europe with the Mediterranean, and the region's communications are nowadays further buttressed with 920km of motorways, a still-expanding, high-speed rail network, and effectively two international airports, now that Geneva has effectively annexed itself to the Rhone-Alpes complex, and frontier-crossing is reduced to little more than a wave of the hand.

But logistics alone can never be enough. With 120,000 students in higher education, Rhone-Alpes has decided that its real strength, in an age of labour shortages, must lie in its intellectual skills. It is not the natural assets - the mountains and rivers - which count: it is grey matter that will win the battle of 1992, and of that the region reckons it has an ample supply. Would-be rivals will need to come up with an effective counterclaim.

(Peter Wilsher is assistant editor of the Sunday Express.)

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