The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at www.jeremyjosephs.com Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer. Many of his articles are available online. Please check the sitemap for a complete list.
All rights belong to Jeremy Josephs. Permission is granted to make and distribute complete verbatim electronic copies of this item for non-commercial purposes provided the copyright information and this permission notice are preserved on all copies. All other rights reserved. To correspond with the author, send email to email@example.com Comments welcome.
Montpellier on the Move
Adjacent cities such as Nîmes and Marseille groan with jealousy as Montpellier forges its reputation as a high-tech, thriving town, able to attract the country’s best researchers and computer experts.
When you’re in Montpellier, you can feel excitement vibrating in the air. Much of the energy in this lively, modern city is attributable to its mayor, Georges Frêches. During more than two decades in office, this colorful mayor has moved Montpellier along by leaps and bounds without losing sight of its historic roots.
Opinion polls reveal that Montpellier is the place where most of the French would like to live, work and play. The primary reason for this popularity seems to be Montpellier’s sunshine. The Languedoc-Roussillon region, of which Montpellier is the principal city, boasts more hours of sunshine (equalling 300 days per year) than any other in France. The Mediterranean resorts of La Grande Motte, Carnot and Palavas are only a 20-minute-drive from Montpellier.
But sunshine is not all Montpellier has to offer. Because of its proximity to the sea, the city has long been a hub of commercial activity. The law and medicine branches of its university are among the oldest on the continent. As early as the 14th century, Montpellier gained a reputation as an intellectual metropolis maintaining good relations with Arab countries. It has a dance festival and is a favorite venue on the itineraries of international performers of all kinds. In short, Montpellier is a commercial, cultural, academic and cosmopolitan center.
In less than three decades, Montpellier has changed more than it did during the previous three centuries, rising in rank from the 25th to the 8th French city. Leading the way during this transformation was Montpellier’s dynamic mayor, Georges Frêches, who has been elected four times. The 61-year-old mayor stands out among French mayors for not having seen his provincial post as a mere stepping stone to greater things to come in Paris. He decided to stay put. Frêches’s decision to stay in the south rather than head to Paris turned out to be a rather good move. In an era when decentralization was becoming all the rage and city mayors were enjoying more and more power, he was in the right place at the right time.
The absence of a ministerial career has meant that Frêches has been able to put his heart and soul into this city he has come to personify. "I came to this city from the Tarn [department] 25 years ago," Frêches says, "and I loved it right away. Nor has that love waned with the passage of time. Quite the contrary, in fact—I now feel more strongly and more passionately about Montpellier than ever before. It is wonderful to see this beautiful city blossom so. It is truly a pleasure to behold." You might well think such talk is nothing more than politically astute banter, but if you met him face-to-face, you would see that Frêches speaks straight from the heart, a trait that has sometimes landed him in hot water.
On one such occasion, Frêches declared that with the inauguration of the city’s new tramway, which goes from the city center to La Paillade, an immigrant neighborhood largely populated by Arabs, Montpellier became the only city where you can get on a tram in France (Montpellier) and get off in Morocco (La Paillade). The statement was condemned as racist, but because Frêches is a socialist mayor with an impeccable track record on race relations, any possibility of legal action against him was promptly dropped, especially after he apologized wholeheartedly.
As early as forty years ago, Montpellier could hardly have been described as dynamic. Its residents seemed to spend most of their time outside the city, on the beaches of the Mediterranean. But in the early 1960s, Montpellier was shaken up by the arrival of nearly 15,000 pieds-noirs, the Algerian-born members of France’s colonial community in Algeria. When these energetic and enterprising individuals had to leave Algeria to escape persecution during that country’s war of independence, they brought the energy of northern Africa into the sleepy south of France. Used to the hussle and bustle of Arab markets, they were first-class traders whose businesses began to take over the region’s established ones. That soon got the relaxed Montpellierain to stir. During this time Monpellier’s Polygone shopping center was built, and in the mid-1960s IBM established its biggest European site in Montpellier.
All this activity was the perfect setup for the arrival of big Georges (at 6’2", he towers over most Montpellierains), who set about creating a teeming metropolis that would, in the course of time, become the Languedocian Silicon Valley. He understood long ago (way back in the mid-1980s) that if the region’s economy was to grow in a world of globalization, it was vital to attract multinational companies to Montpellier. The results of his efforts are now there for all to see. A graduate in business studies and a professor of law, Frêches opened 11 business parks around the city and modernized road and air links with the rest of France and Europe. Dell Computers, which employs 600 in Montpellier, and Palm Computing Europe both chose Montpellier as home for their southern European operations. Adjacent cities such as Nîmes and Marseille groan with jealousy as Montpellier forges its reputation as a high-tech, thriving town, able to attract the country’s best researchers and computer experts.
This summer the city’s classy new tramway, the first in the south of France, opened, and there are plans to extend it right out to the sea. An example of Frêches’s savvy is that he opened the tramway to the general public free of charge for an entire week, immediately after its inauguration. And unlike many a public work in the rest of Europe, the project opened three months ahead of schedule—without any increases in local taxation, to boot. "Another dream come true," crows the mayor, whose 28 sleek coaches are now transporting up to 75,000 passengers every day.
With the stunning success of le tramway, Frêches consolidated his reputation of having singlehandedly created the French California. Now, his ambition is no less than to make Montpellier the heart of the new unified Europe, rivalling Brussels and Strasbourg. He hopes to drive the pole of Europe south by persuading firms that for penetrating underdeveloped markets such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, the Mediterranean basin is the key to Europe’s future.Given that there’s no limit to the number of times he can be reelected, Frêches seems likely to remain at the Mairie of Montpellier for quite some time to come.
The main Web site of freelance writer Jeremy Josephs is at www.jeremyjosephs.com Please check there if you might be interested in engaging him as a writer.
Many of his articles are available online. Please check the sitemap for a complete list.