Observations from my week in Paris

First of all, deepest condolences to the loved ones and friends of those innocents who have lost their lives or have been injured in many different ways.

This attack, coming ten months after the Charlie Hebdo killings, has hit much deeper and more personal into the French territory. This is the French 9/11. It changes things for France and for Europe. We will now test the Schengen agreements and the open Europe will close a little more.

I have been to Paris over a hundred times and lived there for fifteen years early in my career. My firm, Alliances Progress, designs and implements international strategic alliances. I had scheduled my next trip to Paris for business meetings over a month ago. The terrorist attacks took place on Friday 13th my flight was scheduled to leave on Sunday 15th.

“To go or not to go?” The question crossed my mind. Should I reach out to my contacts to validate that the meetings were still on? Should I simply cancel out of caution and mitigate the risk?

I live in Atlanta and had a scheduled Delta/AF ATL-CDG, so I called them on Saturday and asked about the status of my slight. All flights were being maintained. I decided immediately not to contact my partners and clients to confirm our meetings, and not to let the terrorists dictate my agenda.

My only fear was that my meetings would be canceled. As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth.

I arrived on Monday and began a series of meetings in Paris and a couple of other European cities. I took public transport (trains, metros, planes and taxis). Overall, everything went smoothly and there was very little evidence of what had just happened as I zipped through the city and went from meeting to meeting. We did have one delay when a charming little old lady forgot her bag on the RER.

The French and other European executives with whom I had meetings all maintained their schedules. The social evenings with friends and business colleagues all took place, as planned. We had a 20 year alumni meeting for Bossard Consultants, a venerable French consulting firm where I started my career and which was the most enjoyable and meaningful experience of my professional life.

We had a good turnout and the conversation turned more about family and work than terrorist attacks and the economic and political repercussions. It was refreshing and extremely mature from a business point of view. No panic, no doomsday attitudes, just quiet resolve in the face of a changing world, full of risk and uncertainty and new dangers.

The attack was particularly savage: targeting mostly young, free-loving people listening to music or enjoying a nice dinner at the local bistro. Everyone in Paris among my friends, family and business acquaintances, has either been to the music hall Bataclan, or their own friends/family have been there over the years.

It was a strike at the very heart of the French people, in the French capital, on a quiet Friday evening. 19 different nationalities were among the 130 victims. The first terrorist attack earlier this year was more targeted: Charlie Hebo is an extremely satirical newspaper with provocative cartoons aimed at mockery of everyone: politicians, religious leaders, business executives… The attack last week was indiscriminate and had no other target than death, hate and the desire to sow terror and reap panic.

The opposite has happened. Only once did I feel a twinge of panic: a car engine backfired on Wednesday afternoon as I was walking down a busy street in the city center, near Chatelet. Everyone ran in a different direction and for a few long seconds, we were all scared. Then, magically everyone realized what had happened and we all went about our business.

As the week wore on, more and more people returned to the streets and the Parisian reality of boulot-metro-dodo (work-train-sleep) was replaced with gradually more people frequenting the coffee shops and the restaurants and bars, especially in the area where the attacks took place. There was a wonderful display of local residents supporting local businesses in the area.

The tribute last Friday one week later, and throughout the weekend was uplifting. People brought flowers. Thousands of bouquets were laid all around the restaurants, the music theater and the sports stadium where the attacks took place. Candles were lite and burned quietly into the night. It was and is deeply moving to witness such quiet defiance, as thousands came and went in quiet mourning.

I am delighted to have maintained my scheduled trip to Paris and Europe, and am especially grateful and for the stoic resolve of the French and European businessmen and service providers whom I dealt with throughout my one-week business trip. Pleasant, professional and determined to carry on: business as usual.

The economic impact has yet to be determined. The hotel where I was staying in Paris had have of their reservations canceled. Shopping statistics showed frequentation down as much as 75% in the days following the attack (Saturday 14th everything was closed). The numbers had climbed to 40-50% by week’s end. Retail numbers are still pending but sales everywhere will miss targets by a lot in November.

Shame on the firms which obliged their employees to cancel their trips. I can understand a personal decision not to travel, but corporate interdiction plays right into the hands of the terrorists.

Paris is at its most beautiful at this time of year with the decorations and holiday lights. It is also the time of year when many retail business do 30-50% of their annual revenues. The French State will have to spend another $1 billion euros, at least, on more security. Private enterprise will have additional expenditures as well. The economy will take a hit, we do not yet know how big a hit it will be.

And the dream of an open, free European market where people and goods can circulate fluidly will now take a pause. We have seen the dangers of the euro being spread too thinly among extraordinarily uneven economies within the EU. We will now test the open markets as broader controls are reinstalled, boarders closed and xenophobic nationalism will rear its ugly head.

My week in Paris was beautifully and remarkably normal. Like any other of the hundreds of business trips I have taken between the EU and the USA over the decades of international business consulting.

As an old sea-going skipper once told me, “When it is fair weather, we can all pilot the sailboat, but when the weather is rough, the true captain shows his abilities.” Bravo to the Parisians and the French and the Europeans! You have inspired this jaded business traveler with hope and energy. Stay the course and bon courage!


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