For the French, Seattle's cachet is bio

Seattle's French Underground: There are thousands of emigrants in metro Seattle. They generally like our green and organic values, but the social norms here are an acquired taste. Part 2
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Seattle's French Underground: There are thousands of emigrants in metro Seattle. They generally like our green and organic values, but the social norms here are an acquired taste. Part 2

Second of a series

In 2004, French Geo magazine's Pierre Sorgue dedicated a huge spread to Seattle's "Energie alternative," investigating everything from our omnipresent wi-fi to the Magnolia neighborhood's "neo-Renaissance" mansions. His verdict: a city "first in the fight against globalization" (although we were also were "just like [the rest] of America" in our responses to race and homelessness). Last September, Le Monde ran its own editorial, summing up Seattle as "The City with a Green Approach."

Both pieces capitalized on Seattle's French prestige - its bio, its green and organic tendencies. In France, Seattle's renown derives not from Kurt Cobain or grunge, as one might think, but from the World Trade Organization riots of 1999 and the appearance here of French farmer activist Jose Bové.

Locals may have long forgotten Bové's 1999 appearance in front of the McDonald's at Third Avenue and Pine Street downtown during the battle in Seattle. While lambasting genetically modified foods, he dispensed slices of smuggled-in Roquefort cheese. But in France, this really put Seattle on the radar. Scientist Marie-Christine Bodinier had arrived the year before, to establish a laboratory for biotech company Cerep. "That was what made Seattle famous in France," she says. "There is a 'before' and an 'after' Jose Bové era. At the student level, especially, he gave Seattle a certain cachet – less to do with high tech than with bio living."

Bodinier is one of thousands of French nationals living in metropolitan Seattle. There are a host of reasons for their arrival here, but foremost among them is the attraction of technology jobs and a less rigid hierarchy in business. Bodinier's company has now been here 10 years. She proudly describes the Redmond enterprise (which last year doubled in size and last month announced a new, 10,000-plus-square-foot lab) as "not replicating what is done in France, but having developed a mentality for working here."

Cerep chose Seattle instead of San Diego - the usual destination for French biotech talent - because founder Thierry Jean wanted to work with scientist Mark Crawford. Says Bodinier, "Mark told us, 'That would be great, but I'm in Seattle and I will never move.'" After a decade, she says, she understands. "I know myself what it is to be hooked to Puget Sound. Back in France, when I say, 'Here I have a wonderful quality in my life,' my friends are shocked. But it's true; here you have such room! It gives me peace and it brings me serenity."

"At the same time," she adds, "I get virtual space, too, the space I need for my profession. Here you are given room to breathe, to try new things. If you fail, it's not, 'Why did you fail?' It's only, 'OK. What's next?'"

Bodinier is tall and soft-spoken, with elegant, short blonde hair. She tilts her head wryly at the memory of her arrival. "I came with two years in which to get a lab up and running, and those were very difficult years, much more than I had expected. Because I came without putting thought into anything cultural or how I might be perceived as a French person."

It was "this interaction part" that Bodinier found daunting, although she had been at Cerep since its days as a start-up. Her problems as a manager, she slowly discovered, were cultural; some American colleagues perceived her as too straightforward. "Our way is the Latin way, where you are simply direct. Here, you always have to soften it. 'You're doing a great job! But you might try doing this ...' One employee told me she felt uncomfortable, and I remember saying, 'OK, after work let's talk, let's have a drink.'" Instead, the employee charged her with harassment.

"I had to go for counseling," says Bodinier, "but, in the end, it was actually helpful. Because the whole concept of disagreement is different here. Arguing but staying buddies, that is a way of being Americans don't really understand. So it's true that often French people here refuse to comment on things, we will simply avoid it."

Seattle's casual demeanor, she notes, is deceptive. "It encourages you to think, 'Hey we both drink Cokes, we both wear jeans, why should I worry? Also it's very different when you have interactions on holiday as opposed to interactions for work or business."

There are other differences in social norms. Benoît Vialle, a senior planner in Mobile Communications at Microsoft, puzzles over the "codified behavior" he sees between American men and women. "It's striking to us, this formality in personal relationships, especially compared to the informality we see at work. All these rituals of dating! First, you have a coffee together, then you can go to a movie. Men are expected to observe Valentine's Day, the wedding anniversaries, all that kind of stuff."

This social rigidity melts away in the workplace. Although U.S. vacations are shorter ("a real pain point," says Vialle), companies work to provide an attractive work-life balance compared to employers in France. Vialle and his wife, Gaëlle, are both employed at Microsoft, but "every time we have an appointment for one of our kids, it's fine." Nor do superiors expect them to stay late. "Whereas in Paris, there would be meetings until 7 or later ... and if you even think of leaving, that is looked upon very badly." High-value employees find many types of flexibility: If they lack American credit, Microsoft may help buy a house; if their move is trans-Atlantic, relatives can be flown in to help. Since last July, say the Microsoft employees, their doctors will also pay house calls.

In fact, Seattle-area French techies often mention a lack of stress. Says Yannick Chamming's, CEO of Bellevue's Adeneo: "In France you must battle to accomplish your work: in less time, with more vacation, making time for the rest of your life. It's paradoxical, but for the French person who comes here, there really is often less stress in your job."

Next: A new French generation is encouraged to look abroad for opportunity and experience.


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