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Seattle's French Underground: Thousands have invaded metro Puget Sound, many of them in search of opportunities and attitudes in technology that simply don't exist at home in France. Part 1
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Gaëlle and Benoît Vialle and their children, from left: Thibault, 4, Maxime, 8, and Aziliz, 1-1/2.

Seattle's French Underground: Thousands have invaded metro Puget Sound, many of them in search of opportunities and attitudes in technology that simply don't exist at home in France. Part 1

First of a series

Springtime in Paris? You might think, even if you're just browsing Walgreen's at Second Avenue and Pike Street in downtown Seattle. You hear a breathy "Je les adore!" A peek around your aisle reveals two young, soignée black women, stuffing their shopping baskets full of Pepperidge Farm cookies. A careful "D'où venez vous?" receives a cordial response. "Why, we're from Paris ..." How do they find Seattle? A little chilly but quite charming. The Market! The seafood! The water! All so bio.

Bio is the modish French term for green and organic.

You can have a similar conversation several times a day, as easily in Renton's Ikea or a Bellevue sushi bar as any tourist hot spot. Especially if you frequent farmers markets or quiet wine bars, it can be surprising how many times a day you hear French speakers – often being surprised by one another's presence.

In two years, the French population of metro Puget Sound has exploded. According to Laure-Alessia Leroy, the young deputy director at the French-American Chamber of Commerce (FACC), our region is now home to 6,000 French nationals. Since not everyone needs to register with the consular agency, this is a minimum estimate.

Leroy, whose actual employer is the French government's Finance Ministry, is also a trade attaché, dealing with 80 local companies and more in development. "I was assigned," she says, "because there is so much going on here for French people. Every year, the FACC has an increase of 25 percent."

In 2007, according to the French Foreign Ministry, almost 4 percent of the country's population emigrated and almost half of those who left were under 35. U.S. pundits like to present the numbers as a "brain drain," a flight of talent thwarted by home's strict bureaucracy. However, in the context of the whole European Union, "French flight" looks far less singular (a British national, for example, emigrates every three minutes). Five months of exploring our new French underground almost tempts me to side with conservative daily Le Figaro, which proclaims a new "French conquest of the world."

For one thing, as Leroy notes, "French people, they stay French. Wherever they go, they remain French. Now it's not just that you're coming to work for an American business, no, no, no! It often leads to something more for France and for French business."

Absolutely, says Yannick Chamming's. Chamming's is CEO of Bellevue's Adeneo, a satellite he created in 2007 for his French company, Adetel. The key for Chamming's was leveraging his expertise in Windows Embedded CE development. "I started doing Windows CE work 10 years ago, so I was probably one of the first persons in France to work with it. In 2002, I joined Adetel to help them with it and, by 2004, we were a gold partner of Microsoft."

Seeing the value in an office closer to headquarters, Chamming's set off for Redmond, accompanied by one engineer. By last year's end, Adeneo had nine employees, four of whom are French and, today, they are still hiring.

Their founder, who grew up in Lyon, says he discovered much he never expected. "I like Brittany and I like Ireland and, with my feelings, I find so much natural beauty! This is also the first place in America I have seen people walking."

Business-wise, adds Chamming's, "There is really the pioneer spirit. Before 1990, Seattle had very few things. Now, you have these histories of people having one good idea – or at least a timely one – then creating something that becomes truly global." For him, that is the point. "I can come here, make something from nothing and, when I return to France, my position in my own company will be much different. If I had just stayed there, I don't think this would be possible."

Although the French job market remains problematic, unemployment in mainland France has decreased — at the end of 2007, it was the lowest seen for 10 years. Nevertheless, work remains standardized and well protected. To found a company, employers must pay social security, pension, and unemployment contributions equal to almost 48 percent of every employee's salary. Says Chamming's: "There, it's not at all simple, you have a constant stream of requirements." Just as business abroad offers a way around such issues, it has also emerged as a "fast track" to promotion or change.

Benoît Vialle is a senior planner in Mobile Communications at Microsoft. He is also a graduate of a French "grand école": one of 500 or so deliberately elite institutions whose diplomas guarantee lifelong employment. But Vialle, who started work in management at Bouygues Telecom, craved a wider vision. He also saw the system's faults through his wife's experience – although Gaëlle Vialle holds multiple degrees in mathematics, finance, and business law, they are from French universities, rather than grand écoles. (Here, at Microsoft, she has become the senior program manager for Xbox Live).

"In our system," says Vialle, "you must choose a path early on, then you work like crazy and you follow only that path. Psychologically tough or highly gifted students may excel, but more independent, sensitive personalities may not thrive. The system puts them on alternative paths that are not as prestigious – like going to university versus a grande école. The handicaps this can create may follow you throughout a career."

One of five children from a military family, Vialle sought his MBA at Northwestern University. He was then snapped up to work for Microsoft in Chicago. When the Vialles relocated to Seattle six years ago, Benoît says, they mourned the loss of "Chicago's culture: all the theater, the cinema, the opera, the art. But we have three kids and, for family life, this is a great place."

For instance, here they discovered the Montessori teaching system. "Which is really great for our children. They are discovering and cultivating their strengths, rather than constantly being corrected. Plus we send them back to France every summer, for the language and the culture and to reconnect with family."

Next: Professional and social cultural differences are a mixed bag.


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