Sitting here in the very smart and sophisticated city of Paris, France, it is easy to become intoxicated by and drawn into the city’s utter and deep beauty.
She draws you in, first with her soaring architecture, her rich history, and art, everywhere. Things that “speaks” to eyes, heart and soul, at the same time. As a source of inspiration, she is one of a kind. This is also why she attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the world, this city of lights.
And so, it is easy not to see some of the challenges of and in this beautiful city; challenges which I see, I might add, as also an enormous opportunity.
Let me note here, for my Parisian friends in particular, that I am very mindful of the sensitivity to even temperate criticism of Paris.
The people here, the French, they love their city — and rightly so. There is much to admire about the city, the country, and her people. This said, “every good marriage is made of constructive friction,” so to speak, and this should also be the case between those who love Paris the way she is, and those who love her enough to want to see her live up to her full potential.
When you are on the expressway, you see Paris more fully. You literally have Paris on one side of the expressway, and what they call their “suburbs” on the other side. It is in many ways a “tale of two cities.” The wealthy and well connected on the one side, and the struggling, the poor, and increasingly even the middle class, on the other.
In America, the poor and the minority communities tend to exist in our inner-cities, but in Europe, the “inner-cities” are amazing and alive places, with a robust tax base — places such as Paris. Here, the so-called poor live in the outer suburbs. And this is where the differences unfortunately, begin.
The Paris opportunity, is also the Paris challenge to be overcome. If you are poor, black, brown or different, you find quickly that you don’t easily see clear lines, or even examples of success for you.
You do not see yourself in the senior ranks of French business, or French politics, or French anything else maybe, other than maybe sports. And even there, in sports, there is an active debate in France around whether a French team that is 80% black and brown, well, whether that team is actually also French.
There are some that want to see this changed, to “better reflect the true France,” whatever that means. And if they do this, if some on the extreme succeed in re-framing what it “means” to be, or even look French, then the new French football team (we would call it soccer in the states) will lose. It will lose, because it will not be comprised of the best of France, anymore. France based on merit and fair play. A France based on opportunity.
And so, this is my larger point. In France, and Paris in particular, her beauty and opportunity is so much more than the majestic buildings and architecture and art — it is her people. All of her people. It is, yes, her diversity too.
In America, as an example, we have found that diversity is absolutely a business strength, and where this diversity is snuffed out, economies and cities begin to fail, in time.
Finally, the Paris challenge cannot even be couched in the limited context of race, as Paris in particular, and France in general, is in many ways designed today to support the growth amd stability of the elite. The issue is more class.
This is not to say that you cannot be poor or middle class and succeed here, but it is just very difficult to “rise above your station in life,” so to speak. Even the process of starting new small business, or to become an entrepreneur here, can be painful. This is what I mean by the French challenge, is her opportunity as well.
I believe that Paris, and France, will rise above her fears to embrace the strength and the love inherent in all of her people. I believe that France will once again become a role model for the world, and a world leader, based on the combined strength of her whole.
John Hope Bryant is the founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc., author of Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business book LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and a Member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability.