French clowns push risky business

A commuter walks past a clown advertisement at a Paris metro.

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Kai Ryssdal: French workers are no strangers to the powers of organized labor. Strikes and walkouts are a fairly common occurrence in France. At a steel factory in eastern France this week employees took it one step further, though. They have basically kidnapped four supervisors in a dispute over layoffs, they're not letting 'em leave until some kind of deal on labor force is made.

In Paris there's an ad campaign running that's trying to get workers to take more risks, although of a more entrepreneurial kind. John Laurenson reports.


JOHN LAURENSON: Commuters streaming into the Paris metro past a curious new poster campaign. There are four different posters. Four different clowns. Three men and one woman. Looking straight at you. They've got bowler hats, curly wigs and thick, black-and-white make-up. But no mention of a product. Just an Internet address: jesuisunclown.com/iamaclown.com. There you'll find uplifting stories of entrepreneurs who have risked everything and suffered ridicule to make their dream jobs come true.

One of the businesspeople who clowned up for the campaign is Pierre Haski.

PIERRE Haski: I used to work at a daily newspaper and when I told my editor (I was the deputy editor), and I told my editor that I was leaving to create an online newspaper, he told me, "You're mad." So he could not imagine that I would jump into a totally unknown world. People thought we were crazy.

The entrepreneurs in this campaign all work in areas where the digital revolution is making and breaking fortunes: news, the movies, retailing and communication. The campaign is to encourage people to take career risks, to believe in themselves and their ideas. In a country where opinion polls show what people care about most are job security and a secure pension, this campaign is selling the idea of self-starting businesses the American way.

Anne-Laure Constanza launched an online retail site for pregnant women called enviedefraises.com (strawberrycraving.com). The reaction she got was anything but "Go on girl!"

ANNE-LAURE Constanza: Here when you tell your mother you're starting up a company she starts to frown and to pray. So, I think, yes, I think French people have more fear to fail.

What people need to understand, Constanza says, is that losing is part of playing the game. She says there's opportunity to be had in failure. Looking like an idiot with your foot stuck in a bucket of water is what being a clown is all about.

Gregoire Lassalle is another of this campaign's clowns. He's now the CEO of Allocine, France's biggest Internet cinema listings service. But his first job for seven years was, wait for it, professional clown. And clown, he says, he still is, even if he now employs a 100 people in offices on the Champs-Elysees.

GREGOIRE Lassalle: People are working with me and for me. They see that I'm most of the time laughing, smiling, and happy. I think it's a strength! I try to not be too much serious. Even if it's a business and a hard business, my approach with people is like a clown, I think!

Back in the metro, these ads are catching people's attention. And, Lassalle says, if only 15 people are inspired to take a chance and start a company, the campaign will have been worthwhile.

In Paris, I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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