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Letter from Lyon: a city tries to break out from Paris' shadow

The T-shirt couldn't be missed. A souvenir shop proudly plastered it over its front window in the gleaming new Centres d'Echanges shopping mall, the symbol of modernism and renewed vigor in this venerable commercial city.

It read, ''J'aime Paris.''

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''Oh, no, how could they sell that?'' cried city spokesman Michel de St. Etienne, throwing his hands up in disgust in his comfortable Town Hall office. ''After all we have done, the devil still haunts us.''

The devil is the capital. Ever since the Capetian monarchs forged one nation out of the diverse peoples in what is now France, Paris has moved to greater and greater domination of the country, politically, economically, and culturally.

In the 16th century, Lyon lost its political autonomy. But, thanks to its location on Europe's major north-south trade route - some 240 miles south of Paris at the juncture of the Rhone and Saone rivers - it continued to challenge the capital as a center of banking and commerce.

Then during the Industrial Revolution Paris's political pull encouraged the country's growing industries to centralize their activities. Even the great bank that bears Lyon's name, the Credit Lyonnais, moved its headquarters north.

In recent years, Lyon has tried to break out of Paris's shadow. Economic prosperity has turned it into France's second largest city, an industrial conurbation of some 1.2 million people. Under the Mitterrand government's ambitious decentralization program, local authorities have been given greater power over such critical areas as the region's budget and its educational system.

''Considering the fact that we're going against 1,000 years of history, we're doing pretty well,'' says Regis Neyret, an editor of an economic newsletter here and author of a town history. ''It's a battle far from won, but we're carving out a niche as a modern, dynamic town.''

The changes began at the end of the 1960s, well before the recent reforms. An energetic mayor named Louis Pradel gave the city a modern infrastructure, building a new international airport, a subway, highways, and an enormous office complex of glass and steel high-rise blocks topped by a 500-foot skyscraper. In addition, he helped bring the high-speed TGV train here two years ago.

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In the process, Pradel broke the town's old, closed social structure. Before, Lyon had been known as a provincial bourgeois haven: industrious, puritanical, comformist. Outsiders were shunned. Modernization and industrialization brought immigrants and foreign ideas. A few British-style pubs, for example, have opened to an enthusiastic reception.

At the same time, Lyon developed a strong cultural identity. Mr. St. Etienne, the city spokesman, says more than 20 percent of the budget is spent on culture. The city has two orchestras, an opera, 70 cinemas, and some 75 theater groups. For or a long time it also had France's most respected avant-garde director, Roger Planchon. Lyon also boasts France's leading restaurateur, Paul Bocuse.

For many, Mr. Bocuse is Lyon. The famed chef runs a restaurant just north of the city, and he seems to embody the city's reputation as France's gastronomic capital. At least when it comes to cooking, the city's inferiority complex vanishes.

Lyon sits at the heart of a rich agricultural region, and it receives the freshest of products. The city's commercial tradition provides a ready clientele for its restaurants.

As far back as the 14th century, the merchants gathered to enjoy good, fresh cooking in bouchons - hole-in-the-wall style restaurants with wooden chairs and tables lined up in long rows. Bouchons continue to serve home-made food in the same simple atmosphere at low prices.

''I've been doing this for 54 years,'' says Benoit Bial as she serves a plate of fresh lentils, blood sausages, and pigs' feet. ''You get plat du jour cooked like my grandmother cooked it. There's nothing flashy - or frozen.''

Bocuse grew up with this tradition, refined it into haute cuisine, and publicized it brilliantly. Other talented chefs gathered around him, and voila, Lyon became equated with food.

''We all love Paul,'' says Michelle Requien, owner of the Leon de Lyon restaurant. ''Before him, we had good prices and good products. He added the reputation.''

That reputation brings hordes of culinary pilgrims. Berengere Limpas of the tourist bureau says that, facilitated by the high-speed train, the number of tourists has been increasing by about 10 percent annually, and that ''most people come for the day - to eat.''

But like many Lyonnais, Ms. Limpas has mixed feelings about the gourmet label. She thinks it overshadows Lyon's other considerable attractions, its beautiful quays lined with golden-colored 16th-century Renaissance buildings, its shopping, and its culture.

For those who live in Lyon, unemployment is only 7 percent compared to the national average of 10 percent, according to Robert Maury, international manager of the city's economic and industrial development agency. He adds that Lyon is becoming a high-technology center, drawing investment from American firms such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard.

Most important, these days Lyon makes more decisions itself. Rhone-Poulenc has moved its agro-chemical headquarters from Paris back here to its birthplace. The Banque Nationale de Paris has physically transferred its department dealing with Lyon from the capital. Maury says 96 percent of loan applications used to be referred north for approval. Today only a few are, he says.

But Maury and other observers admit Lyon remains dependent on Paris. Like most businessmen here, Maury travels to the capital at least once a week. Mr. St. Etienne shares similar gripes.

''We want to put cable television in, and we have to wait for the Ministry of Communications to approve it,'' he says. ''We want to build a walkway and we have to go to the Ministry of Culture. And now even when they give us powers, they don't give us the money to execute those powers.

''When will they treat us like a big boy?''

But for many longtime residents such as Neyret, the editor, such pleading rings false. He says it epitomizes the city's continuing provincial character.

''The administration complains because it doesn't want to raise taxes,'' he explains. ''We haven't had any responsibility for so long that we have to get accustomed to making our own decisions.''

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