LILLE, FRANCE — Jean-Francois Stevens sees extraordinary opportunity approaching France's industrial north, a region with the coal and textile city of Lille at its center. By 1993, Europe's high-speed trains (called TGV, the French acronym for Trains `a Grande Vitesse) will travel from Paris to Brussels via Lille. The Channel Tunnel will make possible a trip from Britain to France by motor vehicle in only 33 minutes.
In addition, the European Community (EC) will have entered its single market, with the final lifting of customs, trade, and travel restrictions.
``The trumps will be in hand,'' says Dr. Stevens, an economist specializing in France's northern-most region. ``The challenge will be to develop those advantages to the region's favor.''
Lille and its region, called Nord-Pas-de-Calais, stand to profit from the new Western Europe that is just around the corner. Situated at an important crossroads that has made it a trading center for centuries, Lille should see that role enhanced as it becomes the hub of the new rail lines and highways linking Europe's industrial core.
But economists like Stevens, business representatives, and political leaders say the French north could still be passed by. The new advantages, they say, will only be the basis for a more important transformation: providing the services - and people - the new Europe will need.
``What this region needs most is a change in the way people think,'' says L'eon Tychon, dean of economic sciences at the Catholic University of Lille.
The region is just now coming out of a long recession in coal, steel, and textiles. Unemployment hovers around 14 percent - up to 20 percent in the most depressed areas. The national average is 9.5 percent. Nevertheless, the traditional mentality ``discourages young people from pursuing scientific and other advanced studies,'' says Stevens, because people are still accustomed to a time when the mills and mines had a job for everyone.
``Every year, 17,000 youth arrive on the job market, and every year 10,000 qualified youth leave our region,'' he says. ``It's the unemployed who stay with us.''
Another problem, adds Dean Tychon, is that the region never developed finished-products industries and services. ``We suffer a bit from a third-world mentality,'' says Tychon.
That is now changing. Some high-tech and telecommunications firms are taking root in the area, and the surviving traditional industries are those that have figured out how to adapt to the new European market.
FFM, a century-old steel manufacturer in Maubeuge outside Lille, is hanging on by specializing in hot-nickel-dipped galvanized steel. With 50 percent of FFM's production exported, ``We're already well-accustomed to the European market,'' says company spokesman Jean-Louis Gu'edeu. ``We're now looking for new markets elsewhere.''
The manufacturer pays particular attention to continuing education and training, and encourages two-way internships with local universities. ``We demand more knowledge of our workers now, which has been hard for some of them,'' adds Mr.Gu'edeu. ``But that, and attention to customer satisfaction, is the only way a producer like us can last.''
Contradicting the region's reputation for being closed in on itself is Groupe SEGIN, a telecommunications and credit-card servicing company that in recent years has moved beyond France into four EC neighbors.
Company employees point to SEGIN's growth as proof that Lille's mentality has changed. ``We're here, but our business is elsewhere, from Paris to Milan and Barcelona,'' says Philippe Van Haecke, who helps banks operate their credit-card divisions. ``We're required to be mobile and think in other people's terms, and I think being geographically near other countries helps us do that.''
Politically, Lille possesses a huge advantage in its mayor, former prime minister Pierre Mauroy, the ruling Socialist Party's general secretary. He is determined to see his city take advantage of the European market, and has nearly single-handedly pushed through some projects that should help reach that goal.