Riviera sun shines on high-tech as well as tourism

Just out of sight of the turquoise Mediterranean, in the shadow of the ancient hilltop village of St. Paul de Vence, stands a stark white factory so new its asphalt parking lot is still squishy and black. Inside, machines turn out tennis-ball-size plastic spheres, filled with an ice-blue solution, to be used in state-of-the-art energy-storage units for heating and air-conditioning systems. In what was the first public-private venture of its kind in the area, the factory was built with public assistance on land donated by the village of Vence. Seven people are employed at the factory, including Christian Lenotre, the man whose research into energy-efficient systems at a nearby engineering school led to the technology being applied.

``In many countries private industry finances much of its own research, then markets what comes of it,'' says Mr. Lenotre, whose white smock and slightly wild hair suggest a strain of the mad scientist. But in France, he adds, research has more typically taken place in national research centers, and rarely with particular glory or benefit for the individual.

``The result,'' he says, ``is that France has a lot of ideas, but often ends up importing what it could have produced itself.''

In his own small way, however, Christian Lenotre and his company, Cristopia, are part of an evolution that is broadening the economic base of the Riviera -- what the French call the C^ote d'Azur, or Azure Coast -- from tourism and construction to include high-tech research and production. And the region, in turn, is playing an important role in changing the French perception of such ``exotic'' concepts as private enterprise and entrepreneurship.

Finding companies like Cristopia among the area's rocky hillsides and maritime pines can be a surprise to anyone who has formed a notion of what this famous littoral is all about. Ask the average American to tell you the first three words that come to mind at the mention of the French Riviera, and the response is likely to be: beach, bikini, and Brigitte Bardot. Even most Frenchmen think of the Mediterranean from Marseille to the Italian border in terms of fun in the sun.

But according to Jean Franois Agostini, an economist with the Nice-Maritime Alps Chamber of Commerce and Industry, there are good reasons the region is increasingly attractive to companies more dependent on brain power than fossil fuels for their prosperity, and for why it is being touted as France's version of Silicon Valley.

``A major factor is the climate,'' he says, ``and the quality of life.'' Many of the amenities that for decades have made the region a vacation destination for thousands of Europeans -- mild weather, ready access to recreation, ranging from snow skiing to windsurfing, and a relatively clean environment -- are also attractive to employers who see satisfaction among employees as a good long-term investment.

Other reasons are improved air, rail, and highway connections with the established industrial and financial centers to the north, and government attempts since General de Gaulle to encourage a decentralization of industry and research from Paris to the country's regions.

Another factor is the labor climate. ``A number of studies have shown that productivity is higher here than in other parts of France,'' Mr. Agostini says. ``Absenteeism is far inferior to the national average, there are fewer days lost to strikes, and labor union representation is much lower.''

This view is seconded by Christian V`eri'e, laboratories director at the Sophia-Antipolis branch of the National Center of Scientific Research, in the hills between Cannes and Antibes. ``People work much more here than they do in Paris,'' he says. ``Once you're outside you have the feeling you're already on vacation, so you think less about taking time off.'' In a country where five weeks of annual paid vacation is national policy, Mr. V`eri'e estimates that the 31 researchers at his center average about 75 percent of that.

But perhaps the most important influences are a two-decade-old effort to broaden the region's economic base, coupled with the region's cosmopolitan ambiance and openness to new ideas -- especially those from across the Atlantic.

Both factors are evident at Sophia-Antipolis, a 6,000-acre combination research center, industrial park, and full-service village the French prefer to call a technopole. Situated about 10 miles west of Nice, Sophia-Antipolis is the child of Pierre Lafitte, native to the region and director of L'Ecole des Mines, one of the country's foremost graduate engineering schools. Following the example of IBM, Texas Instruments, and Thomson-CSF, which had set up shop in the area in the early 1960s, Mr. Lafitte began envisioning a new style of working and living environment that would take the C^ote d'Azur into the 21st century.

The idea was to bring high-tech companies together with research facilities to achieve the kind of ``cross-fertilization,'' as Mr. Lafitte calls it, that is at the root of success in Silicon Valley and along Boston's Route 128. At first the project moved slowly -- mainly because the government doubted its efficacy. But today the numbers tell the story: 11 American multinationals, including Digital Equipment, which chose the site for its only personal computer assembly facilities outside the United States, and Dow Chemical, which moved its French headquarters here from Paris; 3 European companies; 1 Japanese firm planning construction; and 117 French firms or organizations. In addition, the University of Nice plans to build laboratories for 2,000 students.

For the French, the greatest proof of the park's success is that its complement of companies includes 10 start-up firms, with histories much like that of Cristopia.

``You don't see much of this entrepreneurial spirit in the north,'' says Jean-Pierre D'etrie, a teacher at L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes de Commerce outside Paris -- the country's top business school -- and a specialist in technopoles. ``It's in the south [of France] that you find this desire to create, while avoiding the rigidity and bureaucracy [of the north].''

Another important part of the region's successful foray into high-tech R&D is the Madison Avenue promotion it gets not only in France and Europe, but in the US and Japan. And much of the campaign is overseen by Jacques M'edecin, mayor of Nice since 1966, an unabashed admirer of the free-enterprise system and the US (his wife is American, and he owns a house in Beverly Hills, Calif.).

``Right now we have more French companies trying to locate in the area than we have land ready for,'' says Thiery Martin, a director at C^ote d'Azur D'evelopement, M'edecin's development bureau. So why the hard sell in the US? ``We want Americans and Japanese among us, because you are dynamic, you are strong in these [advanced technologies] areas, and we can learn from that proximity,'' he adds.

The new dynamism of the Riviera, along with strong industrial and research activity in Grenoble and Lyon, are making southeastern France a region to contend with, though observers here say it impossible to speak of a slipping of France's industrial might from the north to the south.

``It says something about an area,'' says Mr. Agostini, ``when one of the biggest problems companies have is getting employees who've been here for a few years to accept transfer back up north.''

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