IN today's south of France, rocket scientists might feel as comfortable as the international jet set. Although the C^ote d'Azur's beaches and alluring life style still draw 5 million tourists each year, the Riviera has rapidly become one of France's most important centers for high technology.
From 1985-87, the service sector in the southern French region known as the Alpes-Maritimes registered an increase in the number of companies of 23.29 percent, while the national average was merely 1.65 percent. In 1986, the turnover from activities linked with industry, science, and high technology actually surpassed the turnover registered by the tourist and convention industry.
Sophia Antipolis, the science and technology park spread over 5,680 acres between Nice and Cannes, is the most impressive southern European success story and the primary reason for the Riviera's economic diversification. In August the ``technopolis'' celebrated its 20th anniversary and is looking forward to a promising future.
Sophia Antipolis is the brainchild of Pierre Laffitte, former director of 'Ecole des Mines, France's prestigious engineering school. His vision was to create an intellectual micro-climate that was conducive to the development and interchange of ideas. With the participation of the local authorities, Mr. Laffitte conceived an integrated ``anti-city'' (a translation of antipolis) that today houses more than 500 companies and organizations, offering jobs to nearly 10,000 people directly and 30,000 people indirectly.
Sophia Antipolis houses specialized high-tech companies in the fields of data processing, telecommunications, microchip research, robotics, oceanography, biotechnology, and specialty chemicals. Its location several minutes from France's second-largest international airport, its position halfway between Barcelona and Milan, and the area's magnificent weather and relaxed life style have made Sophia Antipolis an ideal location for many multinationals. Offering state-of-the-art fiber-optic telecommunications facilities, Sophia Antipolis has enabled internationally active companies to set up shop away from the overcrowded European capitals.
Dow Chemical, Rockwell International, and Digital Equipment Company (DEC) are the largest United States companies that have chosen to settle here. Toyota is researching automated car production. The French company Telemecanique is working with IBM to design automated factories.
The most important recent addition is the headquarters of the Amadeus consortium, the flight-reservation system run jointly by Air France, Lufthansa, Iberia, and SAS. It seems only natural that the European Community decided to locate the European Telecommunications Standards Institute here, where it is working on the integrated European telecommunications system of the future.
DEC located its European Technical Center in Sophia Antipolis, from which it operates its remote diagnosis center.
``When a Swedish customer has a technical problem,'' explains Catherine Marchand, communications specialist for DEC, ``he will call us here and be assisted by a Swedish expert who will diagnose and often solve the problem over the phone.
``We had no difficulty attracting engineers from all over Europe to Sophia Antipolis. When we tried the same thing for our center in England,'' Ms. Marchand recalls, ``we got no responses.''
The England-based center now only serves the British Isles. Impressed with their success in Sophia Antipolis, DEC quickly expanded their presence and now employs upwards of 900 people, 37 percent of whom are foreigners, representing 24 nationalities.
Sophia Antipolis's resident list already looks like an excerpt from the Fortune 500. That concentration of companies is attracting other businesses.
``About 100 new companies move in each year,'' explains Jacqueline Mirtelli, director of communications of the technopolis. ``Many of these are medium-sized companies that want to be close to the larger corporations for easier cooperation.''
The ``sophipolitans,'' however, are not just a group of rocket scientists confined to their laboratories. They are also avid sports people who take advantage of the four golf courses, 32 tennis courts, or simply stroll through the 3,700 acres of natural, unspoiled vegetation that gently slopes down toward the Mediterranean.
Housing the Sophipolitans has become a business of its own. While Sophia Antipolis currently offers 1,300 homes that it tightly controls to avoid speculation, the real estate market in the surrounding communities has experienced a price boom. Formerly sleepy villages will become more involved as Sophia Antipolis plans to double its area in the next three years.