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France Launches National Computer Education Campaign

April 22, 1985|BEN SHERWOOD | Times Staff Writer

CRETEIL, France — During spring vacation at a junior high school in this suburb of Paris, there were no students around, but some classrooms were occupied--by teachers learning to use a computer.

Mauricette Malissingne, who ran the course, conceded that this was not a very exciting way to spend a vacation. "But it's an investment in the future," he said.

Malissingne's course here at Creteil was not unique. All across France during the two-week holiday, about 12,000 teachers were introduced to the computer in the first phase of an ambitious government program to keep up with the worldwide computer revolution.

By next fall, government officials say, every French student--and citizen--will have easy access to a computer. Computers, about 120,000 in all, are to be placed in more than 45,000 workshops, public schools and universities around the country, More than 110,000 teachers are to take the 50-hour course being given this summer.

The program is aimed primarily at easing people's fears of modern technology and familiarizing them with the tools of the future. Students will be required to take courses in computers, and citizens will be encouraged to go in after hours to learn to operate them.

The campaign is called "Informatique pour Tous"-- "Computers for All"--and it is part of the government's effort to modernize French attitudes toward education and, in turn, to revitalize industry and the economy. It is also a key element in the government's effort to combat youth unemployment.

The total cost of the program, the first of its kind in Europe, is expected to be about 700 million francs--or about $70 million.

Already there has been controversy. American businessmen have discreetly protested the Socialist government's decision to obtain equipment for the program almost exclusively from French firms. And some critics complain about the kind of equipment that has been chosen--small home computers are to be used in most of the schools.

From the start, there was intense lobbying on behalf of domestic and foreign computer manufacturers. Apple Computer of Cupertino, Calif., submitted proposals for its Macintosh model. Apple is the largest supplier of computers in the American educational market, and last year it sold more machines in France than any other maker of professional personal computers.

Apple Chairman Steven P. Jobs and Apple President John Sculley were entertained by French President Francois Mitterrand in February. Mitterrand had met Jobs at Stanford University in March last year, when Mitterrand toured the nearby Silicon Valley.

Mitterrand returned from the trip reportedly impressed with Jobs, and he instructed subordinates to draw up a program in computer literacy. But in the end, the government's desire to promote its domestic electronics industry knocked Apple out of the running. Most of the equipment is to be bought from state-owned French firms, among them Groupe Bull, Thomson S.A. and Compagnie Generale d'Electricite.

"The color of our passport was not the right one," said Jean-Louis Gassee, head of Apple's French subsidiary. "In a way, it's sad, but that's life. French industry let pass a good opportunity to acquire leading technology, but that's their prerogative."

French firms insist that they played fair and that the government's decision was natural.

Claire Dreyfus-Cloarec of Groupe Bull, which makes the Micral 30, said: "If French firms can produce the computers, wouldn't it be strange to buy American supplies for a national program? . . . We have a very good microcomputer, and it would have been unfortunate not to have used it."

Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, head of the French government's World Center for Computer Sciences and Human Resources, objected to the choice of suppliers and announced last month that, as a way of protesting, he would not seek reappointment as president of the center.

Prefers the Macintosh

Servan-Schreiber, a controversial journalist, author and former minister of government, has long been a crusader for the application of high technology in everyday life and industry. In a letter to Mitterrand explaining his decision against seeking reappointment, he cited "apprehensions over the government's choices in the delicate and crucial field of computer technology."

Servan-Schreiber, who is known to prefer Apple's Macintosh over the computers that were chosen for the program, said recently:

"It was a choice of technology. You should not put home computers or toys in the people's hands. They will not learn from them. . . . I couldn't go with the government choice. I didn't want to be in public conflict with the government. By October, they will see where the efficiency is, and then they will realize that I was right all along."

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