A Vallee Du Silicon Right On The Cote D'azur

Ah, the French Riviera. The casinos of Monte Carlo. The topless beaches of Saint Tropez. The ultrachic of Cannes, where locals gauge the change in seasons by the flow of yacht traffic in the harbor.

Then, there's Sophia Antipolis.

I first learned of France's premier science-and-technology park a year ago, when brochures began hitting my desk in San Francisco four months before I moved to Paris. The park's promoters figured that seven years of writing about Silicon Valley would give me a special appreciation of the place. I was curious. Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128 grew up around universities. But before 1975, little existed around Sophia except quaint medieval villages, a booming tourist industry, and the Nice airport. How did a high-tech park like Sophia end up in a place like this?

As I drove through the surreal, undulating hills, the answer slowly became apparent. Only the brute will of the French government could get 700 companies and research institutes--and their 14,000 employees--to move to a spot so remote and lacking in infrastructure.

Flanked by the blue Mediterranean to the south and the snowcapped Alps to the north, Sophia Antipolis sits on 5,680 acres of rocky forest. Modern, often cold architectural oddities sporting purple I-beams or tubes of curved black glass have been plopped down where they seemingly have no right to be. Digital Equipment Corp. has its worldwide headquarters for telecommunications research here. Dow Corning Europe develops silicone medical devices, while French national institutes work on everything from digital processing to molecular biology. It's hard to imagine that the lavender fields of perfume capital Grasse and the medieval fortress of Saint Paul de Vence are so close.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS. But in France, innovation takes shape in strange ways. Locals remind me that it was the government that instigated the national Minitel information network, the state-controlled computer concern Groupe Bull, and the supersonic Concorde--none of which has ever recouped its huge taxpayer-financed investment. Sophia Antipolis (from the Greek words for intelligence, with a nod to the nearby port town of Antibes) is, in fact, the brainchild of a local politician. Senator Pierre Laffitte dreamed up the idea to spur year-round employment and counter the boom-and-bust cycles of Cote d'Azur tourism. But French "dirigisme"--state planning--seemed to me an unlikely mechanism for making it happen.

IBM unwittingly got the ball rolling. Forced by a government plan to divert growth away from Paris, Big Blue expanded its research labs to La Gaude, near Nice, in 1962. Texas Instruments Inc. and Air France's worldwide reservations center followed. By 1975, Paris had bought Laffitte's vision and started expropriating land for Sophia.

DOWNED TELEPHONES. The 1981 election of Mitterrand Socialists turned off prospective tenants, who feared an antibusiness climate. But since 1985, companies have been moving to Sophia at the rate of about 100 a year. Land that can be developed is going so fast that in November, the government approved a plan to double the size of the site over the next decade. And Prime Minister Michel Rocard is apparently so pleased with its success that he envisions Sophia clones at several other coastal sites. Laffitte now sees Sophia as the central jewel in a crescent of high-tech development along the northern Mediterranean from Milan to Seville.

But not everything is right in paradise. If anything, Sophia is a study in contradictions. At one of three main entrances, a sign proclaims Sophia as "a dazzling show of mankind's aptitude for forging his destiny." Yet the park is woefully lacking a reliable infrastructure. Despite leading-edge telecommunication services, heavy rains flood transmission stations and wipe out phone service. Not long ago, utility-company employees sympathetic to striking rail workers cut the juice to the local power grid, shutting down Sophia computers for days. And company executives complained to me about the intransigent lack of service from state-owned monopolies such as France Telecom.

Visitors can spend hours lost on Sophia's poorly marked and confusing roads. I tried pushing the button on an orange roadside intercom box marked "S. O. S."--presumably intended to help travelers in distress--but no one responded after several minutes, two days in a row.

While waiting, I noticed figures across the road huddling around the warmth of an open fire. I learned later that they are North African immigrants known as Harkis. Some inhabit prewar shacks that were supposed to be torn down years ago. Others occupy half of the 1,200 low-cost housing units that were originally intended for families of Sophia workers, stirring some resentment. Then there's the delinquency troubling local schools. And many residents, fearing the Los Angeles-like urbanization of the Cote d'Azur, are railing against Paris' plans for a second east-west freeway and the extension of high-speed trains to the region. "It's a picture postcard--with some blemishes when you start looking closely," says Digital engineering manager Carl P. Hemingway, a 10-year Sophia veteran.

TOO MANY COOKS. Corporate managers got so irate over infrastructure problems two years ago that they joined forces as the Club de Dirigeants to air their gripes collectively. But the bureaucracies in charge of the park--the state of Alpes-Maritimes, five towns, the Nice Chamber of Commerce, and a management company--were unprepared for Sophia's sudden growth and crippled by overlapping authority.

Then the Yves Crepet bomb exploded. Crepet, the respected lame-duck president of Dow Chemical Europe, planted a scathing story in the Nice-Matin newspaper last year blasting Sophia's saturated and unmarked roadways, insufficient bilingual schools, unreliable mail, and poor security. From my jaded view, those seemed like natural by-products of growth. But Crepet threatened to pull Dow out if things weren't fixed. Many took it as saber-rattling, but that didn't lessen its impact. Improvements--including $115 million to be spent on road work by 1993--were accelerated.

Some fear that progress will slow as the controversy dies down. And it might not help that Jacques Medecin, the mayor of Nice for 25 years, was run out of town in October on charges that, among other things, he took kickbacks on construction projects. Few citizens outwardly condone such improprieties. But many concede that they are the way things get done on the Riviera, and they fear that Medecin was the only man with enough power to heal Sophia's ills. "No one's around to push buttons anymore," says one wary resident.

WELCOME INVITATION. For all the problems, many transplants to Sophia wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Jerry Marlar, the president of Dow Corning Europe's health care unit, partly credits Sophia for the turnaround in his business since 1983, when it moved here from Brussels. Employees like it, "and no customer has ever refused an invitation to visit," says the Tennessean, who admits that he has developed a fondness for a pricey white Provencal wine from nearby Domaine Ott.

Citizens from surrounding villages are arguably better off, too. Despite Valbonne's growing pains from nearly tripling its population since 1984, to 10,000 people, its take of tax revenue from Sophia companies shot up 26% last year, to $9.6 million. The 500-year-old town used some of that money to recobble its narrow streets and build a sparkling community center and cinema complex. Trendy services, from massage workshops to Aikido classes, make Valbonne to Sophia what Palo Alto is to Silicon Valley.

That's not everybody's idea of progress. In Biot, six miles away, a group of men gathers almost every night in the smoke-filled bar of Galerie des Arcades. They play la coinchee, a variety of bridge, and lament the local traditions they feel are slipping away with the influx of outsiders. Although it was a good idea initially, says a ruddy-faced construction worker known as Le Bretagne, "Sophia Antipolis has become an intellectual ghetto." And as the newly approved park expansion heads toward Biot, adds bartender Marc Brothier, "Sophia will eat us up, just like Valbonne. In six or seven years, instead of playing cards here, we'll be playing pinball machines and eating McDonald's hamburgers." There are no plum orchards left in Silicon Valley, either.

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