Chirac attempts to seize hi-tech future for France

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac, a man of the past to many French people, attempted to seize the technological future for France yesterday with an ambitious €600m (£416m) programme of state-funded research projects.

The six initial grands projets in a much larger programme will include a Franco-German attempt to develop a search engine to end the domination of the internet by Google and the United States.

French state grants have also been awarded for research into mobile television technology, and profitable ways of making plastics from surplus cereals.

Unveiling the first projects selected by the Agency for Industrial Innovation, which he created two years ago, President Chirac said that the aim was to "invent the products of tomorrow".

By encouraging partnerships between government and private enterprise, the President said, the innovation agency would help France to reduce its arrears in hi-tech research.

"Among the 30 companies worldwide which invest the most in research, there is not one company in France," M. Chirac said.

The President's initiative has been welcomed by some economists in France and criticised by others as a throwback to a typically dirigiste and French way of doing things.

Critics complained that the state grants would mostly help large French companies, such as France Telecom, Thomson and Alcatel. Truly ground-breaking innovations tended to come from small and medium-sized companies, they said.

Although German and Dutch companies will share in two of the projects, the programme - and all of the state funding - is French.

President Chirac is said to have been especially annoyed that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has refused state money for the Franco-German plans to create a European Google, to be called Quaero. The German media and entertainment company Bertelsmann will put its own money into the project, but the participation of several German universities will be funded by French taxpayers.

Other projects in the initial batch include BioHub, an attempt at making plastics from cereals on an industrial scale. There will also be a £21m project to develop technology to bring television to mobile phones.

Other projects include NeoVal, an ultra-light form of tram, and Homes, to develop energy-saving forms of lighting and heating for houses. There is also a project to develop a hybrid form of diesel fuel from oil and vegetable matter. Thirty other projects are under consideration.

Mr Chirac suggested that the French programme should act as a model for a European industrial policy. He called on the European Commission to "redouble its efforts" to "harness the strength and talents of our entire continent".

France has a mixed record of state-funded research. In projects like the Train à Grande Vitesse (high-speed train) and European Airbus, France has seized a commanding world position. In more advanced areas of information technology, the French state has a poorer record.

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