France's potential hampered by politics

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Since René Descartes developed his laws on geometrical optics and Charles Bourseul worked on the development of telecommunications, France has enjoyed a long tradition in technical R&D. From recent history, we can point to the achievements at the former CNET (Centre for Research and Study in Telecommunications) about temporal commutation, broadband RNIS, the ATM mode, and soliton transmission.

Then we have other well-known global R&D players in this field: the IOTA (Theoretical and Applied Optics Institute); some optics- and comms-dedicated CNRS laboratories (National Centre for Scientific Research); and the LETI laboratory, attached to the CEA (Centre for Atomic Studies).

France has a powerful education system with respect to optical developments. R&D centres employ engineers educated in our Specialised Grandes Écoles (similar to universities). Among these there are ENS (École Normale Supérieur), ENST (specifically for telecoms) and the École Supérieure d'Optique. There are numerous societies including the French Optical and Physical societies, the GIFO (industrial optics), the FICOME (installers), clubs for optical, laser, and nanotechnology, and regional associations in the "hotspots" of Paris, Brittany, Alsace, St Etienne, Lyon and Grenoble.

Exhibitions and events also provide useful forums for the industry. For example, the annual Opto Show this year brought together 480 exhibitors and 17,200 visitors in Paris. It featured more than 50 conferences attended by 600 people. We have also other channels for information and dissemination, such as EDP Sciences, Ellipses, Eyrolles, Masson and a varied technical press.

All these aspects of French optical-comms endeavour should make the country a leader in this field.

This landscape would be ideal but it has recently been darkened by the consequences of some political decisions that have caused a drain on French companies. On the one hand we have a high cost of business and on the other there is Government interventionism in the affairs of France Télécom.

Because of this, business is shifting away from France and many employees in the manufacturing sectors are suffering. In spite of its substantial added-value, the optical industry has also been affected.

The list of companies where staff are being reduced is growing. Notable examples are Alcatel Optronics, Corning, Corvis-Algety, Highwave, Keopsys, and Phase Optic. The telecoms crisis and globalisation are often cited as excuses. But, as a matter of fact, the workforce is shifting to where it is cheaper to design and manufacture these systems — and where the cost of work is not increased by government employment conditions of a 35 hour week, the rule requiring employers to offer five weeks holiday, and numerous taxes.

France Télécom, which is arguably a major global player, has had some of its activities compromised. The government, a shareholder in FT, has been using the company as a "cash cow" to postpone decisions on a delicate political subject: pensions. The government has regularly been tapping into FT's profits by obliging the operator to buy an over-priced UMTS licence. Now, it is time to reduce its debts of EUR70bn. This state of affairs can be compared (adversely) to the healthier management of FT's competitor LDCom.

Tomorrow, France will try to develop its optical and telecoms R&D. Some key examples include the quantum cryptography by Philippe Grangier at IOTA; femtosecond lasers; MEMS and MOEMS; biophotonics work by Professor Meureuis; access developments by the collectivités locales (LWE Nov 2002); the MPLS commutation; the deployment of 10 Gigabit Ethernet, and of Ethernet in the first mile; developments in plastic optical fibre by Nexans in Lyon (LWE June 2002); and work at the CNRS labs, St Etienne, by Professor Gérald Brun.

Also, we need to consider the opportunities if installers start to initiate their own "cultural revolution" by employing optical fibre for multimedia transmission in horizontal distribution in LANs and home networks.

Jean-Michel Mur is Tyco Electronics France's training and communication manager.

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