Gallic shrug for Sarkozy's Silicon Valley-style campus

Technology elite cool on plans to trade chic Paris addresses for soulless suburb. Clea Caulcutt writes

October 7, 2010

The French government is investing more than £1.5 billion in a French "Silicon Valley" intended to rival the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Cambridge.

However, enthusiasm in the academy for the project, which will involve the sale of prestigious premises in Paris, has been muted.

Six grandes écoles, the elite academic institutions that train the bulk of France's engineers and business leaders, are to relocate to the Saclay plateau south of Paris beginning next year.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, speaking last month during a visit to a nanotechnology site at Saclay, argued that academics should see the move as an opportunity to break down barriers between institutions.

"In the face of stiff world competition, it is unreasonable to maintain this mosaic of prestigious institutions, which are divided by completely artificial and obsolete administrative barriers," he said.

While many academics find the idea of a French Silicon Valley appealing, there are also widespread fears that the new super-campus may not live up to expectations.

"Silicon Valley in California did not appear because ministers ordained it. It developed because the conditions were right and allowed a leading research centre to emerge," said Eric Guilyardi, a senior research Fellow at the Pierre and Marie Curie University and in the department of meteorology at the University of Reading in the UK.

There are also concerns at the apparent disorganisation of the Saclay project.

The lack of infrastructure on the Saclay plateau, which under the current plan is set to welcome 12,000 academics and 30,000 students by 2019, is a key point of concern.

Located about 20km south of Paris, the plateau presently has no student housing, no nearby Métro stop and no train services.

"Saclay is hard to reach on public transport, and personally I wouldn't want to work in a corporate, soulless campus," said Morgan Meyer, a postdoctoral researcher at Mines ParisTech.

Public consultations on building more public transportation around Paris began last week, but many estimate that it will be decades before a Metro line to Saclay is built.

"The move to Saclay has been a topic of discussion for quite some time now, and most people here are quite sceptical," Dr Meyer said.

The Paris premises of Mines ParisTech, where Dr Meyer is based, are stately buildings overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg, an attractive selling point for the institution.

President Sarkozy created a stir last month when he announced that the sale of prestigious Paris premises will help to fund the super-campus, which has already been allocated more than £700 million and is to receive an extra £850 million this year.

It is unclear how much of the real estate belonging to the likes of Mines ParisTech, Télécom ParisTech and ENSAE ParisTech will be put up for sale, as institutions have declined to comment on the proposals.

According to Christophe Blondel, a member of the executive board of the Syndicat National des Chercheurs Scientifiques (SNCS-FSU), French institutions are refraining from comment and criticism at a time when the government is allocating funds.

"Their silence speaks for itself. If they really supported the relocation, they would say so," he said.

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