The French government opened a four-day symposium on research and technology today as part of an unusual official effort to stimulate invention and discovery in a nation rooted in tradition.
Dramatizing the emphasis his Socialist government wants to focus on innovation and scientific progress, President Francois Mitterrand addressed the opening session with an appeal for French researchers to work "at the intersection of all the great problems of our society."
To encourage this, Mitterrand's government has scheduled a one-third increase in spending by the Research and Technology Ministry this year to about $4.4 billion. In addition, it has pledged to increase total research spending from 1.8 percent of France's gross national product to 2.5 percent by 1985.
The ambitious goals reflect a feeling widespread among Socialist planners that France's industry and technology have lagged behind those of its economic competitors, leaving French businessmen at a disadvantage in the international marketplace. For example, they point out, the United States, West Germany, Japan and Britain already devote more than 2 percent of their gross national products to research.
"We will rise to the challenge of this economic crisis if we believe in our own abilities," Mitterrand said. "To get out of the crisis, research is an essential key, perhaps the key of renewal."
The emphasis also flows from the energy and ambition of Jean-Pierre Chevenement, Mitterrand's research and technology minister. Chevenement sought immediately upon his nomination last June to expand his authority to cover research organizations previously under other ministries. Except for the Atomic Energy Commission, he succeeded, and the national colloquy grew out of his enlarged ministry.
Chevenement, 43, heads the Center of Socialist Study, Research and Education, known by its French initials CERES. The group traditionally has been on the left wing of the French Socialist Party, more inclined toward central economic control than the relatively moderate and anticommunist Socialists in Mitterrand's mainstream.
Over the last five years, however, CERES hard-liners have melded more easily into Mitterrand's overall leadership and, particularly since Mitterrand's race for the presidency last year, become less distinct as a group. Having endorsed the party platform after playing a strong role in defining it, the group won several slots in the Cabinet.
These include, besides Chevenement, National Solidarity Minister Nicole Questiaux, Sports and Youth Minister Edwige Avice and Energy Minister Edmond Herve. There have been no reports of tugs to the left by these ministers to match those reported to the right by Planning Minister Michel Rocard or Finance Minister Jacques Delors.
Chevenement has been mentioned as a possible candidate for higher office under--or after--Mitterrand. Despite his group's position at the left of the Socialist spectrum, he appears to have won a measure of acceptance from the business community, perhaps because of the government's intention to increase industry research subsidies.
The national proceedings follow 31 regional symposiums with participation by 40,000 scientists and others associated with research, ministry spokesmen said. They produced 50,000 pages of reports designed to guide Chevenement's bureaucrats in spending their extra budget money. But since no one had time to study all the words, the national session is working with summaries to seek a national policy paper for the ministry.
In November, Mitterrand held a reception in the Elysee Palace to mark his patronage of a world microcomputer center in Paris.
At that time, Mitterrand declared, "It is clear we must go very fast" and said the center would be working by the beginning of this year. The idea's promoter, former journalist and politician Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, said that so far he is still looking for a director but that the first offices will open next week.