In the United States, a 15-year-old whiz kid like Cyrille de Vignemont would probably have launched his own computer software company. In the Soviet Union, he might have become a child chess prodigy. In Britain, he might be thinking about going up to Oxford to study classics.
Cyrille, however, is French -- and in France, the best and the brightest are traditionally attracted to government service. After a meteoric three-year career as a computer buff, he has just been hired by France's new right-wing government as the youngest fonctionnaire in the country.
In his new post at the Ministry of Civil Service and Planning, "supertalented Cyrille" -- as the French press has taken to describing him -- is regarded as the voice of French youth. His official position is charge de mission in the minister's private office, a civil service rank that is roughly equivalent to that of special assistant in the United States. Most of the people down the hall are two, three, or even four times his age.
Cyrille's appointment illustrates at least two things about France. Faced with what they view as the technological challenge posed by the United States and Japan, the French have begun to emphasize the values of youthful dynamism and scientific awareness. But there is also an enduring belief in France that the power to change things rests with the state.
"My main preoccupation is how to prepare for the year 2000," said Cyrille, in an interview in his office at the ministry.
Seated behind an antique desk, with a portrait of President Francois Mitterrand by his elbow, France's boy wonder seems to have slid naturally into the role of embryonic ministerial adviser. His voice may still be in the process of breaking, but he tosses out ideas with the assurance of a graduate of the Sorbonne or the elite administrative schools, such as: "We should mistrust specialization in education. Jobs that exist today may not exist tomorrow."
Cyrille rocketed to instant fame last December when he appeared on a television show with Mitterrand. As the author of a couple of software programs, he asked the president about legal restrictions on French children launching into careers as entrepreneurs. In a country that tends to be excessively respectful toward its politicians, the sight of a precocious 15-year-old cross-examining the head of state caused an overnight sensation.
The recruitment to the Planning Ministry of a budding young entrepreneur has been hailed by many French commentators as an imaginative, forward-looking step. It has, however, been criticized by opponents of big government who think it would have been better to allow him to realize his dream of setting up his own company.
"Cyrille de Vignemont, who is part of the solution, has been taken over and made part of the problem. How sad," commented a letter-writer to the Paris-based International Herald Tribune after reading the news.
Cyrille, however, insists that he has no intention of allowing himself to get swallowed up by the government bureaucracy. He says that he resisted the minister's initial offer of a full-time contract in order to keep in touch with the real world outside. The compromise was that he would put in two days a week at the ministry, spending the rest of the week at home in the southeastern city of Lyons and completing his education by correspondence course.
At first the position was to be unpaid, but Cyrille said he had negotiated a contract and would be paid -- reportedly a modest salary.
Unlike other ministerial advisers, he also refuses to be categorized as politically committed to the new right-wing government. Breaking with government policy, he announced that he personally would have been in favor of allowing U.S. F111 bombers based in Britain to fly over France en route to Libya. He defines himself as "capitalist in outlook, but against extremes."
Much of Cyrille's first week on the job has consisted of answering questions from journalists about what it is like to be the youngest charge de mission ever appointed by a French government. At times, the press attention seems to feed on itself. On being shown into his office for an interview, I was surprised to find myself part of a report for West German television about a day in Cyrille's life.
When the German cameraman insisted on addressing him as "Mr. Minister," he shot back playfully: "You've got it wrong, it's Mr. President of the Republic."
Once the novelty value of his appointment dies down, Cyrille says, he would like to organize weekly meetings between the planning minister and young people. He will continue to take an active interest in developments in the computer industry, where he first made his mark by selling a software program to Apple at the age of 12.
He has been described as a "terrifying young man" by the independent leftist newspaper Liberation because of his intellectual self-assurance, and he fields questions with aplomb.
"The politicians talk about an economic crisis as if it was something abnormal, a passing phenomenon. But for my generation, it's a normal state of affairs. It's lasted ever since I was born," he said.
The generation gap between Cyrille and politicians now running France was revealed when he remarked that the name of Charles de Gaulle, founder of the French Fifth Republic, meant little to him. "He is a figure from French history, like the kings and queens before the revolution, but he has little contemporary relevance to me."
As for his own future, Cyrille said that he saw his work at the ministry as an experiment.
"If, in six months, this doesn't work, then bye-bye," he said, waving his hand in the direction of his desk, the telephone bank, and Mitterrand's portrait.