Reza Malekzadeh is a graduate of one of France's most prestigious business schools. But at 24, he believes, he'd never have the kind of responsibility working for a French company that he does now in the promised land of California.

He has changed jobs three times in less than three years, and today is director of U.S. operations for the network-systems firm Softway International Inc. in San Francisco. The Paris native says leaving France was the best thing that could have happened to his career.

"I couldn't do in France what I do here," Malekzadeh said. "In France, even when you're 50 years old, they talk about you as {a product of} the school you went to. Here, people only care about what you can do, not how old you are or where you went to school 15 years ago!"

Malekzadeh is one of about 40,000 French citizens who live in the high-tech reaches of Northern California, and he is part of a growing exodus of the best-educated and most ambitious young people from their native land.

Since 1990, an estimated 300,000 white-collar workers and entrepreneurs have departed France to establish themselves abroad. The figure is paltry compared with a population of 56 million. But those who have studied the trend say those who leave are the best minds in France, the ones the nation most needs to keep.

When added to the fact that those who immigrate to France tend to be low-skilled and low-income, "the fundamental problem is that France is losing the best-qualified and gaining the least-qualified," said Christian Saint-Etienne, a consultant and economics professor at the University of Paris-Dauphine. "Our whole system pushes young people to leave." The departures amount to a vote of no-confidence in France, a nation trying to forge a path that retains its extensive social and welfare protections but also begins to encourage work and hiring. The message, several emigres said: In France, taxes are too high, business too regulated, employee costs too expensive, risk too frowned-upon, welfare programs too extensive and the establishment too rigid.

"It is connected to a will, a desire, a need, perhaps a dream," said Jean Marchand, editor of a new magazine called Succeeding Abroad, one of two new Paris-based publications that focus on working in foreign countries. "People want to go somewhere where there is more blue sky, more optimism."

Entrepreneurs head for California, scientists and researchers for Boston and New York, and young professionals in the financial industry pour into London, where they work for French, American and British investment banks and brokerage houses.

When Solene Adrien was looking for a job after graduating from business school last year, she considered Paris and London. Paris was in her native country, and she had attractive job offers there. Her boyfriend also happened to live in Paris.

But Adrien, 23, chose London. The offer was from a prestigious company, the investment bank J.P. Morgan & Co. Adrien felt her abilities, and her ability to speak English and French, would be better appreciated in Britain than in France. And she said Paris is just not in fashion for intelligent, ambitious French business-school graduates these days.

"Working in London is virtually obligatory," Adrien said. "All the talent is just leaving France."

At times, it seems as if French policies push the talented out the door. Luc Montagnier, a discoverer of the AIDS virus, could no longer work in France because he had reached the mandatory retirement age of 65 at the government-funded National Center for Scientific Research. Queen's College of the City University of New York, the state of New York and other donors happily welcomed him last year with a $30 million grant.

Likewise, Martine Kempf left for California in 1985 at 26 after 30 banks turned down her request for a $100,000 loan to commercialize her computerized voice-recognition system. Her invention had gotten her an invitation to meet President Francois Mitterrand, and Kempf had orders for the devices. But when time came for procuring capital, banks would lend only in return for majority control of the project. When the news media revealed the banks' failure to lend, the French government tried to discredit her work.

In Sunnyvale, Calif., Kempf filled out a form, got a $5 business license and began manufacturing, using advance payments for start-up money. Today she has five subcontractors working for her.

"When I come back, I'm surprised at how nothing has changed in 12 years," Kempf said in a telephone interview. Her departure "was a sort of alert that things had to change, and it hasn't happened."

For Alexandra Henrion Caude and her husband, Alexis Caude, living and working in the United States mean professional rewards -- and personal sacrifices. She is a neurobiological researcher at Harvard Medical School, and he is an MBA student at Harvard Business School, where French students for the first time are the largest foreign group.

Their daughter, 2, rarely sees her grandparents. The Caudes, both 28, far from friends and family, cannot benefit from France's subsidized child-care system and have no support network to fall back on. But they say it is worth it.

"If I am good here, I will be recognized as such," Alexandra Caude said. "Maybe I'll even be given the chance to have my own lab. In France, I would have to take a structured exam just to get into public research. . . . I realize I am a typical French product, made in France. But I have no desire to go back. I prefer being here."

Marchand, the magazine editor, believes that many of the travelers will come home, bringing their new talents and expertise with them. France's Socialist government agrees. Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn has called France's traveling youth "an investment for the future," although the government is trying to improve the climate for business investment to make France more attractive.

Still, the longer people stay, the more likely they are to remain. European Union rules now permit anyone from a member country to work in any other. So girlfriends join their boyfriends in Britain and find jobs there, where the unemployment rate is less than half of France's 12 percent. They marry, they have children.

"We send people to London, but whether they'll come back is far from sure," said Adrien, the business school graduate. "I've never rejected France, I love my country. I'm proud of the fact that it remains true to itself. But things have to change. What's sad is if we don't get ready now, we'll be left behind." Added Malekzadeh, the manager: "I don't envision going back in the short- to medium-term. But if the climate really changed, I'd certainly consider going back, and I think that would be true for a lot of people here. Less so for the ones who have found American partners." CAPTION: Alexis and Alexandra Caude with Anastasia, 2, are members of Harvard University's large French community.