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From the exotic to BASIC: Club Med chief pushes computers with French youth

AS chairman of Club M'edit'erran'ee, Gilbert Trigano has sold the French on the value of exotic holidays. Now he is trying to sell them on learning BASIC -- the computer language. France's Socialist government recently named Mr. Trigano special adviser to the prime minister with orders to equip France's 33,000 schools with personal computers, some 120,000 in all, by the end of the year.

While continuing to run the holiday conglomerate in the morning, Trigano spends his afternoons overseeing the $200 million plan, which he says forms an integral part of the government's strategy to reduce youth unemployment and revive France's economy.

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``Just as Ford demystified the automobile 50 years ago, we must demystify the computer,'' Trigano explained in an interview with the Monitor in his black and pink, pop-art decorated Club Med office near the Champs Elys'ees. ``To do this, we need great ambition.''

Small, dark, and shirt-sleeved, the energetic Trigano represents a model of such ambition. The son of Jewish grocers from Morocco, he left school at 15, joined the communist resistance, and later became a journalist for the party daily L'Humanit'e. Though he quit both the job and the party soon after the war to launch himself in the camping equipment business, he continues to express ``gratitude to the party for letting me fight to escape deportation.''

In 1954, Trigano joined Club M'edit'erran'ee. He proceeded to turn the small tourist outfit into the IBM of holidays, a multinational conglomerate with vacation villages dotting the globe. But he never abandoned his leftist social vision.

Club Med aims to create an entirely new concept of tourism.

In a Club Med village, the barriers and tensions of society are replaced by a never-never land of fraternalism that, as the legend goes, brings together at the same dinner table the company president and his doorman.

Trigano has similar social aims for his computer project. Before taking on his present assignment, he had set up 23 computer centers in Club Med villages. He also had found government sponsorship for a ``mission Trigano'' plan, setting up workshops in underprivileged neighborhoods.

Trigano hopes that, once they have computer skills, the growing ranks of France's unemployed youth will become employable.

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``If the disadvantaged are to have a chance,'' he says, ``we must give them equal opportunity with computers.''

But Trigano soon realized that a few urban workshops were not sufficient to accomplish this. American-style private enterprise would not be enough to catch up, either. In France, only a massive government-sponsored national program would work.

``In America, the individual goes ahead alone,'' he explains. ``France is a centralized country. We need papa to push us.''

The French computer industry needs papa, too. Not coincidentally, the government campaign will create a captive market for domestic producers who have been struggling to keep up with American manufacturers.

Originally, Apple computer had the inside edge with its Macintosh model, which was considered to be more powerful and easier to operate than competing models. Apple even proposed building a plant in Brittany to manufacture the computers.

But the two main French manufacturers, Thomson and Groupe Bull, both of which are state owned, protested. After fierce lobbying, the government decided that French products would be given ``priority.'' Although Trigano says some foreign products may be used, he acknowledges that some 80,000 Thomson T07-70 and M05 home computer models would be bought, and that more advanced Bull personal computers would make up most of the rest of the orders.

``A national launch will help Thomson and Bull on the international market,'' Trigano admits. He offers a few other reasons for buying French over Apple: The domestic computers had more available software, they were IBM compatible, and the cheaper Thomson computer was considered to be more appropriate for teaching elementary students, especially since it could be hooked up with the Bull computer for more advanced students.

Nevertheless, the dispute over material has fanned other criticisms. Political opponents have dubbed the program a gimmick. Members of the French educational establishment claim Trigano has not properly consulted them and that in any event the project will flounder once the French administration and bureaucracy get hold of it.

``Critics also called the club a gimmick, and in reality it was the ideal product,'' Trigano responds. ``Who can say these days that computers are not important.''

French bureaucracy sometimes may be exasperating, he admits -- ``I would like to fire some of the ministers I have to work with,'' he says -- but he claims he can cut through any administrative tangles. He compares his small team of 15 to ``commandos'' and says they are empowered to work outside normal government channels. Some 40,000 computers already have been installed in schools, so Trigano asserts, ``we're not starting from scratch.''

In the next few months, 110,000 teachers will receive intensive 50-hour courses. In September, students will begin receiving lessons on the new computers, and by the end of the year, Trigano says, everyone being graduated from a French school will have worked at least 30 hours on the computer.

Adult education will also be provided. Trigano has asked the high schools and colleges receiving computers to be open to every French citizen outside of school hours.

Despite austerity, even money presents no problem. Post office profits and industrial modernization funds will provide most of the finances. No other educational programs will be sacrificed.

For all these reasons, Trigano remains confident that the audacious experiment will prove a good investment. Having sacrificed his social life and his sleep -- he says he gets by without any fancy dinner and with only four hours of sleep a night -- he wants to prove the French touch is as good with computers as it is with holidays.

``Pretty soon, there will be a lot of people copying us,'' he promises, ``just like lots of people have copied Club Med.''

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