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Students battle for a place at France’s free computer coding college

On an August morning in Paris, when most of the city is in an advanced state of summer torpor, hundreds of young men and women are sweating it out in the third week of a gruelling month-long endurance test.

Students battle for a place at France's free computer coding college
Students at the ground-breaking Ecole 42. Photo: AFP

While the trial is called the “piscine” (swimming pool) and towels dot the ultra-modern building, the contest is not about physical prowess.

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Ecole 42 founder Xavier Niel, right, with students at the college. Photo: AFP

Welcome instead to the tryouts for Ecole 42, a free computer coding college founded by French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel in 2013 to help young people find work in IT or, better still, become their own bosses.

Named after the offbeat answer to “the ultimate question of life” in Douglas Adam's comic classic “The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy,” the  ultra-modern college, with neither teachers nor conventional tuition, quickly gained cult status.

Around 40,000 people apply each year for one of roughly 1,000 spots on the programme.

Around 3,000 make it to the daunting “piscine” stage, in which the candidates spend 10 to 16 hours a day over four weeks completing projects and doing exams.

Some, like Aristide Rivet-Tissot, even sleep and shower on-site — hence the towels.

“When you're here, you're so immersed that you sometimes forget the outside world exists!” the bleary-eyed 19-year-old told AFP as he greeted his parents, who had travelled up from the countryside to offer support and collect his washing.

Dropouts welcome

When Niel announced his plan for a free coding college open to all, including school dropouts  – 40 percent of the students do not have the  school leavers' “baccalaureat” – France's main IT employers federation gave a muted response, noting that the country already had an abundance of  engineering colleges.

Six years later, Ecole 42, which is based entirely on project work and peer learning, has disproved the doubters with a 100 percent employment rate among graduates.

Describing a visit to 42 in Paris in a promotional video, Evan Spiegel, the CEO of social media giant Snap, declared: “You feel like you're walking into a school from the future!”

Now Niel, who founded the world's biggest start-up incubator in Paris in 2017, is taking his revolutionary model global.

After founding a Silicon Valley sister college in 2016, he has his sights set on Rio de Janeiro, Novosibirsk, Tokyo and a slew of other cities, as part of a plan to have 20 partner schools in 14 countries by 2020.

75,000 unfilled jobs 

A survey of businesses by France's unemployment administration last year found there were more than 75,000 vacancies in the IT sector.

While completing the course's 21 levels takes on average three years, many students are headhunted beforehand.

Bastien Botella, co-founder of Clevy, a start-up that develops chatbots, left 42 one-third of the way through the course to take a web design job.

A former hotel manager who failed his baccalaureat, Botella had previously been turned down by several traditional IT colleges.

“42 was a turning point in my life,” said the 33-year-old, whose staff of 21 includes six fellow “42ers” working alongside graduates of some of France's top engineering colleges.

'School from the future'

The school's inclusive approach marks it out in a country which preaches “liberty, equality, fraternity” but which was the worst performer among 36 countries, including the US and Britain, in a 2015 OECD study on social advancement through education.

Fadia Zementzali told AFP she applied after being fired from her job as a telephone saleswoman because she wears a Muslim headscarf.

“Here I was welcomed as a human being, not as a veiled woman,” said the chatty 31-year-old, who was admitted to 42 in April.


Ecole 42 director Sophie Viger. Photo: AFP

The cross-community lure is plain to see in the kaleidoscope of faces clustered around gleaming 27-inch Apple screens in the vast computer room where the “piscine” trials are held.

“The digital sector, as we've seen at 42, acts as a social elevator. You have people from very different horizons,” said 42 director Sophie Viger.

Despite not being certified by the state, the programme has won plaudits from politicians across the spectrum.

“It has brought innovation into our education system — which is what we need and it's wonderful,” then finance minister, now president, Emmanuel Macron gushed on Facebook after visiting the school in 2015.

But despite the glowing reports it has not been spared controversy.

In 2017, a French magazine reported allegations of sexual harassment and misogyny at the Paris facility, for which several students were punished.

Last year, France's digital privacy watchdog rapped it for “excessive video surveillance.”

Viger said the school is working to attract more female students by promoting female tech role models and had complied with an order to remove most of its CCTV cameras.

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TECH

Google to appeal €500m French fine in copyright row

Google's legal tussle with French regulators continues.

Google to appeal €500m French fine in copyright row
Google to appeal €500m French fine in copyright row (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)

Google on Wednesday said it is appealing a decision by France’s competition watchdog to hand it a €500m fine in a row with news outlets over the use of their content under EU copyright rules.

“We disagree with some of the legal elements, and consider the amount of the fine to be disproportionate compared to the efforts we have put in place to reach a deal and respect the new law,” Sebastien Missoffe, head of Google France, said in a statement.

The fine, issued by the French Competition Authority in July, was the biggest in the agency’s history for a failure to comply with one of its rulings.

Head of Google France, Sebastien Missoffe, has hit back against French regulators (Photo by JACQUES DEMARTHON / AFP)

The watchdog said Google had failed to negotiate “in good faith” with media companies in a long-running legal battle over the internet giant’s use of snippets of articles, photos and videos in search results.

The row has centred on claims that Google has used this content in its search results without adequate compensation, despite the seismic shift of global advertising revenues towards the search giant over the past two decades.

In April last year, the French competition authority ordered Google to negotiate “in good faith” with media groups after it refused to comply with a 2019 European Union law governing digital copyright.

The so-called “neighbouring rights” aim to ensure that news publishers are compensated when their work is shown on websites, search engines and social media platforms.

Last September, French news publishers including Agence France-Presse (AFP) filed a complaint with regulators, saying Google was refusing to move forward on paying to display content in web searches.

While Google insists it has made progress, the French regulator said the company’s behaviour “indicates a deliberate, elaborate and systematic lack of respect” for its order to negotiate in good faith.

The Competition Authority rebuked Google for failing to “have a specific discussion” with media companies about neighbouring rights during negotiations over its Google Showcase news service, which launched late last year.

Missoffe insisted Wednesday that Google “recognises neighbouring rights, and we remain committed to signing agreements in France”.

“We have extended our offers to nearly 1,200 publishers and modified aspects of our contracts,” he said, adding that the company has “shared data demanded of us in order to conform to the Competition Authority’s decision”.

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