Jeremie Berge hasn't slept at home in five days. At 2 in the morning on a Saturday the 19-year-old is still at school, staring into a matrix of 3-D images on his computer screen. His shoes lie tossed in a corner among Kit-Kat wrappers and empty Coke cans. He hasn't shaved, and his eyes are red. With techno music blasting out of his computer speakers, he leans back in his chair and grins. "Look," he says, "this isn't the Hilton. We're here to work, not to sleep." At least his school--EPITA, or Ecole Pour l'Informatique et les Techniques Avancé him a choice. It stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Ambitious French kids have always worked hard. Just not this hard. Back in the 20th century, go-getters studied diligently to win admission to one of the country's Grandes Ecoles--where they could network with others who had made the grade. The elite got careers in government or state-owned companies; everyone else struggled for a job in a market that wasn't generating enough of them. But thanks to the changes sweeping the French economy--and, most of all, to the Internet--this generation sees things differently. In the last two years the grandest of the Grandes Ecoles, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, has seen applications drop by nearly a third. At the same time, "les start-ups" have boomed, partly because some of the 60,000 or so French who left the country in the 1990s to work in Silicon Valley are returning. "In the old system, you had to know certain people to get ahead," says Jacques Blouzard of LastMinute.com, the French-language version of the successful British start-up. "But the Internet is all about making a new deal with society."
One of the best bargains was struck by Jeremie Berrebi. At 21, Berrebi is head of Net2One, a popular site that directs users to what's happening all over the Net. After discovering the Net in 1994, he went on to become head of one of CNN's French chat rooms and to write a book called "Surfing on CompuServe"--all before he was 18. "All these companies were giving me huge responsibilities without ever even seeing me because I knew what I was doing," he says. Now he's in charge of 30 employees at a company with $15 million in venture-capital funding. And, though he never finished university, he's giving seminars at France's top schools on how to get into the Net economy.
So what are the new rules? Step one: start young, like Gil Machac and Benoit Mennesson. The two have been business partners since they were 14; they're now 28 and running a company called Streampower, their third business together. Streampower specializes in interactive television, and is one of the only sites in France making money. They hope to go public before the end of the year. That's the kind of opportunity even middle-aged people can understand, which is why France's dot-com generation seems to be changing the attitudes of its parents. "We've come full circle," says Eric Perbos-Brinck, who hired his father as finance director for the company he founded, BravoNestor!, which locates products for people. "It used to be Father-Son Inc., and now it's Son-Father Inc."
Nobody's hungrier than the kids from EPITA. At last week's meeting of First Tuesday--a monthly networking party where tech talent, venture capital and media mingle--18-year-old EPITA student Amaury de Rancher was on the prowl. He struck up a conversation with 27-year-old Orianne Garcia, whose free e-mail company Caramail was bought in February for $2 million by the Swedish-based search engine Spray.com. Garcia has been on the scene since 1995, when she started a search engine called Lokace, which she and her partners sold for about $2 million in stock. Last year she was chosen as one of France's most "effective entrepreneurs" by the Journal du Net.
Since First Tuesday arrived in Paris from London last October, membership has increased sixfold. "We're here to meet investors and show them our business plan," says Julien Massinon, 20, a student who is marketing a site that puts short films on the Web. "It's a revolution. You have to jump right in."
Many have jumped right into Silicon Sentier, a gritty Paris neighborhood in the Second Arrondissement. In a former collection of sweatshops now called Republic Alley, there are 14 start-ups. Francis Cohen, 26, spent two years in New York before founding K-Mobile in the old factory. "Work is our reason for living," he says. "At night we keep on working, only we do it in a bar where we know what the music is." The hip Paris bar Favela Chic is setting up shop to cater to Internautes--French Web surfers--who work in the offices above. Higher up, maids' rooms that once housed starving writers are now home to teenagers waiting for venture capital. And no trace anywhere of that longstanding French aversion to the appearance of wealth. "I'm a millionaire," says Emmanuel Brissard of NetValue, an online rating service that has quintupled its value since going public in January. "Everyone on my team is a millionaire."
Of course, all this workaholism is bound to generate some grumbling in a country that prides itself on knowing how to live graciously. "Are you a Net slave?" asked the popular French magazine VSD on a recent cover. A slew of books and films criticizing the new economy have also appeared. But if anything, the pace is picking up. The staff of LastMinute.com has grown to 50 people in less than a year. Most are in their mid-20s. They dress down, play games on their mobile phones and aren't interested in who holds which diploma. "These kids have totally outgrown the old French model," says EPITA director Joel Courtois. Now they're hard at work on the new one.