Groupe Bull, the French computer company, is bulking up through alliances for an assault on the North American smart card market.

Bull announced two major strategic relationships - with a Canadian payment systems company and a U.S. producer of a special type of computer chip - at the Cardtech/Securtech conference this week. And these go with concurrent initiatives, including a marketing agreement with the Banksys Electronic Purse System in Belgium and a pocket smart card reader for the Visa Cash test in Atlanta.

Bull is signaling its desire to stay in the forefront of the market and to prepare for a long-awaited takeoff in the United States.

A pioneering chip card maker and the largest in the category of cards with microprocessor memories, the $5 billion company has struggled through several years of losses. Its privatization by the French government, an infusion of capital from investors including Motorola Inc., and a $50 million profit last year are clear signs of a turnaround.

The personal transaction systems division, largely driven by smart cards, hopes to more than quadruple revenues by 1998, to $600 million - "a very ambitious target even in a high-growth market," said Axel Ruckert, division president. "Alliances are key."

Likely to have the most immediate impact in North America is the alliance of Bull CP8, the company's global smart card unit, with NBS Technologies, an Ontario-based supplier of cards and terminals with a substantial U.S. presence.

The tie-in indicates how Bull wants to extend the capabilities of its U.S. subsidiary, Micro Card Technologies Inc. of Vienna, Va.

Bull's chip card archrivals, Gemplus and Schlumberger, and smaller suppliers such as Orga of Germany and Solaic of France have all established stronger U.S. presences in anticipation of demand.

"Our strategy is to leverage the core competencies of Bull CP8 with regional card manufacturing companies," said Geraldine Capdeboscq, president of Bull CP8. She said NBS would bring a "time to market" advantage.

Bull also announced a pact with Racom Systems Inc. of Colorado to develop a card that can be read in a conventional terminal or in contact- less devices like transit turnstiles. Siemens of Germany has a similar "Combi-Chip" in development.

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