French authorities will give out 175,000 USB memory sticks loaded with open-source software to Parisian high-school students at the start of the next school year.

The sticks will give 15 and 16-year-old students the freedom to access their email, browser bookmarks and other documents on computers at school, home, a friend's house or in an Internet café – but at a much lower cost than providing notebook computers for all, a spokesman for the Greater Paris Regional Council said.

It's a way to reduce the digital divide, said spokesman Jean-Baptiste Roger.

The sticks will probably contain the Firefox 2 Web browser, Thunderbird email client, an office productivity suite such as 2, an audio and video player,and software for instant messaging, he said.

The exact mix of software will be defined by the company that wins the contract to supply the sticks, but will be open source, he said.

At the European arm of the foundation behind the Firefox browser, Mozilla Europe president Tristan Nitot hailed the news as "an excellent surprise".

It could even be a way to fight software piracy, he said, since the open-source software that the sticks will contain may be freely and legally copied.

"It's better to copy that than Microsoft Office: it's cheaper, and it's legal," said Nitot.

School heads will distribute the Universal Serial Bus (USB) sticks to 130,000 students at the start of the next academic year, as they arrive for their first of three years at high school. There are 476,000 students in the 468 public high schools operated by the council and the 213 privately run schools it funds. Apprentices at the 173 professional training centres funded by the council will receive the other 45,000 sticks.

If the project goes well, there's no reason why funding shouldn't be renewed next year, said Roger.

The council plans to spend €2.6 million (£1.7m) on the USB sticks this year, a small fraction of its overall educational budget.

School funding in France comes from many sources. Teachers are paid by the national government, while the provision of teaching facilities including the construction and maintenance of schools is paid for by local governments: city authorities, in the case of primary and middle schools, and regional councils in the case of high schools. In 2006, the Greater Paris Regional Council's budget for maintaining high school facilities, including buildings, libraries and its 120,000 computers, totalled €728 million. It also spent €195 million on facilities for apprentices in professional training centres.