Date: Mon, 05 May 1997 09:00:13 +0200
From: Christine Treguier

How France is jumping in the techno-liberal-bandwagon

Christine Treguier

Three months ago, France was considered to be the most computer-illiterate country in Europe. From the media point of view, that is. Of course one should not ignore the fact that France has a very strong background in military secrets, and a lot of its sensible computers are highly protected and not accessible through the Net. That is one of the reasons why the Internet has had difficulties growing here, the other one being the comfortable protected revenues of Minitel.

So, about three months ago, our president was inaugurating the new Mitterand Library, and radio and TV journalists were able to hear him asking a lady who was demoing a multimedia application : what is... a mouse ?". Everybody was flabbergasted: our president is a computer illiterate! But a week later he was welcoming Bill Gates (as a chef díetat), and immediately after, he was talking on TV about how France was going to network all of the schools and universities by the end of his mandate. There is one slight problem : French schools are under-equipped since the failure of 1980ies Plan Informatique, and no budget-plan was announced. Even worse, the "new" governmentís policy (if they are to be elected again) is a drastic downsizing of public expenses, so one wonders who is going to pay. Some other interesting bits of information: France has recently refused to contribute to the construction of the new European backbone. Experiments in Internet access through cable are obviously slowed down by France Telecom (which owns all the main cables in big cities). Access to the few available public education websites is restricted to MS Explorer or Netscape 3.0. And two weeks ago, 6000 web sites hosted for free by Mygale (a non-profit server based in University of Saint Denis (north of Paris) were shut down on the pretext that they were eating up too much of the bandwidth of Renater (the French University and Research bone). This rude blackout means there are no plans for any "public space" or "public service." In other words, all Internet activity is left to commercial providers, the biggest one being France Telecom. It also means that despite an over-protective Francophone attitude, there is no intent to pay for its costs.

Everybody knows that France is also one of the three countries in the world to absolutely forbid encryption. France has already voted for key-escrow systems, and is trying hard to push forward these control-systems at the EEC. France also submitted a report (the Beaussant Report) proposing the creation of an "independent" committee responsible for the "decency" of Internet contents. Which means that this committee, similar to the Audiovisual High Authority, will make statutes on the political-correctness of Net contents, thus considering the Internet a mass media and applying the same laws and rules to it as to other mass media.

Since the "mouse-story", and especially since the start of the election campaign, one hears right-leaning French politicians claiming that France has to jump into modernity and bless the liberal techno-future which is going to bring solutions to her problems. Unemployment is a problem - you can find a job on Internet. French people donít consume enough - they will on Internet. There is a lack of dynamic start-up companies - they will blossom on Internet, where everybody knows there is plenty of companies making money. Etc, etc.

Three days ago Le Monde mentioned another report planning to offer Net access to every French citizen, hundreds of public access terminals animated by the newly multimedia-educated soldiers of our brand new (still in the wings) professional Army, and tax reductions for multimedia companies. Again the fund are all but explicit.

What is clear, anyway, is that France apparently decided to jump on the techno-liberal-bandwagon - unless it is merely electoral propaganda, which I donít believe. After being considered a Neolithic country, she is now entering the Net as a proud newcomer who just read "Internet for Dummies", but has empty pockets and no boarding ticket. Flame on her!