3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

July 15, 2000 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on July 15, 2000.

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe for 12 months by postal mailing a check for US $45, payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us
 

--oOo--
 

FYI France: Amazon.fr? -- of nations and uncommon languages

 

Lyon, le 26 juin, sitting on a bench in the "rue de la Ré"

The marriage of the Internet with the French economy is not one of those self - evident things. No less than Amazon.com apparently is announcing its entry into the French book market this Fall: or at least "the world's biggest bookstore" is being announced as a French market entrant -- by the new Wired / Business 2.0 / Time Digital French glossy, Newbiz Magazine (recommended reading -- details at http://www.newbiz.fr).

But I can just hear the denials, delays, qualifiers which will be forthcoming. For just as "how can one speak of governing in a land which has 265 varieties of cheese?", so also, how can one speak of ebusiness in a land which boasts, among other complications, one of the lowest household computer penetration rates in Western Europe, plus one single, monolithic, hierarchical and centralized and bureaucratic and still government - owned telephone company?

"The business of America is business", Calvin Coolidge famously observed -- Dorothy Parker summed up the French attitude on this sort of social vision when she asked, on learning of Coolidge's death, "How could they tell?"

The French live for so much more than just business -- "e" or other. These people have had revolutions, and they have waged both love and war, and they have slaughtered each other regularly -- I am in Lyon -- and they have done these and so many other passionately irrational things, throughout their long and terrible history, nearly all for nearly any notion other than economic gain.

Even the parts of the 19th century and bits of the 20th century which have tried to see everything in money and materialistic terms have been forced, ultimately, to recognize this French exception. French motivations have included religion, and social status, and nationalism, and simple anger and frustration and arrogance -- still the land of the "crime passionel" -- at least as much as they have the colder calculations of "business".

Indeed, among Europeans, the French never have been all that good at "business" per se. The classic analysis of the economic revolutions of the 18th century by Paul Mantoux notes, "So great was the superiority of English production that neighbouring countries could hardly have kept out English goods save by a policy of strict prohibition..." (1).

And much in 19th century economic and political policy focussed upon France's "retard" in the industrial sphere: she became nearly the last great land of Europe left with not only little industry, but with an agricultural base centered around an archaic system of petits rentiers and little independent family farms -- less evocative of any nascent modern agribusiness than of the manorial system of the Middle Ages. The Unbound Prometheus of the Industrial Revolution had a very slow start in France.

 

Again, now, France is lagging, and she rapidly is falling even further behind her British and Irish and Scandinavian and German and in some respects even her Italian and Spanish neighbors, in the latest "digital" economic revolution:

Internet Domains, as of January 2000

namehostspopulationpop./
(1999)hosts
.fi/Finland631,2485,158,3728
.is/Iceland29,598272,5129
.no/Norway401,8894,438,54711
.se/Sweden594,6278,911,29615
.dk/Denmark336,9285,356,84516
.nl/Netherlands824,99015,807,64119
.ch/Switzerland306,0737,275,46724
.uk/United Kingdom1,901,81259,113,43931
.be/Belgium320,84010,182,03432
.de/Germany1,702,48682,087,36148
.ie/Ireland59,6813,632,94461
.fr/France779,87958,978,17276
.it/Italy658,30756,735,13086
.cz/Czech Republic112,74810,280,51391
.es/Spain415,64139,167,74494

(Network Wizards, http://www.nw.com &
http://www.isc.org/ds/WWW-200001/dist-byname.html; and
http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/)

 

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie has observed, "We French have been called dinosaurs... but the dinosaur is a very sympathetic animal, and at least now we will become electronic dinosaurs." (2) There is some merit in the French economic "retard" this time around, perhaps -- at least insofar as France can continue to enjoy the strong family life, solid educational structure, and general sense of security in society which always have been so valued.

All of these at times seem to be disappearing in the US and elsewhere, as people surrender too quickly and too completely to the Digital Revolution. So just perhaps, runs the hope of some, France will be able to contribute a more "mature" attitude toward the implementation of these exciting new technologies, once they finally reach l'Hexagone in full force.

But certain French friends of mine are tremendously concerned with the job insecurity, family disruption, and social bifurcation which the Digital Revolution has brought to the US and Britain, and which they say now, already, it is bringing to France: all that rapid job turnover, long and irregular commutes and working hours, splits between "haves" and "have - nots" in both information and other things...

There is debate everywhere about the origins of all of these changes. Some have said that the Digital Revolution is not to blame, or at least that it promises still more that is positive -- that a digital "global village" will so benefit from the freedoms of telecommuting and telework and worker productivity brought by the new techniques that more time and energy, not less, will become available for "personal time", and for relaxed "quality time" spent with family, and so on.

Others have demonized the digital world, characterizing the escapism and forced rationality of "The Matrix" as components of the futuristic Hell to which we all are headed, given the varieties of weirdness in our current society. See the many -- too many -- inconclusive social and psychological studies devoted to the impact of the digital phenomenon, plus the insightful nightmares of science fiction writers like William Gibson.

But there is no debate about the existence of the current pressures. White collar and mid - life unemployment, increasing family and youth problems, and commuting nightmares all -- already -- are integral parts of the Digital Revolution experience, whether that experience is headed, ultimately, towards the "global village" heaven of which some dream, or to the violent and drug - crazed Armageddon which others imagine. In France, Jean - Luc Godard was worrying about all of this 'way back in the 1960s -- well before the Digital Revolution -- but the spectre is raising its ugly head again now.

 

To many of the French, still, the ideal is a picnic -- in the country, with the kids -- or, perhaps even better, a long outdoor lunch around a giant table surrounded by extended family at grandmère's maison in the country... or that 1-2 month vacation off camping somewhere... These still are the sources of so much in French "congeniality" -- or at least of the remnant idealization of it, in the minds of Paris pe'riphe'rique drivers stuck in their 2 - hour - door - to - door daily commutes -- so much so that removal of the ideal would destroy whatever remains of that "congeniality".

But all of this appears to be gravely threatened, now, by the speed and pressures promised by, or at least associated with, the Digital Revolution: the traffic gridlock and personal pressure promised / threatened by the experience of the San Francisco Bay Area, or of Fairfax County Virginia, do not translate well to the French experience.

No American has so much cultural value vested in the ideal of the time for contemplation, and non - business concerns, of that relaxed and lazy extended afternoon "déjeuner sur l'herbe", as do the French. Take away that advantage of the "French exception" and all that may be left will be the "retard" -- that lag...

 

--oOo--

 

One friend in France reminds me, "We are Latins..."

And so France is: more the South than the North, but also more the entire country than the Northern European and particularly British traditions which most here associate with the USA, and especially with USA attitudes toward "business".

The famous book title was "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism"... France is a Catholic country. The "Protestant Ethic", toward work or anything else, is hard to find here. In fact much French blood has been sacrificed, throughout their long history, to get it out and keep it out. "The Spirit of Capitalism", in France, is more a rare and odd commodity than it is the driving social force which perhaps underlies what Northern European nations and the USA have been accomplishing in their recent Digital Revolution.

 

This "Latin" phenomenon is even personal. The role of the male breadwinner in a Latin culture perhaps makes the high job turnover so characteristic of "hi - tech" and "the digital economy" that much harder to take for the French.

A middle - aged American male who loses his job has "Horatio Alger self - improvement" and British "stiff upper lip" traditions to fall back upon, at least. But in France it is very hard for a middle - aged chômeur to look his mates in the eye -- and particularly if he is wealthy and well - educated, as so many of the hitech - induced white collar unemployed are everywhere now -- and in the French "Latin" male example the shame hurts him with his wife, and his children, and around that extended family lunch table where all things must come out into the open.

Never mind that if he works at it he will find another boulot within 6 months -- of course he will lose that too within the next two years, by the hitech job insecurity rules -- but it is the present reality of unemployment which hurts the "Latin" mentality so much...

 

--oOo--

 

The lead article in the aforementioned July - August Newbiz Magazine -- http://www.newbiz.fr -- is, "Les cadres secoués par internet": photo of a wonderfully French altho' very un - ENArque - looking "eager beaver" middle level manager, poised to take the plunge into the new digital economy with all the gusto and panache of a latter - day Cyrano -- Depardieu - style (the candidate is a little overweight) -- against the background of a lengthy series of sondages / opinion polls in which the magazine has poked at current French managers about their Internet usage -- they don't use it, much, certainly not when compared to burgeoning B2C and B2B activities elsewhere...

The French "cadre" in the photo -- in his Armani shoes, and fancy suit, and short - cropped but elegantly - styled hairdo, and necktie and white - shirt - most - likely - sporting - elegant - cufflinks, and leather attache case -- looks very much like the archetypal middle level manager whom elsewhere the Internet and general "downsizing / pyramid flattening" already has blown away, in the US and UK and most other places which "get it"... I guess the French don't, yet... clueless... altho I still think / hope that may be a good thing... "sympathetic electronic dinosaurs"...

 

The Newbiz Magazine editor, Eric Meyer, writes a wonderfully - funny endpaper in the current issue: "To 'e' or not to be?" --

"Prenez, par exemple, un PDG comme Francis Mer, d'Usinor... comment mettre sa boîte à l'heure d'internet?... annoncer qu'Usinor allait, comme les start - up, faire quelques années de pertes, mais ses prédécesseurs ont, malheureusement, déjà fait le coup plusieurs fois..."

"Qu'inventer pour fabriquer de l'Usinor.com? Vendre des rouleaux de métal aux enchères sur iBazar? Placer une webcam à la cantine?..."

"Coller un <> devant sa marque, son nom, son concept, son business... E-légant, plein d'e-sprit, et e-conomique... Genre l'ENA, qui, en mal de candidats, deviendrait l'e-NA, voyez le style..."

 

And the French, once again (this has happened to them before, in times of stress), are not getting married, and are having fewer and fewer babies -- youth unemployment has been in the double digits for a long time now, and a major national problem even worse than the general "chômage" -- these are the kids who should have been launching the French Digital Revolution!

But it is hard to form a household if you have no job, and if you are older it is still harder to look the spouse in the eye when you are on the dole... that Latin pride... neither "Horatio Alger" nor "the Protestant Ethic" nor a lot of other culturally - bound things play well in France...

 

--oOo--

 

So I wonder how and whether the ebusiness digital economy, with all of the fundamental social changes which it already is bringing -- to the US and other places where it is more active -- is going to fare in France?

People here tell me, still, that they "cannot make the email work" because "all of the manuals are written in English". How long is it going to take before the Internet "speaks" -- really -- the "language of the customer"?! This involves so much more than just the matters of incompatible keyboard layouts, and character sets, and ISO norms, all of which no doubt underly the immediate problem in many cases.

US system designers and programmers have to begin on an understanding of the overall psychology of the "foreign" customer -- "whole marketing", to some -- if the Internet ever is to scale up to international applications well. Easily said / not so easily done...

It involves so much more than the fumbling translation into the local argot of a few pull - down "help" screens. There are perceptual differences, and cultural and political and religious and several other, to be considered -- all very much in addition to more obvious bottom - line linguistic necessities, such as providing adequate language translations.

In the French case, for example, the inclusion of advertising by the McDonald's chain for the moment would cause a problem, as could anything particularly insensitive done by either Microsoft Corp. or Walt Disney:

Microsoft, and particularly Bill Gates personally, have been demonized by the recent Paris press. And although advertising might capitalize on the undeniably intense public fascination with both, this must be done very carefully, with excruciatingly - close attention to local sensitivities.

The same goes for Disney, which through the ups and downs of its Paris EuroDisney theme park -- now called officially "Disneyland Paris", so I guess there are other European Disneylands in the works now -- has established itself firmly as the leading local "globalization" demon, for the moment. Any Hollywood media maven who thinks that the current popularity of "Disneyland Paris" indicates that the Paris mob never will change, does not know French history...

And then of course they are blowing up McDonald's restaurants over here: with dynamite -- not just figuratively. The guy leading the charge, if he doesn't become the next President of France, at least has become the folk - hero of many of the French for his efforts.

So keep the "Big Mac" and particularly the "Ronald McDonald" ads off of the Websites for a while, folks -- better Marianne and the tricolor and perhaps some camembert -- unless you want to evoke feelings and customer reactions far more complex than any which your advertising department back in Muskokee has in mind.

 

--oOo--

 

There is more -- more than just the obvious "read the local papers" consideration, that is -- again using the French example of a more general "Internet scaling" problem. French attitudes on "pornography" and "informal chat" -- both of these so terribly important, the one negatively and the other more positively, to the US American Internet -- require some re - thinking.

In France, naked human bodies -- of men, women, even of children -- are not considered pornographic. The artist Balthus is popular over here -- as is Nabokov's novel "Lolita" -- and Woody Allen's marital antics are tolerated as the "wanderings of genius", and streetcar ads feature plenty of female and male breasts, nipple details and all.

But in France Nazis are pornographic. The swastika evokes the same feelings of irrational revulsion, in many of the French, which a poster of a naked child, or a photo of couples coupling, or lewd movie - star - and - politican stories evoke in the US Bible Belt: not different reactions, but the same -- an American seeking to understand this should think of her / his own revulsion at seeing a typical Calvin Klein ad -- that is at least the same revulsion felt by the French at seeing Nazi memorabilia on a Website.

So, when a French judge hit international headlines recently by condemning -- and restricting -- Yahoo! from providing Nazi memorabilia sales on its online auction site, the French simply were reacting as the Americans do to porn: nothing "holier than thou art" in either reaction -- these are just differing cultural values in conflict, neither being more right or more wrong than the other.

(see http://www.afa-france.com/html/action/23052000.html)

This French preoccupation with Nazis is an example -- a good one, to US system designers trying to teach their new Internet to deal with the foreign and particularly its non - English - speaking world -- but only one example:

In Thailand, for instance, they value democracy and freedom of expression as much as Americans do -- and as the French do -- but the Thais just value the sanctity of their Royal Family more. So, recently, when the Thais suggested that online criticism of their Royal Family be restricted, and the Internet Society objected on "free expression" grounds, the situation was the same as that faced now by the French with their objections to Nazi memorabilia: the "language" spoken can be similar -- or nearly, with more adequate translations of the user manuals -- but the parties still can be far apart, on culture, politics, perceptions.

 

--oOo--

 

The question for the Internet is how far will it go to meet the mentality of its customer? In "Globalization", nowadays, so much is being presented in the guise of "universal human values" which is seen by foreighners -- by the French, by the Thais -- as being an imposition of "Americanization"...

"Democracy Conference Disavowal: French Foreign Policy Steers Its Own Course: Warsaw Declaration on Democracy Rejected: 100 Nations Bullied By US" (Int. Herald - Tribune, June 28, p. 1) H. Vedrine interviewed: "...misguided to believe that democracy could be imposed on countries... Democracy was most often a slow - growing process that grew from within a country"...

Even some US "special relationship" English friends view current US "Globalization" attitudes as representing, at their very best, simple - minded "Americanization". (3)

Americans should consider how we ourselves would feel had the Internet been invented in Thailand and exported to the US: with user manuals written only in Thai, and with restrictions built in against criticizing the personal lives of the Thai Royal Family -- and by automatic and blind extension, perhaps, any First Family, including our own?

Or what if the Internet at its origins had been French, and had arrived in the US with AZERTY keyboard layouts, and a confusion of diacriticals, and plenty of hidden restrictions on access to political extremism and Nazi memorabilia?

Turn the tables... see it from the customer's point of view... old marketing advice...

Conflicting values can be ranked, tradeoffs made -- multicultural efforts can be and have to be flexible. Amartya Sen makes yet another of his periodic wry and eloquent pleas for this in the latest NY Review of Books (July 20, p.35):

So we in the US may recognize, some day, that the Thais value "democracy" as much as we do, even if things are a little different there. Closer to home, we in the US may recognize that French "democracy" and other beliefs, and our own, still have much in common -- enough at least for a good working basis on things like Internet development -- even if they do deal with Nazis a little differently than we do, over there in France.

 

In the meantime, let's back off a bit: the French -- and the Thais and the Chinese and the Indians and plenty of others -- all love "democracy" and "freedom of expression" just as much as we in the US do. But if they happen to cherish, or fear, a few of their own local values like Royal Family veneration or political memories more, can't room be made for that?

"Globalization" does not have to be "Americanization" -- not yet -- not until "Empire" (4), and / or not until the decision that the whole world in fact has become the same has been made, hopefully by all of us.

 

Have a nice summer. Stay offline -- read a book -- a novel. And try to avoid France in football (the round kind) season... noisy...

 

 

Footnotes: