Column: Minitel and the French Telecom Revolution

Last year France Telecom – now called Orange – finally pulled the plug on its antiquated information system called Minitel. This very French invention, which first appeared in 1981, had  been very popular. Consumers soon got used to the terminals at which they could interrogate databases (for example the telephone directory) and make use of services across a national network. At its peak in the 1990s Minitel had nine million users and generated an annual turnover of more than 800 million euros. Not bad for one country!

But despite a few attempts, Minitel never caught on outside of France and then ran head-on into the technological avalanche that was the internet and the World Wide Web.

Yet though the outside world now dismisses Minitel as just another typically clever but doomed Gallic attempt to be different, that’s not quite how it’s seen here in France. It is probably true, yes, that the widespread use of Minitel held back French adoption of the internet. It is certainly true that by the end of the 1990s France found itself worryingly short of personal computers both in the home and in small businesses compared with other Western countries. In September 1997 the prime minister Lionel Jospin felt obliged to urge his fellow countrymen and women to embrace the internet rather than the ‘technologically limited’ Minitel which he said ‘risks becoming a brake on the development of new and promising applications of information technology’.

Yet the Minitel era was far from being a wasted experience.  For one thing, it was on these terminals that millions of French people got their first taste of the brave new world of digital information. As journalist Raphaële Karayan wrote in l’Express magazine: ‘Minitel users started to create a culture of [internet] surfing on this brown substitute computer. In billing according to the length of time of communications, and no longer on their distances like the telephone, Minitel had already abolished distance.’

It was also via this system that a generation of young entrepreneurs both made their money and learnt how the ‘online’ world worked. ‘It’s Minitel that explains the success of the French internet,’ claims Henri de Maublanc, co-founder of the online florists Aquarelle. ‘It gave a technological culture to entrepreneurs and created a ecosystem that was favourable to the growth of start-ups.’

This perhaps explains why, though France was a slow adopter of the internet, it has since embraced it with huge enthusiasm, to the extent that much of French politics these days seems to be entirely conducted by Twitter.

The Minitel experience also highlighted, once again, the importance of the state in France when it comes to technological innovation and even in shaping consumer behaviour. Minitel was essentially a state-run project developed by the state monopoly forerunner of France Telecom, PTT. Its Transpac network won out in a contest for government funding over a rival network CYCLADES, developed by Louis Pouzin, which had similarities to the then-fledgling internet. And while the internet itself moved away from its Department of Defense roots in the United States and embraced a libertarian approach to access to, and freedom of, information, Minitel essentially remained a state-run enterprise offering concessions to private enterprises.

This should not come as a huge surprise. While in most Anglo-Saxon countries people probably hate the state just a little more than they love it, in France it is almost certainly the other way around. Minitel surely owes some of its early success to the fact that it came from the state (which also handed out free terminals) and was therefore trusted by the people.

This legacy of state involvement and the mentality that accompanies it have outlasted Minitel and linger still in France during the internet age. There are, it is true, internet advocacy groups, such as La Quadrature du Net, who defend a freedom of information online that is virtually taken for granted in countries such as the United States. But ranged against them are demands from French-based human rights groups and now the government itself for greater controls on freedom of speech on websites and social media. This follows the so-called ‘Twitter Affair’ last year when there was a rash of racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic Tweets emanating from France. ‘The internet must not be a lawless zone,’ said a government spokeswoman, while a Jewish student group eventually compelled Twitter to hand over to the authorities the IP addresses of those people who had made racist comments.

Ultimately any differences in the French approach to the internet come down to questions of history and culture. France has a long-standing and strict framework of laws governing media freedoms, a framework into which a state network such as Minitel fitted comfortably. But the internet…who controls that? Well, as far as the French are concerned, them. A senator and academic Esther Benbassa has now been asked by the government to come up with proposals for stronger supervision of freedom of speech on the internet in France. She believes that the French simply think differently from the Americans on this. ‘We were not brought up in the same way as they are in the United States,’ Benbassa told news website Mediapart. ‘Our children are not educated in this kind of freedom of expression. We haven’t learnt how to domesticate it as the Americans have done. That’s why we need to legislate.’

Most people in France would probably agree.

Michael Streeter
Michael Streeter is a writer and journalist based in France. 

Michael Streeter