Even when cafes and bars are combined with computers, the French show little enthusiasm. A "cyber-cafe" in the back of (le) Shop, a trendy clothing store where crowds of French teens smoke cigarettes as they try on sale items, yanked out its computers recently because no one used them. Across town, Le Web Bar drew only a handful of patrons on a recent weekend.
And if French teenagers aren't surfing the Internet, neither is another likely group, the students at the nation's universities. Few of them have Internet connections.
"There's no need for it," said Jacques Hilbey, 27, a philosophy student at the Sorbonne. "For most American people, it's a game more than a tool."
Fellow student Jerome Vidal-Lahti, shivering under the imposing statues of Louis Pasteur and Victor Hugo outside the school's library, agreed: "Maybe we just have other games in France and don't need the Internet. We like drinking wine, reading, going to cinema."
Cecile Feront, 22, who attended school in the United States before graduating from France's prestigious Institute for Political Science (President Jacques Chirac is among its alumni), said she lobbied for Internet access at the school and blames the centralized structure of the French education system for her defeat.
"In France, we have an elite culture, and because the Internet is not under the control of the authorities, they don't know how to manage it and they are afraid of it," Feront said. But she acknowledged that most of her colleagues "didn't see the point."
Vincent Gourdon, who teaches history at the Sorbonne, is opposed to the Internet at school, not because it takes control away from teachers, but because he believes that it gives students the illusion of knowledge without true understanding.
"They think they are going to study by using the Internet, but the question is not to find all the information, it is to think about it," Gourdon said. "With the Internet, there is no concentration on what you are doing. It's like TV. It gives the illusion of thinking, and in this, it is a danger."
Part of the rap on the Internet in France, indeed, is that it's anti-intellectual. Philosopher Paul Virilio denounced it as "disinformation" in Le Monde Diplomatique: "It has to do with some kind of choking of the senses, a loss of control over reason of sorts. Here lies a new and major risk for humanity stemming from multimedia and computers."
Christian Perrot, one of France's few Web devotees, speaks of Virilio and other Net naysayers through clenched teeth. "They have lost touch with reality," said Perrot, whose Nirvanet Web site, based at his home outside Paris, is a trove of multilingual information on cyber-culture and politics. "I don't think of Nirvanet as a French site. I don't need to say, 'Hello, look at me, I live in Paris, I eat baguettes.' It's a multicultural site, and what is wrong with that?"
Quite a bit, according to some government officials, who believe the Internet has the potential to overwhelm the French language. An estimated 85% of Internet sites are in English, while about 2% are in French.
Earlier this month, a group partially funded by the Culture Ministry went to court to press a Georgia Tech campus in eastern France to translate its Internet site into French, citing a 1994 law that bans advertising in any single language except French.
France has long limited imports of American television programs and subsidized its domestic film industry to counter the dominance of Hollywood; it would like to do something similar about the Internet.
After first trying a policy toward the Internet that one observer likened to "De Gaulle and NATO"--in reference to Charles de Gaulle's historic withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization so as to retain power through independence--the government now appears to be trying to put a French stamp on it. Even the Academie Francaise, guardian of French culture, is thinking of putting up a Web site.
But a general cynicism toward technology remains prevalent here. Even the editor of Planete Internet, the country's biggest Internet magazine, is uncomfortable talking up the technology.
"'We're not techno-enthusiasts," Jerome Thorel assured a visitor. Owned by French media giant Hachette, the magazine sells better in Quebec than it does in France, where circulation is 15,000 a month and falling.
"I think Wired works in the U.S. because there are so many techno-yuppies there," said Thorel of the boosterish American journal that chronicles high-tech culture. Pained that he often finds himself in the role of explaining the virtues of the Net to friends and neighbors when he would prefer to point out its flaws, Thorel said he thought there was a need to demystify the Internet here: "But it doesn't sell."