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World Perspective | TECHNOLOGY

France Goes Global, Favoring Internet Over Its Own Minitel

January 30, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — The French military, looking for a few good men and women, has begun headhunting on the Internet at http://www.defense.gouv.fr

"Our site is going to constitute an essential aid tool for recruitment," army Capt. Pascal Lebraun, who is in charge of the venture, confidently predicted this week. Before the end of 1998, young people who want to join an army, navy and air force in the throes of professionalization will be able to send their resumes via e-mail. The Defense Ministry site will be accessible to U.S. users sometime this year.

Hold on a minute--French admirals and generals embracing a computer network that has been taken for an American cultural invader and a foreign threat to France's home-grown but rudimentary on-line system, the Minitel? Yes.

In a major policy shift humbling to France's technological ambitions, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin kicked off a national campaign this month to put France on the Web (or, in French, la Toile). To help foster an "information society" in France, all governmental services now available on Minitel should be accessible on the Net by 1999. All agencies dealing with the public must have an e-mail address by 2000.

"The Internet must become the norm for the administration," Jospin said, announcing that the Net is also to become the electronic channel used by government ministries and other offices to communicate with each another.

Meanwhile, the postal service will equip 1,000 of its outlets with Internet terminals, and more than $80 million worth of computer hardware will be installed in public schools to educate a new generation of French Internauts. To woo students at the elite National School of Administration, some of whom prefer reading Proust to learning how to use a PC, a bargain-basement deal is being offered: a Compaq laptop for about half the normal price.

In opting for the Net, Jospin is shunning patriotic considerations in favor of plugging France into a fast-spreading planetary network. Up to 1.2 million French citizens are already connected, and the number is rising quickly. But the country lags behind many other industrial nations, including Britain and Germany, where 2 million people in each country have e-mail addresses, and the United States, where more than 30 million are hooked up.

Until recently, the French had been touting the Minitel, first tested in 1981, as the basic building block of the new era of interconnection. There are now more than 6.5 million of the small-screen terminals in French homes, where they are used with the telephone to buy train tickets, scroll through telephone directories, search for romance or perform other tasks. But even the government had to admit that the terminals were no match for the Internet's fast-expanding capabilities and globe-girdling membership.

There is one irony in all this that troubles some French citizens. The Internet epitomizes decentralization and individualism. So does a government have any business being its champion? Gerard Dupuy, a Paris columnist, is worried that the Net's democratic anarchy will be subject to the "choke point" of bureaucracy.

Jospin may be the Internet's foremost advocate in France, but he probably won't be setting off into cyberspace any time soon. "I've got a computer on my desk," the Socialist leader said this month. "But recently, I haven't had much time to do much keyboarding."

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