French Intellectuals Contemplate the Web

Last month I was invited to participate in a public debate at the new high-tech campus of Paris VIII in Montreuil. The subject, believe it or not, was formulated as the following question: “Internet: Faut-il brûler ou le développer?” Much more interesting than the sluggish volley of comments was the question itself. Discussing whether the Internet and its spectacular Web should be destroyed or developed revealed a lot not only about the French ambivalence toward the Net, but also about the larger difference between French and American societies in terms of control.

Everyone by now knows that no one owns the Internet. There is no central ministry regulating the beast, no board of trustees voting on policy and no single entity – public or private – hovering over the control panels in Houston or The Hague ready to turn the thing off if we aren’t responsible. So how, even in jest, could the French hope to burn it or turn it off or regulate it or control it? The question implies a desire to be able to do so, or perhaps more aptly, a discomfort with the knowledge that it can’t be controlled. The Internet, unless access is filtered as in Singapore or China, cannot exist in strictly French terms or those of any one national interest or culture. It insists on an openness that comes closer to the American model of freedom than the French one. C’est-à-dire, this nation of ubiquitous controls and contrôleurs is faced with the prospect of lost control, and the guys holding the reins on everything else here are kind of edgy.

Anyone who has spent more than two weeks in France knows just how centralized its network of administrative tentacles is. Every administrative measure at some point originated in a directive in an office somewhere in Paris. L’état and its national policies are omnipresent and the people expect this presence. National policy dictates everything from the content of nursery schooling in Nice to the number of hours a taxi driver can sit behind the wheel in Lille.

Everywhere you turn, control is the issue. One gets stopped in the Métro by contrôleurs, the police stop your car for contrôle to see if you and your vehicle are en règle. Schoolchildren don’t have tests and quizzes, they are subject to contrôle. Whereas only 4 percent of tax returns submitted by Americans are double-checked by the IRS each year, here everyone’s return is calculated and controlled by the Fisc.

Along comes the Internet and the French are caught between two obsessive desires: to be out-in-front world leaders (and telecommunications is a favorite theme), and to run their own show (in other words, control the stage and the players). The Internet thus poses a psychic problem for the French. They’d like to run it, and they can’t. It’s a struggle between the individual and the state, and the more individuals want to act individually, the less secure the holders of power here feel.

One Web developer in Paris recently told me that only three computers at the Sorbonne were hooked up to the Web and they were kept under lock and key. Elsewhere university students in France complain about not being able to log on from campus. University administrators seem not to want students in general to have full access to that world of limitless, borderless, unregulated, uncontrollable flow of information and movement, and are trying to keep the Internet lassoed to the computer scientists, an idea as absurd as saying that telephone use is primarily for communications majors. Open the on-line door in France, they think, and students may challenge the role of universities. In America, the university that shuts that door is out of business. In France, the Internet is ultimately a political issue. In America, it’s commercial. The relationship between state and citizen in both countries is at the heart of the issue. That’s the French malaise. France is a state; America is a way of living.

Have you ever realized that half of life in France is conducted as a precaution in case of contrôle? Fear of consequences rates high as a reason for doing or not doing things in France. Steer away from the CRS, get a stamped receipt, pay your phone bill on time. En cas de contrôle, it’s going to cost you. In Paris, contrôleurs lurk everywhere, in green-suited herds in the Métro, at dragnet scouting posts along the axes rouges and the limits of the city. Under every facture. Behind guichets in post offices. The state is ready at any moment to fine you for being wrong, so you’d better be right. Keep in line, or at least keep your butt covered, en cas de contrôle.

I heard myself repeat this phrase the other day, “en cas de contrôle,” and it sent me into an existential funk. I hadn’t realized how easy it was to become conservative and cautious, but it happens as one burrows deeper into daily French life. I didn’t want to become conservative or hesitant or reticent or discreet, but the passerelle from groovy outsider hanging out in Paris to pragmatic insider residing in Paris leads down this path. The naive American newcomer, often entrepreneur, races out into daily life and wings it, saying yes, signing deals, selling things before he or she even buys them. Making positive waves is the way to be judged and rewarded in American culture, whereas avoiding floods and calming the waters are the way to gain merit in France.

After you hear “en cas de contrôle” a few thousand times you begin scratching your head and wondering if you’d better not start changing your ways. Maybe they’re right; Europe has successfully been around a lot longer than Atlanta or Seattle or IBM. You can hear the control mechanisms in the voices and acts of citizens, officials and procedures. Bookkeepers scold and scorn. Jurists warn. Administrators threaten. Employees refuse. Police fine. Control is a sacred concept in the French mind set, and its foreignness is evident to expatriates less comfortable with a society that starts with its brakes on and slowly lets up its foot as a means of creating motion.

The accountants are always saying “en cas de contrôle,” hinting about the Fisc or Trésor Public, France’s boogie man. And it seems like half of all French functionaries are contrôleurs and half of the contrôleurs in France are hired to contrôle the other contrôleurs. The more controls, the safer the society, the greater the stability, the unstated civic philosophy has it. What is this obsession with control anyway?

Understanding the French phenomenon helps Anglo-Americans understand to what degree their societies are out of control. Listening to the pre-election presidential debates last month led voters to the conclusion that in America, for example, the central government is not in control and the nation’s leaders are terrified of being perceived as authorities who act in controlling ways. American politicians keep passing the message to the people: We just work for you. Ce n’est pas français, ça.

It’s true that Americans don’t like control or to be controlled. We see our lives here as an expression of even greater freedom. We like to write checks and make credit card charges beyond our means without anyone telling us to be careful, we like to test the boundaries and then go beyond them. And if we choose not to drive fast it’s because we ourselves decide that it is better to care about safety or the health of our car, not because we’re afraid of being controlled. Americans in Paris, in any case, enjoy the tension between the two extremes. And nothing points out the extremes more poignantly than our unburnable friend and foe, the Internet.


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