The Growing "Net" Worth of French
September 2007

For those Americans who cannot breathe without  someone to hate, France will always be a backward third world country, filled with convenient fodder for racist stereotyping.  The rest of us might actually experience an attitudinal shift from a dose of reality.  For instance, it is time to replace the 80s stereotypical  image of the the Frenchman in Paris hunched over his Minitel terminal keyboard, messaging or playing  an online game with someone in ... Now wait just a second here!!  I thought this time travel thing was supposed to catch the French in some kind of culturally quaint, if not luddite pass-time.  How could they be messaging and playing online games in the 80s? After all, it was not until the mid 90s that many of us in the US became thunderous warriors for primitive TDome.

It's time for "Net History 101".  We need to know something about the French and network computing. Plans for the Minitel system as a low-cost terminal associated with an Electronic Directory service, were announced by Gérard Thery, General Director for Telecommunications in February of 1979 and tested in Saint-Maio (ille-et-Vilaine) in July 1980.  By March of 1981, the French were putting a newspaper online, Le Parisien Libéré. though the formal launch of Minitel was 1982. By 1985, the French online gaming system, Funitel, was already averaging 100,000 of use per month.

Systran has been available on the French Minitel network since 1988.  Minitel had a reasonably intelligent search engine and message boards, could make train and plane reservations, check stock prices, do mail-order retail. In its heyday, he old Minitel system had over 14 million subscribers  (about a quarter of the French population) and 25 million users (43% of the French population) in the mid to late 1990s.  Connection rate at that time was stable at around 100 million per month with 150 million online telephone directory inquiries. France was the world's most wired nation. Of course, the Minitel model was not adopted elsewhere, in spite of its British Telecom partner, Prestel.

The Minitel technology did not have the desired expandability and the unit pricing was all wrong for customer bases used to how cable TV was done.  France, where many small business had grown up around Minitel, experienced its own dot-com bubble burst, and became temporarily isolated while they adapted. Because of the success of Minitel, and the attachment the French  had for it, France did not join the Internet revolution in the same way that other countries did. In the heyday of dialup connections the state-owned telecommunications industry was slow to create  a segway from the Minitel rates system, and could not make rates attractive enough to grow a solid customer base. During this period of adjustment, other areas of the Francophone world were not standing still. in 1998, Quebec, with less than 6% of the francophone population, hosted over 30% of the French language web content.

Don't count the French out yet. The number of French speakers logging on to the Internet grew by 200% between 2000 and 2005. In 2005, French language Internet content put French in third position after English and German. France is now cited among  "Superstars of the Mobile Internet" by the World Summit on the Information Society, because it is ranked second in the number of people who use their mobile phones (or mobile networks) to download entertainment, exchange picture messages and access the Internet. No surprise that the country which invented the smart card and revolutionized cellular communications with their GSM system, should become leaders in ultra-portable hand-held Internet evolution.  According to the comScore Networks Mobile Tracking Study (October 2006) as reported by the Center for Media Research, 28% of France's online population accesses the web from mobile phones. That is about 50% higher than the US. France is ahead of the US in another and very basic aspect of Internet use. In the latest stats from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation & Development (December 2006), France moved ahead of the U.S. in terms of broadband penetration.  This report indicates that five of the fourteen top countries for "broadband subscribers per 100 inhabitants" have French as an official language.  According to France's official ARCEP report, in the past two years, though the second quarter of 2007, increases in broadband subscriptions went up about 56%.  With over 16 000 wireless access points in France, it currently ranks sixth worldwide for the number of WiFi Hotspots.  In the summer of 2007, the city of Paris began executing a plan to set-up 400 free WiFi hot spots around a city which already ranks number one in Europe for its free WiFi hotspots. In 2005, at 29 hours and 43 minutes spent online per month for the average user, the French ranked third behind Australians and Brazilians in this category.  Current estimates run as high as 40 hours per month.

For a while, online Internet retail in France lagged many of the Internet-connected countries However, growth of online sales in France for 2005 was 44%.  2006 was also a big year for online sales in France, which, from 16,000+ points of sale (web sites), grew by over 33%, to 9.3 billion euros, according to the conserve  Benchmark Group study reported in an April 2007 issue  of L'Economiste. Ecommerce Digest estimates that in 2004, 14% of all French retail sales were by e-business, and estimates for 2007 are for continued online sales growth of 25%.

Online sales is not the only area where French businesses are making Internet strides. E-administrative services are evolving and increasingly used by a growing French online population. The third edition of the “ADELE barometer for administration services online” carried out by BVA for the ADAE agency in March 2005, showed that 25% of French people had already carried out administrative procedures via the Internet.  A 93% satisfaction rate, stated in the same survey is a sign of the efforts and ingenuity of French companies in using new technologies, and it should come as no surprise that France ranked third in the international “Performance of public services: new expectations, new experiences” survey in April 2005.

France's migration toward fiber-based broadband is a facilitator for  innovations in Internet delivered media. France has the most-advanced IPTV market today and the most IPTV subscribers of any country.  With over 2.6 million subscribing households, about 10 times the number in Britain, it is a leader in video-on-demand.  France was also first in Microsoft's IPTV rollout in 2006.  In Europe, The French are leaders when it comes to watching TV on the Web with 59 percent saying they view previews and episodes of their favorite shows online.

Continuing to look at French Internet uses, it is easy to see they are more passionate about blogs than we are.  In May of 2006 alone, 60% of French Internet users visited blogs, while the figure was about half that in the US.  In France, 52% of broadband connections involve voice-over-Internet protocol . The idea of unlimited telephony via Broadband seems to have caught on with technological innovations like Livebox, now the leading WiFi multiplay gateway in France, which passed the 2,000,000 user mark in April 2006. Since July 28, 2004, France, under the auspices of the "Association des Fournisseurs d'Accès", has had a charter for "Music and Internet" to facilitate the economy of legal distribution of digitally formatted music online, and the protection of its artistic creators.

A final note about network computing and its Minitel era: Minitel was popular not because the French fell in love with computing. Rather, it succeeded because there were no computing issues to deal with.  Even now, only a little over 60% of French households actually own person personal computers.  The French ISP Neuf Cegetel remembers how France responded to the simplicity of Minitel. They have developed a limited function personal mini-computer, about the size of a toaster, using a Linux operating system with a simple graphic user interface, which will be provided as part of their broadband service.  If they succeed, it will not only boost the French broadband subscription statistics, but it may also advance the status of open source computing and the possibility of commercially competitive Linux-based operating systems.

Other French-speaking areas of the world are embracing Internet culture.

Canada's technological infrastructure is second only to the U.S. among the G7, particularly strong in number of computers and number of Internet hosts per 1000 people. It was one of the first countries in the world to embrace high-speed Internet. ISOC Quebec has a prize-winning plan for achieving 95% Internet connectivity in Quebec by 2017. Because of Canada's bilingual status, French-language content is relatively high

In Africa, French speaking countries generally have a higher profile on the web and greater institutional connectivity than the non-French speaking countries. In Cameroun UNITAR and ORSTOM have collaborated in a joint project focusing on technical capacity building in Sub-Saharan francophone Africa. Of university web sites in Sub-Saharan Africa, 20 come up in French as their primary language. If you add in some North African countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, the number goes way up.  In some of the Francophone countries which had used Minitel, X.25 packet-switched based services (impractical in modern public Internet because of high-cost and traffic-based tariffs) are now used by banks and other large corporations requiring secure real-time low-volume data transactions such as credit card verification. In spite of very low wages, superstructure and other difficulties, Francophone African in countries like Sénégal, Morocco, and Bénin, well over 5% of the population were Internet users in 2005.

In a virtual cosmos of the Internet, where all languages share the same space, and where less than 30% of users are English speakers, other languages gain in importance. Naturally, the status of French on the Internet is going to be affected by the actual number of French speakers worldwide relative to the number of speakers in other languages. As we all know, arguments about the importance of a language based on raw demographic statistics have little validity, though even in this primitive statistic French is ranked sixth.   It is when we consider the number of countries where French is an important Internet access language, the connectivity growth, type and quality in French-speaking countries, the number of French-language web hosts, the presence of French in page translation applications, the usage patterns of French speakers and the rate of expansion into immerging Internet media such as IPTV and  wireless Internet from hand-held mobile devices, that we begin to understand the "net" worth of French.

TennesseeBob Peckham
University of Tennessee at Martin


Africa Links Directory - Internet World Stats

ARCEP Report  (High-speed Internet Observatory - 2nd Quarter 2007)

Canadian broadband ranking

comScore Reports Traffic to Leading French Sites in February

Ecommerce Statistics: Europe

France: Le commerce en ligne tiré par l’habillement (L'Economiste, 11/5/2007)

France caters to market for the most simple of computers

France Web Market Overview

Free Hotspots Expanding Around Paris

French administration goes online (France Now)

The French Read Blogs More Than Americans, Brits And Just About Everyone.

Global Reach - France

Global System for Mobile Communications

Internet en France (Wikipédia)

Minitel (Wikipedia)

Online Timeline (David Carlson, U. of Florida Media Lab)

Vive la High-Speed Internet!