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La France Contre Google

What really gives the Gauls the heebie-jeebies is their sense that we can turn everything -- no matter what -- into one American vision. They worry, then, that a repository of anything dear to their heritage will be delivered to them packaged by our finest branding minds. That, said one cultural affairs expert, runs contrary to their notion of a world framed in many different ways.

France and other European nations want to recognize "plural worlds with plural points of view," said Houman Samadi, cultural assistant at the Washington, D.C., chapter of Alliance Francaise, a group dedicated to promoting French culture abroad.

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But is Google's plan to index the world's libraries really a threat to French culture? Reading the fine print of the Google library effort, the company promises to protect users' privacy and makes clear that it's not going to profit from contextual links it will provide to new and used booksellers alongside the search returns.

And the whole worry that Google will somehow present only the American lens on searches seems misplaced as well. The company already bends over more than backwards to allow people to tailor their search results by language (104 languages so far). And Google continues to add more, announcing last month that it had added Romansch, the fourth language of Switzerland that's spoken by two people (yes, I know it's more than that, but not much more).

But Samadi does make an important point. What happens when the keys to a nation's patrimony are controlled by a private company rather than a government elected by the people? That's a good question, and Google hasn't called back yet with a comment.

Meanwhile, President Chirac has called on Germany, Italy and Britain to help develop a European search library that would presumably present a decidedly non-American "mirror" of the continent's libraries. So far, though, it looks like the French are fighting a unilateral war. Their biggest Euro-ally, Germany, doesn't seem to fear the Google project, said Heribert Uschtrin, director of the Goethe Institut's Washington, D.C. office.

"The vast majority of [Germans] who comment on these things are not alarmed by any means in the way that the French are," he said. "It's just something that happens."

Uschtrin says the real question lies elsewhere. What translation will greet you when you enter a search for a particular author? Or will it be in the original language? What result will come first? Will it be the right one? How can you determine that something important won't be left to search result #502 on page 43?

Those, he said, are the questions that Google should be thinking of.

That mentality tends to reflect the difference in German and French attitudes toward cultural mixing. Germans, in my anecdotal experience, tend to blend in all sorts of American influences into their language, clothes, you name it; nevertheless, they seem to know that the German language isn't about to sink under an English tide.

In France, on the other hand, people read articles en ligne, using moteurs de recherche instead of search engines. It's part of a conscious effort to stave off what is seen as an erosion contributing to the slow death of Gallic culture.

It's true that far more people in the world speak English than French, but French remains the first and second language of millions upon millions of people. As more of them go online, they will want French-language options. Google and other search engines, regardless of their country of origin, offer those. Furthermore, France already contains amazing online collections of information through its National Library (despite the site's difficult navigation). It wouldn't hurt for France to pool those resources with other countries, but why not give the world's Internautes (that's what the French call Web surfers) what we all want -- One-stop shopping.

Convenience is what drives our online decisions, and if someone is going to build a searchable database of the world's libraries, we'll want it to contain the widest possible set of data in as many language as we can get, not just French, and not just some sort of pan-European Union, anti-American collection of libraries.

And on a quick tangent: What is wrong with adding a little American to the mix? France has always warmed to America's artists who went into voluntary exile from James Baldwin to Gertrude Stein. And plenty of its cinema and music legends, such as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Delon and Serge Gainsbourg, have benefitted by a splash of Uncle Sam in their work. Godard in particular might fall prey to fatal ennui if he didn't have America to kick around.

Cultures cross-fertilize, that's just how it is. Modern American film-noir owes its existence to French film-noir, which in turn would have been nothing without all the great American directors who pioneered that look and feel just after World War II. That's not cultural imperialism, it's an exchange program. That's what it's really all about.

washingtonpost.com's travel budget won't take me to France for some independent research, but I would guess that the French people won't be so quick to join this war. Defending the language against foreign incursion is an avowed mission of the French government, but the people guard it just fine by speaking it every day, even if English and American bon mots parachute in behind the lines.

So maybe the best word is one that is more or less the same in English and other Western European languages, one that Chirac will understand -- capitulate. That seems to be what Jeanneney's very own Bibliotheque Nationale has already decided; the library Web site offers Google as a search engine option.

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