La France Contre Google

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; 8:00 AM

France declared war on the United States three weeks ago.

You didn't notice? Clearly, you're not French.

This war is being fought against one of America's greatest exports. Not rock 'n roll. Not McDonald's or the Disney Co. This time it's Google that the French have in their crosshairs.

Jean-Noel Jeanneney, president of France's Bibliotheque Nationale, or National Library, declared last month that Google's project to create a searchable online database of the world's books constitutes the sunrise of an American hegemony over information and literature.

Jeanneney's call to arms rattled French President Jacques Chirac's saber. Along with French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, announced on March 17 that France would study ways for the European community to embark on a similar project so as to counter Google's thrust into the heartland of Euro-culture.

"A vast movement of digitalisation of knowledge is underway across the world. With the wealth of their exceptional cultural heritage, France and Europe must play a decisive part," Chirac said, according to an English translation of his remarks by the Agence France-Presse newswire. "It is a fundamental challenge for the spread of knowledge and the development of cultural diversity." He called upon Britain, Spain and Germany to contribute to the project.

Jeanneney, in an article carried in Le Monde, professed that there's not really any hostility intended toward Google. Instead, it's just an attempt to produce an equally viable point of view -- one that reflects European sensibilities rather than Google's "American mirror."

But this is a war nonetheless. Le Monde characterized it as such in the same paragraph in which it noted Chirac's tendency to vilify the "Anglo-Saxon culture" and its (and "its" here should really be read as "the United States'") habit of eclipsing others.

The news might strike some readers as deja vu, and not just because French fears of American cultural imperialism seem to spring up every couple of years. Chirac's remarks came up almost a month ago, but the news was largely restricted to the eyes of people who spend their time with their noses lost in the pages of Liberation and Le Figaro.

France's desire to maintain ownership over some of the world's cultural real estate is understandable. The United States' strongest export is not democracy. What it really excels at is getting people of the world -- no matter how much they can't stand our tourists, our foreign policy and our simultaneous violence and prudery -- to swallow our soda, our sports stars and our entertainment. We kill them with the Ugly American routine, but not before we get them hooked on our quality products.

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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