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  • French Groups Sue to Bar
    English-Only Internet Sites

    By Anne Swardson
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, December 24, 1996; Page A01

    PARIS—Officials in the United States and many other countries worry about what the Internet says, whether material on it is obscene or otherwise inappropriate.

    In France, the worry is over what language the Internet speaks. When it doesn't speak French, that is.

    In the latest effort to make the Internet French-friendly, the guardians of the French language are suing the American sponsors of an English-only site on the World Wide Web. Reason: The material on it is not also available in French.

    The suit, brought by two private groups, apparently is the first legal challenge to the Internet brought on the basis of language. It cites a 1994 law that forbids the sale of "goods and services" here in any single language other than French.

    The lawsuit touches more than the long-standing French desire to preserve this land's mother tongue. It also speaks to how a nation dominated by a strong central government can accommodate the anarchic, entrepreneurial nature of the Internet. More than many nations, France is striving to keep up with new technology while preserving its centuries-old culture.

    "The stakes are clear," French President Jacques Chirac said, opening a conference on the French language and new technologies in May. "If, in the new media, our language, our programs, our creations are not strongly present, the young generation of our country will be economically and culturally marginalized."

    Estimates are that 90 percent of the communication on the Internet today is in English. Even by the standards of non-English-speaking countries, France is largely off-line. Some 490,000 computers here are connected to the Internet, 370,000 at places of business and 120,000 at home. In the United States, with five times the population of France, the number of adults using Internet services in September was estimated at 23 million.

    An overwhelming proportion of services offered on the Internet is in English. A random Internet search for the term "Napoleon," for instance, turned up 901 references. Of the first 200, only one was in French. A few were in German or Spanish, the rest in English.

    A reason often given for France's go-slow approach to the Internet: The country already has its own on-line service. Some 6.5 million households here are connected to the Minitel, the squatty little terminal provided free by the phone company for 15 years. With the Minitel, people can look up phone numbers, check air or train schedules and make reservations, shop and exchange e-mail. It is low-tech, but it provides many of the services for which people in other countries purchase personal computers.

    Still, enhancing France on the Internet is a high governmental priority. In October, Prime Minister Alain Juppe started up his own site on the World Wide Web.

    Internauts, as Web surfers are known here, can lookat pictures of the lavish gardens of the Matignon, Juppe's residence and office; scan video clips of Juppe walking on the beach and talking with Chirac; and read a list of his government's accomplishments. Portions of the site are available in English, German and Spanish, as well as French. Address:

    http://www.premier-ministre.gouv.fr

    The government's position has evolved since 1994, when then-Culture Minister Jacques Toubon said of the Internet that France is "menaced by a new form of colonialism. The United States is in the process of taking the dominant position. If we do nothing, it will be too late. We will be colonized."

    Toubon, as it happens, sponsored the law being invoked against the English-language Web site. At the time, it was aimed largely at products, leading, for instance, to a name change from Walkman to balladeur.

    But it now is being invoked against a France-based branch of Georgia Tech. The Atlanta university's campus in Metz, in the Lorraine region of eastern France, has about 60 students and the site provides information on registration, course material, research possibilities and background. All is in English only, except for the instructions on how to drive there, which are in both French and English.

    The courses are taught in English, the students are mostly American and the professors rotate in and out from Atlanta.

    "The curriculum is the curriculum of an American university; the students are all Georgia Tech students," said Hans Puttgen, director of Georgia Tech Lorraine.

    In a telephone interview, three Georgia Tech Lorraine electrical-engineering students, two American and one French, explained why they disagree with the suit. Translating the site's information into French is fine and they hope it can be done soon, they said, but the law should not be invoked to require such a translation.

    Bruce Johnson, 28, pointed out that the Internet "is nonlocalized. The site could be anywhere. Besides, if people are really interested in coming to school here, they'd have to learn English."

    Speaking in good French learned mostly during his 15 months at Georgia Tech Lorraine, Johnson said: "In addition, the school here is an exchange program. It might be a good idea to have the site in French also as an expression of good will."

    The French student, Frederique Cesbron, 27, said the lawsuit "does not give a good image of France. This is an American school. To go here, you are obliged to know English. The students come from a lot of countries; English is the official language."

    And Michael Mayercik, 27, a native of Atlanta, said: "Being an American, I'm all for freedom of speech. To a certain extent, forcing regulation on the Internet is wrong."

    The site was discovered by members of an association called Defense of the French Language, who normally spend their time checking out restaurant menus and product labels. It is not the first action brought under the 1994 law: The French post office was sued for calling its courier service Skypack (according to press reports, the post office won) and the Walt Disney Co. had to add French to the labels on products sold at its store on the Champs-Elysees.

    This is the first legal action over French on-line, however, and thus stands to set a precedent in the trial, which begins in January.

    Marceau Dechamps, administrator of the French-defense association bringing the suit, said in a telephone interview that the use of English and other foreign languages on the Net is not the real issue.

    "Whether [the site] is in English, Chinese or Russian is no problem," he said. "The problem is that it is not also in French. We are not against English, we are for the French language. We are in France, after all." In fact, commercial on-line services in the United States have been criticized for allowing only English in all but foreign-language discussion groups. Earlier this year, America Online rescinded its English-only policy after it angered Spanish-speaking users commenting on soccer games by banning their messages if they were not in English. That dispute involved only the internal policies of AOL, however, not the laws of a nation.

    In the French lawsuit, the key question is whether the Internet is a forum for private conversation or a public place. Under the 1994 law, such public communications as advertising and restaurant menus must be in French, and if they are also translated it must be into more than one language, to avoid, Dechamps said, France becoming a bilingual country.

    To Marc Bonnaut, administrator of the other group bringing the suit, the Future of the French Language, the law is designed to protect consumers. If a French speaker wants to learn about Georgia Tech's Lorraine program, he said, that information should be available in the native language.

    "If there is a German cafe in Paris and only Germans come to it, the cafe still has to have a French-language menu," he said.

    Puttgen, head of Georgia Tech Lorraine, pointed out that the school, which teaches graduate students, also does research under grants for French and other European firms, and teaches engineers from the local community and elsewhere in France under its continuing education program.

    "We are heavily integrated with the local community" in Metz, Puttgen said. "I speak French, my deputy is French, the president of our association is French. We are a French organization to all extent and purposes."

    Except the one that counts, apparently.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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