France’s Internet

“Minitel – the 2CV of Information Technology”

In the 1980s, France thought stole a lead on world telecommunications – with Minitel. Today, this clunky pre-Internet communications system has been blamed for the national phone company’s gigantic debt and the growth of a bizarre porn industry.

By the end of the 1960’s, only 60% of French households had a telephone (even tiny, concretised East Germany had 78% phone penetration). For a nation making its own atom bombs, it was unacceptable that France could be a third-world country when it came to communications The government ordered the Direction Générale des Télécommunications (DGT) to modernise the phone system, and, so Minitel was born. 

Minitel is technically a “dumb computer”, one of the dumbest. These are not anything recognisable as a PC. Instead, they provide minimal brain power and the graphic capacity of a typewriter. All you can really send and receive is text, mostly in black and white, and usually against a dark background. In 1983, the DGT, which had turned into France Télécom, distributed millions of these boxes free across France and suddenly it was bienvenue à le jet-age! 

Now the French could use the blender-sized box plugged into their phones to look up numbers, shop, make hotel reservations and get news, weather and stock reports, It was like France Télécom had combined the phone with a newspaper that didn’t have run photography– but more expensive. (It still is, the first three minutes of Minitel connection are free, then consumers pay a per-minute fee of 2 cents to €1).

Naturally, the French were cock-a-hoop at their new toy (bear in mind, the rest of the world was still marvelling at that other new breakthrough in communications, the fax) By the start of the 90s there were 6.5m Minitel terminals in France, 80% of them in private households. By 1996, there were an estimated 17m Minitel users in France, almost 30% of the population.

Its growth was all down to the popularity of Minitel’s chat services. At first, consumers began using the bottom line of a naval battle game to type simple messages to one another. The Minitel team recognised the potential and so constructed the Messageries Conviviales service – the first chat rooms. They soon accounted for about 20% of Minitel traffic. 

What the French were chatting was, naturally, sex. This led to the creation of Messageries roses or sex chat lines. These proliferated wildly with chat services springing up to service the entire spectrum of French sexuality which, according to Le Guide du Minitel (the Minitel directory), apparently includes never-ending multi-user, painstakingly typed orgies (contributing to the explosive growth in Mavis Beacon and YESolo touch-typing courses across France in the 1990s) to chatrooms specifically for “les types qui adorent les fromages” (men who love cheese – presumably not in the platonic sense).

In 1985, heavy traffic generated by these sex lines caused what remains the system's only large-scale crash, drawing the attention of the national news media. At its peak, the Messageries roses represented about four million hours traffic a month though this has now dropped to about 1.5 million hours per month. "And in my opinion, about a million of those hours every month are through the chat services that create ‘false persons’”, comments Henri de Maublanc, a former France Télécom executive. These are the animateurs that the sex-chat services hired to keep conversations going. Almost all of them being young men whose job is to pretend they are young women. 

The French don’t seem to care. In October 1991, as politicians raged against the ‘moral pollution of Minitel, a Harris France opinion poll showed that 89% of the French people polled were against banning the Messageries roses.

Minitel use peaked in 1997, with about 6.3 million free terminals in use. Today, around 4 million terminals are still used although traffic has been falling 20% a year since 1998. The slow, clunky network faces almost inevitable death by Internet, its faster, freer and even more sex-stuffed rival.

That said, there is nothing that the French enjoy more than a losing battle (as if they had any choice). To the exorbitant cost of launching Minitel is now added the cost of successive relaunches – and an attempt to integrate Minitel’s black-and-white, text-only services onto the Internet. All this has contributed to France Telecom’s current debt levels of $70 billion.

The English language flavour of the Internet is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the Trojan donkey from France. The French are very aware that only 2% of all internet data is in their home tongue. In 1997, prime minister Lionel Jospin recognised the truth when he complained bitterly that the huge investment of national pride in Minitel, “this defiantly French invention”, was retarding his country’s commercial presence on the Web. 

The brown box still holds a place of choice in more than 20 million French households But while it still provides a revenue stream for cash-strapped France Télécom, Minitel is likely to rattle on for many years, derided and outdated, but beloved and very French, like that other redoubtable zombie, the 2CV.


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