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Reporter's notebook: France embraces open source

March 8, 2000
Web posted at: 2:54 p.m. EST (1954 GMT)

PARIS (IDG) -- Boutons les Anglais hors de France! (Boot the English out of France!) A peculiar kind of double-think prevails in some aspects of French life these days.

For example, your correspondent, recently arrived here from his native England, loves his steak raw. He'd like to eat English beef which, despite bad press in the past, is considered perfectly healthy back home, having had no fresh cases of the infamous mad cow disease there for some years. In France, on the other hand, news bulletins last month reported another seven outbreaks of the disease.

Restaurants in Paris still proudly proclaim that, "for reasons of public health," they will serve only French beef. Cynics in England say that the only reason France continues to resist the importation of English meat is to protect its own livestock industry and its national farming culture.

The connection with the software industry -- in case you were wondering -- is one of protectionism.

Three French senators are seeking a ban on the use of proprietary software in government departments. Software in this category would include such standards of the U.S. software industry as Windows and Microsoft Office.

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In effect, senators Pierre Laffitte, Renˇ Trˇgou‘t and Guy Cabanel are exhorting their colleagues and civil servants in central and local government to throw away their copies of Windows 98 and Office 2000 and to switch to free software systems such as Linux instead. The three would only contemplate the use of proprietary operating systems and applications where no adequate open source alternative existed.

They presented a draft bill to this effect, proposition number 117 "to increase the use by the administration of the Internet and free software," to the Senate last December, but it has yet to be debated.

In their draft bill, the three senators claim that existing laws, by refusing to recognize electronic communications, are imposing a brake on progress. The state, they say, must set an example in its use of information technology, and especially the Internet, in conducting its affairs.

They lament the fact that the law currently opposes the use of electronic communications in such elementary processes such as the convening of official meetings, or the processing of planning applications for new construction, and call for a change. The state must equip itself with messaging and groupware applications: its processes must be Internet-enabled.

Messrs Laffitte, Trˇgou‘t and Cabanel also warn that the government must be careful not to be held hostage by foreign software companies: "To guarantee the continuing accessibility of data, to facilitate communication and to ensure citizens will always have open access to information, the state must not rely on the goodwill of software developers."

Instead, they say, the state should use systems for which the source code is publicly and freely available, guaranteeing that the software can continue to be developed.

Stopping the Redmond juggernaut in its tracks like this would have the happy side-effect of giving the French software industry a chance to shift into open-source gear and zoom off on the information superhighway.

There is something of a siege mentality about all this, found throughout the French administration. It even prompted officials at the Ministry of Finance's special commission on terminology, last month, to issue a decree that France's many thriving IT startups should no longer be described as such, but instead should be referred to as "jeunes pousses" -- young shoots, which, while perhaps overly poetic, at least follows on logically from the French term for a venture capitalist "incubator," the pˇpini¸re, or tree-nursery.

We Anglophones may take umbrage at this willful rejection of all that we have given France -- but at least we have, in a roundabout way, got our own back. One of the more popular films in Parisian cinemas at the moment retells the story of French folk-heroine Joan of Arc, who famously booted the English out of France. Pure patriotism, you might think -- but the soundtrack is in English.

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