Google à la française
Mar 31st 2005 | PARIS
From The Economist print edition
The latest French v English battle
IN THE dimly lit cyber-café at Sciences-Po, hot-house of the French elite, no Gauloise smoke fills the air, no dog-eared copies of Sartre lie on the tables. French students are doing what all students do: surfing the web via Google. Now President Jacques Chirac wants to stop this American cultural invasion by setting up a rival French search-engine. The idea was prompted by Google's plan to put online millions of texts from American and British university libraries. If English books are threatening to swamp cyberspace, Mr Chirac will not stand idly by.
He asked his culture minister, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, and Jean-Noël Jeanneney, head of France's Bibliothèque Nationale, to do the same for French texts—and create a home-grown search-engine to browse them. Why not let Google do the job? Its French version is used for 74% of internet searches in France. The answer is the vulgar criteria it uses to rank results. “I do not believe”, wrote Mr Donnedieu de Vabres in Le Monde, “that the only key to access our culture should be the automatic ranking by popularity, which has been behind Google's success.”
This is not the first time Google has met French resistance. A court has upheld a ruling against it, in a lawsuit brought by two firms that claimed its display of rival sponsored links (Google's chief source of revenues) constituted trademark counterfeiting. The French state news agency, Agence France-Presse, has also filed suit against Google for copyright infringement.
Googlephobia is spreading. Mr Jeanneney has talked of the “risk of crushing domination by America in defining the view that future generations have of the world.” “I have nothing in particular against Google,” he told L'Express, a magazine. “I simply note that this commercial company is the expression of the American system, in which the law of the market is king.” Advertising muscle and consumer demand should not triumph over good taste and cultural sophistication.
The flaws in the French plan are obvious. If popularity cannot arbitrate, what will? Mr Jeanneney wants a “committee of experts”. He appears to be serious, though the supply of French-speaking experts, or experts speaking any language for that matter, would seem to be insufficient. And if advertising is not to pay, will the taxpayer? The plan mirrors another of Mr Chirac's pet projects: a CNN à la française. Over a year ago, stung by the power of English-speaking television news channels in the Iraq war, Mr Chirac promised to set up a French rival by the end of 2004. The project is bogged down by infighting.
France's desire to combat English, on the web or the airwaves, is understandable. Protecting France's tongue from its citizens' inclination to adopt English words is an ancient hobby of the ruling elite. The Académie Française was set up in 1635 to that end. Linguists devise translations of cyber-terms, such as arrosage (spam) or bogue (bug). Laws limit the use of English on TV—“Super Nanny” and “Star Academy” are current pests—and impose translations of English slogans in advertising. Treating the invasion of English as a market failure that must be corrected by the state may look clumsy. In France it is just business as usual.