National information infrastructure

ii. case studies in five countries

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ii. case studies in five countries


Thierry Vedel

Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques

Centre National de Recherche Scientifique

Joel West, Jason Dedrick, & Kenneth L. Kraemer

Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations

University of California, Irvine


Kuk-Hwan Jeong

National Computerization Agency


John Leslie King

Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations

University of California, Irvine



Poh-Kam Wong

Center for Management of Technology

National University of Singapore

Kenneth L. Kraemer & John Leslie King

Center for Research on Information Technology and Organizations

University of California, Irvine


Thierry Vedel


Is there a French vision, strategy, or policy for Information Superhighways (IS)?

The question may sound surprising as the French state has long demonstrated an inclination for high-tech ventures and a propensity to launch "grands projets." Yet, this kind of state entrepreneurship, often termed as "high-tech ," may be vanishing with IS1. Compared with previous actions for telematics, cable TV or HDTV, the first steps taken by the French government in the domain of IS appear somewhat modest: government restricts its role to accompany private initiatives. In this sense, the French policy for IS may indicate a smooth, though radical, shift in the government-industry relations, from dirigism to pragmatism.

It also seems that with respect to IS France has renounced to exhibit its "exception": the French policy for IS takes place within a frame designed at the European level and does not reveal any strong singularity. Most of the arguments put forward to justify the move in direction of the Information society replicate ideas or conceptions or schemes laid down in European reports. It is not certain however that the integration of France to the European union and the acceptance of the single market are fully achieved. While the current rhetoric around IS may illustrate France's apparent alignment on the global economy, IS implementation might rise new lines of fractures. In particular, the definition of universal service may reveal or catalyze social, cultural and political concerns, which so far have been not been dealt with by public authorities.

Background and Motivation: A Reactive Policy

A schedule linked to the international agenda for Information Superhighways

It is only in January 1994 that the IS topic was put on the political agenda by the minister of Communication, Alain Carignon. One month later, on February 22, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, commissioned Gérard Théry, who had been director general of telecommunications (i.e. head of France Télécom) from 1974 to 1981 and is known as the father of Minitel, to write a report on IS. Clearly enough, this move was a reaction to initiatives taken in the US - the NII policy of the Administration Clinton - or at the European Union level - especially the White paper on Growth, Competitiveness, Employment published in June 1993 by the Commission and the subsequent decision of the European Council in December 1993 to have a report prepared on the development of infrastructures in the sphere of information (the so-called Bangemann report on the Information society issued in June 1994).

Although a first draft of the Théry report was available in July 1994, it is only at the end of October 1994 that a policy for IS was designed. In addition to changes in the French government, this delay reflected internal conflicts such as the competition within the French government for the leadership of the IS policy, and the opposition of France Télécom to the Théry report. On October 27, 1994, an interministerial committee made public the French policy for IS. Along with the objective of gradually connecting all French people to IS by 2015, it was decided to launch trials. The deadline for the selection of these trials was set up in January 1995, so that the government could better devise its position in view of the Brussels G7 summit on IS.

A policy mainly constrained by external factors

The move of the French government toward IS was not primarily the result of internal pressures from the industry2, but rather stemmed from two types of factors:

· the development of IS in the US was perceived both as the sign that IS are the inevitable future of communications and as a threat. The French government traditionally fears the American domination of the information market, a market deemed not only as very profitable but as an essential part of the French identity. Not surprisingly, coming at the same time than difficult GATT negotiations and conflicts about the cultural exception, the Clinton-Gore NII revived old concerns about the protection of the French culture. As distinguished experts argued, if France had not an active policy for IS, French people would soon be obliged to get information through American data bases, as it is already the case on the Internet.3

· the European agenda toward a single market was another factor which led the French government to adopt a policy for IS. Under François Mitterrand's presidency, France has shown a constant commitment to the European unification, which changes in government have not altered When the White Paper was released, it was seen as just another step on the road to Europe. Its rationale and proposals were accepted without real discussions. That the development of trans-European networks was an essential piece to the making of a single market and would help to maintain growth, get competitive advantages and create jobs was almost seen as a truism. The political significance and the societal impact of such an orientation were not really taken into consideration4.. Moreover, the decision to fully liberalize the telecommunications market by January 1998 (see below) made it an obligation to upgrade infrastructures to limit penetration by foreign companies.

While external factors dominated, some internal considerations were also present in the French move toward IS. As in the US, although in a different fashion, IS are a new frontier, in the sense of a political program which serves to mobilize people toward a better future. A few months before the presidential election, the Prime Minister (and candidate to the election), Edouard Balladur described IS as follows:

"IS are maybe one of these stars which, if they do not give a meaning to the modern life, shape it in a different way. IS crystallize hopes and dreams which are already becoming real. Like the equipment programs of the 50s and 60s, like the new frontiers that many times humanity has sought to conquer, IS can rally enthusiasm, mobilize and bring together energies"5.

IS is a vague enough concept to accommodate various, and possibly conflicting, interests. As all new technologies, IS can be the object of flexible interpretations: different, meanings, uses patterns or social projects can be associated to IS6.

Overall, the French policy for IS is mainly reactive - and even defensive - and driven by economic and industrial considerations. In line with previous high tech developments (cable, satellites, videotex, TVHD), the main issue is not what people need and want, and what is the social utility of new infrastructures, but the place of French industry on the world market.

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