While endorsing the presentation of the information society's challenges and issues which was proposed by the Théry report, the French government did not adopt the scheme for action that it suggested. In contrast with previous policies related to new communication and information technologies (such as videotex and cable TV), the strategy for IS designed at the governmental council of October 27 1994 does not rest on a "great plan", with clear and quantitative objectives, a central role prescribed to the public telecommunications operator, and a binding schedule.
Instead, the French government has called for private initiatives under a trials process. As the Director General for Industrial Strategy, Didier Lombard, put it: "We have bridled our colbertist instinct11". The role of the government has been limited to:
· the adaptation of the regulatory framework. The aim is to allow more competition while maintaining basic principles such as universal service, the protection of privacy or social cohesion.
· the stimulation of new markets and services. Public administrations are expected to launch applications which will create a virtuous circle for IS to develop.
the organization of a public debate on the stakes of IS. This debate will probably primarily aim at the promotion of the information society12. It is doubtful that it deals with the social impact of IS: research programs on this topic have not been engaged as it was the case at the beginning of the videotex plan.
Overall, the French strategy for IS illustrates a shift in the conception of the government's role. The government is expected to act as a conductor which gives political impetus to IS, mobilizes actors and creates favorable conditions for them in adjusting regulations. This conception mirrors the plan for action designed by the European commission (see table 2), while being more limited with respect to public awareness campaigns and support to research and development activities. It is a modest and flexible state13, no longer a dirigist state. This move from dirigism to pragmatism can be explained by structural and conjunctural factors:
· the liberal stance of the government, which is based both on economic and political considerations. Whereas a natural monopoly used to exist, technological change has made it financially possible the diversification of networks and operators. In a democratic society, the free choice of the carrier is intimately linked to the freedom of speech and creation14 .
· the cable plan syndrome. Despite huge investments, the cable plan has had disappointing results. Almost 15 years after its launch, only 6 million homes are passed and only 1,6 million actually subscribe to cable TV services. This failure has frequently been attributed to the dirigism of public authorities, which initially imposed unrealistic technical options and a too constraining regulatory framework15.
· the lack of public resources. As the State budget deficit is increasing, it is difficult for the government to devote large amounts of money to projects such as IS. In a period of economic crisis and with around 3,5 million unemployed people, it appears more important to prioritize direct actions on jobs.
· the reluctance of France Télécom to play a central and instrumental role in IS.As we will develop later, the public operator has anticipated the liberalization of French telecommunications. It does not want to be committed to projects which could hamper its future profitability.
[Insert Table 2 here.]
The launching of trials
In November 1994, a call for trials proposals was issued by the French government. The call was purposely open to any kind of proposals from a technical and commercial point of view. The main criteria for selection were the "economic, technical, industrial and financial viability" of projects.
On February 28 1995, a first roster of 49 projects was selected out of 635 proposals. While 81 projects were definitely rejected, it was decided that another 218 will require technical, financial or regulatory changes and will be reviewed again in six months. Amongst those projects where those of the French cable operators Générale des Eaux and Lyonnaise des Eaux, which planned to offer telephone service over their cable networks. The government initially argued that such service could not be offered, even on a trial basis, without changing the French legislation, an objective that, at this time, the government did not want to meet ahead of the 1998 deadline. On October 16, 1995, another set of projects was selected by the government. An important shift occurred in this second round. projects submitted by cable-operators which were initially rejected, were this time approved.
Altogether, 170 projects were accepted, which represent a 4 billion FF investment. The government decided to devote 285 million FF in 1996 to finance up to 30% of these projects. It is excepted that complementary subsidies will come from European funds (especially the Telematics program). It is striking to note that France Télécom is involved in many of the selected trials either as the main developer or as a technical partner. Regional authorities are also present in many projects, with a special emphasis on educational and social services (see table 3).
[Insert Table 3 here.]
In parallel, the government announced that a bill will be introduced in the Parliament, in order to establish a specific regulatory framework for trials. This bill, which should be passed during the Spring 1996, will allow networks and services which are not permitted under current law such as telephony on cable TV networks, teleports facilities, MMDS. However, derogations will be limited in time (3 years) and in space. Ironically enough, at about the same time, the revamping of the audiovisual law and a new law to introduce competition in telecommunications in accordance with the 1998 European deadline are planned. Therefore, trials will not be really a way for public authorities to experiment and assess a new regulatory framework. They are a first step in a liberalizing move and will primarily serve to provide technical and commercial information to operators and service providers.