Europäische Zeitgeschichte

French National Paths Within a Global Computing Market

In her book The radiance of France, Gabrielle Hecht has shown how France sought to carve out a distinctive role for itself by means of major technological projects (and especially nuclear power). She demonstrates how an American system was adapted in order to “make it French” and incorporate political and cultural issues. The same may be emphasized regarding computing in France: there was a desire to play a distinctive role in a market and field which were dominated by the USA. French leaders attempted to pursue a national and creative path, rather than focusing on adoption and appropriation. This chapter aims to shed light on some of the milestones and highlights of French policy by providing a technical, economic and political analysis of the co-construction of computer R&D and industry and the visions of the present and the future that accompanied it. These visions were often embedded in geopolitics and industrial strategies, but the foresight and imaginaries of decision-makers and engineers also played a role in these decades when it came to designing a route to the computerization of society, whether via educational uses or by means of online services and telematics.
Based on sources from the French National Institute for Research on Information Technology and Automation (INRIA) and reports from the country’s telecommunications authority as well as material from the press, radio and television and oral interviews, this chapter mostly adopts a top-down approach related to national plans and policies. Such an approach is relatively unusual in this book, as most authors have opted for a more user- or media-oriented analysis or a hybrid method combining several layers of understanding and both top-down and bottom-up perspectives. Although societal visions were debated, especially in the 1980s when Minitel and telematics were developing, and although the Plan Informatique pour Tous had a tangible influence on schools and was also highly visible in the media and society at large, our choice to focus on political, engineering and industrial visions aims to shed light on the role of pragmatism, negotiations, tensions and geopolitics in French policies. The latter have rarely been interpreted as “visions of the future” or imaginaries but they may encourage us to view the multiple plans and performative discourses adopted in France (and in other countries ) as useful mirrors (albeit sometimes offering a distorted reflection) that had a real influence on digital strategies.
The first part covers the period from the implementation of the Plan Calcul, which aimed to facilitate the development of national research and industry, and the debates over European cooperation to the end of the Plan Calcul. The second section looks at the period from the second half of the 1970s to the beginning of the 1990s, when French authorities and industry developed some highly original national projects such as Minitel and tried to “computerize society” in a French way. Although the interventionist approach pursued by a government that viewed proactive industrial policy as vital for independence and competitiveness was fiercely criticized at the time, and especially from the 1990s onwards, the withdrawal of the state and the siren calls of deregulation pointed, as we will demonstrate, to a loss of values, projects and even visions for the future, especially regarding a long-term geopolitical strategy for France.

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