France: The Sexy Computer


The French are falling in love with their computers—and through them

IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN hard to tell what the French will fall in love with next. Their latest passion is sending anonymous messages on a squat nine-inch computer terminal to people they have never met. Designed in 1978 as the world’s first electronic telephone directory, Minitel, which is distributed, free, to French telephone subscribers, today provides access to more than 4,500 consumer services twenty-four hours a day, revolutionizing business in a country in which home delivery is rare and few shops are open at night. But it is the French perception of Minitel as a passport to romance that has made France’s first high-tech addiction.

Though officials are reluctant to give precise figures, roughly half the connection hours on Minitel’s most popular network are to the more than 400 messageries—direct-dialogue services that, for many, are taking the place of confidante, confessor, psychiatrist, and lover. A user, protected by a pseudonym he or she chooses when signing on, sends a message to another “pseudo,” listed on the screen, or waits to receive one.

Those looking for more than understanding consult messageries roses, sexual smorgasbords with something for every taste. (In France le rose, or “pink,” refers to soft-core pornography.) Sextel, XTel, Désiropolis, Aphrodite, Aime-Moi Mimi, and Abélard et Héloïse advertise a selection of “Rambos, machos, Latin Lovers, Romeos, and Big Bad Wolves” for women, and “mermaids, man-eaters, Little Red Riding Hoods, and femmes fatales” for men. Pom, “the first encyclopedia of lovemaking,” hears confessions and takes orders for lingerie. Canal Gay, Gai Pied, Voice of the Paranoid, Masked Ball, and many others cater to male and female homosexuals, voyeurs, and groups given to sexual bizarrerie.

As the conversations build from friendly to flirtatious to seriously seductive, some pseudos exchange phone numbers; a few eventually meet. But many choose to remain behind their protective shields. In an age when physical contact is often associated with contamination, Minitel’s attraction is risk-free communication: the emotional equivalent of safe sex, conversation with a condom.

So many people have become addicted to these electronic singles bars and computer cafés, as they are called, that it is not uncommon for people to abandon human beings to run home to electronic rendezvous. The hunger for communication is even replacing the legendary French appetite for food— growing numbers of people are staying in their offices to “talk” on Minitels during lunchtime.

Adults are not the only ones who have become addicted to the Minitel. When a television call-in show asked children to answer questions by Minitel, instead of by telephone, five hundred responded, instead of the usual fifty. An amazed father wrote to Minitel Magazine to say that his four children didn’t want to take any of the regular vacation paraphernalia to Brittany this year; the only “toy” they wanted was the Minitel.

Yet few people openly admit to seeking romance on their Minitels. In bourgeois circles using them for social reasons is still slightly taboo, in the same category as placing a personal ad. Then, too, there is the feeling that the French, internationally acknowledged experts in the art of love, shouldn’t require the services of a machine—Real Frenchmen Don’t Need Minitel. But the minute one guest at a dinner party confesses that he has tried looking for love on his, others soon relax and admit that they have too.

THE LOVE AFFAIR between the normally technology-shy French and their new high-tech toy is one of the most unusual success stories in France since the Second World War. Last year Telecom, the government telecommunications agency, had revenues of more than one billion francs ($167 million) from Minitel, making France the world leader in videotex, the system by which one computer communicates with another; in French it is called télématique.

These days Georges Nahon, the managing director of Intelmatique, Telecom’s marketing arm, is eyeing the American market the way Tom eyes Jerry. A cartoon in Intelmatique magazine shows a tiny Minitel cooing “I love you" to an equally smitten American cowboy. In an office adorned with a gold-plated Minitel, the millionth manufactured, Nahon plies foreign journalists with tote bags that say I LOVE MINITEL and discusses “les chat lines” in fluent Franglais. (Minitel is “très user-friendly,” “un bon business”; the BBC Minitel service, begun in March, “un package: message plus news.”)

In recent months Nahon has spent much of his time studying “le breakup,” the deregulation of the American telephone industry, and his nemesis, Judge Harold Greene, the author of the ruling that the French consider to be the main obstacle to the conquest of America by Minitel. Lately, however, Nahon has had more to worry about than Judge Greene. A controversy over the sexually explicit use of Minitel is threatening to tarnish its carefully polished image.

Many people who have logged on to the messageries roses out of curiosity have been shocked by the obscene language and semi-pornographic graphics. Starting last summer, however, they no longer had to turn on Minitel to see women in provocative poses. Racy ads for Minitel loomed at them from subway corridors, newspaper kiosks, and some of France’s most illustrious historical monuments. In August a homosexual network promoting sex with children was brought to public attention. Then came the news that a woman in Nice had been tortured and raped by a man she had met on Minitel.

“MINITEL ROSE SCANDAL,” “MINITEL SEX MACHINE,” the headlines read. “A few are making fortunes preying on the sexual poverty of the many,” Le Monde moralized. “We thought the messageries roses were just acne,” François de Valence, the editor of Minitel Magazine, wrote. “They’re turning out to be smallpox.” Parisians joked that PTT no longer stood for Postes, Téléphone et Télégraph but had become “Prostitution Télématique et Téléphonique.” By December the mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, had received so many letters from Parisians complaining that they couldn’t go Christmas shopping without encountering technicolor genitalia that he ordered the most offensive posters taken down.

A special Commission Télématique was convened to decide whether existing laws on pornography apply to Minitel. But sessions for the most part resembled a town meeting discussing what to do about the flying saucer that landed on the village green. “A lot of time is spent laughing at the stories,” one member admitted. The PTT was quick to duck responsibility. “The messageries are more mental than physical,” Jean-Paul Maury, the head of Télématique services, says. “Two and a half million people use Minitel, and we don’t have two and a half million people meeting in corners.” Shifting blame to the private contractors who provide the software, he said, “Our role is to transport information, not to censor it. To blame us because somebody got raped is like blaming Gutenberg for pornography because he invented the printing press.”

Ultimate responsibility belonged to the courts, everyone decided. But even the courts are confused. “A 1939 law forbids public incitation to debauchery,” Monique Poignard, a judge assigned to the case, explains. “But are Minitel messages public or private? One-to-one messages and electronic mail are obviously private, but the personal ads and the forums where several people talk at once are public. We want the contractors to screen them. Some say it’s technically impossible. Others tell us it can be done. We aren’t sure whom to believe.”

The truth no one really wants to admit is that the messageries roses are making too much money for anyone to want to do much of anything about them. Selling sex is, after all, as French as tarte aux pommes. In the country that made the brothel a respectable social institution (in a typically Cartesian Catch-22, prostitution is legal but soliciting is not), anything goes as long as the government gets its cut. “Let’s face it,” one official says. “People are not going to run up ten-thousand-franc bills sending messages to their banks.”

A NATIONAL SEX NETWORK wasn’t exactly what the technocrats had in mind. Strongly influenced by a 1978 report on the computerization of France, which warned that the technophobic French, unless they rapidly became computer-friendly, would be left home making Camembert and coq au vin while the Americans and the Japanese fought it out in the microchip major leagues, Telecom officials came up with a plan to force the French to the keyboard.

The telephone book, which was expensive to compile and print, and 10 percent of which was out of date by the time it was published, would be replaced by an easy-to-use computer terminal linking users to an electronic directory. As consumer services were added to its repertoire, the French would become hooked on high tech, and France would be a step closer to a longstanding dream: a French-language satellite data bank that would break the worldwide on-line monopoly of English. (Reportedly, President François Mitterrand has complained about having to talk to machines in English.)

This was an ambitious plan, considering that in 1977 only a third of French homes had telephones. As late as 1973 France had ranked only twenty-second among industrialized nations in the number of telephone lines per capita, behind Spain, Greece, and Iceland—a situation said to have cost France two percent of its GNP, or $3.7 billion, in business that year.

But it was usually after the French got their telephones that their headaches began. As a form of communication, French telephones were only slightly less primitive than the tom-tom and often less effective. Half the calls in Paris regularly failed to go through. When they did, one had to expect that the dialogue might at any moment become a monologue. “Half of France is waiting for a telephone,” a member of the National Assembly once remarked. “The other half is waiting for a dial tone.”

Shocked by the state of French telecommunications when he returned to France in 1969, after working for a French firm in North America for twelve years, Jean-François Berry started France’s first consumer lobby, the Association Franchise des Utilisateurs du Téléphone et des Télécommunications (AFUTT), and began bombarding the government with graphs that showed just how far France had to go.

The French failure to invest in telecommunications was not an oversight. From its introduction in France, in the early 1900s, the telephone had had two image problems: it was considered an instrument of women’s liberation and of political subversion. “It acquired a risqué image because it was thought that women used it to carry on affairs behind their husbands’ backs,” Catherine Bertho, a historian at the Post Office Ministry, explains. “Belle Époque postcards showed the first call girls, holding telephones. The French adore hierarchy, and [the telephone] allowed one to bypass the hierarchy: social climbers had access without having first to leave their cards. It was also used to give orders to tradesmen, so anyone who jumped when a bell rang was acting like a servant.”

Charles de Gaulle, never one to jump when a bell rang, despised the intrusiveness of the telephone and would not permit one near him. By allowing French telecommunications to languish, he also followed a long-standing French tradition: government control of information.

Not until 1974, the first time in sixteen years that the Gaullists were out of power, did AFUTT’s embarrassing graphs hit home. Ordering the then Post Office Minister Gérard Théry to “get the French connected,” President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing allocated 100 billion francs ($17 billion) over five years to make the telephone a national priority. As a result, telecommunications made a greater leap in one decade than any sector of the economy had since the Second World War. France has 24 million telephone subscribers today, as compared with 10 million in 1977, and anyone who wants a telephone can have one within several days, for an installation fee of 250 francs ($42), a fourth of what it used to cost.

The one problem that remained was the telephone book, and Directory Inquiries, the notorious “12” (the French “411”), was little better. It was often five or ten minutes before an operator answered, and when one did, it was usually to berate the caller for not having the party’s address or middle initial. (I once tried to obtain the number of a hotel in rue des Beaux Arts called L’Hôtel. “We are in France, Madame,” the operator announced. “And in France the hotels have names. Hotel Crillon. Hotel Ritz. You see—names. Call me back when you find the name.”)

Enter Minitel! Not only does it find any number in France in seconds, but it does so when you give it an incorrect spelling or incomplete information. (As soon as I got mine, I typed in “L’Hôtel.”

Up came the number.) But superior service, officials knew, would not be enough to entice the French to use Minitel, let alone get them hooked. Aware that their thrifty compatriots would never pay for the machines, which cost 1,000 francs ($167) each to produce, Telecom decided to include them in the telephone subscription price—in effect giving them away. “It was an amazing thing to do,” Alain Minc, a co-author of the 1978 report, says. “Like giving away television sets in 1955.” Such unprecedented largesse got people’s attention. Henri IV had promised the French a chicken in every pot. Now there was to be a Minitel in every maison. Next, Telecom officials decided on an enticing pay-as-you-go policy. Unlike videotex users in other countries, the French pay no access or subscription fees. They are charged for the time they use—from $4 to $10 an hour, depending on the service—on their telephone bills.

The electronic telephone directory was an immediate hit. But aside from that the French, overinformed and underloved, like many of us, remained largely indifferent. Then, in October of 1981, pirates in Strasbourg hijacked the internal message system of a small videotex network started by Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, one of the few newspapers that had seen Minitel as an opportunity rather than a threat. They began sending each other messages, and within days connection time on the network tripled.

Fascinated, Michel Landaret, the computer specialist who had set up the system, spent weeks at his terminal watching what he calls “the verbal tennis matches.” (A jovial man, referred to as the “father of the messagerie”’ by the French press, Landaret recalls the day he spotted the first suggestive pseudo. It was “Peggy la Cochonne—Peggy the Pig,” he says with a grin.)

Communication, not information, was Minitel’s raison d’être, Landaret realized. He went to Paris to sell Telecom on the idea of a direct-dialogue service that would allow users to “talk” to each other. “They were scandalized,”Landaret says. “They said it would be a waste of time for people to ‘chat’ on Minitel.” Undeterred, Landaret returned to Strasbourg and created France’s first messagerie, Gretel, whose logo is a heart with fluttering eyelashes.

It wasn’t long before Gretel had revolutionized Strasbourg, a staid Alsatian town in France’s gloomy northeastern corner which is known as the home of the European Parliament and for its citizens’ lengthy silences. By the end of the first year the once taciturn Strasbourgeois had sent each other 18 million messages; Gretel was receiving 1,200 calls a day. The average “conversation” lasted an hour.

Those who had sneered began to see the messageries in a new light. First on the bandwagon was the press, which had seen Minitel as a rival and campaigned against it. Anxious to disarm the opposition, in November of 1984 Telecom accorded the press a virtual monopoly on 36.15, a network that includes the profitable messageries and is now known as le kiosk. As a result, far from being what Le Monde once called the “gravedigger of print,” Minitel soon put many newspapers, including two of Paris’s largest, into the black after years of financial chaos.

By June of 1985 the messageries were receiving so many calls that the network exploded, reducing its capacity substantially for more than a month. By 1986 le kiosk was generating 70 percent of the main traffic on Minitel and revenue had nearly quadrupled, from 286 million francs ($48 million) in 1985 to 822 million ($137 million). In the twelve-month period ending last March, traffic increased by 50 percent. Gretel had revenues of 1.5 million francs ($250,000) a month, two thirds of it from the directdialogue service. (The other third came from news and consumer services.)

THE FRENCH, IT seemed, were hooked. As messageries sprang up all over France, the French succumbed to a desire to explain it all. True rationalists, the French don’t just experience passion. They passionately analyze it, scrutinize it, assess it to excess. So many long-winded articles on the messageries soon appeared that one journalist challenged the intellectuals “to come off it and admit they are out for sex like everyone else.” Why, they wanted to know, had videotex been such a success only in France? Were the French more lonely, isolated, frustrated, repressed, or uptight than everybody else?

The answer, in many respects, seemed to be yes. The messageries are a response to a society that teaches people to be not only wary of strangers but also suspicious of friends, one in which a burden of rituals and rules regulates most activity. The first thing that children— and foreigners—learn is that there is one way to do things, the French way, comme il faut. Childhood in France is a neverending litany of “Don’t run, you’ll trip,” “Don’t play, you’ll get dirty,” “Don’t speak to someone unless you have been introduced.” (It is not uncommon for people who have worked together for years to address each other as Monsieur and Madame. Not for nothing was “It is forbidden to forbid” the most enduring slogan of the mass demonstrations of May, 1968.)

Such a rigid system has produced a nation of inhibited, self-conscious people, despite their image of dash and flair, whose reputation for sexual expertise is largely a myth. Romain Gary wrote in La Vie Devant Soi, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1975, “What we call being alive in our country is having your papers in order.” Sociologists considered it significant that France’s first messagerie bloomed in the emotional desert of Strasbourg, and they flocked there to study it. In 1983 Gretel became nationally famous when the French got a glimpse of love à la Strasbourgeoise in Minitel, Mon Amour, a television documentary produced by Eddy Cherky, a sociologist at France’s prestigious Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique. Viewers were as deeply fascinated by the adventures of Ulysse, Superman, Coeur d’Or, and La Fée aux Mille Yeux Miroirs (The Fairy with the Thousand Mirror Eyes) as they were by those of les Carringtons.

Ulysse is a university mathematics professor who, with his wife’s approval, corresponds platonically but passionately with Maldita, a woman he had never seen until they appeared on television together. Not all Strasbourgeois were as relaxed as Ulysse’s wife about their spouses’ new friends. Awoman incensed by the idea that her husband might be sending flirtatious messages to women while she was sitting in the same room logged on to a friend’s Minitel with a lascivious pseudonym. She was soon besieged by racy propositions, including one from her husband. He awoke the next day to find his wife gone and the Minitel on the pillow.

A man who suspected his wife of having an affair cut the Minitel wires. She spliced them. With the finesse of a cordon bleu he cut them into inch-long pieces, and then threw the Minitel out the window. “So many have gone out the window that we have stopped counting!” Michel Landaret says. “Put a Minitel in a bad marriage and it’s over.”(There is now a 3,060-franc penalty for “voluntary destruction” of a Minitel.)

As spouses quickly realize, Minitel relationships are no less real because the partners are invisible. Many Minitelistes are telling their new electronic pen pals things they have never told anyone else. Some, as a result, experience greater intimacy than they have with their longtime spouses.

One woman told her friends that she was leaving her husband for a “wonderful man” she had met on Minitel. When they asked what he looked like, she admitted she had never met him. Another woman, who got her Minitel the day her husband left her, told Cherky that she had learned more about life in one night at the keyboard than she had in twentyfive years of marriage.

“People feel liberated because they are no longer being labeled and judged by the usual criteria,” Jean-Pierre Talon, Landaret’s assistant, explains. “Old, young, black, white, rich, poor, Arab, Jew, none of it has any significance on Minitel. Suddenly you are communicating in a different dimension, one in which the normal rules of social intercourse are missing. Le look doesn’t count. It’s totally democratic! It cuts across all barriers. You can be talking to an eighty-year-old grandmother and have the feeling she is twenty-two, or a woman and be certain it’s a man. It’s as if you are communicating directly with a person’s soul.

“Before Minitel, everyone I met dressed like me, was educated like me, and thought like me. Minitel released me from this mental suburbia. One of the most interesting people I’ve met is a woman who drives a cart in a Heineken beer factory. When she talks about her job, it’s like listening to a Grand Prix driver! One day we met for a drink. She had on a lot of makeup. She looked cheap. I realized that without Minitel, I never would have spoken to her, because of her physical appearance.”

But Minitel’s opacity also has less fortunate consequences. A woman was about to break up her marriage to move in with a Minitel suitor who had sent her many gifts. She was stricken when she learned that the suitor was a woman.

Some people are devastated by the defection of an electronic soulmate the way they would be by the desertion of a spouse, Landaret has discovered. “A man who had just moved to Strasbourg knew no one but the pseudos he had met on Minitel. When he was out of town, someone took his pseudo and was rude to the others. When he came back, no one would send him any messages, and he killed himself.”

As the French are brought together by mutual interests and needs, networks are forming. They are something new in a country with little civic tradition, where people traditionally band together to fight against rather than for something. Strasbourg, like many French cities, now has Minitel support groups for single parents; the elderly; and people with cancer, multiple sclerosis, or AIDS; and dozens of hobby and sports “clubs.“

Talon told me a story that exemplifies the new sense of cooperation and concern that Minitel has engendered. “One woman who was worried because her daughter had not come home typed her description on Minitel. Twenty-five people saw it and went looking for her. They found her in a nightclub at five A.M. and sent her home.” A busy career woman got unexpected help when she encountered an eighteen-year-old longing to be given orders by a woman. “My apartment has never been so clean,” she told a French women’s magazine.

Another unexpected result is that Minitel, far from doing in the written word, has sparked a writing renaissance. Like Roxane in Cyrano de Bergerac, Minitelistes have no clue to each other’s identity or the sincerity of each other’s sentiments except what is put in writing. “There are no fingerprints, no witnesses, only masks at the ‘Masked Ball,’ which has become a carnival of words,” Le Monde commented.

“The ability to write is now a major factor in seduction,” Talon says. “Some people keep a dictionary beside the keyboard.” Others, far from the baleful eyes of the Academie Frangaise, which has kept the French language stagnant for years on the pretext of safeguarding its purity, are taking liberties with grammar and syntax to create a unique Minitel patois.

“Many people dream of writing, but where do they get a chance in their normal lives?” Talon says. “On Minitel people are discovering whole new personalities, defining themselves by new criteria. After a lifetime in a boring office many suddenly see themselves as artists!”

For some, who continue to write to each other on Minitel instead of talking on the telephone even after they have met, the medium is indeed the message. “We write things we could never say out loud,” one woman told Talon. “It’s easier to be honest.” People are not just writing love letters. The minute Landaret put a word-processing program on Gretel, it was deluged with everything from classical Alexandrine verse to imitation e.e. cummings. “One man wrote a 650-page book!” he says. “He broke the system. I couldn’t believe it.” When an elderly man asked for a program for fishermen, Landaret suggested that he come in and wuite it. “He didn’t think he could do it, but it was wonderful!” he recalls. “It was full of imaginative drawings. We still use it today.” Others began trying their hands at programming. As a result, Gretel has more than 600 programs. (Most messageries offer a dozen or so.) “It’s like an attic!” Landaret says. “We still don’t know who wrote many of them.”

Political messageries—even the French Communist Party is now on line—feature “graffiti” services and opinion polls that are giving the French a sense that their opinions matter. “After years of telling people what to think on television, they’re asking what they think,” Talon says. “It’s flattering. Minitel has given a lot of people the sense that they are being listened to for the first time.”

While Telecom officials have welcomed the enormous profits from the messageries, they are nervous about having so much revenue generated by what is essentially a fluke. If the messageries prove a fad, they are wondering, will the French someday abandon their Minitels the way they dump their dogs at the start of their summer vacations?

If they do, it will be not because of flagging passion but because of dwindling francs. Like all addictions, Minitel has its price. To many people in France, where the “play now, pay later” concept is far less common than it is in the United States, being given a Minitel is like being given a home video arcade and told they won’t have to pay for two months. Many go into shock when they get the bills for their billets-doux. Several have stormed the Telecom office, swearing they couldn’t have run up such high sums. The record, set by a single woman in Besançon, is 70,000 francs ($11,666) in a month. “She had to spend over five hundred hours on it, and there are only seven hundred and twenty hours in a month,” Landaret says.

The only solution for some has been to go cold turkey, but it’s not always that easy. One couple who returned their Minitel kept getting the same high bills; they discovered that their children had been plugging in a friend’s Minitel. Others have chosen to stay with the paper telephone book. But the question is, how long can people hold out?

The sheer number of public services now available on Minitel is making it increasingly difficult to live without. The Ministère des Finances has started a taxinformation service, the Ministère de la Santé answers questions about the baffling French social-security system, and the Ministère de I’Éducation Nationale gives same-day baccalaureat examination results and tutorials. In what is perhaps the ultimate consecration, the Catholic Church recently opened a service. “God on Minitel,” read the cover of Minitel Magazine.

People complain that railway information is now almost impossible to get by telephone, forcing them to make reservations by Minitel. Directory Inquiry plays a tape insolently informing callers that they would already have the number if they were using Minitel.

After waiting three years to see if Minitel would prove merely a passing fancy, Le Monde opened a service last September, with a twelve-page special section billing Minitel as its “plus beau bébé.” To prevent the baby from becoming an enfant terrible and to prove that there is life after sex on Minitel, it announced, its service would not include a messagerie rose. Its ads for “le Minitel intelligent” coyly boast that the service is for people interested in “LQ., pas cul.”(Cul, pronounced like the French letter q, means “derriere”—by extension, sex.) So far Le Monde is winning its wager. The newspaper is receiving 10,000 calls a day and has almost caught up to its rival, Libération, which has one of the most popular messageries. Connection time doubles whenever there is breaking news, such as last December’s train strike and student demonstrations. “It doesn’t bother us to go slowly,” Antoine Beaussant, the director of the paper’s télématique service, says. “We’re in for the long haul.”

In an editorial suggesting that the sexual shenanigans were merely a phase that would soon be over, France’s “good gray lady” commented drily, “If more French people know how to use a computer, so much the better. Passion has served its purpose.”

—Justine De Lacy