France has never had a love affair with computers or the Internet. Its tradition-bound culture doesn't value instantaneous communication and information the way techie-loving Americans do. Students at the nation's elite schools still write long compositions by hand, no PCs allowed; it's more elegant. There are even executives at a major French bank who refuse to have a PC in their office because it clashes with the 18th century decor. No wonder France's computer use is among the lowest among Western nations. But however painful, it's time for France to enter the 21st century.
PCs and the Internet offer France more than information technology. They offer a way out of economic stagnation. French students should be dreaming of creating their own companies, not of a plodding career as civil servants or corporate bureaucrats.
Paradoxically, France is great at technology. In the 1970s, it launched the world's first electronic commerce market with the Minitel teletex system. But in an Internet world, the Minitel's closed system has long outlived its usefulness.
Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has asked France Telecom to transfer merchants using electronic commerce from the Minitel to the Internet. Paris should make sure Minitel's proprietary payment system isn't moved as well. France needs to move to a universal and open payments system. Its engineers should tap the country's leading-edge smart-card technology and develop a world-beating payments system that will work not only in France but around the globe.