When Vichy Laboratories, a unit of Paris cosmetics giant L'Oréal, launched a blog in April to promote a new anti-wrinkle treatment, it encountered a wrinkle it hadn't anticipated. The French-language blog featured a fictitious character named Claire who posted progress reports about her skin. Quel faux pas. The site was quickly flooded with postings from suspicious bloggers demanding to know why, if the product was so effective, Vichy didn't invite real women to test it. Chastened company officials retooled the site and recruited several bloggers as testers. "My skin is definitely smoother...although it's not so radiant that you need to wear sunglasses to look at it," reads one recent posting.
Welcome to France, where blogging is taken très sérieusement. An estimated 3 million French people, or 4.9% of the population, have their own blogs, a higher proportion than any other major European country. While the U.S. has more than 9 million bloggers, they make up just 3% of Americans. Although blogging is by and large a youth phenomenon, it has already caught the attention of the political and business Establishment. And in some cases it's setting off more fireworks than a Bastille Day celebration.
On June 21 a 36-year-old civic activist and blogger named Christophe Grébert was summoned to a Paris courtroom to face charges of defaming the municipal government in the suburb of Puteaux. His offense: Posting excerpts of a newspaper article that alleged a municipal employee had been fired for whistle-blowing. (The newspaper also has been charged with defamation.) Grébert's preliminary hearing was postponed until early 2006, but his case made national headlines.
In a sense, the Gallic embrace of blogging is no surprise. France has a long tradition of public protest, from the 1789 revolution to the barricades of 1968 to the frequent strikes that snarl public services. "French people love to tell everyone exactly what's on their minds -- far more than Germans, for example," says Loïc Le Meur, founder of Ublog.com, a French blog software and services company acquired last year by an American competitor, Six Apart. Le Meur's personal blog, written in English and French, has attracted a large global audience with its wide-ranging coverage of blogging and other technology trends.
The single biggest promoter of French blogging is Skyrock, a radio station in Paris that launched a free blog-hosting service at the end of 2002. Skyrock now hosts more than 2.3 million blogs, mostly by listeners in their teens and early 20s. Skyrock President Pierre Bellanger says the blogging venture has boosted listenership while bringing in $6 million a year in new advertising revenue from companies such as adidas-Salomon (ADDDY ) and Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL ), who pay for the right to post messages on personal blogs hosted by Skyrock. "It's a gold mine," he says.
While there's not much political debate to be found on Skyrock blogs, blogging clearly played a role in France's May 29 vote against the European Constitution. An anti-constitution site run by Marseille schoolteacher Etienne Chouard drew 700,000-plus hits. "During this campaign there was a loss of credibility in the traditional media, and more and more people turned toward alternative sources," says Nicolas Vanbremeersch, who runs a blog featuring commentary on both sides of the issue.
Corporate France is also giving blogging a whirl. One of the country's best-known blogs is that of Michel-Edouard Leclerc, the head of E. Leclerc, a leading French retailer. Recent postings range from a lampoon of the government's anti-inflation policies to an emotional response to the release of a French journalist from captivity in Iraq. Leclerc, who started the blog early this year as an extension of a personal diary he has kept for 30 years, has this advice for other CEOs: "Don't be afraid of it. It's a way to concentrate your thoughts, test your ideas, accept criticism."
That's exactly what L'Oreal did with its skin care blog, which has drawn more than 12,000 page views. The company turned its early stumble into "an enriching experience that has allowed us to get in closer touch with our customers," says Maïté Cristiani, Vichy's international marketing director. Sounds like this blog could turn out to be a thing of beauty.
By Carol Matlack, with Constance Faivre d'Arcier, in Paris