Although the Eiffel Tower now seems a nostalgic icon of the nineteenth century, at its construction it looked forward while looking back. When it first came to dominate the Parisian landscape in the spring of 1889, France was about to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. For the Republican government, firmly in control after the trials of reestablishing democracy in the wake of the defeat of the Second Empire in the Franco-Prussian War, the tower’s importance as a symbol of progress cannot be underestimated.
First proposed as a major feature of the Exposition of 1889, it caused a sensation in its own time as the tallest structure in the world and as a milestone in iron construction. Although the idea to build a one-thousand-foot (300-m) tower had circulated earlier in the century, several short-term factors facilitated the realization of Gustave Eiffel’s project. First, the expositions held in Europe and America from the mid-nineteenth century on created the context for spectacular and symbolic architectural construction as a form of competition between nations. Second, the snail-paced construction of the granite Washington Monument, begun in 1848 and completed only in 1885, taught the French a lesson, and they decided that building with new materials and doing much of the building “off-site” by using prefabricated iron would make it possible to build quickly. Third, the newly solidified Third French Republic embraced the notion that its construction in iron would demonstrate to the world the merits of a century devoted to rationality and scientific progress in the wake of the French Revolution. As the editor of a popular scientific magazine put it, it would be the “arc de Triomphe of science and industry.”
The Eiffel Tower inevitably had its critics, including a group of well-respected mainstream French artists, writers, and intellectuals who complained in 1887, when the plan was first proposed, that it would be a monstrous symbol of the craven machine age that would destroy both the values and image of the world’s most important city. Yet it was the engineer himself (an astute businessman and self-promoter) whose vision prevailed. Eiffel not only oversaw a complex manufacturing and building project that was without peer at the time, earned a substantial government commission, and raised construction money by selling stock to investors; he also secured himself a twenty-year guarantee to the profits from the various concessions (restaurants, a theater, souvenir stands), guaranteeing that the tower, built only for a temporary exhibition, would last at least for those twenty years.
While there were many other towers, until the mid-nineteenth century most architecture that reached skyward had been devoted to God. The construction of the Eiffel Tower anticipated the more profane attempts to reach the heavens that would soon find form in the skyscrapers of the United States. Its wide base and narrow tip, and its open latticework of iron to stabilize it against wind, gave the building an originality; it could not, however, be considered a prototype for any other building form. In that way, it is not the “first” skyscraper. Although Eiffel proposed that the tower would be used for scientific experimentation and in more practical domains such as telegraphic communication and observations concerning the weather as well as a great lighting beacon, in practice the tower served little purpose other than to be seen and visited.
Almost 2 million exposition visitors climbed the tower between May and November 1889, and all of the 28–32 million visitors to the exposition laid eyes on it. The novel quality of the facilities on the tower made the ascent worthwhile. The tower had elevators as well as stairs; a number of restaurants, toilets, souvenir stands, even a theater, mailboxes, and its own “newspaper,” Le Figaro de la Tour. It was at once an engineering feat, a major moment in the history of the creation of tourist attractions, and a celebration of French commitment to the future.
The fact that the Revolution would be commemorated with a symbol for the future makes perfect sense. Although the French attachment to their history and their rootedness in the geography that eventually became the French state has sometimes contributed to the notion that “frenchness” seems to belie modern thinking, the French Republic has been decisively interested in looking forward. Time was effectively reborn when the French stopped the clock on the Old Regime and literally began time anew with the introduction of the Revolutionary calendar in 1793: the months were renamed according to nature and numbered more rationally, beginning from the moment the Assembly declared the Republic in September 1792.
The same Exposition of 1889 not only featured the Eiffel Tower but also the enormous “Gallery of Machines,” whose building constituted the largest single-span structure in the world (364 feet long), and where steam-powered machines and elevators were displayed in a building completely lighted by electricity. Opposite the tower stood lighted fountains, one of which featured a statue, France Lighting the World. Enlightenment and electricity were paired in France in ways that help explain why the capital became known as the Ville-Lumière (the City of Light). The term in French for the Enlightenment (as well as for lights) is “Les Lumières.” The application of technological thinking and a French commitment to notions of progress and the future were expressed in many ways: around dwellings and in urban planning, in the design of transport, and in the rise of consumer culture, leisure, and communication technologies.
Contrary to the image of France as a country solely dedicated to tradition, artisanal craft, and small-scale luxury production, to the countryside and to more recent ideas such as slow food, France has been at the cutting edge of mass production and the development and applications made possible by the high-tech world. In fact, France innovated in technology, in mass culture and consumption, and has contributed much to both dreaming up visions of the future and in making some of those dreams real. In the history of consumerism, such institutions as the department store (the Bon Marché) and the chain grocery store (Félix Potin) were first developed in France. France played a vital role in mechanization from the first guns made of interchangeable parts to the precision rivets that made it possible to assemble the Eiffel Tower so quickly to Renault’s making the first automobiles that did not look like motorized carriages. France also defined a path in which technical knowledge was elevated as a form of respectable expert knowledge in a way that has resulted in a society attached to and engaged with both technology itself and with the future as a concept.
The idea that France has a special struggle with modernization has been confused with French resistance to American domination. When decoupled, we can see that France has played an important role in the development of ideas about the future and the application of the technological and engineering skills to make it happen. In fact, if there is something peculiarly French about all this, it is that the French government and individual French people might be characterized as the avant-garde of the avant-garde—devising big utopian schemes, huge marvels such as the renovated sewers in nineteenth century Paris or the Eiffel Tower, and high-end, high-tech inventions such as supersonic transportation in the twentieth century.
Technological innovation in modern France is connected to both the set of ideas known as the Enlightenment, which preceded the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution that followed it. The Enlightenment put a positive value on practical knowledge, which was codified in France, in particular, by the enormous publication project of the Encyclopédie, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert between 1751 and 1772. Although the project sought to give a new shape and structure to all knowledge, it can be distinguished by its emphasis on technology, and its attempt to contextualize and systematize forms of knowledge that had largely been transmitted only through practice and craft. A large proportion of the approximately three thousand images in eleven volumes of illustration dealt with technology or helped describe what at the time was known as the “mechanical arts.” Even the originality of linking image and text in this publication project is testament to an interest in the lessons related to concrete things rather than to abstract ideas. The Encyclopédie sought to communicate knowledge, usually transmitted socially via studios and workshops, through books instead, elevating practical knowledge to something worth codifying in print.
The Enlightenment and the French Revolution have been linked in terms of abstract ideas about democracy, but they are also connected in the sphere of technical knowledge, from the creation of the metric system to the advances in weaponry made during the revolutionary wars. The Industrial Revolution that followed the political changes of the turn of the nineteenth century also made a lasting impact in France. Steam-driven machinery, factory production, and the emergence of a self-conscious, wage-earning, working class unleashed a set of changes, often first associated with England and then unleashed across the Continent. These changes developed unevenly and had an enormous impact upon social life, not the least of which was a heightened awareness of the power of rapid change.
As the social order based on industrialization took hold, increasingly rent asunder by the divisions between capitalists who owned wealth and their exploited employees, such French thinkers as Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier played key roles as dreamers for the new social order, which became articulated as some of the earliest Socialist visions for the reorganization of society. They were also deeply attached to ideas of progress and to working toward a more perfect future. Like Robert Owen, the Welsh founder of British socialism, Saint-Simon and Fourier put work at the center of the “industrial” society (a term coined by Saint-Simon). Unlike those responsible for the French Revolution who had already shown what the power of the government mobilization of the economy could do in solving food problems and creating the world’s largest well-armed standing army, Saint-Simon prioritized the role that scientists, engineers, artists, and industrialists would play in reorganizing communal life.
Saint-Simon’s ideas also inspired women to make social and political demands. Jeanne Deroin, a seamstress, helped to found a feminist newspaper, La Femme Libre, in 1832. Along with the activist Flora Tristan, they sought suffrage for women and improvements in wages for labor and challenged such bourgeois conventions as marriage.
Many of these proto-socialists shared the idea that work should be oriented toward the common good rather than be defined by the pursuit of selfish interest. Such thinkers as Auguste Comte, the “father of Positivism,” sought precise or “positive” social laws. Human society, he argued, had progressed away from the primitive stage, dependent on religious explanation and priests. Dedicated engineers and technocrats would manage a new order. Those state engineers eventually helped build the infrastructural nation, reconciling the social and technical orders. They had already been tied to the state under the Old Regime that founded the Ecole des Ponts et Chausées (Bridges and Roads) in 1747 and the Ecole des Mines in 1783 in order to provide engineers for the king’s many building projects. Society became imagined along the lines of an idealized machine or factory. Before this model became the order of the day, such visions were also prophetically imagined in France where the sense that the future could be better and brighter definitely took hold in the wake of the French and Industrial revolutions.
Many of the new visions had a spatial dimension, suggesting that the social reorganization of people needed to take expression in physical communities. In Great Britain, Robert Owen bought a cotton mill in New Lanark, Scotland, in 1800 and set up a model factory town that mandated only ten hours a day of work per laborer (vs. sometimes as many as seventeen), no corporal punishment, health care, schools and housing. Fourier envisioned a world in which people lived in a large collective building known as a phalanstery, “a building as perfect as the terrain permits,” which was to function as an economically harmonious institution. Part agricultural commune, part garden city, the community would insure that each person would work in positions for which they were best suited, and children would live together rather than with their parents. The dreamer Etienne Cabet, who first used the term “communist,” described an idealized world in his 1840 novel Travels in Icaria. Here, an elected dictatorship organized work, and a visionary city of the future eliminated both private property and money. Thinking about social reform not long afterward became redefined by the powerful insights and observations of two Germans, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, who met when they were both living in Paris. For them, the history of France would come to determine their developing laws of social development and transformation.
If Cabet was part social reformer, his Utopian novel also shares some of the visionary and future-oriented perspective that we associate with science fiction, a genre whose origins are not exactly clear but whose best-selling practitioner in the nineteenth century remains one of the most translated authors: the Frenchman Jules Verne. Poised somewhere between adventure and science fiction, Verne based his tales on scientific and technological discoveries of the era in which he lived and thus was as much a commentator on his own world as he was a prognosticator. Verne’s writing consisted of fifty-four published stories written between 1863 and 1905 known as the “Voyages Extraordinaires.” Verne popularized and built on his own moment of technological change: steamships, the telegraph, trains, and canal digging to offer readers a world of mobility and novelty. He hoped in the process the novels would teach science and geography through fiction. Verne immersed himself in reading the scientific and technological news of the day and relied on family who were experts in math and science to check his work. The stories spin visions of life in the future: travel to the moon, submarines, and journeys to the center of the earth. In an unpublished manuscript written at the start of his career, he even envisioned a Paris in 1960 in which there are machines resembling faxes and in which people travel by automobile and elevated train (all of which did indeed come to pass, while the novel itself did not see the light of day because his editor thought Verne’s vision was too somber). In Verne’s world, machines take advantage of nature but do not exploit humans.
The idea of a mobile society can be found not only in Verne’s obsession with transport technologies and information across distances but also in the fact that his protagonists and scenarios were mostly not located in or living in France. Thus, in Journey to the Center of the Earth, the hero is a Danish professor who descends into an Icelandic volcano; Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a Europeanized Indian prince trawling around the Atlantic Ocean in a deluxe luxurious submarine; Phileas Fogg, theprotagonist of Around the World in Eighty Days, is a fabulously funny send-up of British blasé and national stereotypes. The novels ground readers who are then simultaneously unmoored as they read fiction that is more about going places than actually being there. Verne’s descriptions linger on modes of transport and the problem of the race against the clock rather than dwell, travelogue-style, on the places journeyed. Positive perspectives of the present as futuristic abound in this most popular of French fiction writers.
Making dreams concrete
French fantasy visions of the future and other, better worlds have also taken concrete form since industrialization. Urban planning and design became a primary means through which a French vision of a tamed and positive technological society took hold. Distinct from the British Arts and Crafts movement, which suggested a more conflicted relationship to industrialization through its emphasis on craftsmanship and its Gothic revivalism, France’s engineering forms of iron, steel, and glass could and did wipe away the prevalence of historicism in architecture. Such planners as Tony Garnier, the city architect of Lyon, saw in concrete the possibility of social improvement. He developed the idea of “the industrial city” and published a treatise with that title in 1918. The city of Lyon today bears the mark of this architect dedicated to the functionalism of reinforced concrete, but more significantly, such visions of a spare urban future became well known in France, especially through the Swiss-born planner Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who took the name Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier participated in the promotion of modern art and design in France. He joined Amédée Ozenfant and Fernand Léger in founding the journal L’Esprit Nouveau that advanced ideas about the harmony between art and science. In his hands, houses became machines for living in. Influenced by his early employer, Auguste Perret, himself an adherent of the use of new building materials and the development of more verticality in city planning, Le Corbusier envisioned a city in which towers dedicated to business would sit at the heart of a redesigned urban agglomeration organized around the free flow of traffic. In that way, Le Corbusier shared Haussmann’s nineteenth-century dedication to the flow of traffic, although one can perhaps detect in his preference for the vertical axis an adaptation to the arrival of the car in the city.
He debuted his ideas about urbanism in the 1922 “Contemporary City” project as part of the Autumn Salon, the avant-garde yearly art show. Rather than propose suburbanization, Le Corbusier, in his even more radical Voisin plan, designed for the 1925 International Exhibition of the Decorative Arts, called for the razing of some of the oldest and most densely populated sectors of Paris in the second, third, ninth, and tenth arrondissements (districts). This caused an uproar among the Parisian administrators who, by the turn of the twentieth century, had come to see the city’s center as inviolable—an ironic stance, given that Haussmann himself had bulldozed his way through its very center decades earlier. Le Corbusier proposed cruciform skyscrapers to get urban density under control and also sought to introduce integrated green spaces and nature into such configurations. A devotee of the straight line (“man walks in a straight line because he has a goal”), he embraced the importance of speed in the modern city.
Le Corbusier embraced speed in relation to contemporary transport and envisioned improved traffic flows as a critical part of his urban reconfiguration. In fact, the patron of his controversial 1925 plan, Gabriel Voisin, was a major pioneer in aviation, having created the first heavier-than-air, engine-powered, controlled flying machine. The designer of many military planes, he had by the 1920s moved on to automobiles he called Avions (airplanes) Voisin, which were known for their use of light materials and aerodynamic design.
Over the course of the twentieth century, from the building of La Défense (the urban industrial park west of the city limits) between 1958 and the 1970s to projects such as the Tour Montparnasse skyscraper in the southern central part of town, Paris planners would not embrace vertical building within the city itself. Nonetheless, machine aesthetics and a dedication to the new building materials dominated rebuilding in twentieth century Paris. Critics have regarded such buildings as the Pompidou Center, in the heart of the district Le Corbusier envisaged for the Voisin Plan, as evidence of taking the building-as-machine too literally. The most recent systematic renovation of the capital under François Mitterrand consisted of glass and steel architecture in new buildings for important institutions such as the National Library and the Opéra, a new arch at La Défense, and the I. M. Pei–designed glass pyramid at the Louvre. This building project can be seen as part of a long tradition of changes that are not rejections of industrialization but rather embody the popularization of the idea that technical mastery should take aestheticized form.
In France as well as in other Western countries, transportation has played an equally important role in moving toward the future in both time and space. Since the nineteenth century, mechanized transportation was not simply redefining cities but also the relation of city to country, and between countries and other parts of the world. If trade, technology, transportation, and travel can be thought to have shaped the modern world in general, France has been a major part of contributing to such global transformations and has been transformed by them. While the migration of people across national boundaries and borders has often posed a challenge to definitions of French identity, mobility has also facilitated tourism and travel to France—and these have crystallized a vision of Frenchness for foreigners and to the French through this foreign gaze. Underlying the expansion of tourism, a worldwide network of transportation infrastructure and vehicles, powered first by steam and then by electricity and oil, all reliant on technological mastery, have made moving possible and even pleasurable.
10. The building’s infrastructure is on the outside of the Pompidou Center, Paris’s modern art museum. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s 1970s futuristic design showed an appreciation for technology and infrastructure as integral to notions of modernity, even in art.
The transportation revolution was not explicitly or primarily French, but France, England, Germany, the United States, Italy, and eventually Japan have all been created anew by the embrace of these changes. In addition, these technological changes remade much of the world with the export of such things as trains (the French built the railways in Russia, for example) and cars to nonproducing nations. That said, Ernest Michaux invented the modern pedal bicycle in 1861, and by 1914 there were 3.5 million bicycles in France alone. French car production was second only to America’s and such firms as Renault, Peugeot, and Citroën early on mastered mass-produced stylishness. At the same time, Michelin, supplied by the rich resource of rubber plants in French Indochina, competed only with the British company Dunlop for worldwide tire dominance, having innovated the removable pneumatic tire.
Even before industrialization, the French were the first to undertake large-scale canal construction (begun in 1604 and completed in 1642, when the Briare Canal joined the Loire and the Seine Rivers). French canal-building took on global significance and made enormous profits when Ferdinand de Lesseps secured the rights in the 1850s from Said Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt, to build a canal that would cut the distance from London to Bombay by half. When he had visited Egypt, Prosper Enfantin, the Saint-Simonian who led a sect to settle in Egypt, surmised that the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were at the same level and believed that only political as opposed to technological barriers existed to the building of a canal to join them. Funded by French investors and designed by an Austrian engineer, the canal was opened to boats of all nations, but overwhelmingly traveled by the British. Thus, the Suez Canal was truly an international affair in its design and use when it was inaugurated in 1869 in the presence of many European heads of state and royals. The inauguration was actually presided over by Empress Eugénie of France, suggesting the way that France took the lead in this international commercial order.
The Suez Canal served not only as a major commercial route but also, along with the opening of the American transcontinental railway, made circumnavigating the globe remarkably faster—two achievements that are, not coincidentally, key facts of the story ofAround the World in Eighty Days (1872). Later in the century, one could perhaps say that the spectacular French failure in the construction of the Panama Canal (the French erred in trying to dig at sea-level, and the workers died in droves from malaria and yellow fever) was a sign of the fragility of France’s leading role in technological fields. The outcome can even be understood as particularly prescient regarding the future of foreign affairs since the Americans ended up completing the lock-and-dam canal there twenty years later (when the mosquito-driven cause of malaria was also understood).
Although trains were originally an appendage of mining (tracks were laid and carts hauled coal), the British built the first autonomous route between Liverpool and Manchester in 1830 as steam pumps and steam engines, fed by coal (and thus by human labor rather than nature’s wind and water) sped up life in Europe. It may be disputable whether department stores or train stations became the cathedrals of the nineteenth century, but it is fair to say that without the trains, there would be no department stores. Trains created enormous internal migration throughout Europe, increasing the population in cities, which then supported the growth of consumer culture. They made the supply of goods more plentiful, hauling both passengers and cargo from the periphery to the center. Marx envisioned the train as a political liberator that would serve as the hearse carrying feudalism and absolutism to their graves. While perhaps a tad optimistic, especially given the role trains came to play in supplying arms and leading civilians en masse to their deaths in both world wars, the enthusiasm evinced by Marx for newfangled transport technologies has seen a particular expression in France, where, perhaps emerging from their utopianism, France has clearly displayed a mastery of the “very high” tech in transportation.
While it may seem quaint today, the Montgolfier hot-air balloon stunned those in 1783 who had not thought it possible to breathe up in the sky. The Marquis d’Arlandes and the scientist Jean-François Pîlatre de Rozier proved them wrong while also showing the French panache for science and flight. As was the case with the cinema, aviation innovations and pioneers in France and America exchanged information and competed in ways that made it overdetermined that Gaumont and Pathé would establish production in America as well as in France, and that Henry Farman, inventor of the biplane, and Gabriel Voisin would compete with Wilbur and Orville Wright. Louis Blériot crossed the English Channel in an airplane only eight months after the Wright brothers had managed to fly higher than 100 meters. With this intense connection between France and America in the history of aviation, it should come as no surprise that Charles Lindbergh would go out of his way to land in Paris during his 1927 transatlantic flight.
Aside from the key role France played in the early history of aviation, France continued to innovate in both military and civil aviation over the course of the twentieth century. Wartime aeronautics in the nineteenth century included sixty-five manned balloons, 381 pigeons, five dogs, eleven tons of dispatches, and 2.5 million letters transported during the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian war. The French military uses of airspace have continued apace. The Dassault Company developed the Mirage fighters, which are among the most globally supplied planes of its kind. During the 1960s and on the heels of the Soviet Sputnik launch, the French inserted themselves as a third competitor in the space race, beyond the Cold War powers of the USSR and the United States. They became the third nation to launch its own satellite (Astérix One) from a French space booster called the Diamant.
The strength of French aviation can also be seen in the early and successful creation of the Caravelle jet plane by Sud Aviation. Flown in 1959, it was one of the first well-functioning jets made for commercial use. (The British de Havilland Comet had serious technical failings despite its earlier appearance.) With design innovations that put the jets behind the wings and provided a much quieter ride, the Caravelle also changed aviation history when United Airlines purchased twenty of the French-made planes, internationalizing the suppliers of planes to U.S. carriers, which until then had been supplied only by American companies. The success of the Caravelle also paved the way for thinking that France could indeed compete with the United States. This led to the creation of the sexiest of high-speed futuristic air projects: the Concorde.
Now that the Concorde no longer flies, its history has been recast mostly as a project about the folly of the leading edge of high-tech fields mixing with high-stakes politics. But the Concorde’s history helps us understand the way that France accrued national prestige while managing to build transnational partnerships in high-tech fields such as aviation. Since the 1990s, France has played a defining role in Airbus, an international partnership whose headquarters are in Toulouse, France.
It is fair to say that the initial enthusiasm for the Concorde included a bid at surpassing the Americans in technological supremacy, but it can also be seen as part of the French tradition of dreaming up highly futuristic technological possibilities. Although retrospectively it is thought that the British and the French, who undertook the project jointly, never really could work together (including a dispute over the “e” at the end, which led the British to call it “Concorde,” dropping the French use of the article before the noun), the realities of the Concorde’s limitations were its expense per passenger. The plane debuted more or less at the same time as the world’s largest passenger plane, the Boeing 747, during the energy crisis of the 1970s. The Concorde’s speed (whose supersonic duration was limited to the over-the-water period because of the environmental concerns about sonic boom) came at great expense: the plane used as much fuel as a B-747 but carried only one-fourth the number of passengers. In addition, it required more than the usual number of hours on the ground for maintenance. The Concorde seemed a frivolous and beautiful toy of the super-wealthy. It is not clear that jets actually needed to go that fast, but the achievement was nevertheless both a boon to the French aviation industry and a lesson: France would thereafter commit to making planes that would sell, and the Airbus program has proven they could.
Not only is France particularly high-tech, but after World War II the notion of “dirigisme”—an active policy of state interventionism in the guidance and management of technology—has facilitated its development at the leading edge, enhanced by large state programs that fund research, development, and application. When de Gaulle came to power (both times), it became his goal to achieve French greatness through technology. After the saga of defeat and collaboration in World War II, the French government sought international recognition and its own sense of security and autonomy in the realm of high tech. The period from 1945 to 1975 witnessed the tripling of purchasing power. The GNP grew at 5.5 percent a year as France took up nuclear power with gusto, advanced in aviation, outer space, and computer technology. Technology functioned not just to maintain economic and military independence; it also linked France internally and internationally, since technology’s complexity and its underlying drive demanded greater connection in time and space.
The story of the TGV (Train à Grand Vitesse) suggests that France could be at the cutting edge of technology and still provide mass transport, at least within the borders of the nation since the TGV project initially stopped at France’s frontiers. During the postwar period, France committed to developing high-speed train travel. Concerned about losing riders to air transport and aware of the Japanese success with the Shinkansen (bullet) train, the government-owned SNCF (the result of the nationalization of the five main railway lines in 1938) in cooperation with the French multinational power corporation, Alstom, developed a fast and sleek train that was put into service between Paris and Lyon in 1982. It used existing rails and was powered by electricity rather than gas turbines. New design for the sharing of wheel trucks with adjacent cars allowed the design of a lighter and more rigid body, creating a simultaneously sexy and cost-effective train. As a result, the train could provide the new service at affordable prices, underscored by the slogan for the new train, “Progress means nothing unless it is shared by all.” This highspeed train technology has been a backbone of European integration.
Communication and information
A more interesting case of the peculiarity of the French mobilization of nationally based technological sophistication can be grasped in the story of the success of the Minitel. Born from the idea that information itself could be rationalized and computerized even before the Internet existed, the Minitel is a telephone-based network using the closed system of the French phone company, France Telecom. The initial motivation came from the will to save the government-owned phone company the expense of printing directories. Since its introduction in 1984, the Minitel’s more than 17 million users (one in four French households and about one-third of the adult population) define a delimited group of users in an electronic version of French community. Still used to access bank accounts, conduct e-commerce, and make travel reservations, before 1997 it generated more trade inside France than the Internet attracted worldwide.
Although there are many ways to interpret its success (and its persistence despite the Internet) the French government’s commitment to the project and the simplicity of its kiosk billing system made it both cheap and easy to use. Customers were offered a free terminal in the place of receiving the traditional telephone book. Just as Amazon.com has underwritten the cost of e-books, France Telecom subsidized the system until it broke even because they wanted it to be adopted. Aside from information, the system provided communication. Users connected to each other (a system of proto-email), and this gave rise to the birth of the “Minitel rose,” online sex chatting, suggesting the intersection of both commercial and personal interests in the system. When it launched its Wanadoo Internet service, France Telecom thought it would phase out the Minitel, a slower service through which people were paying for information they could now get for free, but users protested and the phone company currently maintains both systems. For some in France, the Internet is an American version of the Minitel, and French voices have been among those raised the loudest about the cultural and linguistic Anglophone imperialism of cyberspace. This concern has also resulted in a commitment to the digitization of books in languages other than English, led by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, former head of the French National Library.
If France has its technological dreamers, it also has had its fair share of clever critics. Jacques Tati is now fondly remembered for the films he made in the late 1950s and ’60s that are wry critiques of the conformity and the self-indulgence of high-tech living. InMon Oncle, a parvenu plastics manufacturer and his family live in a high-tech household, complete with automatic doors, an electric kitchen that Tati cannot figure out how to work, and a pretentious newfangled metal fountain shaped like a fish that sent water spouting from its mouth. Playtime begins with aerial views of the clouds descending into an antiseptic, all-metal airport represented as the new town square worthy of spoofing, before the film moves on to apartment buildings and visions of the organization of residential and commercial space—right out of Le Corbusier. What was once the future has arrived, and Tati’s films ask the viewer to consider such blind utopianism with a skeptical eye. Although Tati’s films have stood in for the French critique of the technological society, the fact that they spoof France for its earnest embrace of household gadgets, modern living, car mania and the love of high-speed transportation suggests that the society was obviously deeply implicated in technophilia in the first place; otherwise the jokes would not be funny.
Since the Enlightenment, French belief in progress and the nation’s investment in the future has sometimes developed at a pace that can best be described as “hurtling into the future.” The high-tech solution has been often imagined and envisioned, and sometimes well executed, as in the TGV. In this way, France has played a key role in the development of what we might call Western technological modernity. Its French “paradox” may be that it has managed to embrace the future without erasing its past. Where else do we find such juxtaposition and even contradiction as the I. M. Pei pyramid at the Louvre? On its 120th anniversary, the Eiffel Tower was lighted to look as if it were dancing—still beautiful and optimistic, after all these years.