French Democracy Goes Online

Representative's Oratory Free to All on Globe

Paris:- Wednesday, 27. March 1996:- As on Monday, I started out to look for one or two stands at the Salon de Livre, rather than cruise the 500 or so, and I felt I had unfinished business from Monday - a stand I wanted more depth from - so, as is the rule - I turned up an entirely different subject.

You understand, I am looking for 'meaningful' photo opportunities at the same time as I am looking for something specific - and today I was cutting across the hall on the 'E' path - what are these things called? - 'E' Train? - these routes inside the Salon - looking for the 'Marianne' busts, and I found the Assemblée Nationale.

To be at the book fair makes sense for the Parliament, because it is a prime publisher of new texts - of laws, for example. All the same, this is the first year the Assemblée Nationale of France has had a presence here.

Assemble stand The thing that stopped me was the Web address on the panel - only after I had wandered on a bit further to the Sénate stand, and found one there too. I went back to the Assemblée Nationale to find out more.

Only online since early this year; if you drop into the Assemblée's site you will find that you can download Acrobat-formatted verbatim texts of the debates, and these are the most recent texts.

This may seem banal to you, whether you live in France or not. Ask yourself this: can you get a verbatim account of your country's last Thursday's parliamentary session? Ready to print, as well?
Marianne Maybe you can - but the idea that a French citizen can cut through all the closed doors, media filters, penetrate to the heart of government in the centre of Paris - to the part of the heart that is conducted in public - and actually scrutinize... Exactly who said what to whom about which specific question - this is a revolutionary idea.

In a highly centralized state such as France, the idea of allowing each and all citizens equal access is... Novel.

(In Friday's Libération), Laurent Mauriac takes Nicolas Negroponte of the Media Lab at MIT to task for suggesting that France may be a bit... Backward, at odds with the Internet - also for being so bold as to suggest in the April 'Wired,' in an open letter to President Chirac, that the Internet could reinforce cultural identity.

According to Mr Mauriac, Mr Negroponte has no right to 'give lessons' to France; that his motives can be traced to the fact that the Italians bought 50,000 copies of his book, 'Being Digital,' and the French only 10,000 - and that Negroponte is basing his deductions on a deficit sale of 40,000 books.

This is France and the French often don't realize what is funny about being French, is being... French. Libération has a big stand at the salon and on opening day last Friday, hosted a debate entitled, 'Culture: version Française, version Américaine.'

Marianne 'Bardot' Professor Nicholas Negroponte is a professional planet earth 'futures messenger,' and as Libération points out, an Internet guru. As he probably wrote his April 'Wired' column last December or January, he may have not been aware that the French Senate would be online a few months later - and Libération, at the salon, may or may not have been aware that the stands of the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénate were nearby; and both were online.

I could be wrong - because I don't read Libé every day - but it seems to me that France has gone and done what the good professor suggested; and Libération is unaware of the significance of it.

Or, could it be that Libération, long a supporter of multimedia - with a regular Friday section of the paper devoted to the subject - could it be that Libération is ultimately afraid of online - could it be afraid of getting removed as a filter between the government and the governed?

Such weighty questions! It was a pleasure to talk to Elizabeth Valot, of the firm ORT*, chief of the Assemblée's site; and to Isabelle Vught-Pion, chief of the Sénate's Web site - about the possible implications of citizen access, for democracy. Too bad Mr Negroponte was not there to give us a few predictions.

Marianne 'Deneuve' Irony of all - the President of the Assemblée Nationale, M. Philippe Séguin - a somewhat skeptical supporter of European Union - is reported to be the power behind putting the French parliament online. The internal affairs of France are now open to the public - of the world, as well as France.

The Assemblée Nationale's Web URL:

The Sénate's Web URL:

Quote, from the Assemblée Nationale transcript of the session of Tuesday, 26. March 1996: (out of context and abridged):

Plusieurs députés - 'Scandaleux !'

*ORT has also produced a demonstration CD-ROM that contains the revisions to the French Constitution, of 4. August 1995 and 22. February 1996. The complete version will be entitled, 'Constitution.'

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