France Télécom Sees Red

photo: cafe resto hotel, le gymnase

It is not easy to be closer to the Canal Saint-Martin.

Busy Midget Pickpockets

Paris:- Monday, 16. September 2002:- Once upon a time France Télécom, the French national telephone company, had a total monopoly for France's telephone service. As such it owned the network and all of the black plastic dial telephones and rented them to users.

Just after my arrival in France, France Télécom dreamed up the Minitel. Although it was an idea ahead of its time - a free Minitel post for every France Télécom subscriber - connectable to a galaxy of information servers, for a variety of tariffs.

The machine was dumb, clunky and slow, but the French took to it. You could order goods from mail-orderphoto: techno street food catalogue houses, consult your horoscope, find out the train times and the weather forecasts, get the Loto results or play games - slowly - or tune into the text-only sexy 'Minitel Rosé.'

Fast street food for hip-hop, be-bop, techno fans.

The beauty of it was France Télécom used its metres to figure out how long the user had been online, to which server and for how much, and simply tacked this extra charge of the regular user's telephone bill.

Then the telephone company would take its contractual cut, and the rest it would send to the 'Minitel Millionaires' who supplied the content and ran the servers.

It was like a very slow Internet that made a hellva lot of money year in and year out. Actually, 'slower' was better because everything was charged by the minute.

For France Télécom, at least, those were the good old days. Since then the state operator has sold 44.6 percent of itself to the public, gotten into the Internet business as a prime supplier of access, and jumped into the mobile phone business with three feet.

Along the way it seems to have managed to forget its entire Minitel success, as well blow all of its accumulated profits from it on the Internet and the mobile phones.

Because the French state still owns 55.4 percent of the stock, the company had to use cash to expand. By 'expansion' I do not mean some sort of repeat of the Minitel idea, but in what is now classic expansion in the terms of mobile phones - by buying other mobile phone operators who have paid ten times what subscribers are worth, to get subscribers.

Which is the exact opposite of giving subscribers free Minitel terminals, so they will freely run up lots of line charges.

France Télécom sold its 44.6 percent to the public with an initial offering at 31.46euro 3 sign in late 1997. It hit its peak of 219euro 3 sign per share on 2. March 2000. Last Friday it fell another 2.63 percent, to close at 10.36euro 3 sign.

In May of 2000, France Télécom paid 50 gazillion euros for the British operator, Orange. This was slightly more that the French state collected in income taxes in a year, and slightly more than the public deficit.

But in March of 2000 France Télécom also bought 28.5 percent of the Germanphoto: resto antoine & lili operator, Mobilcom - for a measly 3.7 billion euros. The French company now desperately wants to unload the German company and its 5500 employees. In extremis, the German government has just found two banks to inject 400 million euros into it.

One tiny element of the Antoine & Lili empire beside the canal.

Meanwhile, the French government had started giving some attention to the property it is 'managing' on behalf of taxpayers, and is planning to throw 15 billion euros into it. But, ah, six billion of this is supposed to come from banks in return for more shares that France Télécom will issue - and I used to think there were some smart people at Bercy.

Small stockholders have watched the stock value tumble 76 percent since the beginning of the year. How, I wonder, can they be persuaded to buy more, now, at any price?

Anyway, the government has finally canned the government functionary who ran France Télécom, and is looking through its shortlist of other likely fall-guys - who have been running state companies like Air France or the RATP - anybody except Bernard Tapie.

You know - somebody who can figure out how to soak up 70 billion euros of debt - without using one cent of the Minitel zillions, which don't exist anymore anyway.

Meanwhile, on the mobile-phone front, the operators are preparing their next marketing offensive. Today's Le Parisien has an outline of their plans for charging for calls - by the second.

Even with the tables of examples in Le Parisien, you will need a clever accountant to figure out which is the best deal. But basically, if you have a black plastic phone with a dial on it and don't use it much, you'll stay out of the poorhouse.

And, until I can figure it out, don't expect me to call. I'm paying for it already without using the phone.

"Pickpockets May Be In the Station"

This is a broadcast warning heard incessantly for the past several years in métro stations, sometimes drowning out the sound of the music generated by the army of accordionists, both with and without amplifiers.

One reader has written to say that one should be wary in the Gare du Nord, if this is the place where you first arrive in Paris. Here, you may be confronted with automatic city transport ticket vending machines. These have been greatly improved over earlier models - but if it is your first time with one, they require some concentration.

Even if you are a little bit rattled, do not accept the assistance of 'friendly' strangers. The machines are not too hard to conquer - you simply do not need help.

Because the 'friendly' stranger may appear to put in his own money in a vending machine, and then hand you the resulting ticket - and ask to be paid back. If you thought you wanted a multi-day ticket, you may be handed a simple métro ticket and be asked for fork over 80 euros for it.

This is about 60 euros more than what the multi-day ticket costs, and is about 65 times what a single métro ticket is worth.

It is better to be a bit rude, if necessary, with the 'friendly' stranger than to try and look for any SNCF or RATP security people after the 'friendly' stranger has wandered off with his profit of about 78.70euro 3 sign.

Another lady has written to complain about being robbed by little kids. She and her two sisters and two nieces were expecting to by robbed in Paris by 'seedy looking fellows' and didn't expect cute little kids to be the perps - which they were several times during the ladies' six-day stay.

Paris was plagued by these midget bandits during the summer. Older people put them up to it or force them to do it, because the kids are too young to be prosecuted.

But the government that got elected last spring did so with strong message from voters to reducephoto: techno metro food crime, and the transit authorities beefed up their forces in stations and on rolling stock, so it looked like cops and midget robbers there for a while. Actually, this is still going on.

While the lady claims that visitors from the US have been 25 percent less during the summer on account of the junior robbers, I doubt this can be the reason. These kids are not concentrated in Paris - they are all over, like fleas.

Another food stand set up at the Denfert métro exit.

The new government, anxious to fight crime, has even come out with fresh statistics already - showing a miraculous crime-rate drop of six percent or so - since the elections. Usually it takes 18 months to get numbers together, or 14 months for ultra-rush jobs.

The extra security presence in and around public transit was no mirage though, and it has been common to see ten huge agents surrounding eight little kids. The kids seldom seemed to be especially worried, and the agents usually looked distinctly annoyed.

You can forget these two examples now. By the time you get here, there will be brand new scams and flim-flams, brand-new sets of 'friendly' strangers and gangs of kids being run by unscrupulous adults. It's only been going merrily on for a couple of thousand years.

Internet Life

Ellen McBreen is an art historian. A few months ago, she started 'Paris Muse,' a small cultural service that allows English-speaking visitors to book their own art expert for tour-seminars at the Picasso, Rodin, Louvre and Orsay museums and the Centre Pompidou, with tour-seminars beginning at the Cluny museum in October.

This isn't exactly 'Internet Life' item but I did check the Paris Muse Web site. Ellen McBreen's tour-seminars are not usually all-day affairs. I suspect they are somewhat concentrated, so you can learn a lot quickly and spend the rest of the day lolling around on café terraces, letting what you've learned sink in slowly.

TV Weather News Warnings

Last week's violent storms in the south of France demonstrated the value of France-Météo's alert service for TV-viewers but news reports indicated that people not tuned in - car drivers for example - did not benefit.

Thousands of automobilistas drove right into the storm and were trapped by high water and impassablephoto: wall terrace roads. There were complaints that the autoroute operators should have passed the warnings on somehow - but even if they had, this wouldn't have been any aid to those not on major routes.

What I didn't see here was the café part of the terrace.

As for thousands of home owners who were immobilized in their homes, watching TV-news warnings were of scant value because the storm's rains were so sudden and of such excess, that there was no time to do much other than save lives.

In the aftermath the weather people said that these types of storms are common at this time of year - but this particular one contained all the worst elements of several, magnified.

It was the sort of extreme natural event that overwhelmed all defenses. Earlier in the year a lot of central Europe had extreme weather too. I don't know if the times when these events happen are getting more frequent - but they do show that with all the technology we have, it isn't enough sometimes.

Online Weather Warnings

The weather has been acting odd recently, at unexpected times and in unexpected places. France-Météo's online alert service is very short-term, and its warnings should be taken seriously - even though Paris itself is seldom a thrilling weather area.

If you are curious or need to know more about France's early fall weather, give the Météo-France Web site a hit, for its short-range forecasts. Check out the warning-prone 'Vigilance-Météo' area on the opening page.

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