Originally created 08/31/99

War of words



PARIS -- As a giant clock on the Eiffel Tower ticks away the remaining days of the 20th century, some French lobbyists are scrambling to ensure that cyberspace doesn't leave their language in the dustbin of history.

For years, staunch defenders of the French language have battled to stem what they see as an American invasion of their culture, successfully passing a series of laws limiting the presence of American songs and shows in French media.

Now they've seeking to limit the use of English on what they see as the newest threat: the Internet.

"The Internet must have laws governing it. It cannot be a savage world where everybody can do as they please," says Marceau Dechamps, a retired worker in the technology industry who now is vice president of the group Defense of the French Language.

Dechamps, whose group has successfully sued companies for using English while advertising in France, maintains current laws aimed at preserving the French language should apply to Internet sites as well.

Although his group has only been involved in one Internet-related court case so far, he foresees further legal action.

Dechamps' group, in cooperation with another watchdog association, spurred debate when they brought a 1997 lawsuit against the Georgia Institute of Technology's campus in Metz, France, for creating an English-language Web site.

The group said that because the Web site was created in France, it was therefore advertising in France, and thus subject to French law.

A French court ruled in Georgia Tech's favor, but because of faulty legal procedure on the plantiffs' part, leaving open the question of linguistic obligations on the Web.

However, facing possible fines of up to $4,300 each time the site was accessed, the university later translated the site into French and German.

Deschamps' group taps into a common sentiment in France. President Jacques Chirac said in 1995 that "I do not want to see European culture sterilized or obliterated by American culture."

But some people feel his group is going too far.

"The Internet is accessed by people around the world. To impose a language on it would be stupid and a pity," says Herve Ballan, a Web site designer for Accriens Productions in Paris.

Many people also point to a need to be practical, noting that English is the dominant language on the Internet and that Deschamps' approach risks closing France off from the world.

Dechamps' group already has claimed victory in the field of software legislation, winning a court case last year against a computer store that sold a graphics program in English.

The past decade has seen a slew of legislation intended to protect the French language and entertainment industry.

In August 1994, a law made the use of the French language mandatory for advertising, labeling and instruction manuals of all products and services sold in France.

TV and radio commericals cannot be aired in a foreign language. But foreign languages may be used in other media, when a French translation is as "legible, audible, and intelligible."

The law leads to creative efforts to get around the restrictions. For example, some billboard ads are written in English with microscopic letters at the bottom giving the French translation.

Government commissions also preside over an ever-growing list -- currently at almost 120,000 -- of English words or English-based terms that may not be used in official French documents. Rather than "fax," for example, the word "telecopie" must be used.

At least 40 percent of programing shown on television must be of French origin, and an additional 20 percent must come from other European countries.

A minimum of 40 percent of the songs played on the radio must be in French, 20 percent of which must be new talent, to develop the French stars of tomorrow.

On both TV and radio, the ratio has to be maintained during prime time, meaning a TV station can't run only Hollywood series during peak hours and leave the French programs for less desirable hours.

There are still no laws regarding movie theaters, as the number of French films released in France continues to outnumber American ones. However, in this country of under 60 million people, more than 20 million tickets to the Hollywood blockbuster "Titanic" were sold last year.

Only Canada's predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, which has even stricter language laws, has made efforts comparable to those of France.

Despite all the measures, Dechamps says American "cultural colonization" continues to threaten the French language.

"Systematically, the world is being invaded by Anglo-American words," he says. "It's a problem of dosage. You can sprinkle a dish with spices and add to its flavor, but if you dump a whole bottle of spice, the food becomes inedible."