The French are notorious for their obsession with maddening, micro-meddling rules and regulations.
Anglo-Saxons who live in France, as I do, constantly struggle with the puzzling paradox in a society universally admired for its splendid “joie de vivre” — yet infamous for its oppressive bureaucratic culture of legalistic codes and decrees. The term “French bureaucracy” is shorthand for the worst imaginable Kafkaesque nightmare.
In France you cannot put up awnings in your own home without first obtaining permission from some government department, which will officiously stipulate what colours are allowed. One could easily draw up a list of French micro-regulations that, to the Anglo-Saxon disposition, seem utterly absurd, if not totally objectionable.
The latest one doubtless would rank high on that list. This week we learned that France’s broadcasting regulator had just issued another decree: henceforth, hosts of television and radio programmes must refrain from uttering the words “Facebook” and “Twitter” on the air.
Thus, a French news anchor such as David Pujadas (in photo at right) is not allowed to say to viewers: “For more information on this breaking story, follow us on Twitter”. Nor is any television or radio presenter allowed to mention a programme or network Facebook page. If Facebook or Twitter make the news, they can be mentioned on a strictly “information” basis. But no urging the audience to connect via Facebook or Twitter to learn more, ask questions, give their opinions, and so on.
No, this is not a joke. It’s a real regulatory ruling, citing article 9 of a French government decree issued on March 27 1992.
What possibly could have possessed the French regulator to impose such a ridiculous rule is not entirely clear — at least when the test of common sense is applied. Perhaps the officials inside France’s Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel don’t quite grasp that television and radio shows around the world now routinely urge their audiences to connect and follow events via online social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. Even news programmes in France promote their presence on Twitter (like network TF1’s Twitter feed in image below). No matter: in France, all such mentions of Facebook and Twitter are now banned on French television and radio.
Imagine if, in the UK, regulators banned the BBC and Sky from urging viewers to follow a story on their Twitter or Facebook pages. Imagine if, in the United States, the federal regulator told networks such as CNN that they were not allowed to feature their Twitter feeds on the screen (as in the image below). It’s plainly inconceivable, utterly ludicrous. If such a decree were issued, British and American television networks would protest resolutely, take the matter either to the government or a court, and generally create a huge media fuss. They would be right to do so. And they would prevail in the end.
But in France, after the sages inside the CSA bureaucratic bunker handed down their ruling, there was scarcely any reaction at all in the French media. Some newspapers published fairly straightforward news articles on the decision, a couple provided more detailed analysis. Coverage on websites was somewhat more probing, and French bloggers questioned the decision. But the story came and went. No stupefaction, no outrage, no fulminating columns in the mainstream press. Business as usual.
French regulators, needless to say, were armed with a rationale for their meddling. The CSA maintained that any on-air mention of a programme’s Facebook page or Twitter feed constitutes ”clandestine advertising” for these social networks because they are commercial operations. In a word, French television and radio programmes cannot be seen to be promoting Facebook and Twitter as commercial brands.
A slightly more nuanced explanation came from CSA spokesperson Christine Kelly, who ironically happens to be a former news anchor (as seen in photo below). According to Kelly, the French regulator decided that — leaving aside the “clandestine advertising” issue — any reference to Facebook or Twitter shows preference for those two social networks to the exclusion of others.
“Why give preference to Facebook, which is worth billions of dollars, when there are many other social networks that are struggling for recognition,” she said. “This would be a distortion of competition. If we allow Facebook and Twitter to be cited on air, it’s opening a Pandora’s Box — other social networks will complain to us saying, ‘why not us?’”
But as French blogger Benoit Raphael pointed out, Facebook and Twitter are now “public spaces” of communication with a global reach. That is precisely why TV and radio networks use them to connect with their audiences. They know where their audiences are — they’re on Facebook and Twitter. It therefore makes sense for TV and radio shows to promote their own Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to connect and dialogue with their audiences.
That reality was not sufficiently convincing for French regulators. Sticking to their legalistic interpretation of French law, the CSA has banned the terms “Facebook” and “Twitter” from the airwaves — except, as noted, when they are part of a news story.
How can we explain this regulatory lunacy — and the little opposition to it?
The obvious answer is that regulators like to impose rules, if only to make themselves feel important. That reflex is particularly in evidence in a heavily regulated society like France with an omnipresent state. The French, unlike Anglo-Saxons, are generally deferential towards state regulations, though sometimes get so fed up that they take to the streets. From long experience, the French instinctively know how to integrate the inconveniences and irritations of state regulations into their behaviour (including in the violation of the rule).
But there is another, more plausible, explanation. Facebook and Twitter are, of course, American social networks. In France, they are regarded, at least implicitly, as symbols of Anglo-Saxon global dominance — along with Apple, MTV, McDonald’s, Hollywood, Disneyland, and other cultural juggernauts. That there is a deeply-rooted animosity in the French psyche towards Anglo-Saxon cultural domination cannot be disputed; indeed, it has been documented and analysed for decades. Sometimes this cultural resentment finds expression in French regulations and laws, frequently described, and often denounced, by foreigners as protectionism.
French regulators would not, of course, readily admit that their ban on the words “Facebook” and “Twitter” was motivated by an institutionalised hostility towards Anglo-Saxon domination. They prefer to take refuge in legal explanations with reference, and deference, to French decrees and laws. But the CSA has discretion to interpret the law, and this most recent decree is not only puzzling, but highly suspect.
A relevant historical comparison makes my point. Before the explosion of the Internet in the 1990s, the French were infatuated with their leading-edge electronic information system called Minitel. During the 1980s, when I first moved to France, the Minitel was the object of tremendous national pride. Nearly everyone in this country had a Minitel terminal in their home. The plastic terminals were easy to procure because the Minitel was a state-backed technology made available through the state-owned telephone company, France Telecom. I picked up my Minitel terminal (see image below), free of charge at my local Post Office.
In those days, you couldn’t watch a television programme in France without the host urging you to “tapez 3615” on your Minitel to connect and get more information or express your opinion. The numbers “3615”, for reasons I never understood, were the standard code to access the Minitel system. The French government made billions on the Minitel because time spent logged on was tariffed by state-owned France Telecom. The Minitel’s dirty secret was that text-based porn services like “Ulla” — famous for its lascivious poster adverts on the back of Parisian buses — were by far the most profitable. Through “Minitel Rose”, the French government was in the porn business.
In those days, French television networks (owned by the state at the time) were in effect commercial agents for Minitel usage. No regulatory ruling, to my memory, banned all mention of Minitel on French airwaves due to concerns about “clandestine advertising”. Perhaps the reason for this regulatory indulgence was a fact that regulators could not easily ignore: the commercial profit centre for Minitel revenues was the French state.
The Minitel, blown away by the Web in the 1990s, quickly vanished into techno-oblivion. Today a plastic Minitel terminal is regarded as a vaguely comical technological antique. It would be a gross overstatement to argue that the French have never forgiven the Web for destroying the Minitel. But it’s possible to wonder whether French resistance to the Internet revolution, even on television, might possibly find its origins, subconsciously, in this lingering resentment.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what ingenious ways French television and radio networks come up with to drive their audiences to their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts while remaining within the spirit, if not the letter, of this preposterous regulation.