France has kicked off 2014 with an array of skirmishes against Amazon, Google and other U.S. Internet companies, in what is shaping up as a classic battle between comfortable Gallic tradition and disruptive modernity.
On Thursday, Jan. 9, the French Senate unanimously approved a bill that would ban Amazon from offering free shipping on books in France. Strongly endorsed by the Ministry of Culture, the legislation is supposed to safeguard the existence of the country’s 3,500 bookstores, about 800 of which are independent.
A few hours earlier, France’s national agency for data protection, known by its acronym CNIL, announced that its sanctions committee had found Google to be in breach of national privacy laws, based on the company’s March 2012 decision to merge different privacy policies for each of its services — including YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Docs — into one policy. CNIL, along with data protection agencies in five other EU nations, argued that Google doesn’t sufficiently inform its users about how or why their data is processed. It ordered the Internet giant to pay a fine of 150,000 euros (about $200,000) and to publish a communiqué on its French home page informing users of the sanction.
And in late December, a handful of companies offering private minicab services online in France, including the San Francisco-based startup Uber, began organizing against a new government decree that forces minicabs to wait 15 minutes before picking up a customer, unlike regular taxis that have no such restriction.
While the circumstances differ in the three cases, they together reveal a France that can be slow, reluctant and sometimes downright ornery about accepting the sort of changes that the digital age brings. French officialdom pays lip service to the importance of innovation — there’s even a government minister charged with fostering it — but the government can be vigorous when it comes to defending the French way of doing things. Netflix, which is available in other parts of Europe, hasn’t yet been able to launch its services in France, and last year a government minister prevented Yahoo from buying the French video site Dailymotion. Culture is an especially sensitive topic. France provides big subsidies to TV shows, movies and even newspapers, and insists that its “cultural exception” is exempted from any new European free trade deal with the U.S., in order to be able to continue paying subsidies and imposing quotas on the proportion of U.S. shows on French television.