France Surfs Web, But Culture Stays Leather-Bound

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THOSE who fear that the printed word is dead should have tried squeezing into a subway car headed toward Paris's annual book fair on opening night.

''I told myself, these people can't all be going to the book fair. There aren't that many readers left in the world. But they were,'' said a Paris kiosk manager going to the fair, which lasts through tomorrow.

For the first time, this celebration of French books featured American writers and publishers, as well as the Internet by means of a cybercafe. Fair organizers hoped to dispel the notion that France is not open to other cultures, despite its campaign to fend off Anglo-Saxon incursions.

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''We invited the Americans because we wanted to show that French publishing isn't what some people think; in fact, we're creative, innovative, and extremely rich,'' says Serge Eyrolles, president of the 16th ''Salon du Livre,'' which started March 21. ''We've been misunderstood by the Anglo-Saxon world and notably the Americans.''

The Internet has been described here as a tool of American imperialism - to say nothing of its threat to France's less-than-super information highway, the Minitel.

American books, while not as vilified by the French government's culture czars as American films, are taking a big bite out of the French market. American hardcover sales in France have increased more than 20 percent since 1990. Meanwhile, sales of French dictionaries in the US have dropped 61 percent.

In Paris, books are as much a matter of style as well-cut clothes or beautifully presented food. Marie-Antoinette bound all her books in scarlet leather. For a price, you can find shops in Paris that still do the same. Some French writers enjoy the media status of rock stars.

Bookstores here are staffed with people who often look through the stock without a computer's aid, and will throw in a spontaneous lecture on French philosophy to boot. An American mass-market bookstore ranks down with le fast food in the French cultural order of things.

''Generally, the American bookstore, far from the sophistication of European counterparts, is simply an functional accumulation of bookshelves and piles of eclectic books,'' Book Fair organizers explain in publicity materials.

Yet American authors are not denigrated - especially those that write about France. The book fair is hosting a tribute to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who visited Paris frequently in the 1920s.

Multimedia hits

French readers who browsed the exposition of American books here lingered among displays of new multimedia products, which have seen a growth rate of 120 percent in the last year.

French users have been slow to get onto the Internet. Some 14 million users already do on-line searches on France's Minitel, a videotext terminal that plugs into French telecommunication networks. A free Minitel terminal is available to anyone who stops by a France Telecom office.

Also, the 12-year-old Minitel system provides easy access to phone numbers, train and plane reservations, dating services, and thousands of data bases and forums. Most importantly, Minitel communications are in French.

But Internet use is gaining ground and Minitel use is stagnating. French users are campaigning to ensure that the Internet is not just for Anglophones. Last month, French researchers put the first all-French search program on the Internet, Lokace (http://www.iplus.fr/lokace).

'Le Grand Secret' unveiled

The Internet also gained dramatic new visibility in France after users in North America and Europe posted Dr. Claude Gubler's ''Le Grand Secret'' on the Internet five days after it was banned by a French court. The book, written by the personal physician of former French President Francois Mitterrand, reveals that Mitterrand had issued false reports on his health for 11 years of his 14-year presidency.

The issue uncovered what attorneys on both sides of the case describe as an immense legal loophole, because the ban applies only to the publisher and its authors. ''We've never been confronted with a case like this,'' says Xavier de Bartillat, general director of Editions Plon, which published the book. Since users don't pay fees to read the book on the Internet, there is no evidence that the copyright was violated.

Last week, France's publishers' association decided to seek legal recognition in court of the authors' rights on the Internet. ''There is no precedent in jurisprudence,'' says Hubert Tilliet, attorney for the Syndicat National de L'Edition. ''The problem of the Internet is that there are no frontiers. You can now make any book available over the Internet almost immediately.''

While lawyers wrestle with legal issues of such cases, France's pioneer cybernauts rejoiced in French-language computer forums that the Internet had prevented the suppression of a politically sensitive book.

Whether French readers will flock to the Internet instead of books is of less concern to Internet users. According to a recent French survey, the big loser from on-line surfing is TV. ''I'm not too worried,'' says Jerome Millon, a publisher from Grenoble. ''People still love to have books by their beds, and it's inconvenient to prop a screen up on your knees.''

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