France's language police have more to combat than "le hamburger" and "le weekend" these days. Now there's "le cyberspace" and the hundreds of new words a year that it is generating - all in English.
France has waged wars to preserve its national language for centuries, but a lawsuit this week marks the first time it has taken the battle onto the Internet.
A win by state-sponsored language groups could set an important precedent on how far governments can regulate the Internet, as well as increase the costs of doing business in France.
Some US-based analysts say that cyberspace is no place for a language war. "The French case shows a remarkable lack of understanding about what the Internet is all about. English is the lingua franca of the Internet, and anyone who tries to impede that will only slow their own growth," says Mark Anderson, president of Strategic News Service, located in Friday Harbor, Wash., and one of the leading US consulting firms for computers and telecommunications. Currently, French Web sites account for a mere 2 percent of all Web sites, whereas 85 to 90 percent of all Web sites are in English.
"There's plenty of room for diversity on the Internet, but you can't legislate it," he adds.
But for French-language purists, at issue is a matter of simple respect: Groups that want to advertise to French consumers should do so in French - even in cyberspace.
The 1994 Toubon law, named after the then-French minister of culture, requires that all advertising of goods and services in France be in French or at least include a French translation.
Until this week, the law has been applied mainly to restaurant menus or labels on products, starting with English-labeled Bambi stuffed toys in the Disney outlet on the Champs Elysees. But the new lawsuit tests whether the law also applies to information on the Internet.
"The Toubon law covers all advertising of goods or services in France. There is no reason why the Internet should escape," says Marie-Helene Dumestre, who supervises application of the Toubon law for the French Ministry of Culture.
This week's case targets the French branch of the Atlanta-based Georgia Institute of Technology, or Georgia Tech Lorraine, a campus in Metz, in eastern France, with a current enrollment of 60 students. Classes are conducted in English, and the faculty rotates in from Atlanta. All course descriptions on its Internet site are in English, which French officials say violates French law.
"They are clearly addressing French consumers and should do so in French," says Ms. Dumestre.
Georgia Tech's Internet address is http://www.georgiatech-metz.fr, but surfers take note: If Georgia Tech Lorraine loses this case, it may be liable for penalties of $5,000 each time someone visits the site. A decision in the case is expected Feb. 24.
"One of our group members just stumbled onto the Georgia Tech site," says Marceau Dechamps, a spokesman for Defense of the French Language Association, one of the two groups bringing suit against Georgia Tech Lorraine. "We're starting with this case, but we are convinced there are others. We must ... begin to regulate the Internet. There can be no 'outlaw' space."
Georgia Tech officials say that since most of its faculty are Americans and all the teaching is in English - a requirement for admission - it makes sense to have an English-language Web site.
"Our Web site is also linked to the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia. Does France want them to convert to French as well?" says Hans Puttgen, director of Georgia Tech Lorraine.
He warns that any foreign firm doing business in France might be brought to court for using English on its Web site.
He adds: "We attract students from all over the world to our Metz campus, where we offer intensive training in French culture, savoir-faire, art de vivre, as well as French language. These two associations should be congratulating us instead of pursuing us in court."
In court on Monday, Georgia Tech also noted that the Toubon law provides exceptions for foreign educational institutions teaching in a foreign language.
Georgia Tech officials also note that even many French companies conduct much of their Internet business in English. A French computer company, Bull, for example, has a mainly English Web site, although information about its French services are in French. "We consider that most of our customers who are connected understand English. We do not have the resources today to translate the whole site into other languages, including French," says Rufus Miles, who directs Bull's Internet site (http://www.bull.fr).
Some French-language activists in Quebec, where French-English language wars have also been high politics, welcomed the move to crack down on English Web sites in France.
Even if all the students on campus speak English, "the Web site should be in French. It's a matter of respect for the French language," says Francois Hubert, a columnist for the Montreal-based monthly Techno, who also directs a Web site to improve the quality of the French language.
But such activists also say that a major barrier to the development of French on the Internet has been the high cost of telephone communications in France, where rates are set by a government monopoly. "In France, you pay even for local calls. That has slowed things down. When France Telecom's monopoly ends as expected this year, rates will go down and Internet access will improve," says Jean-Francois Chetelat, director of the Librarie Gallimard in Montreal.
OFFICIAL FRENCH TRANSLATIONS OF COMMON INTERNET TERMS
e-mail courrier electronique
hacker pirate informatique
personal computer (PC) microprocesseur
Web master webmestre
to surf surfer
Web surfer Internaute
World Wide Web le Web, or W3 (pronounced DOO-bla-vay TRWA)
Source: WorldWide Language Institute at http://www.wwli.com