Minitel: The Online World France Built Before the Web

A decade before the Internet went mainstream, French citizens were interacting via Minitel, a computer network open to anyone with a telephone

11 min read
Minitel terminal
SSPL/Getty Images

It was the late 1970s. Former French presidents Charles de Gaulle and George Pompidou had recently died. The Arab oil embargo caused energy prices to quadruple for a time. Marseille remained gripped by drug lords. And France had to face the fact that its telephone network was one of the worst in the industrialized world. Fewer than 7 million telephone lines served 47 million French citizens, and the country’s elite felt that the domination of U.S. firms in telephone equipment, computers, databases, and information networks threatened their national sovereignty. Or at least it damaged their cultural pride.

In an influential 1978 report to President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, titled The Computerization of Society, government researchers Simon Nora and Alain Minc argued that the solution to France’s telecom woes lay in “telematics”—a combination of telecommunications and informatics. They outlined a plan for digitizing the telephone network, adding a layer of interactive teletext video technology, and providing entrepreneurs with an open platform for innovation.

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3 min read
Chimneys and cooling towers from a coal fired power station releasing smoke and steam into the atmosphere.
Getty Images

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6 min read
A smiling man in a suit and glasses
Brad Trent

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