French Sen. Pierre Laffitte

Sen. Pierre Laffitte -- who helped create a

by / October 31, 1996
GT: How is French society and government adjusting to the new technological age?

Laffitte: I think that France has a very good connection to what we call telematics, the connection between computer science and telecommunications.

We developed the Minitel system 12 years ago. Now, we have more than 7 million Minitels in France, which means that about 20 million people are acquainted with the types of services which only began recently in the rest of the world.

We have more than 20,000 different services with Minitel, including air ticketing and banking. This means there is a very good connection with the people as to what the Information Age can give, produce and help.

At the same time, the French government has begun a lot of different experiments, just like in the United States. For instance, in the Sophia Antipolis in the south of France, we have ATM loops with 10 ATM switches connected to 50 or 60 big companies.

We have also developed groups there in order to mix users and content providers, and another group to mix content providers with cable operators or television, to look at what would be useful for society, business, health care and so on. In this specific region, about 50 different experiments have been done.

We have experiments which we think are on the leading edge of health care. We have an international connection between France and Tunisia, for instance, for [telemedicine].

It's very important for us to be aware that the Information Technology Age could diminish the distance between the haves and have-nots, and the Information Age shouldn't further divide those who don't have access to information and those who do have access. So we have many specific programs which are devoted to helping the people within the poor communities.

GT: What specific projects are there for dealing with the haves and have-nots?

Laffitte: Well, some of [the projects] are intended to provide [people] the possibility to express what they want and to be in connection with other communities. In other words, to see that they are not left behind.

It's a type of therapy which is very positive. We also have some experiments putting together different small schools to interact through the Internet, including schools in Switzerland, Tunisia, Quebec, and maybe now in New York, in order to provide a broader view of what is going on while they are very young.

GT: How does France view the role of government in resolving or lessening disparity between the haves and have-nots?

Laffitte: Well, we think that the role of cities, of regional and local authorities and of government [is to] help. France thinks that experiments should be done by private enterprise or by an association or foundations.

GT: Do you see the French approach as different from the United States' approach to this issue?

Laffitte: Not really. Maybe the French government has a tradition of being more directly involved. The funding from the government may be higher than here, where the states and the local governor have more powerful direct contact.

Generally, the type of approach is not very different, in my opinion. What is more different is our approach on the health-care system. We are now beginning to develop the national health-care system using smart cards.

In France, the smart-card system is very effective. This smart card could be like a dictionary of health, and would be protected. Only doctors could have access to it. This type of system could help doctors see if other things have been done before, and what shouldn't be done again, and so on. It would help diminish the cost of social security and reduce red tape. This is now an experiment in different regions, and it will be expanded.

GT: What is France's approach to privacy?

Laffitte: We have a special national organization, Le Commission Nationale Informatique, which enforces a law prohibiting using personal information in a different system. Any time information has something to do with privacy, the people of the commission become very keen about this law.

GT: When was this law created?

Laffitte: Five or six years ago.

GT: What precipitated the law? Were there privacy violations or problems?

Laffitte: It was a problem when people thought, for instance, that one file could be crossed with another and it could be used by people who wanted to hire them. That's why it was done.

GT: How is it working?

Laffitte: It's working quite well. The only problem is that this commission sometimes goes too far. Sometimes the crossing of files is very useful for everybody, like for national insurance or social security. It depends on why you want to cross, and sometimes the commission is reluctant to do any crossing, even if there is no problem with privacy.

GT: How has the French Parliament been dealing with the Information Age?

Laffitte: In my opinion, the members of the French Parliament right now do not realize the importance of the Information Age and how rapidly we have changed habits. I think that many of the measures taken by the French Parliament to try to diminish unemployment, for instance, have been very passive and not very productive. And for the same amount of money they could have developed new content for the information infrastructure.

The content is not at the same level as the current capacity, or up to what users want. We should focus on these two parts, because the driving force is the international economy.

In France, the users are much more prepared because of Minitel. The focus should be more on the development of skills by the users and the development of specific skills by the people who develop content.

We developed connections through a club called Multimedia Interactivity of Sophia Antipolis in order to bring service providers, people who should know quite well about technology, together with potential [users]. For instance, I have a group which is for health care, another group for communities and another group for artists. Another group is for architects, where we try to find out how architects could have a better use, and so on.

It gives way to better projects being developed here, which use existing and sometimes new technology. That's the type of program that should be aided by the government.

GT: Could you tell us about your latest Mediterranean project?

Laffitte: The project is called Medsat, and unites countries from Israel, Germany, Egypt to Turkey, to Tunisia and so on. We want to have a dedicated satellite with maybe 200 different channels to develop information highways dedicated to continuous education, initial education, and specific fields like how to farm when water is scarce.

We also want to work on health-care programs, culture and tourism, and problems connected with democracy, including how to have a direct link between citizens and a city government department, and so on. The process would be the same for the users and the service providers -- we will mix them.

We have already begun continuing and remote education, and we will have a second meeting about architecture. A common way of thinking is that a whole Greek architecture, or Spanish architecture, can be connected. It's a program that is not only social, but intended to develop a new international culture which would be possible with cultural intermixing.

I think this project is specifically important because of international politics. The Mediterranean is a difficult region of the world, and you have 500 million people, some of them are very poor, some of them are richer, and it creates many tensions. This type of activity could also break the tension with exactly the same process within a country or within a city. It could be very important.

GT: Is this a government project?

Laffitte: No, it's a private project with different organizations. I have a very good contact with a grouping of different universities in Italy. I am in contact with people from Berlin. I have a contact with the city of Barcelona. It will be international and based in the south of France in Sophia Antipolis, [the high-tech manufacturing center] which I developed 35 years ago.

GT: How did the Sophia Antipolis develop, and how did you get involved in it?

Laffitte: Well, I thought it would be a good idea to try to do something in France like Stanford Park or Route 128 near Boston, but maybe in a different way and with much more city planning. I developed this on a private basis in the beginning by explaining the project [to get investors].

I must say that I had very good contact with higher chief executives in the United States. I met the president of Chase Manhattan Bank, and many others were very interested. The first big companies which came were American, but now we have about 1,000 companies, most of them very small. There are also many others, like Digital Equipment Corp., AT&T and ASI.

GT: How has that area helped France as we move into the Technology Age?

Laffitte: We have created jobs, but we have also changed the structure to be more cosmopolitan. People act like much more than Californians or French or German. It's very international. A senior vice president came and said, "Wow, I'm not in France." In different bistros you'll hear people speaking French, Italian, German, English, American English
and Japanese sometimes. It's real international.

French Sen.
Pierre Laffitte,
who helped create
a high-technology
center near the
French Riviera in
the 1960s, has
been in the Senate
for 11 years.
Laffitte was
interviewed by
Brian Miller,
features editor,
while the senator
was in San Francisco
during a U.S.
technology tour.
The senator
discussed his
current international
projects and
technology issues.