French on the Web? Pourquoi pas?

Earlier this month a conference hall in Paris, filled with 1,300 of France's great and good, was becoming restless. The audience was awaiting the arrival of the star speaker. Finally, a slight, young-looking Englishman arrived on the platform and was greeted by applause from around the auditorium. He was Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web (WWW), the easy- to-read bit of the Internet with pictures.

When he invented the Web in 1990, Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the nuclear research centre near Geneva. But in 1994 he switched to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the World Wide Web Consortium had been formed to take Web standards forward. Most of the members are American IT firms.

The Web is solidly Anglophone - but not for much longer, if the French have their way. The Paris jamboree was the launch of the European branch of the WWW Consortium and the announcement of Inria, the French IT research centre, as the co-developer with MIT. The main task, according to Berners- Lee, is to "multi-culturalise and multi-lingualise" the Web.

The French interpret this to mean it should be more French. Elisabeth Dufourcq, the then minister of education, announced the main purpose to be to create "un Web francophone pour tous les Francais - et les Quebecois", and put 10 million French francs on the table to fund Inria's work on the Web and to connect small businesses to it. One of the other French speakers declared that a reason for the "non" vote in Quebec was that the Web gave the English-speaking minority an unfair advantage in getting their electoral act together.

Of the 20 full members of the European Consortium, about 15 are French firms, both IT companies such as Bull and Alcatel, and users such as Aerospatiale and Michelin. It is probably right that France should take a lead role in the European Web, as it has 10 years' experience of a crude forerunner of the Web, Minitel, which is linked to tens of thousands of Teletel services.

As the Web is one of the most explosive technologies of the future, however, it seems important for the whole of European industry, not just the French, to put in their penn'orth to the Web Consortium's standards. From Britain, the only full members are BT and the half-French Sema software house. It would be nice to have seen some other British firms in there.