Network: Never too sophisticated for Le Net

The French, at last, are discovering the delights of cyberspace. Bob Biderman samples a little cybercafe society in Paris; Online in Paris
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In Paris, L'Internet est arrive! Or has it? Like everything else in the mysterious world of Gallic cyberspace, it depends on who you talk to.

Statistically, France is somewhat behind the rest of Europe in accessing the Web. Two things have stood in the way. The first is that very French desire for linguistic pre-eminence. Francophones tend to recoil in horror at a system that, at its core, is English (or, more correctly, American). The second is the enormous investment that France has put into its highly successful Minitel information network - which, though purely text-based, now also provides an e-mail facility, the most popular service on the Net.

Despite the lack of support from the French government and news organisations, which have failed to hype the coming cyber revolution in the messianic tones of their English counterparts, there is a significant sector of the French market ripe for the pickings (at least this is what the legions of American-accented cyber-salesmen taxiing in from Orly and Charles de Gaulle seem to believe). Not surprisingly, the first ranks of converts are the young.

The youth in France are techno-savvy. For many of them, the Net is a Siren's call emanating far beyond the cramped and sterile quarters of the Academie Francaise. Just like the ear-splitting, rhythmic beat of Techno music and the retina-shattering phosphorescent colours zapping out from computer screens at nightclubs and discos, the Net provides a path to pulsating, international anarcho-solidarity.

Curiously, it is that most stalwart of French institutions, the cafe, which has become the epicentre of the new cyberculture. Though 6,000 traditional cafes shut their doors for ever last year, the cybercafe is doing a booming trade. Paris has 15. On a recent trip I checked them out.

Chief among these techno-emporia is Le Shop, a cybercafe on rue d'Argout, only a short walk from the frenetic junction of Les Halles. A virtual cyber-palace, Le Shop is the perfect combination of metallic design, electronic music, the Net and hamburgers. Presided over by the grinningly youthful Baptiste Cadiou, the cafe throbs with spaced-out bliss (if your senses can take it).

When Le Shop closes its doors at around seven in the evening, Zowezo opens up. Zowezo, which is an African term describing human diversity (so the owners claim), is a music bar located near the fleshpots of Pigalle. A hang-out for young techno-artists, its three Net terminals buzz on through the night - or at least till the official closing hours of 2am.

Close to Le Shop is Cristal Palace, another huge music bar/restaurant - this one decorated with a Mexican Andy Warhol motif. It combines the Net with networked computer games and the music of Jimi Hendrix, till six in the morning.

Two cinema multiplexes, UGC at Forum des Halles and Gaumont at Montparnasse, have incorporated cybercafes into their architecture. So, too, has Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Hausmann, with its Bistrot Internet. Virgin Records on the Champs Elysees also caters to the new youth culture with seven cyber-connected PCs in its basement.

Young, arty net-heads aren't the only ones catered for in the expanding Parisian Net culture. The High Tech Cafe at Montparnasse tower is frequented by the more serious technocrat. Overlooking the bustling business district, set back on a concrete terrace, the bunker-like structure is filled with sleek-suited and chic bodies. HTC (as it is known by the clubbies who flock there after office hours) is strictly for the urban professional and requires a membership card that costs Fr600 (pounds 75) a year; there is an hourly usage fee on top of that. Here, whisky is the drink. The music is jazz. The mood is a mannered "cool". In the background, hovering over the smoky glass tables, is a giant screen with constantly shifting Web addresses. It is a great place if you want to meet a future techno-king.

But if techno-queens are your thing, there is always the newly opened Cafe Cox. Near the Hotel de Ville in "Vieux Paris", it claims to be the first gay cybercafe (at least in France). With an abundance of ancient wood and stone, the computer screens beam up from under the glass tables, creating a curiously anachronistic illusion.

Cyberia at the Centre Pompidou combines a proper English rectitude with a slightly laid-back French ambience, and has carved out a nice little space on the mezzanine of this wonderfully fanciful oasis. The staff are mainly British, speaking passable French, and their focus is cyber rather than cafe. Befitting a chain with its home base in London, they all wear T-shirts with the web address running down the sleeves, rather like a uniform - to set them off, I suppose, from the ordinary tourists.

A more relaxing spot is right across from the Jardin Luxembourg on the rue de Medicis. It is quiet during the week and if the sun is out you can enjoy your Viennese coffee outdoors before strolling inside for a quick surf or e-mail.

The most intriguing of the Parisian cybercafes, though, must certainly be Le Web Bar. Located on rue Picardie, bordering the old quarter of Le Marais, it was fashioned out of a disused art gallery. You enter into an ordinary cafe, but in the back is a circular rotunda with a glass dome through which the marvellous Parisian light pours. The young collective who took the place over wanted to achieve a balance of art and technology. It seems they have succeeded. On the walls of the rotunda is a rotating art exhibit. On the floor, circular tables are interspersed among the statuary. The computers, which provide Net access unobtrusively, occupy the balcony. There is a sense of peace and calm. In Paris, cyberspace can also be sweet.

The writer is the editor of `Cafe Magazine' (http://www.gold.net/users/fy15). He is also a lecturer in language and communication at the College of North West London.

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