French love and hate the mobile

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The Independent Online
The French were slow to catch on to the global craze for the mobile telephone. But they are catching up rapidly - and loudly. So much so, John Lichfield writes from Paris, that a majority of French people want them banned in public places.

The time is early evening, the scene is a TGV leaving Lyons for Paris. A prosperous-looking business man calls his wife on his mobile phone. "Sorry, cherie," he announces to the whole carriage. "The meeting is running late. I have to stay in Lyons tonight."

A minute later he dials a different number. "Cherie?" he says, equally loudly. "Everything is fixed. My wife thinks I am in Lyons. I will meet you tonight at (such and such a restaurant)..."

The anecdote, recounted recently in a French magazine, proves that the mobile phone is adaptable to any culture. For a long time, it seemed, that France would resist the global temptation to be permanently in touch with the rest of the world. But the country is now falling for the mobile in a big way: there were 862,000 new subscriptions last month alone, many of them Christmas presents. The phone operating companies forecast that the number of users will double by the end of this year to 10,000,000.

Atrocity stories abound. One of the most terrifying sights in Paris is to see cars hurtling into the automotive jacuzzi at the Etoile while their drivers chat on the phone. A university professor complained recently that he had been interrupted 37 times by mobile beeps during an hour-long lecture. Charles Aznavour broke off in mid-song at a concert at the Olympia in November to plead with a member of the audience to answer his phone.

A number of fashionable Parisian restaurants, notably the Brasserie Lipp at St Germain des Pres, have banned mobiles completely. At another restaurant, the Floralie, near the Bourse, the proprietor has resorted to blowing a whistle when the sound of the beeping, and the disembodied conversations, becomes unbearable. At Chez Bibi, also close to the Bourse, the proprietor received a call from a man sitting at one of his tables, complaining that he was still waiting for his food.

An opinion poll for the newspaper Le Parisien has revealed that a majority of French people would like to see a ban on the use of mobile phones in public places, similar to the existing law restricting smoking. Of those polled, 87 per cent wanted the mobile to be banned in theatres and cinemas, 81 per cent in restaurants, 74 per cent at sporting events, 66 per cent in public transport and 64 per cent in cars.

Curiously, the belated conversion of the French to the mobile phone - there are still only half as many in circulation as in Britain, a quarter of the density in the Scandinavian countries - is a case of history repeating itself. Until the early 1980s, France had the lowest proportion of fixed phones of any developed country. This was a case of the French love of conversation struggling against the French worship of privacy. Only 75 per cent of households had a phone in 1983; the figure has now risen to 94 per cent.

The resistance to the mobile has been dissolved more rapidly, partly because of a price-war between operators which has brought the cost crashing down. Early legislation to curb the mobile seems unlikely. If France follows the pattern of other countries, behaviour should improve once the first flush of novelty wears away.