How France fell out of love with Minitel

It was France's first glimpse of an online future. But now, 30 years after it was invented, the wired experiment that foreshadowed the World Wide Web is about to lose its connection once and for all.

Thirty years ago, France led the world into the 21st century, but the world hardly noticed. In 1981-82, two French inventions offered a glimpse of the future. One was the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) or high-speed train. The other was the Minitel. The what?

Long before the coming of the World Wide Web, the Minitel provided a sort of internet-in-one-country. Long before Facebook, Google or Twitter – millions of French people went "online" daily to search for information, to book their holidays, chat to strangers or seek cheap (or not so cheap) sexual thrills.

The Minitel – a rather sinister, computer-like terminal attached to classic telephone landlines – was installed in one million French homes by 1985. At the end of the 1990s, nine million terminals were linked to some 25,000 Minitel services. So the French invented the internet? No, not exactly.

Of two ideas launched in France in 1981-82, it was the seemingly backward-looking one – the TGV – which seduced the world. The Minitel, though far ahead of its time, was an evolutionary cul-de-sac. It never spread abroad and was overtaken in the 1990s by the "real" internet "invented" in the United States.

At the end of this month, Minitel will finally go offline, ending a brave experiment in French exceptionalism. The surprise is that the network has lasted so long. There are still 810,000 Minitel terminals in France, mostly used by older people who dislike computers. There are still 1,800 services available through Minitel, although most people these days contact them (final indignity) through the internet.

Argument still rages about whether the Minitel, run by France Telecom and its predecessor, the PTT, was a fast-track into the future or a destructive dead-end. The mushroom-coloured box has become an emblem of France's struggles with a globalised, and allegedly Anglo-Saxon dominated, world.

It has often been argued that the obsession of the French state with the Minitel impeded France's conversion to the internet. Either way, Minitel itself proved to be a kind of "Neanderthal" technology – a huge evolutionary advance that was doomed to be swept away by a smarter, more flexible and more aggressive cousin.

The Minitel was the world's first large data base accessible to the public. The Minitel terminal – provided free to subscribers – was the first screen-and-keyboard combination widely available in any country. Minitel had chat lines where people could commentate on world events, or their own lives, long before the blogosphere. There was even an abbreviated Minitel language, rather like "text speak", such as "slt, té ki?" (salut, qui es- tu; or hello, who are you?)

But Minitel, compared with the web, had many limitations. The terminals were not computers. They could not analyse or store information. They could not randomly "search" the network. They could only call up the addresses of the 25,000 or more services officially affiliated to the system. Access was pay-as-you-go or by subscription and – especially in the case of the sex lines on the "Minitel Rose" or "pink Minitel" – could be very expensive.

The imminent demise of the Minitel has produced a surge of reminiscences on the early days of the service. And at least one confession.

Gerome Nox, a veteran male French pop musician, admitted this week to the newspaper Libération that he had in a previous life been "Julie", an "animatrice" or hostess on one of the first Minitel text-sex lines. Few women wanted the work, he said, so most of the "hostesses", paid the equivalent of £2.50 an hour, were men.

"(The clients) were like a shoal of starving piranha fish," he said. "No hello. No polite openings. It was to the point and crude." After a while he realised that "my Julie" had become "disagreeable, wicked and odious". He announced online that he was a man "whose job is to inflate all your phone bills. So you've all been screwed, just like you wanted to be". He was fired the next day.

Bills run up on Minitel Rose became legendary. It is less known that beneficiaries of this early text-sex were conservative, regional newspapers. They received exclusive rights to set up lucrative Minitel services, including the Minitel Rose, after complaining that the dull little consoles appearing in every home in France would be the "death of print culture". Plus ça change.

Minitel had rivals in other countries, even before the internet spread around the globe. There was Ceefax in Britain and NAPLPS in the United States. But none of these systems were as comprehensive or effective as Minitel. On the US system, it could take six minutes for a single page to appear on the screen.

But France never managed to sell the Minitel technology abroad. The US took a great interest in the French invention in the 1980s but declined to buy it. By the 1990s, the internet was on the way. To all but the stubborn French, the future of information technology was personal computers linked, internationally, by the servers and search engines which created the web.

Even today, some French people still insist on the superiority of Minitel over the internet. There is a Facebook group calling for a "return to the Minitel". Older people, like Claudette, 80, say they will be devastated when they lose their little terminals. "I use it several times a week to consult my accounts," she said. "I have a little table with my Minitel, my telephone and my answering-machine. What else do I need?"

Gérard Neyret has been campaigning for three years for the Minitel system to be preserved. "You don't get the clouds of useless information that you get on the internet," he said. "There is no risk of viruses or fraud. It was a remarkable invention."

On the last day of this month, nonetheless, the last of the Minitel screens will go blank. It will prove to be a historic moment, much like the last day of the stage-coaches from Paris to Lyon or the last steam trains from Marseille to Calais.

French inventions: The three best...

Guillotine

This brutally efficient method of execution, also known as the "great equaliser", was pioneered during the French Revolution and adopted by other countries. It was used in France until the 1970s.

Aqua-lung

Invented in Paris in the winter of 1942-43 by naval officer Jacques Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnan, the aqua-lung allows divers to descend hundreds of metres underwater by enabling them to carry the oxygen they breathe.

Hot air balloon

The first untethered, manned flight was made in a hot air balloon created by the Montgolfier brothers and launched on 21 November, 1783. Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne watched from the ground in Paris as their creation flew for 20 minutes.

...And three worst

Maginot Line

A vast defensive fortification built after the First World War on the border with Germany, it was seen as a military triumph. But it was useless as German forces outflanked it and invaded France through Belgium.

The euro

Few would blame its demise on the French, but the architect of the single currency was Frenchman Jacques Delors, then the president of the European Commission. Mr Delors recently said that the euro was "doomed from the start".

Parachute suit

Franz Reichelt, a French tailor and parachuting pioneer, met his end while demonstrating his parachute. He died on 4 February 1912 after leaping from the first platform of the Eiffel Tower in his parachute suit.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain