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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Guru Careers: Creative Director / Head of Creative

£65K - £75K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Creative Director...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Luxury Brand

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global wholesaler and reta...

Recruitment Genius: Store Manager - Department Store

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This organization is one of the founding names...

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - IT Managed Services

£30000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are loo...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence