From the International Herald Tribune:
France's mysterious embrace of blogs
By Thomas Crampton
International Herald Tribune
FRIDAY, JULY 28, 2006-->Published: July 27, 2006
PARIS Already famed for angry labor strikes and philosophical debates in smoke-filled cafés, the French have now brought these passions online to become some of the world's most intensive bloggers.
The French distinguish themselves, both statistically and anecdotally, ahead of Germans, Britons and even Americans in their obsession with blogs, the personal and public journals of the Internet age.
Just why the French have embraced blogs more than most is anyone's guess, but explanations range from technical to historical and cultural.
Sixty percent of French Internet users visited a blog in May, ahead of Britain with 40 percent and little more than a third in the United States, according to Comscore, an Internet ratings service.
Likewise, French bloggers spent more than an hour in June visiting France's top-rated blog site, far ahead of the 12 minutes spent by Americans doing the same and less than 3 minutes for Germans, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
More than three million Internet users, or more than 12 percent of those online in France, have created a blog, according a study released in June by the ratings agency Médiamétrie.
"You cannot be elected president of France without a blog," said Benjamin Griveaux, director of Web strategy for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister who in 2004 was among the first politicians to start a blog. "Blogs have not replaced traditional media, but they are absolutely necessary for every politician."
Some even harbor a faint hope that flourishing online discussions might curb the French population's penchant for taking to the streets in protest.
"With so many blogs, I'm hoping for fewer protests and strikes in Paris this fall," said Loïc Le Meur, a pioneer French blogger and European managing director of the blog-hosting company Six Apart. "If people can express themselves online, then maybe they don't need to block the streets."
French blogs stands out in other measurable ways. They are noticeably longer, more critical, more negative, more egocentric and more provocative than their U.S. counterparts, said Laurent Florès, the French-born, New York-based chief executive of CRM Metrix, a company that monitors blogs and other online conversations on behalf of companies seeking feedback on their brands.
"Bloggers in the United States listen to each other and incorporate rival ideas in the discussion," he said. "French bloggers never compromise their opinions."
They also passionately debate why they blog so much. One common explanation in the blogosphere is that there are so many French Internet surfers to begin with. Last year the number of French people online passed the halfway mark of the total population of 61 million, with 85 percent of Internet users in May using high-speed broadband at home, according to Médiamétrie.
Cultural explanations describe blogs as a natural outgrowth of the French national character.
"It is clear that in France we have very large egos and love to speak about ourselves," Le Meur said. "If you look at Germans or Scandinavians - off- line and on the Internet - they really don't talk about themselves."
Historical explanations highlight the long French experience with online communication thanks to the Minitel, a text-based computer network that France Télécom popularized in the 1980s, well before most people had heard of the Internet.
But blogs are having a greater effect on French society, said Jean-Michel Billaut, an adviser to BNP Paribas Bank on Internet issues.
"The Minitel was a classic, centrally controlled and top-down creation of the French elite," Billaut said. "Blogs have been embraced by ordinary people, and this will flip the rigid power pyramid of French society."
Like elsewhere, the grass-roots freedom of blogs has proved problematic for French companies, with activist groups and skeptical consumers taking their strong views online, said Cyril Klein, marketing director of Scanblog, a blog-monitoring firm in Paris.
"Consumers in France have few outlets to make their views heard, so blogs have become their counterpower," Klein said, citing as an example ChiennesDeGarde.org, a Web site that fights against sexist displays of women. "The difficulty for brands is that French culture encourages people to express unhappiness and criticize."
The French police prosecuted bloggers in November for coordinating riots in the Paris suburbs, and a French high school professor's blog was widely credited with swaying many French to vote against the political establishment and reject a proposed European constitution in May 2005.
And one hard-charging blogger, Christophe Grébert, faced multiple lawsuits for allegations on his blog about the local government in his Paris suburb.
But these Web logs, or online journals, are not just opposition tools. Most mainstream French politicians have now embraced blogs.
The French Socialist presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal started a blog in February that has had more than half a million visitors and 20,000 comments, and it has been credited with lifting membership of the Socialist Party. The blog includes a draft version of her political platform, which citizens are invited to comment on before it is completed.
But the French can be quirky as well as serious. One of the most popular video blogs, Bonjour America (www.bonjour-america.com), was started by Cyrille de Lasteyrie to explain France to foreigners - and to find a way for him to meet his hero, Clint Eastwood.
Other popular blogs include a cooking diary called C'est Moi Qui l'Ai Fait and a journal by an advertising executive called Dark Planneur.
Griveaux, the director of Web strategy for Strauss-Kahn, reckons the popularity of blogs comes down to France being a nation where each and every citizen thinks he or she should be in charge.
"We had 16 presidential candidates at the last election, and we will probably have the same number next year," Griveaux said. "Every French person wants to run the country - a blog is the next best option."