It might seem that France, the land of museums and cafés, has little to offer the tech market, but don't try to tell that to Jacques Chirac. He's been on a crusade recently to assert French pride in the realm of information technology (IT).
As a result we've seen some pretty wacky announcements and rulings over the past few months.
In April, President Chirac announced 2 billion euros' funding for a French search engine destined to rival Google. In his New Year's Eve speech at the Elysée Palace, Chirac contextualized this bold move by imploring the French to "take up the global challenge posed by Google and Yahoo!"
Chirac's project, called Quaero (Latin for "I search"), claims to be the first engine to efficiently sort through all audio, images and video.
Most analysts dismiss the move as a nationalistic attempt to snub American companies. In a tit-for-tat scenario, Google would replace Quaero much as freedom fries replaced the french ones.
After the 2002 election, Chirac roared back into power in a nation divided over immigration issues. Currying favour with the patriots, he promised to launch a 24-hour news station dubbed "CNN à la française."
Poised to launch this December, with over 70 million euros in public funding, it will purportedly spread French values to counter CNN and the BBC.
It seems the French never tire of reminding American companies that they have to fall into line. In 2000, the French government leaned on Yahoo! to conform to French law prohibiting French citizens from purchasing Nazi memorabilia through Yahoo auction sites.
The company first decried the effort as censorship, but buckled as financial pressures grew. Yahoo now tracks users with geographic-filtering software to make sure French standards aren't being breached.
Chirac evidently sees his country's technological acumen as emblematic in France's larger cultural war with the U.S. This view has led to some very contradictory policies concerning piracy and digital rights management (DRM).
In 2004, a resident sued the French government because he was unable to make a "personal backup copy" of a DVD he'd purchased (Mulholland Drive), due to prohibitive DRM restrictions. In March of this year, France's highest court ruled that the consumer's right to back up property was trumped by a corporation's right to protect its intellectual property.
The French government further solidified this vision in late 2005, when fierce lobbying by media behemoths such as Vivendi Universal resulted in draconian punishments for digital media pirates involving jail sentences and fines of up to 300,000 euros.
The government even suggested that vendors be required to include anti-piracy software on anything sold in digital format.
But in March of this year, the lower house of the legislature, the Assemblie National, ruled that music vendors like Apple's iTunes had to lift their DRM standards so consumers can listen to their tunes on any software, a stance many feel is tantamount to endorsing piracy.
However, many critics have pointed out that songs purchased from iTunes can be burned and played on any CD player and even re-ripped to the computer, DRM-free. It seems more likely that the ruling represented a glorious opportunity to piss off pushy American companies.
Whatever you think of any of the above, competition in the French IT market is far healthier than in North America, resulting in lower prices for Internet and cable access and other such services.
So perhaps the French have something to brag about after all.