Why citizen Citroen won't surf

France is deeply divided over whether it should log on to the internet, reports Adam Sage

With his designer jeans, open-plan office and fluent English, Charles Madeline enshrines the new France. The co-founder of a company in Paris that provides advice, funding and premises for internet start-ups, he is in touch with the modern era and at ease with globalisation. That, no doubt, explains why his firm, Republic Alley, has received visits from a host of public dignatories, including President Jacques Chirac, over the past six months.

Chirac's strategy, to which just about every mainstream French politician now adheres, rests upon a simple calculation: the internet equals modernity and modernity equals votes.

The truth may be a little more complicated. In France, the web could become a factor of division, deepening the rift between those who are comfortable with the English language, technology and the market economy, and those who are not.

You have only to look around Republic Alley to discover why. The building that is now home to Madeline's pine desk and swivel chair was once given over to a textile industry which had its base in the Republique and Sentier districts of central Paris. On the ground floor, two workshops have survived as the start-ups have flourished around them. Happy Rain employs five people to make waistcoats on low-tech sewing machines. Next to it, Dis-Moi-Tout has six employees who produce flared trousers for women.

Perched on a wooden chair in a cramped office, Claude Sarfati, 44, the director of Dis-Moi-Tout, puts down his ham sandwich to deliver his verdict on the World Wide Web. "Never used it," he says. The workshop does not have a computer and Sarfati cannot afford one at home. Nor would he know what to do with it if he could. "That's just not something I'm tuned into."

Many of his compatriots agree, according to Gerard Mermet, the author of Francoscopie, a comprehensive analysis of French social trends that is published every two years. In the latest edition, which came out in November, Mermet pin-points the emergence of a two-speed country, with much of the population embracing the 21st century and the rest rejecting it.

Les modernes have adopted lifestyles that owe as much to American culture as French history. They drink less alcohol and more Coca-Cola: they rate Tex-Mex among their favourite food; and they buy foreign cars. Les anciens remain faithful to Gallic stereotypes, preferring red wine, pot-au-feu and Citroens.

But the most resistant brick in the wall separating the two camps, according to Mermet, is the internet. About 10 per cent of French households are connected and the figure is rising. By 2005, it will reach 40 per cent. Yet that will still leave more than half the population without access.

"The modern aristocracy is not recognisable through birth, but by social and often financial success, as well as by power and influence," says Mermet. "Its principal force is to have information and knowledge, which are the primary substances of the modern era."

The first key to this aristocracy is English. You can try to surf the web in French but, since only about 2 per cent of sites are written in the language of Moliere, the scope is limited. Many French firms have taken this on board and ordered their management to learn "l'anglais". At Renault, for example, executives have been told to write off their promotion hopes unless they come up to scratch in English tests.

According to a recent survey, about 35 per cent of French people say they can now have a conversation in English - a vast improvement on previous generations, but still far behind such countries as Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Germany.

The second key is cultural. Internet users in France tend to be young and educated and employed in a private sector that is exposed to the international economy and, therefore, to the web.

The six million members of what is proportionately the biggest public sector in the developed world are insulated from both. "Much of French culture is very centralised and administrative, which is the opposite to the net," says Madeline. "This is a big barrier."

So, too, is money, with the internet spreading among the wealthy middle classes much faster than it is among the poor.

In recent months, Chirac has started to talk about what he calls the "numeric fracture" at the heart of French society, warning that the web will reinforce inequalities. Philippe Queau, the director of Unesco's information technology directorate, agrees. "The problem with the internet is that it benefits a privileged few, those who already have everything, and it excludes all the others. It's a political problem."

The consequences can be significant. At Republic Alley, for example, Dis-Moi-Tout is facing increased competition from flared-trouser manufacturers across the world, who are eating into the Parisian market. With its director unable to use either the internet or English, the firm cannot return fire, and its prospects are bleak.

Above it, La Cantoche, one of the start-ups nourished by Madeline, has none of these problems. BenoIt Morel, the general manager, recently won a lucrative contract to produce an interactive character that will feature on Hewlett-Packard computers. He has done everything to smooth a path in the global village, speaking English with an accent that is a mixture of French and American, and, on his business card, removing the circumflex from over the i in BenoIt.

A few metres and an unbridgeable gulf separates him from Sarfati in the Dis-Moi-Tout office.