Minitel -- the resistible rise of French Videotex

Ewan sutherland

Messagerie Conviviale and Messagerie Rose

One of the unexpected dividends of Minitel was the development of private bulletin board services in which individuals could place personal announcements. Known as messagerie conviviale it allowed individuals to place announcements rather as they might in a magazine or newspaper. The name could be real or fictitious. The statements could either be of the about themselves or of an idea. It was an application of information technology which gave the individual new opportunities and capabilities.

Le Guide du Minitel, rather grandly, likened the pseudonym to the use of masks at the Venice Carnival's Ball Masqué. In many ways it is similar to the use of Citizens' Band radio in the USA, providing a high degree of personal expression.

The messaging services developed in a thematic way around sport, politics, pastimes and, of course, sex. There rapidly developed a market in sexually explicit services of a quite lurid character known as messagerie rose under names such as Cum, Eros and SM. The nature of the services is shown in the advertisements. These were placed in magazines and in some cases some in large size on bus stops in Paris.

In economic terms messagerie rose, through its notoriety, added to public awareness of Minitel and so attracted considerable revenues to France Télécom. Press comment added to the advertising.

One of the saving graces of these services was that Minitel is a form of sexe sans risque; you cannot contract AIDS from a Minitel.

It is argued by some French observers that users of these services are playing harmless social and erotic games, not really meaning the things they write [ULB, 1987].

The original idea of introducing messaging services was that people could develop an understanding and experience of systems for the new information age. What emerged was a 'problem' closer to the chatlines (0898 numbers) in the UK, the telephone sex services in the USA (1-900 numbers) or Berlusconi's commercial television services in Italy.

Yet the public are evidently willing to pay for such services. It may be that some people consider them 'immoral'. Some may engage in the hypocrisy of using the services and denouncing them as immoral.

It was argued that telecommunications helped to break down the old socio-political order in Eastern Europe. If the same thing is now to happen to Western Europe, then it is difficult to complain. It is not being done pour épater les bourgeois, but because there is a market, a part of which is undoubtedly bourgeois. The question of public hypocrisy arises.

A New Medium

Minitel has been seen as the birth of a new cultural industry sitting beside film, radio and television. It is claimed to be different because the network is used for broadcasting, communication and transactions. It does not appear to fit with traditional models of editing used for the written or spoken word, neither are the approaches of film or television appropriate. Through the messaging services, the public can communicate with each other; often concealed by a pseudonym. [Pajon, 1989]

Whilst there may be some merit in the argument that Minitel is a new medium, it cannot be held to be true. Minitel is similar to too many other services for the distinction to be valid. The messagerie services are similar to conventional electronic mail and bulletin boards. The game services are closely related to the thriving market in computer games. Home banking and teleshopping are extensions of information systems which are otherwise unremarkable and closely linked to EPoS and EFTPoS. The telephone directory is simple information retrieval.

Minitel is unique in scale, scope and the degree of integration, but it is not unique in function.


Inevitably many problems have been encountered with the messagerie, including access to these services by children. An eleven year-old boy, who wanted to become a sailor, dialled a gay service known as 36.15 Marine. No doubt it was advertised with a suitably masculine sailor. [Marin is the French for sailor. ??]

There was also a case of the father of a family who who killed three gay men he arranged to meet through the use of Minitel services.

Minitel services are used for other sexual activities, including bestiality, paedophilia, prostitution and the distribution of amateur video cassettes.

There is a powerful lobby against the messagerie rose, in the form of FFF: Federation des familiales de France, representing 160,000 families.

As in most countries, France has a general law against incitement to debauchery. However, enforcing this is very difficult, both practically and politically.

Vasectomie fiscale

The logical solution to objections to pornographic services on Minitel would have been prohibition. However, this was felt to pose extremely delicate problems and was avoided. The exception to this was when the Government closed 36.15 FONE on 20th January 1992. This service had failed to conform to rules agreed between France Télécom and the industry.

Instead, the route chosen was tax. In January 1989 the Government promulgated a tax of thirty per cent on the turnover of certain named services which it designated to be pornographic. This was raised to 50% in 1992. It was estimated to have closed some thirty services by 1992.

On 4th October 1994, the Cour des Comptes reported that the tax was ineffective. In 1992 it raised nothing at all and in 1993 only 194,888.50 FFr. Given the estimated annual turnover of more than 500 milliards of Francs, this indicated an almost total evasion of the tax. It could simply be the result of services giving up or redesigning their product offering to avoid the tax.

Evasion was achieved by mixing services with games, horoscopes, information and so on, creating a service which was not exclusively pornographic. Moreover, one legitimate service could act as a gateway to pornographic services. Where the tax was imposed, cases were invariably contested before a tribunal, making it very expensive to collect.

The Syndicat des Professionnels de la Télématique Conviviale estimate that 5,000 people are employed providing these services and that the turnover is around 500 FFr milliards. The Syndicat constitutes a substantial lobby for the retention of the services.

Such laws and taxes are argued to restrict the development of Minitel and to be in breach of EU Directives.

The gay community opposes moves to restrict access. It sees Minitel as important infrastructure for the community. It is a friendly way for people to come to terms with their sexuality and ultimately to come out.

Complex issues of free speech and of the privacy of personal relationships. The latter is guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Very little support for action against Minitel services, only 2% of a Harris poll.

Future issues include video-telephony. Also premium-rate telephone services.


Agence France Presse, Le Monde, Illico and Le Cour des Comptes.

[ Introduction | Invention | Marketing | French telecommunications | France Télécom | French videotex | Messagerie Conviviale | Unnatural market | Cour des Comptes | Quickening pace of technology and politics | Conclusion | Bibliography | Chronology | Web links ]

Copyright © Ewan Sutherland, 1995.

Ewan Sutherland