French proposal plans state Free Software Agency

The law pushing open software as the French state standard is taking clearer shape

A proposed French law adopting free and/or open source software as the official state standard has been rewritten and tightened up, following the French Senate's pioneering experiment with electronic discussion.

The new text, originally proposed as loi 495 but now retagged 117, cleans up terminology, but perhaps the most intriguing new aspect is the proposal to establish L'Agence du Logiciel Libre (the Free Software Agency) to oversee the process of switching and standardisation.

The law was proposed last year by French senators Pierre Laffitte and René Trégouët, and since then has been debated in a forum on the French Senate's website.

Its specific purpose is to help kick-start an electronic society in France by defining standards, compelling state agencies to make services and information available electronically and allowing the general population free access to them via the web. But in the view of the senators this can best be facilitated by the adoption of open, free software that can be modified freely.

The original text however contained something of a blooper, specifying "software free of rights and for which the source code is available" as the standard to be adopted by central government, local government and state agencies. The "free of rights" wording would have restricted the software that could be used drastically, while requiring that "the source code is available" although seeming to point towards open source, didn't quite get there.

Some of the wording changes derive from a meeting between Richard Stallman, Frederic Couchet of APRIL (Association pour la Promotion et la Recherche en Informatique Libre) and senator Laffitte. Rather than "free of rights" we're now talking about software "the use and modification of which are free," covering a fairly broad territory.

Linguistically though the law remains delicately poised; Stallman sees its genesis as a victory for the free software movement, and at the time of our original reports was determined to stop it being seen as one for open source. If it is passed, however, it still creates a major opportunity for open source, and for free software in general.

The law doesn't use the language "source ouverte," or "L'Open Source" (the latter, although apparently fairly common in France, wouldn't have made it to the statute books anyway), referring instead to "source disponible," i.e. available. This possibly avoids the mention of "open source," one of Stallman's hot buttons, but source disponible/available source is commonly used in descriptions of open source software, so it's not necessarily loaded. "Logiciels libres" meanwhile doesn't have quite the same resonance in French as in English, because French has two equivalents of free, "libre" as in non-captive, and "gratuit" as in no charge. It's perhaps also significant that "logiciels libres" didn't figure in the original text at all.

While it does show up in the new text, the law still concentrates on how the system will work rather than getting itself too involved in religious wars. L'Agence du Logiciel Libre is however far more interesting than arguments about angels, pinheads and "why do those open source bastards always end up getting the credit?" It is intended to supervise the implementation of the law, determine the software whose use is permitted, and to determine the areas where applications qualifying under the law aren't available (and hence where ordinary commercial software will still be permitted).

If it flies, it will be a powerful agency that will determine the whole of France's IT policy and its implementation. But the decisions it makes will be discussed on the web first, which means that the senators are now proposing that France's switchover to free software will in itself come via a continuing online review process. As citizens, geeks, agency and government clash on the web we foresee the chilling possibility of the whole of France turning into some kind of nightmare version of Slashdot... ®

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