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Vive La France!

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Column Last week, a report emerged with one of the most unlikely conclusions in the short history of digital policy. The report was built around yet another ranking of the technological performance of different countries around the world.

Its main finding was this: "France, which spends a substantial one per cent of GDP on government R&D, takes first place.”

You might want to read that again.

Or to put it another way: "France, the country that the information society prophets and competitiveness gurus have long considered to be a complete basket-case, takes first place."

In 2005, France, the country with the sixth largest economy in the world, was lingering in 22nd place in the World Economic Forum's "network-readiness" rankings. In 2006, they dropped a place.

The Economist Intelligence Unit's global "e-readiness" rankings have only marginally better news for the French, putting them in 19th place.

Within the European Union, France is considered even more of an embarrassment. European Commission officials despair about a people who seem bizarrely more interested in wandering down to their local shops to buy whatever's on offer, than feverishly purchasing things online like the British now do.

On any index of national competitiveness, high-tech up-for-it-ness, e-this or i-that, France sits there, like the fat kid on sports day, being overtaken by both the new kids from Eastern Europe who desperately want to impress, and the heroic athletes of North America, Scandinavia, and the far East, who pride themselves on leading the pack.

Value judgements

So what of this latest index? Well, here's the rub. The index comes from a less well-known source, a US think tank called The Centre for Global Development.

The technology index is just one component of a wider Commitment to Global Development index, that ranks countries in terms of how their actions benefit developing countries.

As the report explains: "The Technology Index rewards polices that support the creation and dissemination of innovations of value to developing countries. It rewards government subsidies for research and development, whether delivered through spending or tax breaks."

It also penalises countries such as the US, who it considers to be promoting intellectual property practices which restrict the flow of benefits to developing countries.

It is worth stressing that all international rankings should be treated with a bit of suspicion. They are primarily developed to be eye-catching and to shame countries that don't appear to be playing ball.

It would be somewhat hypocritical if the French were to offer a Gallic shrug in the face of the endless criticism offered by the digital advocates, but then to suddenly shout about this latest scoreboard from the rooftops.

But nevertheless, policymakers might want to reflect on a few implications of this.

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