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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 12:38 GMT
French bureaucracy takes online leap
Screen, www.service-public.fr
The new site will extend the existing web presence
By Rory Mulholland in Paris

France is about to launch an electronic government initiative that will give every citizen a personal internet portal allowing them to pay taxes online, register a child for a state school, or be reminded that their regulatory car inspection is due in a month's time.

The move aims to streamline the country's notoriously bureaucratic civil service. The new system, titled mon.service-public.fr, is due to be launched on Thursday, but the French will have to wait until 2005 for it to be completed.

Civil Service Minister Michel Sapin has billed it as the second phase of France's move to electronic government.

The first, officially started in 1998, aimed to put online as much administrative information as possible. It was designed to complement the information that was already available on the Minitel, a limited French precursor to the internet.

Countless forms

However, due to technical, regulatory and legal problems, it was not until October 2000 that the website www.service-public.fr was unveiled.

The site offers links to thousands of public information websites, and lets tax-payers make their annual income declaration online.

Its most useful function is that it helps many French men and women avoid trips to the local town hall to pick up one of the seemingly countless forms around which life in France often appears to revolve.

Over one thousand official forms, or 65% of the total, are now downloadable from www.service-public.fr. This, critics point out, is not quite the 100% promised by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin back in 1998.

Software obstacle

A major hurdle facing the designers of the future personal portal is the question of electronic signatures. These have been recognised by French law as legally binding since March this year.

But the software needed to create one is still far too complicated for the average computer user. The government says it is currently studying a number of options to ensure citizens' official transactions are secure.

Because only 20% of French homes have internet access, the government promises that computer terminals will be set up in town halls, with officials on hand to help citizens complete their online transactions.

Dr Stephen Coleman of the e-democracy programme of the Hansard Society, an independent UK body that tries to promote a better understanding of democracy, says the French initiative is a lot more ambitious than what is happening in the UK.

"But I would want to see it also provide an opportunity for democratic feedback," he adds. "It's good that you can pay your taxes online, but you should also be able to discuss what happens to those taxes."

See also:

07 Nov 01 | Northern Ireland
NI gets ready for e-government
01 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Dubai Government goes online
27 Aug 01 | dot life
Government starts with E
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