April 21, 2007

French presidential candidates on free software, related issues

Author: Bruce Byfield

When free software supporters participate in the French presidential election on April 22 for the first round of voting, they will have information that may be unique in the world: position statements from all major parties on issues about free software, copyright, patents, and digital rights. Even more surprisingly -- at least from a North American perspective -- a majority of the candidates have heard of these issues and developed positions on them.This information comes courtesy of APRIL, French advocacy group whose full name translates to the Association for Promotion and Research in Libre Computing. In February, APRIL sent out 14 detailed questions to the presidential candidates, asking them for their positions on both general issues and points particular to French legislation. Two days before the election, eight out of 12 candidates have responded. Those responding at length include two of the major candidates: Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party and François Bayrou of the Union for French Democracy. The third major candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy of the Union for a Popular Movement, also responded, but with a much shorter statement that did not address APRIL's questions directly.

The other candidates who responded were Olivier Besancenot of the Revolutionary Communist League; independent José Bové, Marie-George Buffet of the French Communist Party; Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front, and Dominique Voynet of the Greens.

Arlette Laguiller of Workers' Struggle did not answer the questions, but replied to the questionnaire by saying, "Unfortunately, I do not have enough staff nor an army of experts allowing me to answer with the competence and precision that your request requires."

Selected questions

The responses have been posted in PDF format on the Candidats.fr Web site, but here's a taste of what the candidates had to say.

The first section of the questionnaire dealt with the general desirability of patents, and, in particular, the operations of the European Patent Office (OEB). Bayrou declared himself in favor of laws that helped to "ensure development of free software." Similarly, Royal declared a need "to clarify the distinction between what is patentable and what is not" and to prevent patent offices from acting as legislators, adding that French Socialists in the European Parliament had voted to exclude software patents. Even more strongly, Voynet declared that the Greens supported those who "counter the patentability of ideas." Besancenot, Buffet, and Le Pen also opposed software patents, while Bové quoted the Free Software Foundation's four freedoms in expressing his opposition.

Another question asked, in essence, whether candidates were in favor of rights to interoperability and protection for those who attempted to circumvent lock-down technologies, and whether software creators should be obliged to provide information for interoperability. Bayrou replied that "the right to interoperability is essential as well for the users as for the creators" and that "any brake to interoperability ... is to the detriment of the public and creative artists. Moreover, a technical measure could not be regarded as circumvented if it is simply a question of the user exercising the right to make a private copy." Royal agreed, adding that interoperability should take precedence over software patents, suggesting the issue was a matter of freedom of speech and association. With the exception of Sarkozy (see below), the other candidates who responded took similar positions.

The questionnaire also asked whether candidates were in favor of repealing DADVSI (in English, the Law on Author's Rights and Related Rights in the Information Society), which anti-digital rights management activists called "the worst copyright law in Europe" when it was rammed through the French Parliament last year. Again, all candidates except Sarkozy agreed that the law needed to be heavily revised or repealed, with Bové referring to those who supported DADVSI as "liberticides."

Except for Sarkozy, the candidates also agreed that consumers should have the right to buy a computer without any preloaded software, and that students should learn, as the questionnaire put it, not "a product line" such as Microsoft Office, but rather "tool categories," such as word processors or spreadsheets. In both cases, candidates took positions common in the free software community, suggesting that paying for preloaded software went against consumers' rights, and expressing concerns that children were a vulnerable market for software vendors.

The only question on which most candidates differed sharply was whether they were in favor of governments promoting open standards and free software. Yet, even here, the difference was mostly a matter of emphasis. Besancenot, Bové, Buffet, Le Pen, and Voynet all declared that they would encourage both open standards and free software, differing only on whether they would simply "encourage" them, as Le Pen promised, implement a policy favoring them, as Voynet suggested, or develop an agency to promote them, as Buffet suggested. By contrast, Bayrou and Royal, the two major candidates who responded, were more cautious, suggesting that such advocacy had to be tempered by the standards of responsible government. Bayrou in particular suggested that such principles as "good use of public funds," "freedom of access," and "equal treatment" were more important than promoting open standards and free software.

The overall impression is that most of the presidential candidates were well-informed about free software issues. At least two made a point of mentioning having met with Richard Stallman, and several were obviously familiar to some extent with the free software community. This awareness cut across the traditional spectrum, with both communists and socialists on one side and the National Front on the other expressing interest in free software. Presumably, in the close race, which will almost certainly require a runoff in several weeks, candidates were taking no chance of missing looking appealing to whatever bloc of votes free software activists might represent in France.

The exception

The only exception to this observation was Sarkozy. Sarkozy delayed answering the questionnaire until Canidats.fr had posted the other answers along with a comment noting his silence, and deplored his lack of response in a news release. Even then, his reply was only four pages long, less than half the length of most of the other replies. Nor did it address the questions directly, so much as make general replies. Sarkozy was also the only candidate who responded with obvious hostility, remarking when talking about DADVSI that "I am opposed to the orientations implied by your questions."

Sarkozy's reluctance to reply becomes obvious when you consider his answers. He expresses his support for patent law on the grounds that it "encourages enterprises to innovate, it attracts investments, [and] encourages individuals to ... develop new inventions." In addition, Sarkozy supported the concept of intellectual property, and suggested that it was premature to talk about revising DADVSI before the end of 2007, when a review is scheduled. In answer to the question about open standards and free software, he replied that "it is not the purpose of the State, in my concept of freedom, to impose a model on anyone." Other replies were so general as to suggest that he either had not considered the matter or was avoiding stating his position. As Frédéric Couchet, a director of APRIL commented, Sarkozy's "was the worst response received."

Jean-Christophe Becquet, vice president of civil education at APRIL, summed up the questionnaire by saying, "We hope that the APRIL initiative fed the civil debate beyond partisanship. The candidates' proposals ... were read by the greatest number of people, debated, and critiqued. Without a doubt, some of these proposals will be taken up again."

APRIL has already announced that it will revive Candidat.fr for the next legislative elections in France. It's an initiative that free software advocates in other countries might also want to consider.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.


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