Abstract: Staying with IBM, Shunning National Champions: Users' Choice in Major French Organizations

Pierre Mounier-Kuhn


From the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, the French government enforced a national champion policy, first with CII, then with Bull. Yet IBM remained strongly established and sometimes increased its dominance, not only in the private sector, but also in large parts of the government-controlled sector. The paper will examine the relationship between IBM and several types of clients labeled ''strategic.'' In military air defense, senior officers stressed that altering the signal handling system would put national security at risk, and thus were allowed to remain with IBM, while civilian air control authorities were compelled to shift from IBM to CII's incompatible systems. The three largest commercial banks never acquired CII computers, but entrusted the major part of their data-processing to IBM, while using Bull's incompatible machines for specific applications. In scientific computing, the atomic energy authority (CEA) and the CNRS national computer facility (Circe) made it clear that they required the most powerful and efficient number-crunchers, whoever their vendor was, to ensure the competitiveness of French research, while regional university computer facilities were content to receive less powerful mainframes from the national champion. In this politically hostile environment, IBM France endeavored to assert its image as a virtuous, ''citizen-company.'' Its cause was supported even within the administration, where preferential procurement policies were criticized, and in large parts of the French business world, which traditionally favored free markets over government intervention.