Just like the UK government but slightly later, France plans to make all its public administration functions remotely accessible to citizens by phone, internet or local kiosk by 2005.

But the French remain wary of commercial personal identification technologies, said Michel Sapin, the French minister for the civil service and administrative reform, yesterday.

Now, however, the time has come to build a system of electronic administration that is at the heart of a democratic state, he said.

The political stakes are high, Sapin said. "One can use the same tools to implement left-wing or right-wing policies, to reinforce the power of the state or to abandon the provision, overtly or secretly, of public services."

He expressed a wariness of commercially available online identification and authentication technologies.

"Already, the big players on the internet are introducing devices which present equally big challenges for public services. AOL's 'magic carpet' and Microsoft's Passport are collecting more and more personal information on internet users. Should we use these as identity documents in the future? And if so, with what guarantees for protection of personal privacy, and under what financial conditions?" he said.

Some cooperation with big business will be necessary — but on France's terms, he said.

"Our democratic values must be at the heart of this second stage. Of course, we must work in partnership with the commercial players, but within the framework of an openly debated mandate and carefully controlled projects," he said.

Already, the Internet is making inroads into French public life, Sapin said.

"Last year, 2.5 million people [of a population of 60 million] calculated their income taxes online, and each week some 5 million receipts for medical treatment are processed electronically via the health and social security network."