Volume 14, No. 2
Citizens (Band) of France Unite!
Starting in the late 1970s, a “new” technology took off in France: Citizen Band (CB) radio. The term, borrowed from America, denoted an uncomplicated, well known short-wave technology that was easy to use. In addition—and this was essential—people could communicate without the intermediary of an operator or a network infrastructure and—no less consequential—its use was free of charge.
Although the inherent mobility of the CB radio allowed users to escape control with relative ease, this freedom, in France at least, was superficial. Because it used radio bandwidth, CB was subject to the same regulatory framework and the same state communications monopoly as other uses of the radio spectrum. When CBs began arriving in France from the United States, the state neither had issued regulations specifically governing CBs nor had authorized their use. Consequently, users of CB radios were in violation of the state’s monopoly, and, despite their small number, they did not escape the authorities’ attention.
This regulatory and legal paradox made the CB, more than the telephone, a notorious victim of the state’s telecommunications monopoly, the subject of intense political debate between the Right and Left. Not surprisingly, CB use also was colored by rebellion and defiance directed toward the state. The portrayal of the CB user in popular U. S. movies and television shows imported into France bolstered the insurgent mystique of the CB user. During the 1990s, the CB took on a new life as it metamorphosed into a consumer product, one that marked the absorption of an American technology and practice into French popular culture.
The French public could not buy CB radios until 1967. Initial sales were minimal and increased notably only with the importation in 1974 of the Midland CB radio manufactured in the U. S. In 1975, the first shop to specialize in CB equipment, Guy Mocquer, opened and sold the imported President brand. Although the radios were 30 to 50 times more powerful than the maximum power authorized by law, the authorities tolerated their sale and growing use, prosecuting only offenders who caused interference. CB excitement began to soar. From 1979 to 1984, the number of CB users increased forty times.
Several factors drove this explosion. U. S. firms, faced with a saturated market, launched a large-scale commercial offensive. Prices ranged from as low as 50 francs ($10 US) to over 3,000 francs ($600 US) for more sophisticated CB radios. In addition, the latest CBs featured more channels and greater simplicity of operation, as quartz tuners gave way to synthesized frequency circuitry.
The growing number of CB enthusiasts soon began to contest the state monopoly. Starting in the summer of 1979, the authorities increased the number of criminal prosecutions, and on October 29, 1980, they stopped all imports of 27 MHz radios. In protest, between 10,000 and 15,000 CB users assembled at the Le Mans motorbike racing track. CB importers and the Western Automobile Club, representing its 300,000 members, supported the protest. The CB movement was no longer a marginal phenomenon and soon played a key role in presidential elections.
One of the central electoral issues was the state telecommunications monopoly. The Left promised to ease restrictions and to provide users 100 channels. The government responded on December 15, 1980, with standard NFC 92411, which authorized 22 channels and a maximum power of 2 watts (FM), subject to administrative authorization. Owners of older sets could continue to use them, but only on allocated frequency bands. The new rules galled CB enthusiasts.
The electoral victory of François Mitterrand opened an era of relaxed restrictions. On June 1, 1983, the government announced a new regulation permitting 40 channels, three operational bands (AM, FM, and BLU), and 4 watts of maximum power. Users would pay 170 francs ($34 US) for a 5-year license fee. These regulations eventually led to the CB’s transformation in the 1990s into an everyday consumer good, though one whose use was confined to motorists.
A fresh spurt of CB growth took place after 1992. In a little more than a year, the number of cars with CBs doubled, and in less than four years the number of users tripled. Driving this dramatic rise was the introduction of a point system for drivers on July 1, 1992. Professional truckers protested by blocking the country’s main highways between June 29 and July 10, 1992, just as the whole country was set to travel on vacation. Their protest showed the effectiveness of the CB radio in divulging police locations, and the CB promptly became a defense against police radar.
Other factors also drove the new buying wave. A statutory reform of March 31, 1992, essentially suppressed the license fee and all other formalities, while CB sales outlets expanded from the specialized stores of the 1980s, which continued to prosper, to mail order distributors, supermarkets (hypermarchés), and automobile garages and parts stores. Four importers of CB radios, manufactured in Asia and sold under U. S. brand names, shared the French market: President Electronics Europe, Dirler, Euro Communication Equipment (CB House), and CRT France International. The two largest importers, President and Dirler, held 40% of the market in 1995.
CB advertisements rarely mentioned technical performance, but stressed ease of use, comfort, innovative characteristics, aesthetics, and ergonomics. The ads aimed at a mass market seeking a familiar consumer good and featured, for example, sets that combined the CB with a car radio or CBs that one could mistake for a telephone. Magazines also reflected the CB’s transformation into a mass-market consumer good. CB magazines, such as CB Connection, France CB, and Radio CB Magazine, published between 25,000 and 40,000 copies monthly.
CB culture, like CB use, changed from the 1980s into the 1990s. The CB culture of the 1980s featured a spirit of rebellion against the state’s regulations and monopoly and the absorption into French popular culture of an American technology and practice. The CB clearly was identified in France as an American product. Action films of the 1970s projected an image, albeit cliched, of the CB radio operator, and identified the CB with an America of open spaces, individual freedom, and the freewheeling world of the automobile. Duel (1971), Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Out of the Blue (1981), and Convoy (1978) glorified the mythical America of mobility, open spaces, and violence. Convoy, in particular, celebrated the power of the CB over police. Truck drivers eluded the corrupt police, rallied fellow truckers to their cause, and forced the police to give up, all thanks to the CB. Convoy helped to ingrain American CB culture firmly in a segment of the French population. It identified CB enthusiasts as at odds with the state monopoly, fiercely hostile towards the police, yet somehow not outside the law.
French television also propagated American CB culture though such popular series as “Sherif fait moi peur” (“The Dukes of Hazard”). These tended to revive the myth of the TV Western and linked the CB to the freedom of the road, nonconformity, and defiance of the establishment, as well as to specific geographical areas, namely the U.S. South and West, with their appealing portrayals of a rural society still free of urban pressures. The individuals portrayed on television were neither marginal groups nor youth, but rather successful professional adults who refused to conform to a rigid societal framework. This image reflected the reality of the CB as a technology of the French middle class. Those with modest incomes, or lacking a car, or finding the CB too expensive, as well as those from the affluent classes who found the technology useless or too vulgar, represented only a very small number of its users.
French media portrayed a diverse spectrum of CB enthusiasts, from such cultural rebels as Serge Gainsbourg, Coluch, and Renaud, to rural TV hosts, such as Yves Duteil and Gérard Lenormand, to the populist and chauvinist Herbert Léonard. The CB also inspired musicians. For example, Dalida recorded “Confidence on the Waves,” and Jean-Yves Lozach sang “Channel 19,” reflecting his commitment to the fight for freedom. One rock group even named itself “Citizen Band.”
The social diversity of CB interest seemed to exemplify the claim that CB use crossed social barriers, because it allowed people to chat anonymously (using CB “handles”) without any technical, regulatory, or tariff barriers. Despite the anonymity and brevity of interchanges, the CB created feelings of immediate complicity and liking based on an exchange between social equals. The use of tu, the informal French “you,” was the rule and signified the lack of social distance among CB users.
The CB, so popular during the 1980s and 1990s, seems somewhat antiquated today. It has no IP network, no digital telephone system, no optical fibers, and no satellites. Nonetheless, perhaps CB radio will become a model for the future. As mobile telephone and computer use expands, one wonders whether the CB—a mobile communications system by nature, autonomous, free of charge to use—will become the prototype for tomorrow’s Internet.
Pascal Griset is professor of contemporary history at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He is also Director of the Centre de Recherche en Histoire de l’Innovation. Most recent among his many publications is “Submarine Telegraph Cables: Business and Politics, 1838-1939,” which he coauthored with another Mercurian, Daniel R. Headrick, (Business History Review vol. 75, Autumn 2001).