France's culture minister on Tuesday cancelled her attendance at the Paris launch of a Google cultural hub at the last minute, in a snub to the US giant over data protection and other issues.
The French government is at loggerheads with Google over privacy and its controversial tax arrangements, but the cancellation prompted a last-resort scramble at the presidency and prime minister's office, which asked Innovation Minister Fleur Pellerin to go to the afternoon event instead.
Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti's office told AFP she had decided not to go as planned to the launch of the "Lab"—which Google Vice President Vint Cerf was also to attend—so as not to be seen as fully backing the tech firm "despite the quality of the project".
"At this stage, we do not have enough assurances on a certain number of issues," one aide said, adding Filippetti wanted Google to "commit more resolutely" on areas such as the protection of personal data and taxation.
Cerf said he was "very disappointed" by Filippetti's last-minute cancellation.
"It's a disappointment because this is not about politics, this is about culture. This is about recognising global culture and making it available and exploring technology and the way in which it affects art," he said in an interview with parliamentary channel Public Senat.
The Lab is a place in the French capital designed to enable artists, museums, foundations and other cultural players to meet the US giant's engineers and gain access to its technology.
A workshop equipped with experimental technology such as a giant interactive screen, a 3D printing stand and a very high-resolution camera will be made available and the Lab will also set up a residency programme for young artists from around the world.
It is a physical extension of Google's online Cultural Institute, which showcases exhibitions, archives and monuments from around the world on the Internet.
A source close to the case, who refused to be named, told AFP that Pellerin had been asked to replace Filippetti.
"The presence at this launch of a member of government does not take away the significant divergences between France and Google on different issues, as noted by the culture minister," the source said.
"Google chose to set up its cultural centre in Paris and that's what the government wants to welcome with its presence."
Like other technology giants, Google has come under the spotlight following revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of widespread online eavesdropping by US and other intelligence agencies.
But the firms have argued they have no choice but to give information when requested to do so by the US government.
Earlier this month, Google said the number of requests for user data from governments and law enforcement organs had doubled since 2010.
Aside from Snowden's revelations, France's data protection watchdog maintains Google has failed to comply with the European country's national privacy guidelines and announced in September it would take action against the US giant.
France is also currently investigating Google's practice of channelling revenues through Bermuda to reduce its exposure to taxes in a number of countries.
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