What is Richard Stallman, the father of free software (if not open source) like in person? And what is he thinking now about Linux, terrorism and French politics? I gained some insight recently when the founder of the GNU operating system spoke near Paris.

I glimpsed Stallman for the first time as he boarded the bus I was riding from Paris to the suburb of Choisy-le-Roi, where he gave a talk at a library last weekend to promote "free digital society." Out of breath and sporting khaki pants, a green polo and a worn Monoprix bag, he was immediately unmistakable.

Stallman says in his description of his "lifestyle" that he hates wasting time. He indeed wasted no time after boarding the bus before pulling out a laptop. He hacked for the duration of the hour-long ride to Choisy-le-Roi.

Upon exiting the bus Stallman appeared deeply agitated at the absence of the French host who was supposed to meet him at the station. A lesser hacker might have pulled out a cell phone and called the host, but Stallman does not use those. So, abandoning his original rendezvous plan, he set off into the town, where -- after some fumbling encounters with locals who gave conflicting directions to the library -- he eventually found the venue.

The library space was on the second floor of the building. The ground floor of the structure was empty. Stallman remarked that this seemed a horribly inefficient waste of space. He's a guy who likes efficiency.

Seeing no one to help him set up at the library, Stallman took to the podium to shout "Je cherche des organisateurs!" -- "I'm looking for the organizers!" -- about a dozen times, until a library staff member arrived. He then proceeded to remove his shoes and socks, walk around the library and eat some cookies while the staff hurriedly set up a projector.

The audience that came out to see Stallman was surprisingly large and diverse. It included the geeks you'd expect -- one guy in his twenties wearing a shirt with the 0 A.D. game logo, another whose clothing declared "Anonymity is not a crime" -- but also lots of people considerably older and younger, and at least one fussy baby. To my wife's satisfaction, she was certainly not the only female in the crowd -- although she may have been the only person dragged to the talk in exchange for stopping at the Jardin des Plantes's wallaby exhibit on the way.

The talk got underway about fifteen minutes late. Stallman, still barefoot and consuming copious amounts of cola, spoke in nearly perfect, sophisticated French for more than two hours. For me, the most memorable points from his presentation included the following:

  • He interrupted the speaker who introduced him to remind him that he was "Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Stallman." Stallman never actually completed a doctoral degree, but he is one guy who takes his honorary doctorates seriously.
  • He was quite blunt in his discussion of terrorism and its impact on France. "Terrorism causes few deaths" compared to tobacco and sugar, he stated plainly, with little apparent sympathy for people who are victims of terrorism (but with a little irony, because of all of the sugary soda he was consuming as he spoke). I thought that was bold, given that he was speaking to an audience which may well have included people personally affected by last year's terrorist attacks in Paris -- which, incidentally, were the reason why Stallman was giving the talk last weekend. It had originally been scheduled for November 15, 2015, two days after the Paris attacks, during which Stallman was in the city, he said.
  • He described the Linux kernel in 1991 as "proprietary software" ("un logiciel privateur") because at that time it was not governed by the GPL license. That seemed a stretch to me; the original Linux license was informal and lacked legal sophistication, but it granted users the right to share the program as long as they did not try to make money off of it. And the source code was completely available.
  • Similarly, he was respectfully critical of Linus Torvalds -- to whom he referred consistently, with an air of distance, as "Monsieur Torvalds." He suggested that Torvalds's only interest in making code free was to speed development. That also seemed unfair to me; Torvalds no doubt likes open source largely because he thinks it's the best way to develop code, but there is no evidence that Torvalds does not also care about users' or programmers' freedom.
  • He said that the term "GNU/Linux" is better than "Linux" when referring to operating systems because the former assures the GNU developers due credit for their work in creating GNU software. It seems, then, that a significant part of the reason why Stallman is upset with efforts to write GNU out of the picture is that it means the project he founded misses out on the glory -- which is different from being concerned primarily with the philosophical differences between the GNU and Linux projects.
  • As far as I could tell, Stallman tutoyered everyone. Maybe that was just because he is better versed in the informal second person tense in French, but I thought it was interesting because I suspected he might want to do away with the formal version of "you" -- which is a marker of hierarchy and social inequality -- for the same reasons that the French revolutionaries dispensed with singular "vous" in the 1790s.
  • I sensed that much of the content of Stallman's talk was canned, since he made the same specific points, using the same language and metaphors, that he has raised in other speeches and in his writings. (He gives these talks a lot, so it makes sense that he sticks to a script.) Still, I was impressed by how clearly and concisely he was able to present complex information, and relate it to local French issues. I suspect that a large part of Stallman's success in promoting free software over the past three decades owes to his talents in speaking and writing very effectively.
  • Stallman's talk consisted largely of a basic outline of free software principles. But he compellingly wove his points into discussion of other issues, including online privacy, Internet censorship, government surveillance and digital rights management, showing how the idea of publicly sharing code connects organically to political and social concerns that don't necessarily have anything directly to do with code itself. If the free software movement has a future now that open code has essentially become the default, it will be in bolstering support for the broader free culture movement.

If you've yet to see Stallman speak for yourself, you can find out when he's next coming to a venue près de chez vous.