How 17 French ministries joined forces to support free software

Published on: 03/09/2015
Last update: 15/10/2017



Seventeen French government ministries are working together to support free software through an agreement designed to reduce costs and advance the use of free software in administrations. The support contract operates through a ticketing system. It includes a detailed classification of software, and a schedule for the reduction of support costs based on the popularity of individual application versions.




Before the contract


Before the new contract was signed, support for free software was specific to each ministry. No agreement was established between ministries to create a pool of resources relating to free software.


The Ministry of the Interior says that in the past it established an agreement with a French company to provide third-party support for the open source PostrGreSQL database. This was not a success, however. “People working in the Ministry were more qualified”, the Ministry said.


Following a request from SAE (Service des achats de l’Etat, in charge of defining public procurement policy in France), however, the Ministry of the Interior designed another support contract whose aim was to consolidate the legal basis needed to make free software usable by a pool of French ministries. Acting as the prime contractor, the Ministry of the Interior prepared a tender document and the associated administrative framework.


17 ministries are included in the framework: 

  • the Prime Minister’s office; 
  • the Court of Auditors (Cour des Comptes); 
  • the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; 
  • the Ministry of Defence; 
  • the Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development, Transport and Housing; 
  • the Ministry of Justice; 
  • the Ministry of the Interior; 
  • the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Health (in both the work and health sectors); 
  • the Ministry of Education (in both the education and youth sectors); 
  • the Ministry of Agriculture; 
  • the Ministry of Culture; 
  • the Ministry of Solidarity and Social Cohesion; 
  • the Ministry of Higher Education and Research; 
  • the Ministry of the City; 
  • and the Ministry of Sport.

Each ministry had to ask to be included in the agreement, and only those ministries that are listed can take advantage of the contract. Other state agencies are not eligible to join.


“The boundary cannot be changed, even by an amendment,” notes the Ministry of the Interior. “Administrations that are not listed cannot benefit from the contract. But any authority or administration that wants to support open source and falls within the scope of the agreement is obliged to meet its conditions.”



Technical Scope


The contract started in 2012, runs for three years, and can be renewed once. It focuses on remote support services, consulting and corrective maintenance. Also included are additional services such as version tracking, audit review, migration, patches, and contributions to the free software community.


It classifies free software into 10 categories:

  • Operating systems and associated database software
  • Servers and application servers
  • Languages and development frameworks
  • DBMSs
  • Productivity applications
  • Network management tools
  • Security tools
  • Directory services
  • Portals, document management and knowledge management
  • Indexing and search.


The current list covers 320 applications (see below). Software that is not on the list can be added as long as it is requested by all the ministries.



Software versions and economies of scale


The support contract works under a ticketing system. Whenever support is needed, a ticket is opened by a named contact person at the ministry in question.


To ensure that the software is accurately classified, each program is assigned to a group known as a Software Support Unit (USL, Unité de Support Logiciel). A USL is a software asset that can include up to three major release versions, as specified in the contract. The idea is that the ministries should standardise on software versions. “If a ministry wanted support for another version of an existing application, it would have to request the creation of another USL.”


This classification allows each USL to have its own support price. “The price is calculated on the number of lines of code to maintain and the type of language for example,” the Ministry of the Interior says. Criticality is also taken into account. Depending on how it is used, each USL is then assigned to a defined support package: unlimited, five tickets per year, or one ticket per year.


For example, LibreOffice is the most expensive package to attract unlimited non-critical support: the basic cost to each ministry is EUR 40,000 per year (see below). The least expensive non-critical support is 7ZIP, which costs just EUR 700 a year.


To encourage the pooling of support requests, the contract includes a new idea: a reduction in prices based on popularity. If several ministries need support for the same USL, the cost to each ministry decreases. “For example, if five ministries request support for the same version of PostgreSQL, each one will pay only 40% of the basic price,” the Ministry of the Interior explains. “This is valid only if they choose exactly the same version and the same support package. If a ministry wants support for a dedicated version, it will pay more.”



How the reduction applies :


Number of users 1 2 3 4 5
USL unit price (base 100) 100 70 55 45 40
Total price with reduction 100 140 165 180 200
Individual percentage reduction 0% 30% 45% 55% 60%




Named contacts at the ministries


Each ministry can appoint five named contacts for every USL. Their job is to collect requests from within their own ministries, keep records, open support tickets as required, and communicate with the organisations providing the support. Named contacts must have the appropriate skills for the job and they also must work on a project that involves using this USL, the Ministry of the Interior says.


A ministry can allocate more than five named contacts to a USL if it is willing to pay more. Named contacts can also be re-allocated to other USLs.


A centralized portal


A portal, , is used to centralize support and manage the appointment of named contacts. It allows ministries to connect directly to the support services, centralizes all the tickets, and lists all the tickets opened by each ministry.

Policy Context

  • Ayrault Circular : On September 19, 2012, Jean-Marc Ayrault, the then French Prime Minister, signed a circular inviting the French ministries to consider the use of free software in their administrations. Ayrault presented free software as a “reasoned choice”.
  • General Repository for Interoperability (RGI – Référentiel général d’interopérabilité): The RGI is a document that provides a framework for interoperability and guides administrations in their use of standards,  for example in the exchange of documents. Version 2.0 of the RGI is expected to be made available in September 2015. The RGI is published by DISIC (Direction interministérielle des systèmes d’information et de communication de l’Etat).

Description of target users and groups



Domain: Software support / Free software

Start Date: 2012

Target Users: Administrative | IT | Ministries

Scope: National

Status: Operational

Language: French


Technology solution

Technology choice: Standards-based technology, Open source software

Return on investment

The total support contract is valued at EUR 2 million. In 2014, the Ministry of the Interior spent EUR 300,000 for its own support needs, under the interministerial contract.

Lessons learnt

  • Support is reassuring. Decision-makers can now use free software with the confidence that they will have support. This acts as an insurance policy.
  • Sharing cuts costs. The Ministry of the Interior says the chosen mechanism – classification by USL and cost reductions according to popularity – encourages ministries to pool their support needs. The greater the convergence in terms of software packages and versions, the lower the overall support costs.
  • Popularity varies widely. Some products receive few support requests, while others are very popular. Most support is requested for LibreOffice, the collaborative messaging system OBM, and the document management tool Maarch. Since the beginning of the contract, requests for LibreOffice support have increased by 78%, OBM by 52% and Maarch by 47%.
  • Weak involvement. Despite the collaborative nature of the project, some ministries on the list have not been active.
  • Creating community. A joint steering committee meets once a quarter, allowing people to share their experiences and creating a community around software support within the ministries. People who are generally not involved in free software, such as senior managers and less technical people, are now becoming aware of the significance of free software.
  • Inspire the next support contract. The next version of the support contract will benefit from past experience. The most-used USLs, like LibreOffice, will be better addressed to adjust prices and further reduce costs.


Scope: National


Type of document
Open source case study