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Zooming in On French Digital Technologies

Zooming in On French Digital Technologies
 Gilles Babinet
Former Advisor on Digital Issues
 Théophile Lenoir
Fellow - Misinformation and Digital Policy

Well aware of the key role of digital technologies in geopolitics, the Macron administration has made progress in various areas, such as content regulation. Initiatives like Partnership on AI, the Christchurch Call or Tech For Good have helped place France at the forefront of international partnerships on digital issues. However, much remains to be done. France and Europe are still struggling to affirm themselves in areas such as Cloud technology and cybersecurity. Moreover, the French digital landscape is oversaturated with actors and institutions, making efficient government action all the more tricky. Gilles Babinet, our advisor on digital issues, and Théophile Lenoir, researcher and former Head of our Digital Program, draw up a balance sheet of France’s digital progress in the last five years. 

With only three months to go until the French elections, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions: 

There are numerous state agencies in charge of France’s digital transformation. Among others, these include:

  • The state secretariat in charge of the Digital Transition and Electronic Communication, headed by Cédric O, is in charge of overseeing and coordinating the government’s digital transformation policy. 
  • The National Cybersecurity Agency of France (ANSSI) - This is the state advisory service in charge of cybersecurity issues. 
  • The digital office of the Direction générale des entreprises - A service working on the digitization of the French economy and society 
  • The Dinum - Formally known as the Interdepartmental Digital Directorate, the Dinum is the department in charge of coordinating the digitization of the French administration.

Significant legal developments include: 

  • Avia law - France’s anti-hate speech legislation. It initially entered into force in May 2020, but was then revised after some of its strongest provisions were declared "unconstitutional" and infringing upon freedom of speech.
  • The Digital Republic law - Passed in 2016, this law seeks to be an all-encompassing measure directed at France’s digital innovation, the development of its digital economy and a safe and open digital society. 
  • Digital Markets Act & Digital Services Act - Legislative initiatives proposed by the European Commission that seek to establish a safer digital space for users and a level playing field for businesses. France was heavily involved in the proposal of this regulatory package. 

The regulating actors of French digital policy include:

  • CNIL - The National Commission for Information Technology and Civil Liberties is the French data regulator. It ensures that data privacy and collection laws are correctly implemented. 
  • Arcom - The Audiovisual and Digital communication Regulatory Authority, this recent so-called "mega regulator", in operation as of January 1, 2022, will be overseeing things such as social media, illegal streaming platforms, or the minimum entry age for adult content. 

Strategic plans:

  • The National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence - Macron had early on announced his intentions to boost France’s AI capacities. This national strategy centers around attracting talent, strengthening the role of data and AI in the economy and promoting an ethical use of AI. €1.5 billion were disbursed for the 2018-2022 phase of the project, and €2.22 billion for the next five years. 
  • The National Cybersecurity Acceleration Strategy - Since February 2021, the French government has laid out a plan for doubling jobs in the cybersecurity sector. €1.039 billion have been allocated to this strategy.
  • Plan Quantique - Plan announced by Emmanuel Macron in January 2021, seeking to bolster France’s developments in the quantic field. It has allocated a budget of €1.8 billion to R&D. 

Key Figures: 

  1. As of January 2022, France counts 21 unicorns. That number is up from 19, in October 2021. In comparison, the UK now has 37. 
  2. In the 2020 ranking for digital inclusion, France went down from 9th to 12th position compared to 2017, despite government efforts to increase inclusivity. 
  3. There were 81 AI laboratories in France in 2021, the highest number among European countries. 
  4. 97% of the French territory is now covered in 4G by at least one operator. 
  5. However, 17% of French people were digitally illiterate in 2019. According to the 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), less than 15% of French SMEs use customer relationship management (CRM) software, compared to 18% on average in the EU, and 25% in Ireland or the Netherlands. Similarly, only 70% of SMEs have a website in France, compared to 76% on average in the EU, and over 90% in Austria, Denmark and Finland.

Evaluating Policies on Digital Technologies:

  • During Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign, digital technologies were initially defined as means to achieve set objectives in health or education, amongst other sectors. Awareness around IT issues (digital technologies mainly, but not exclusively) has however increased during the five-year term, particularly with regards to the emergence of "digital sovereignty" during the Covid-19 pandemic. But even at the end of Macron’s mandate, the concept remains vague. Many facets of the concept - regulatory, economic or security-related - remain to be structured and redefined. The subject is nonetheless a key concern for the government. 
  • The government has understood the key role of technology in contemporary geopolitics. It has thus announced several initiatives on cloud-computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum and blockchain technologies. Such measures are aimed at allocating resources and coordinating research efforts from companies and government organizations to strengthen strategic autonomy at the national level. It is still too early to assess most of them. That being said, it is important to note that funding allocated to each of these initiatives is lower than in the United Kingdom or in Germany.
  • Several national regulatory frameworks have been undertaken in response to challenges posed by digital technologies in domains such as journalism (how to protect copyright and neighboring rights), content (how to handle hateful speech whilst protecting freedom of expression), transport (how to ensure the fair protection of platform workers), or telecoms (how to secure 5G networks): 
  1. The transposition of the EU Directive on copyright and related rights
  2. Laws on information manipulation, on hateful content and on the respect of the principles of the French republic
  3. The Mobility Orientation Law, which deals with the social protection of platform workers
  4. Law on the operation of mobile radio networks
  • At the European level, France has been a driving force in several regulation initiatives, such as the Digital Services Act, which aims at increasing the accountability of digital service intermediaries, and the Digital Markets Act, which aims to favour higher competition between digital actors, by keeping the larger companies in check and allowing younger players to enter the market. It has also been a key actor in the fight against terrorist content, neighboring rights and the regulation of AI. France also implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018.
  • Nonetheless, the French approach to the regulation of content by digital platforms has also led to some incomprehension. Its law against online hate (known as the Avia law) was characterized by strong content removal requirements for platforms (for example, the removal within 24 hours of any reported "manifestly illicit" hateful content). This approach seemed to indirectly encourage censorship, preferring to pre-empt risk and remove any potentially problematic content. But, in parallel, France held a very different approach at the European level through the DSA, less strict and encouraging transparency of moderation processes. The European Commission openly criticized the Avia law, and a large part of its provisions were eventually removed by the Constitutional Council, which considered the law to be a "disproportionate attack on freedom of expression". Moreover, the law on the respect of the principle of the Republic doubled and preempted the Digital Services Act regulation that France pushed for at the European Commission, making it seem like France detached itself from European legal processes. Such ambiguities have made France a difficult partner at a time when European cohesion seems more necessary than ever.
  • At the international level, Emmanuel Macron has pushed for a policy of partnerships by participating in initiatives such as the Global Partnership for Artificial Intelligence, the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, the Christchurch Call or the Tech for Good and Choose France summits. France also continues to support the Open Government Partnership. Such partnerships with private entities are sometimes at odds with France's strong desire to regulate digital actors, as mentioned previously. 
  • Within the country, the digitization of public services is underway. Efforts are also being made to reduce inequalities in the digital environment, to reduce "dead zones" (areas without phone or internet coverage) and to provide very high-speed network coverage.
  • There is an oversaturation of agencies and authorities in charge of digital public policies in France, leading to an increasingly siloed mode of operation and a fragmentation of resources, which are already in short supply. 
  • It is worth noting a significant lag when it comes to increasing overall digital literacy levels among the population. In 2019, only 31% of the French population aged 16-74 had "above basic" digital skills, compared to an average of 33% in the European Union, 49% in the UK, 39% in Germany. 
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