Neither Macron’s nor Le Pen’s programme, nor that of most of the candidates in the first round of the French presidential elections, have devoted much space to technology. They hardly talk about it from a policy perspective -except for a few urgent issues such as the digitisation of SMEs or public administration, digital skills or industrial innovation ecosystems-, let alone technology as a line of foreign policy, as a projection and influence asset.
However, there is no doubt that the outcome of the second round will largely shape how the European Union articulates its strategic autonomy, an issue that Macron has spoken forcefully about since 2017, although with the term ‘European sovereignty’, and that Le Pen has discarded in her speeches, focusing on national sovereignty and a firm Euroscepticism. From the outset, all presidential candidates, including Macron and Le Pen, have had a maximalist vision of technological sovereignty: defending and promoting personal data protection under French standards, procuring less dependence on foreign services, developing strategic technological components, and insufflating leadership in a number of innovation ecosystems. In other words, technological power à la française.
The future of Europe is also at stake. There are two scenarios that can demarcate the continent’s strategic autonomy, depending on who wins and how they win.
Macron’s victory: the same path of European sovereignty, similar alliances and rivalries with other Member states, and more challenges
During his five-year mandate, Macron has put technological sovereignty at the heart of his broader project of European strategic sovereignty. As he said in a speech back in February 2020: “To build the Europe of tomorrow, our (digital) standards cannot be under American control; our infrastructures, ports and airports cannot be under Chinese capital; and our networks cannot be under Russian pressure”.
In the event of a second victory, France will most likely continue with the three-pronged approach it has followed in recent years. In regulation, this might revolve around a strict framework for technology companies from outside the EU, a robust framework of personal data protection, and the promotion of European data spaces. As it has done with the Digital Markets Act, France could take advantage of its remaining time holding the Presidency of the EU Council until June to speed up and agree on a common vision among member states on other issues: the future space strategy on security and defence, the implementation of the critical technologies roadmap, further details on the European Health Data Space -which is a central axis for the French Presidency of the Council-, or the revision of the Directive on the distance marketing of financial services.
Macron would also seek to further consolidate technological security. Funding devoted to cybersecurity, quantum technologies or artificial intelligence are already almost at the same level of funding as Germany and the United Kingdom, and a network of centres of excellence is being structured throughout the country. It is also possible that the control system on Foreign Direct Investment in critical technology sectors will be further strengthened through the PACTE law, the Action Plan for the Growth and Transformation of Enterprises which seeks to address the obstacles for companies’ development and put a focus on technologies, especially in response to the rise of Chinese investment into European companies. It is expected that its project to phase out Huawei’s deployment of 5G services from France by 2028 will continue, as the plan would end only one year after the end of its mandate. In addition, IPCEIs – or Important Projects of Common European Interest – would remain on the table to create European production chains together with other Member states in cloud, hydrogen, microelectronics or batteries.
However, Macron would also face a number of challenges in the next term that are far from easy. A heated battle is being waged at the EU’s Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) over the draft cybersecurity certification scheme for cloud services: France seeks to include strict requirements for sovereignty, data localization and “immunity from non-EU laws”, while countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden are prone to a far more open approach. On the other hand, France, which has already failed in its attempt to promote a common rule to tax digital services at the EU level, based on its national ‘Gafa’ tax, will continue to seek to influence the OECD in order to create a global one. But this will not be easy, as it faces the very different visions of more than 160 countries.
Le Pen’s victory: same ambition for technological sovereignty (at home), less relative power vis-à-vis other countries
The Rassemblement Nationale’s programme points to several ideas on its technological agenda. Le Pen seeks to create a ‘French sovereign wealth fund’ to increase the profitability of French savings and direct them towards strategic sectors and innovation; to impose compliance with French law on digital actors; to encourage a digital transition that is also energetically sustainable at the same time; to integrate cryptocurrencies into the common law of financial markets; and to oblige French citizens, companies and public services to have their data hosted by French or European operators (Le Pen herself acknowledges that France does not yet have all the services to create an absolute digital sovereignty).
The biggest impact for the EU would likely be a change in France’s attitude towards some of the most immediate EU proposals to promote a Europeanisation of the access of all European citizens to digital services, whatever the country, through a common electronic identification. Although IPCEIs and Industrial Alliances are a European initiative, it is up to each country to decide whether or not to join these activities, and also national companies themselves will have more or less incentives to do so, depending on the national context. It will also be important to monitor possible changes in funding and joint collaboration between European research centres with the French poles of excellence in artificial intelligence (3IA Institutes), or in leading French quantum technology centres.
It is also important to foresee a further tightening of FDI control systems, something that Macron has already set out. However, there may also be changes in bilateral economic relations and technological cooperation with other countries, such as Russia, Israel, India, or in case the next US presidential elections bring a Republican president back to the White House’s Oval Office in 2024 -a year which is drawing ever closer.
If Macron wins, the path will be similar to the current one, with all the challenges that entails. If Le Pen wins, the country risks losing relative power with other neighbouring countries with whom France has long had a leading position in joint technological projects, especially due to some potentially changing factors such as funding, joint research and innovation, and technology transfer -many of which are carried out under the EU umbrella. Importantly, a significant percentage of the French have a particular ‘Euroscepticism à la française’. This is, they are favourable to the EU but at the same time critical of it: 56% of the French are attached to Europe, but 51% believe the EU is distant and 56% believe it is ineffective. The French support the idea of a stronger Europe, but not so much of a European Union.
Also, if technology is not addressed geopolitically (something any candidate hardly does), France could lose ground to Germany. Germany has traditionally been conceived as the economic, but not geopolitical country in the EU. However, in recent months it has become more explicit and daring geopolitically, not only on issues such as China or human rights, but also on technology. The new German coalition government seeks to create a new technological diplomacy with specific instruments and resources, something that hardly anyone has addressed in the French presidential elections. Analysts could have thought that Macron would propose it due to his cosmopolitanism, but this has not been the case.
It is true that the EU’s strategic autonomy depends on the common action and will of 27 member states. But there is no doubt that France’s weight is enormous. Indeed, polls suggest that more people felt they could rely on France than felt they could not do so. And they see France as an essential lynchpin for deepening European sovereignty. Much of Europe’s technological future depends on the French elections.
Image: Billboard with posters of the different candidates in the French elections. Photo: Caratello (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)