Digital France: grandeur and decadence

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In his 1837 novel Rise and fall of César Birotteau, the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac portrayed a prosperous and arrogant Parisian perfumer who, victim of his success, became delusional and squandered his wealth on visions of grandeur and frivolous spending. French digital policy does the same, navigating between greatness and decadence.

Greatness has been brought to the fore, as French politicians refer to this Gaullist expression to achieve what they call digital sovereignty. If the debate remains on the exact meaning of the term, the French conception emphasizes national self-sufficiency in most digital technologies. The assertion of greatness and sovereignty has never been stronger, even as France’s influence on the international scene is fading. In the past, France has spent public funds on a series of misguided public projects – Plan Calcul, EuroNet, and even a public effort to rival Google called Quaero. It all ended in undeniable, often costly, failure.

Current French digital policy can point to undeniable technological successes. France is home to a growing number of innovative tech start-ups. Its e-commerce market is one of the largest and most competitive in Europe. It is loosening its job market to allow Uber and other players in the gig economy to thrive.

But these attempts at grandeur led French politicians to flirt with decadence – and to reconnect with the Gaullist tradition of an alleged neutrality between the United States on the one hand and its main rival on the other – yesterday. , the Soviet Union, and today, China. Disheartened by the transatlantic relationship following the announcement of AUKUS, a new Australia-UK-US security pact that cost France a submarine contract with Australia worth several billions of dollars, France’s attitude towards the digital agenda is to claim to practice a certain form of equidistance between the United States and China.

Paris plays down the cybersecurity threat posed by China. Given the considerable influence of France, and in particular of any French president, on European digital politics, this internal and existential French dilemma of how to remain independent of both the United States and China can be be decisive for the future (and reality) of transatlantic digital policy. .

The French quest for digital independence is creating tensions within the EU. Other Europeans — starting with Denmark, but also, as we will see, Italy and Poland — prefer to partner with American companies.

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