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Digital France: Rise and Fall

Executive Summary

In his 1837 novel Grandeur et Décadence de César Birotteau, the French novelist and playwright Honoré de Balzac portrayed a successful and arrogant Parisian perfumer who, a victim of his success, became delusional and squandered his wealth with visions of grandeur and frivolous expenditures. French digital policy does the same, navigating between grandeur and decadence.

Grandeur has been placed first and foremost, as French politicians refer to this Gaullist expression to achieve what they call digital sovereignty. While debate remains over the exact meaning of the term, the French conception emphasizes national self-sufficiency in most digital technologies. The assertion of grandeur and sovereignty has never been as vocal, even as France’s influence on the international stage wanes. In the past, France has spent public funds on a series of misguided state-run projects—Plan Calcul, EuroNet, and even a public effort to rival Google called Quaero. All ended in undeniable, often costly failure.

Present day French digital policy can point to undeniable tech success stories. France is home to a growing number of innovative tech start-ups. Its e-commerce market is one of Europe’s largest and most competitive. It is loosening its labor market to allow Uber and other gig economy actors to flourish.

But these attempts to achieve grandeur lead French politicians to flirt with decadence—and to revive the Gaullist tradition of alleged neutrality between, on the one hand, the United States, and on the other hand its main rival—yesterday, the Soviet Union, and today, China. Disheartened by the transatlantic relationship following the announcement of AUKUS, a new Australia-United Kingdom-United States security pact that cost France a submarine contract with Australia worth billions of dollars, France’s attitude toward the digital agenda is to pretend to practice some form of equidistance between the United States and China.

Paris downplays the cybersecurity threat posed by China. Given the considerable influence of France, and especially of any French president, on European digital policy, this internal and existential French dilemma of how to remain independent of both the US and China may prove decisive for the future (and reality) of transatlantic digital policy.

The French quest for digital independence creates tension within the EU. Other Europeans—start with Denmark, but also, as we will see, Italy and Poland—prefer to partner with US companies.

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