Alex Grigsby is the assistant director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Yesterday, Emmanuel Macron won the French presidency--the youngest French head of state in the modern era. Setting aside the cyberattacks against the Macron campaign and a last minute doxing attempt, tech issues played a relatively minor role in the campaign. Weightier issues, like France's future in Europe, immigration, and the economy dominated.
Nevertheless, Macron's victory is likely to be a boon for the French digital economy and its startup scene, but the country's frosty relationship with U.S. tech companies is likely to remain over the next five years.
France's tech scene has attracted considerable attention recently, and Macron, while he was minister of the economy from 2014 to 2016, was one of its champions. Last year, the country attracted 590 rounds of capital raising, more than any in Europe--and double the number from 2015-- worth approximately €2.7 billion, second only to the United Kingdom. The country is trying to create itself a niche in artificial intelligence, attracting investments from Facebook and Rakuten (an Amazon-like company from Japan) and leveraging its strong engineering schools. The mood is positively bubbly, in sharp contrast to a few years ago when, after the great recession, French engineers, designers, and others fled to London, Silicon Valley, or Montreal. Macron publicly pleaded with French expatriates in London to return to France and launch their new ideas there, partially banking on the uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations.
Despite the recent progress, France's famously rigid labor laws and conservative business climate often clash with the tech start-up mantras of "fail fast, fail often" and "move fast and break things."
Macron hopes to change that. During the presidential campaign, he called for a "right to experiment" law that would exempt startups from laws that would hinder the testing of new technologies, such as drones, artificial intelligence or autonomous vehicles. He has also promised to expand high-speed internet coverage in rural areas, close the gaps in 4G coverage across the country, and make all government services available online (specifically identifying absentee voting as an example). Finally, Macron would support the European Union's Digital Single Market initiative and urge it to create a €5 billion venture capital fund to support European startups.
Macron's promises will undoubtedly give a boost to French companies, but it will not be all unicorns, rainbows and sunshine for their U.S. counterparts operating in France--often summarized as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon).
In a speech outlining his national security agenda, Macron took aim at U.S. tech giants, criticizing them for not taking down propaganda from the self-declared Islamic State group. He said that companies should have an "absolute obligation" to take down offending content without being able to claim that technical barriers prevent them from doing so or appealing to free speech principles. Macron then addressed the encryption issue, calling for legislation allowing the government to access encrypted communications and for a similar measure at the European level. That obviously drew fire, and his campaign later clarified that Macron was not looking to undermine end-to-end encryption, but to force tech companies to reply promptly to government requests for assistance and turn over data when required.
He has also called for renegotiating the Privacy Shield by 2018 to "really guarantee" the protection of Europeans' personal data. Macron's digital policy platform never explains what "really guarantee" means, though it's probably safe to assume Macron believes the deal doesn't adequately protect EU data from being collected by U.S. intelligence agencies--a standard refrain among EU privacy advocates. It is already being challenged in EU court partially on those grounds and data protection authorities within EU member countries are expected to review the deal later this year.
On the privacy front, Macron has called for the creation of a EU agency for "digital trust" that would be charged with overseeing the privacy practices of what he describes as the "big platforms," which probably should be read as U.S. companies, to ensure compliance with EU data protection laws. Very little is known about this proposal would work, especially given that the power to monitor compliance with data protection rules lies with national authorities, not the EU bureaucracy.
Macron's victory is a giant sigh of relief for those pushing back against nationalist and protectionist trends exemplified by Marine Le Pen's campaign promises, the Brexit vote, and the election of Donald Trump. However, it is unlikely that U.S. tech companies will have an easier time in France over the next five years than the previous five. In fact, Macron's victory signals a status quo on the hot-button policy issues facing the Facebooks and Googles of the world in Europe.