Mobile network security: Bothorel defends new powers of French executive

A Huawei employee introduces face recognition and tracking technology to clients at the Huawei headquarters showroom in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, China, 28 March 2019 [EPA-EFE/ALEKSANDAR PLAVEVSKI]

In an interview with our partner La Tribune, Eric Bothorel, MP from Macron’s En Marche, discusses a bill to strengthen mobile network security in the context of 5G, which arrived in France’s National Assembly last week and will be debated on Wednesday.

Bothorel, as rapporteur of the proposal, defends a hotly-debated part of the plans that allows the French Prime Minister to reject non-EU equipment if it comes from a state-controlled supplier. Some see it as a way to specifically ban Huawei.

LA TRIBUNE: The proposed law on mobile network security is happening against the backdrop of fears in France and Europe centred around Huawei and 5G. The Chinese supplier has been accused by the US of spying on behalf of its government. We can therefore ask: Is the implicit aim of the proposed law, of which you lead, to prohibit Huawei in France? And will this really allow Paris to maintain good diplomatic and commercial relations with China?

ERIC BOTHOREL: You are right to question the timing of this proposed law. But coincidence is not the same as correlation… Let’s put into perspective what we have at our disposal to ensure the security of mobile networks. We have the means to take precedence over 3G and 4G.

From the perspective of 5G, the law will allow us to extend the perimeter of concerned materials as of 2021. Today, equipment of core networks [where communications and data transit, NDLR] are subject to controls. But with 5G, new assets will become affected and this technology is set to arrive in France and Europe by 2020.

That is why the extension of the control of equipment expected in 2021 will come too late if we do not act now and set up a new legislative framework.

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Will Huawei equipment be subject to scrutiny because of the fact that it is Chinese? Paragraph 11 of the proposed law clearly provides that the French Prime Minister will be able to prohibit the President from taking certain actions if he deems the manufacturer is ‘under control or subject to the interference of a state that is not a member of the EU.’

Paragraph 11 does not only target equipment from Asian countries. It concerns all states that are not a member of the EU. I have not forgotten that the German chancellor has been monitored by the Americans. I am not naive and not paranoid. If I were naïve, I would succumb to what I read every morning and tell myself: “Ok, the Chinese intend to hurt us, we need to focus on this target.” But reality is more complex, and threats come from everywhere.

It cannot be overlooked that many highlight certain risks coming from China. For instance, there is a so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ between the state and operators that has been in place for a while. These have committed to not deploying ‘made in China’ equipment in sensitive zones, notably zones close to authorities in the capital. These non-written rules with no legal value specifically concern Chinese products…

This does not make it less true that our concerns apply to all suppliers. I would like to let you believe that I am responding to circumstances that would consist in ensuring the good implementation of a law I do not believe and that is simply an excuse to ban Huawei.

But this is not the issue. The text concerns all industrial actors. If the government was obsessed with the Chinese risk, we would neglect a lot of threats coming from other states, proto-states and other criminal organisations. That is why the text covers a wide spectrum. But again, we are not naïve regarding the capabilities of certain manufacturers, capable of serving the interests of states with their technology. If this would happen, paragraph 11 will allow the Prime Minister to act accordingly.

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Exactly! This paragraph gives the government a lot of power. It ultimately allows the Prime Minister to do whatever he likes regarding non-European equipment.

This paragraph can be interpreted in many ways, that it could be like an atomic weapon intending to affect operators and suppliers, so they adopt reasonable behaviour. This reasoning is not entirely lacking foundation, but it remains too superficial. Sorry to disappoint, but the legal truth is much less sensationalist.

It is simply there to elucidate the Prime Minister’s margin of appreciation, who would have of course considered all contextual elements (nationality, the risk of state interference) without being obliged under law. The paragraph brings an important precision regarding the spirit of control that is not limited to the deployment of materials but also focuses on their exploitation, meaning the entirety of their life cycle. This final element is not to be found in any legal text today and it is indispensable that we introduce it into our laws, particularly to prevent legal disputes.

Some would say that if the government wanted to ban Huawei, it would, thanks to this paragraph, have a tailor-made weapon…

One can see it in that light. In a manner of speaking, paragraph 11 effectively allows the executive to do what it wants. But it is essential that it is contained in the text. If, one day, we need it to address a national security issue, we can revert to it without legal repercussions. No one will be able to contest this right of the Prime Minister. But I insist that this certainly does not mean he will be using it constantly and in a systematic manner.

What is your opinion on America’s attack on Huawei, and Washington’s lobbying in Europe to ban this supplier?

You know what, I really enjoy series. In this one, what interests me is the following step. To be clear, I do not want Europe to be fooled forever. What I fear is that the US and China end up reconciling earlier than expected. In this case, if Europe had aligned with the US position [by banning Huawei, NLDR], it would disappoint everyone. And the Americans and Chinese, although they claim not to have anything in common, will emerge strengthened. But we have our card to play too. This card is that of sovereignty, the independence of our decisions, and our capacity to subscribe, as part of the EU, to this game of global competition.

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Further Reading

In an interview with our partner La Tribune, Eric Bothorel, MP from Macron’s En Marche presented the proposed law aiming to reinforce security of mobile networks with the coming of 5G technology, for which a session will be dedicated at the French national assembly on Wednesday. Eric Bothorel, as rapporteur of the proposal, defended a hotly debated provision because it allows the French Prime Minister to reject non-EU equipment if it comes from a state-controlled supplier. Some see it as a way to specifically ban Huawei.

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