In an interview with EURACTIV France, French centrist MP Philippe Latombe said France’s approach to digital sovereignty was about choosing which system the country can depend on and pointed to a number of EU countries that were not currently “on the same page.”
Philippe Latombe is an MP of the Democratic Movement representing the Vendée department. He is also the rapporteur of the National Assembly’s information report on “Building and promoting national and European digital sovereignty.”
For several years, the government seems to be moving towards more digital sovereignty, what impact has the health crisis had on this?
I think that there has been a fairly strong technological awareness on the part of the state and the administrations. We realised this about the resilience of our networks. During the first lockdown the government asked Netflix to lower its resolution for broadcasting and asked Disney to delay its arrival in France by a few weeks. Why? We were afraid the system would not allow us to do all the work remotely.
How would you define the concept of digital sovereignty, from a French perspective?
The definition used in the report is the ability to make a choice, to choose our dependencies, and to keep this ability permanently. I can make a choice at a given moment because I only have two solutions in front of me: a very good American one and a French one that doesn’t work. France chooses the American way while continuing, in parallel, to develop the French one so that the day it becomes a real choice, the state will be able to switch.
How does this compromise reflect on French choices?
You have to ask yourself why you are taking a solution. I take the example of the cloud. No one would think of putting nuclear codes on a cloud open to anyone, it must necessarily be a proprietary network. There are some data for which we can ask ourselves the question of choosing an American structure, such as health data. You must ask yourself what the strategic interest is before necessarily choosing a sovereign cloud.
What other criteria are assessed when choosing a sovereign or non-sovereign solution?
During the crisis, there was the question of why we work with Zoom, with Teams … Why? Because Zoom is easy. Because Teams is directly integrated into the Microsoft suite and so everyone has it. We found ourselves asking: “Do we have equivalent French or European solutions?”
Today we have technological solutions that are very good. But they require development.
Was it this ease that pushed the state towards certain controversial choices like allowing Microsoft to host the Health Data Hub (HDH)?
There is a fairly traditional view that says: “I have a suite called Microsoft or I have Amazon Web Services cloud which gives me the full platform and which is very customer-oriented. Why should I bother taking brick solutions that I have to combine and put end-to-end to achieve an equivalent level, or perhaps even a little better, but which are in full development on my premises when I only have to press a button for the other solutions that are already there.” That the HDH does this is a little more embarrassing.
Last month, Emmanuel Macron announced his ambition to have 10 tech giants worth €100 billion in Europe by 2030, what do you think of this goal?
I don’t think we measure efficiency and our success by the financial value of a company. Today, we are no longer in that business. Even the Americans are no longer in that business. That we have the best in the sector is all very well, but I don’t think that is measured by turnover or capitalisation.
The next day, at the VivaTech trade fair, the French President said the issue of dismantling the GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) was “legitimate” and should be raised “sooner or later“. Do you share this view?
The question arises. It is about ethics – can we now have platforms with such power without any mandate from citizens? And it’s about security – is it safe to have players that are so big that we depend on them? Not to mention the fact that these giants can legally and economically drown out start-ups because of their size. There is also the societal issue: the American model is not ours. I am not against the GAFAM. We simply need to find room for other players who can bring something more.
Isn’t the European model that is being developed precisely our competitive advantage over the United States and China?
Of course, it is. That’s what the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] is for. I am more cautious about the DSA [Digital Services Act] and the DMA ([Digital Markets Act]. I am waiting to see whether there will not be such influence during trilogues and that initial ambitions will be lowered.
I expect a lot from the French [EU Council] Presidency on this subject. We need to move forward quickly. The faster we move, the less easy it is to lobby.
Are European approaches to digital sovereignty sufficiently aligned?
No, we don’t have the same vision of sovereignty at all. The countries of the north are rather Atlanticist and say that we should not intervene. The countries of the south are more in favour of moving forward independently. And we, together with Germany, are trying to ask ourselves how we can have the solution at home and how we can regulate the rest.
How can we agree at European level?
The EU’s governance rules must be changed. The unanimity rule no longer works. We are systematically blocked. We need to have a majority rule. Even if it means making a majority in terms of population.
What legitimacy does France have to impose its approach?
The Avia law [aimed at combating hate content online] is one of the poor initiatives that France has put forward. We have not exactly made friends with our European neighbours who would prefer us to “fit the mould”. When you alienate everyone, it poses a problem because the day you need to get something important across, they look at you through special lenses.
At the national level, what is the role of the state in encouraging civil society to favour sovereign solutions?
The state should provide the impetus, the state should set an example, the state should impose things on itself, yes. If it imposes things on others, it must be in a regalian interest. But this is perhaps my liberal vision of things.
Where should it focus its efforts to generate this momentum?
Today, the big problem is that we don’t have a state that is a client. Between €1 in subsidies and €1 in turnover, the effect for companies is almost seven to eight. When the state is a client, it’s an order, it’s employment, it’s added value, it’s research and development.
It’s a whole interesting and rewarding system that gives companies credibility to seek external markets.
Will this require changes in purchasing practices?
The state takes time to sign contracts. When it takes 18 months for a small start-up to sign a contract for a French or European tech element, it doesn’t work. The startup’s cash flow does not follow. The state must become a good client by making its own expression of need.
Is the French administrative system also an obstacle?
The state has not revolutionised its customer experience. Today, you still have to fill in five Cerfa [administrative forms], provide the same information to five different administrations to get the answer: “We are processing your file.”
The state needs to change. I would remind you that we would not be at 37 million [vaccinations] if a small engineer [Guillaume Rozier] had not created Covidtracker and Vite ma dose in his corner. Today, the state does not have sufficient agility to do this.
You also propose the creation of a digital affairs ministry, with its own administration and resources.
It should already exist! All countries do it, why are we the only ones not to do it? The state operates in silos, there is no cross-cutting vision. We don’t have a digital affairs ministry that drives a global vision.