Civil society urges French presidential candidates to discuss digital issues

"The general spirit of the campaign revolves around sovereignty and taking back control," Nicholas Vanbremeersch, president of think tank Renaissance numérique, told EURACTIV. [Venus78/Shutterstock]

Digital matters have been noticeably missing from the debates leading up to the French presidential elections in April leading to civil society organisations calling on candidates to give more importance to innovation or skills, EURACTIV France reports.

Several digital unions and associations – including Numeum, Renaissance Numérique, Agora41, Le Cercle de la Donnée – ask presidential candidates to adress digital issues.

Former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe even commented on the lack of debate regarding digital matters. “We are living through an unprecedented technological revolution […] It’s changing everywhere in the world, and in this presidential debate that’s coming up, nobody is talking about it,” he told broadcaster France 2 last month.

With the COVID-19 pandemic highlighting the importance of technology and cybersecurity and the growing number of French unicorns – startups valued at over $1 billion – one would have expected more discussion on digital matters.

“Thanks to digital technology, our society has been able to continue to live in a context as dramatic as this health crisis, but we must not rest on our laurels and ignore the fact that the future is ahead of us,” said Pierre-Marie Lehucher, co-chairman of Numeum – the federation of digital players recently created by the merger of Syntec Numérique and Tech in France.

“We were opportunistic five years ago [at the time of the last presidential election], now we have to be strategic,” Nicolas Vanbremeersch, president of think tank Renaissance numérique, has said. The current candidates have “no strategic thinking on the scale of the revolution”, he added, noting that we are only responding to “the issues of the moment”.

Vanbremeersch agrees that digital issues are absent from the discussions but is hopeful that when all candidates are around the table – including ‘not-yet-candidate’ Emmanuel Macron – there will be discussions on how their respective programmes relate to such matters.

Both also recognise that digital issues remain complex and transversal, making them sometimes hard to address.

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Digital sovereignty

“The general spirit of the campaign revolves around sovereignty and taking back control,” Vanbremeersch told EURACTIV. The candidates’ programmes, some of which are still in the process of being finalised, are currently limited to “putting markers” – like the left’s proposals for more digital sobriety – he added.

However, candidates have recently been speaking about data sovereignty.

France choosing to “entrust all our health data to Microsoft” via the much-decried Health Data Hub, for instance, was an “immense failure of Emmanuel Macron”, according to Hervé Morin.

The president of the Normandy region and adviser on innovation and sovereignty to right-wing candidate Valérie Pécresse also called on the country to no longer “depend solely on the GAFA [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon]”.

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“The future dismantling of Google is part of its ultra-dominant position,” Pécresse told newspaper Le Point in November, adding that public authorities should “set an example by buying more than 50% of their software from European suppliers”.

More recently, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, candidate for radical party La France Insoumise in the French elections, urged France to be “autonomous and independent” by regaining “control of hardware vectors” from “American rights servers”.

However, discussing digital issues through the problem of sovereignty is not the simplest way in and leads to approaches that are often caricatural, the experts acknowledged. “It is not an easy solution, whether it is technical, legal or institutional,” the co-president of Numeum added.

Instead, Lehucher has invited future policymakers to focus on innovation, including disruptive technologies, and the role of people, with a particular emphasis on training future talent.

“These are the issues on which we expect elected representatives to focus,” he also said.

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[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi/ Alice Taylor]

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