French presidential candidates agree on the need to direct more public procurement towards European digital actors in order to be able, one day maybe, to fight on equal terms against the American or Chinese giants. EURACTIV France reports.
While the idea of a “Buy European Act” is not new to public debate, it has taken on a particular significance in the run-up to the French presidential election, which is being dominated by the issue of sovereignty.
Drawing inspiration from the “Buy American Act”, could allow the EU27 to bypass some free trade rules in order to favour European companies by reserving them a share of the public procurement market.
“Our public procurement markets [must] allow us to strengthen our French or European companies,” said the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, expressing his wish to achieve a “Buy European Tech Act” if elected. “All our trading partners are doing it,” he added.
Several of the candidates running for president echoed this argument.
French tech “doesn’t need subsidies, it needs contracts”, summarised Nelly Garnier, regional councillor and spokesperson for Valérie Pécresse’s campaign on digital issues.
“If we want to help the development of French champions, we need to use this lever of public procurement, which is what all the major foreign powers do to promote their companies and help national champions emerge,” Garnier told EURACTIV, adding that Pécresse is in favour of a “Buy European Act”, not only for digital.
The right-wing candidate for Les Républicains, if elected, has pledged to gradually implement French and European software and algorithm purchasing quotas in order to reach 50% by the end of her term in 2027.
One of her rivals on the right, Éric Zemmour, is also calling for the “implementation within two years of a European public procurement mechanism to set aside a share for national companies”, while he believes that the cloud and cybersecurity will be two key areas for the French digital sovereignty he envisions.
Among the Socialists, “we are calling for a careful examination of public procurement in order to seek European sovereignty,” Senator Rémi Cardon, a specialist in tech issues within Anne Hidalgo’s campaign, told EURACTIV.
“Rather than confining itself to a role of distributing subsidies to these companies (which, in any case, does not allow for effective control of this use of capital), the state will directly provide public procurement to start-ups,” the mayor of Paris promises in a manifesto summarising her positions on digital issues.
“We need a form of protectionism that makes the state and local authorities buy French. And if the EU refuses to do so, then we will have to disobey”, argued Bastien Lachaud, a member of the French parliament from the radical left party La France Insoumise, in order to protect society from “big brotherisation”.
Jean-Luc Mélechon, meanwhile, believes that a “Buy European Act” is “probably not a bad thing”, but it is necessary to ensure that the European companies put forward are not clients of US giants, without which “digital sovereignty would only be a chimera”, Jill-Maud Royer, head of the digital section of Mélenchon’s programme, told EURACTIV.
This is why the candidate wants France to turn to open source software in public administrations and services, which will guarantee “our sovereignty in the sense that they will be auditable,” Royer said.
The government is being cautious
While a “Buy European Act” was part of Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 campaign pledges, the outgoing president’s 2022 manifesto instead aims to “revise the State’s purchasing policy: the main objective will be to buy local, rather than always buying cheaper, in order to develop innovation and the French industries.”
The government now wants to be pragmatic. “On the matter of a European preference, all the candidates promise it. All those who tell you that, in a year’s time, this will be the case, are wrong”, said the Secretary of State for the Digital Economy, Cédric O, arguing that this was the “sole competence of the European Commission and not of the States”.
“France will continue to push for the Small Business Act and ‘European preference’. We have been trying for five years, we have been pushing for five years, there is no European consensus on the subject,” he added.
While MEP Eric Bothorel confirmed to EURACTIV that France does not have complete control over these issues, he stressed that “this does not mean that nothing has been done”.
Bothorel added that it was President Macron who, in 2017, started the difficult task of trying to convince all the European countries on a global minimum tax on large companies, especially in tech. The agreement is to be implemented under the French Presidency of the Council of the EU, despite some disagreements between the member states.
This has not prevented the opposition, as well as part of the French tech ecosystem, from criticising Macron for having favoured GAFAMs and their intermediaries during his five years in power, marked by the controversy surrounding the decision to have Microsoft host the data of the promising Health Data Hub, for which the executive has been continuously criticised.
On 14 March, France also succeeded in finalising the EU’s reciprocity scheme on international markets. If China or the United States, for instance, were to restrict European companies’ access to their public markets, the EU could now do the same.
“Naïve Europe is a thing of the past”, said the French Minister for Trade, Franck Riester.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi and Benjamin Fox]