Podcast / Tech Won’t Save Us / Feb 8, 2024

France’s Start-Up Nation Is a Neoliberal Hell

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Nastasia Hadjadji to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan to run France like a tech company.

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France’s Start-Up Nation Is a Neoliberal Hell w/ Nastasia Hadjadji | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Tech Won't Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Nastasia Hadjadji to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan to run France like a start-up, how that justified a further dismantling of France's welfare state, and how his desire to create national tech champions is having domestic consequences.

Nastasia Hadjadji is a French journalist looking at tech from the lens of political economy and is the author of “No Crypto. Comment Bitcoin a envoûté la planète.”

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French President Emmanuel Macron looks at his smartphone.

French President Emmanuel Macron.

(Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

On this episode of Tech Won’t Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Nastasia Hadjadji to discuss Emmanuel Macron’s plan to run France like a start-up, how that justified a further dismantling of the country’s welfare state, and how his desire to create national tech champions is having domestic consequences.

Nastasia Hadjadji is a French journalist looking at tech through the lens of political economy and is the author of No Crypto. Comment Bitcoin a envoûté la planète (No Crypto: How Bitcoin Bewitched the Planet).

The Nation Podcasts
The Nation Podcasts

Here's where to find podcasts from The Nation. Political talk without the boring parts, featuring the writers, activists and artists who shape the news, from a progressive perspective.

How the FBI Tapped the Encrypted Chats of Criminals Around the World with Joseph Cox | Tech Won't Save Us
byThe Nation Magazine

On this episode of Tech Won't Save Us, Paris Marx is joined by Joseph Cox to discuss how the FBI created an encrypted phone company called Anom to read criminals’ messages and eventually carry out the largest international sting operation by law enforcement.

Joseph Cox is the author of Dark Wire: The Incredible True Story of the Largest Sting Operation Ever and the host of the 404 Media Podcast.

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Paris Marx: Nastasia, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.

Nastasia Hadjadji: Hi, Paris. Thank you for having me.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. I’m very excited to speak with you. The show often deals with issues in North America, and sometimes wider global issues. But we haven’t looked enough into what has been going on in Europe with European tech policy. And I thought it was a good opportunity to have a conversation around what has been going on in France, because of course, technology and tech policy has been very central to the presidency of Emmanuel Macron — who was elected in 2017. And that is where I wanted to start, because in that presidential campaign, he had this slogan of the startup nation to show how he was different than the political class that existed before him, but also how he was going to take a different approach to governing and the type of economy that he was going to build. So can you talk to us a bit about what this term, the startup nation, actually meant?

Nastasia Hadjadji: So, back in 2017, Emmanuel Macron was, as a political leader, already a disrupter in the sense that he was this young, ambitious newcomer, a very young president. So this slogan of the startup nation was also meant to have this shock effect on French politics due to this newcoming personality. And everyone always was a bit in awe, even internationally when he was elected, because of his young-ness, newness, etc. So, I think that initially, the concept of startup nation was actually being conceptualized on Israel, as a state who was putting a lot of emphasis on tech companies, etc. And Emmanuel Macron kind of seized the concept to make it a central axis for his politics. So, in 2017, he was very vocal and very enthusiastic about making the French State a very leading force in the sense of tech and commercial trade within the tech industry. So I think it was also a tradition that could trace back to what we call here in France, ‘le Colbertisme’, this very commercial theory that was made by the head of finance of Louis XIV. And the aim was to make France a great empire almost, like a great nation through commercial trade. And Emmanuel Macron, with his startup nation framework, clearly wanted to use technologies as a way of making France, within Europe, one of the leading nations. So that was the aim, the global aim of this political rhetoric.

Paris Marx: That’s fascinating, especially to hear that connection with the Israeli policy and learning from that, because, of course, as we’ve talked about on the show, and as as people will likely understand, Israel has a significant tech industry, in particular, in defense tech, but other pieces of that as well, which has been very helpful to gain legitimacy and get that foreign investment and all those sorts of things. When Emmanuel Macron was championing this policy of the startup nation, what kind of policies did that justify in terms of his political program once he was elected president, because as I understand, the startup nation was not just about attracting tech investment, but also about making the state itself operate more like a startup. So how did that influence the way he governed?

Nastasia Hadjadji: Absolutely, this is the tension and even the dialectic that is at the center of the startup nation concept. So you both want to make France a very fertile ground for foreign investment, and at the same time, run the State as a startup. So basically, it’s using the whole vocabulary of agility, budget reduction. You have to be agile; you have to scale, to hyperscale, even. So this whole culture of entrepreneurship was taken from the private sector, and tried to be applied to the public sector, pretty much. So what type of policies? From my perspective, I would say, it’s an attack on the welfare system, because if you want to rationalize, usually, you cut the budget in the name of efficiency. You cut the budgets in the name of competitiveness. You use this whole rhetoric of efficiency, etc. to pretty much dismantle what makes the very basics of the welfare state. So this is the economic rhetoric, and also what type of policy? It’s pretty much running the public services as a private company. So a lot of emphasis on process, on rationalization, on making the expenses as little as possible, it’s the rhetoric of the budget, austerity, etc., etc. 

So this has a direct impact on the way the public system is actually evolving. Because a lot of sectors are increasingly privatized, to be fair, or are on the way of being privatized. It’s the case of, for example, the public healthcare system is going extremely bad at the moment. The public hospital system in France is almost crumbling at the moment, with head of services actually committing suicide, the people working within the hospital system have extremely low wages. Everything is congested. It was almost an exploit that the pandemic was handled by the public service in hospital because of the state of it that is extremely concerning. But I could also talk about public universities that are increasingly run as private companies and the people working at university, be the scholars, but also the administration, are extremely concerned because they are asked to become almost company CEOs. 

So this whole logic is being applied to all the public services, and it has direct impacts on the public agents but also on the other end of the spectrum on the people having access to it. Also, I would say that the major aspect of it has been a path towards digitalization. It’s become a commonplace now — everything is being digitalized. But this process, first of all, has been delegated to big, big consulting firms that have made a lot of money with the French public money to digitalize the public services. But this digitalization has led to an increase in the number of people not having access to the public service, being the housing insurance, being the employment insurance, etc. So there is a lot of discrepancy in the way you can have access to the service also, because of this increasingly digitalized infrastructure, so it has many aspects to it. One part is economical; the other is ideological. And there is also a very practical side of it, I would say.

Paris Marx: It’s fascinating to hear that because it almost sounds to me, in a way, when you talk about the effects that these policies have had on the French welfare state and French public services, it makes me think about how things have degraded in, say, North America and other English speaking countries, but I’m sure parts of Europe as well over the past number of decades, and we always had this story or were told that the French were better at defending the public system. And we’re able to kind of keep these public services that they rely on in a better state, then in many other countries that had undergone this neoliberalisation. And it almost feels like maybe, belatedly, Emmanuel Macron, under the guise of the startup nation, brought this neoliberal assault finally to the French state, that private industry, that capitalists, wanted to see for a long time.

Nastasia Hadjadji: Absolutely. I mean, the work of dismantling, I would say, the welfare state has been started much before Emmanuel Macron. It’s already begun during the 1980s. But it’s true that he’s been leading a massive assault against what many would consider as pillars of the welfare state. And often in the name of, as we discussed, becoming more agile, becoming a startup nation, etc., etc. So it’s true that the rhetoric under his presidency has been followed by a lot of reforms that are clearly hyper-liberal. People here in France, they talk about the extreme center, not the extreme right, or the extreme left, but the extreme center. And now it’s becoming more and more clear that he’s a neoliberal president. But he is also more and more endorsing ideas from the conservative right, or even the far-right, within his policy. He doesn’t have a clear majority at the parliament. He knows that his presidency is threatened by many social movements. So he’s radicalizing in a way that is very concerning for many people, especially in the left, almost endorsing and putting into practice, some of the worst ideas taken from the far right.  

I have in mind, especially, a bill that was voted last December in 2023, about immigration, that is probably one of the most xenophobic, racist, and outrageous bill of law that that was passed under his presidency. There was huge pushback and social movements and protests, but still it’s like carrying this politics that is very neoliberal in terms of economics, but more and more conservative when it comes to the society and the social dimensions of it. And as far as French safeguarding what has been fought for and acquired during the past the decades. It’s true that we are a country of social movements of strikes, ‘la grève,’ etc. It’s true. But I mean, also during this presidency, a complete neglection of what the streets have been calling for, a complete neglection of the social movements, and even a fierce repression of it. It’s insane how much we can really say that under Emmanuel Macron, the repression of social movements has never been so high. It was already the case back in 2018, when the yellow vest movement started. But the repression of it was fierce with people like literally losing their eyes, losing their hands, because the police was almost deploying a military arsenal in order to police the protests. 

But it was also true during the pension reform protest, because you have to know that this reform was meant to be applied before COVID. But then COVID happened, so they kind of postponed it. And now they decided to vote last year. So there were huge social protests against this pension reform. And you probably remember those scenes that were a bit viral, and you could have seen it in foreign media of Paris bursting into flames almost, last year during the pension reform protests. But even though there were huge social movements, Emmanuel Macron didn’t care, and he wanted to lead the reform to the end and pass it. So, people try to safeguard what was acquired, especially after World War II. The national healthcare system, our insurance policy — that is very protective of people losing a job or quitting their job — they can have state money for a while. But everything that these welfare landmarks are being increasingly attacked.

Paris Marx: It feels like as you’re talking about the neoliberal policies of Emmanuel Macron, and the right-wing shift of his politics that has always kind of been there, but has become more explicit recently. Based on what you describe, it also feels like it’s a very authoritarian politics where if he can’t get bills through the French Parliament, then he’ll just use constitutional ways to push them through anyway. Or as you say, there’s this massive expansion of the policing system. Before we started recording, we were talking about the video surveillance and the expansion of the surveillance state in France as well. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that, and how that connects to this broader repression that Emmanuel Macron has been engaged in?

Nastasia Hadjadji: The term authoritarian is absolutely accurate when it comes to what’s happening right now in France. As I said, repression of social movements. It’s also clear, I want to just talk about it for a minute, but even the climate activists are being increasingly criminalized and repressed. I’m always so stunned that people are protesting to defend climate and they are climate activists, and they’ve been criminalized as terrorists almost. So it’s fairly insane. France has been the first country in Europe to legalize the algorithmic surveillance technology, and especially due to the coming Olympic Games that will happen next summer in 2024. So this big international event, is actually setting a precedent in terms of how these surveillance technologies will be deployed in France. So it is something very concerning. We are talking about algorithms being deployed within the cameras that are everywhere in  public space, and they can police, or they can control, they can actually control, your behaviors in the streets. For example, if you’re staying for too long on the floor, or if you’re jumping onto someone because you’re very happy to see the person, it can lead to a signal to the police, and it can lead to an arrest. 

So, this technology will now be legal in France, it’s been voted last spring. One aspect of it that’s also very concerning that is not yet legal is the facial recognition algorithm. So this is not legal yet. This will be only authorized for special police forces that want, for instance, to investigate terrorist cases, etc. And it could be used after to match it with certain databases in order to recognize some people. This won’t be legal at a broader scale for the Olympic Games. But there are many associations that are very concerned with the technology because the step from algorithmic video surveillance to facial recognition is not a very big one. So, there’s already a lot of concern around the fact that you can go further quite easily. Also, it’s been revealed by various medias that these technologies of algorithmic surveillance and facial recognition, have already been used by the police, especially, completely illegally, out of the legal framework, for almost eight years now. So, I think the concerns are very legitimate in that field. And if people want to know a bit more about what’s happening in France, with regards to the algorithmic video surveillance, there is an association called ‘La Quadrature du Net.’ And they’re very vocal against it, and they also provide a lot of tools to better understand the subject, and to better fight against it as well.

Paris Marx: That’s great to know and I can include a link to that in the show notes so people can check it out. It’s very concerning to hear what you’re describing there with the rollout of these technologies in France. And, as you say, if there’s algorithmic video surveillance now, the step to facial recognition is a very small one. And you can certainly see that coming as well, especially if there’s any kind if public security event that they can use to push it through. I did want to pivot a little bit from this discussion to talking about, as part of the startup nation policy, there’s not just the neoliberal policies with how services are delivered through the state, but also that desire to attract tech investment. I wonder on that side of things, have these policies to turn France into the mecca of tech investment in Europe actually worked?

Nastasia Hadjadji: I’m not sure, I don’t have the figures in mind. What I know is that every year there is this summit organised that’s called Choose France. And that summit has been gathering every single tech leader in the world for the past couple of years. So, they are trying to make France to the mecca of investment. However, I feel like we still have some sort of tax policy that is not too attractive for many of the big tech companies. So they might prefer to go to other places a bit more flexible when it comes to tax, be it, I don’t know, like Northern Ireland or Cyprus or Malta. So what’s happening is that a lot of tech companies operating in France, they don’t have the headquarters in France. They have it like in Cyprus or in other jurisdictions where the tax climate is a bit cooler, I would say. So, I’m not sure it’s been a major success in terms of attracting investment. However, a lot of effort is being made by Emmanuel Macron, as I was saying, this Choose France Summit is held every year in Versailles. So, it’s a lot of money being spent having this almost royal meeting for the tech leaders. 

So everyone is coming! Elon Musk came, all of the tech leaders came. Even the infamous former CEO of Binance, CZ. There is this picture that was commented and that went viral in France of Emmanuel Macron taking a selfie with CZ, and at that time Binance, his platform, was being investigated by the Department of Justice in the US, and was already under a lot of heat for doing all sorts of fraud and non-compliance to different financial laws, etc., etc. And also being accused of financing terrorism. So at that very moment that Binance was being investigated, Emmanuel Macron was taking a selfie with its boss. It was very concerning. So, he’s putting a lot of effort into this. And even the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, in Switzerland, he brought with him a couple of the French unicorns and the French startups, in order to also attract investment in those companies.

Paris Marx: I feel like when you talk about the selfie that he took with CZ of Binance, that really does show the degree to which he’s willing to look past potential violations or things that these companies are doing in order to attract investment to France, whatever kind of investment that actually is. Can you tell us a bit more about this effort to attract the crypto industry, something that I think many people see as a scam and not a kind of technology that you actually want to embrace, the effort that Emmanuel Macron took in order to attract that industry to France? 

Nastasia Hadjadji: So, many people call it a scam, myself included, to be fair, for the most part. A lot of effort was made to attract those companies. Binance being one of them, but not only Binance. Coinbase, Kraken, all of the major exchanges, were welcomed in France. I think FTX, at the time of the scandal, was operating through Cyprus, and didn’t have any sort of headquarter in France. It was operating in France still. So pretty much the crypto industry, being part of this broader, nonsensical Web3 industry, for the government, it was a good thing to have it in France. Even the Minister of Economy, Bruno Le Maire, I think it was not long ago, like one year and a half ago, said that he wanted France to be a base camp for the crypto economy. And everyone was a bit like: What is he saying? Like in other countries such as the US — for example, the biggest market for this — crypto criticism was was pretty vocal. 

But no, no, no, Bruno Le Maire and Emmanuel Macron really wanted crypto companies to settle in France. And at that time, I would say that the global framing of this industry here in France was rather positive. You could hear some people saying: But tech is neutral, it’s a chance for financial emancipation. All the crypto boosterism was going full force here in France. So it was very disturbing for me to see how much compliance there was towards these companies. And one other very concerning example was that when Binance decided to open a branch here in France, they actually hired people from the authority that is in charge of regulating the financial market. The equivalent of the SEC in the US, which is called the AMF in France. So, Binance hired two prominent figures, and also other prominent figures in other financial institutions. So that was really concerning, and up until I would say 2022, when the big FTX scandal blew up, there was a rather positive attitude towards those crypto and Web3 companies. So the crypto hype is gone, and there is not much left, I would say. But still, the Web3 narrative is still quite prevalent here in France, and big Web3 companies are still getting away with being quite fraudulent in some way. But it’s still fine for most of them.

Paris Marx: It’s almost surprising to hear that that industry still has that degree of support or even interest in France, as it has waned in other places. But of course, at the same time, we’ve seen the Bitcoin prices increasing lately. And I think that has resulted in a bit more interest in cryptocurrencies than there has been for a little while. One of the things that I noticed when I was reading about this policy and Emmanuel Macron’s approach to the tech industry is that there was the positioning of the startup nation, in 2017, as he was running. But then he also said that, because of the startup nation policies, France was also going to become a unicorn nation, referring to the status that tech companies can reach. Can you talk to us about the plan there and how he wanted to step up to a unicorn nation, and whether you have any indication as to whether that has happened? 

Nastasia Hadjadji: To be fair, I have no idea what a unicorn nation might be, especially in a country where the public system is crumbling. So, I think Emmanuel Macron is now very well-known for having this very strong narrative. Usually, he’s even more vocal and enthusiastic and ’emphatique,’ as we say in French, because he has no actual power over what’s going on. So, he’s making those big declarations, big discourse. Who the hell knows what a unicorn nation is to be fair? I have no idea. I cannot reply to that question. Now, he’s talking about the current narrative is extremely reactionary. What we have right now he’s talking about ‘réarmement démographique,’ so that would be fostering birth, which is pretty much telling people to have babies because we need more people within the nation, which is so reactionary. From unicorn nation to make babies, because we need more citizens. And he’s saying that with a very martial, very military tone. This is why I said, very reactionary. So, he’s very famous for making those bold claims. Nobody knows what he’s talking about, really. But it’s very bold.

Paris Marx: It stands out to me as well, that that kind of rhetoric is becoming increasingly popular on the right, and in particular, among the Silicon Valley elite, that have radicalized and become vocal in their right-wing politics over the past little while, through pronatalist policies and things like that. Elon Musk, of course, talks about population a lot. So it’s almost not surprising to hear that Emmanuel Macron is adopting similar language. I guess, to pivot a little bit again, when we talk about the French State, or what French workers have been doing. Another assumption that a lot of people have from outside of France is that France has a very strong labor movement and strong worker protections because the unions and because workers defend those rights very strongly when they come under attack by government and employers and other actors. In France, we’ve also seen the rise of precarious food delivery, and ride hailing platforms. Can you talk to us a bit about how Emmanuel Macron has defended these companies and this business model, as Uber and these other companies have expanded into France?

Nastasia Hadjadji: Yes, absolutely. So I think it was one year ago, this scandal blew up that was called Ubergate. And as you mentioned, Emmanuel Macron, was pointed out for his role in advocating for Uber taking over France, pretty much. So facilitating, even though it was not almost legal at certain points, but facilitating companies such as Uber to operate within France. And what was really concerning, besides this institutional lobbying directly from the President — which is, in itself very concerning when it comes to a company such as Uber or any other company — was that that company settled and precisely targeted the suburbs, the precarious suburbs in France. Coming in France with the discourse of saying: You’re going to be an entrepreneur; you’re going to work for yourself; we’re going to empower you through this platform, etc, etc. And there was also an active campaign targeting the suburbs in order to hire as many contractors as possible, because they are still contractors. They work for the platform, but not with the proper contract, but as self-employed.  The conditions in the beginning were pretty attractive, because that was Ubers strategy to facilitate in order to gain a lot of users. So conditions were attractive, and then the conditions tightened. 

Now we can see people, and it’s very common with the platform economy, that you have taxi drivers that work around the clock for almost nothing. And it’s crazy the amount of time they spend in their car. And at the end of the day, they earn what? Like 150 euros? So, the conditions of work and labor have crucially declined. But they’re hooked to the platform because they have to work. So it’s a global attack on labor conditions, on labor protection. And these people, as they are individualized as workers, they cannot really unionize. However, we’ve seen unions, for example, with bike delivery people, they’ve been unionizing more in France. So now they’ve gained some sort of power in order to negotiate for themselves. But when it comes to taxi drivers, they’re still very individualized. So it’s very concerning, now to look at the condition of their work. And Emmanuel Macron was key, it was a pivotal moment when he authorized Uber. I mean, it’s a bit simplistic to say it’s his fault. But he clearly played an active role in giving people bad conditions to work, in the name of technology and in the name of empowerment.

Paris Marx: Do you know, because you talked about the scandal, when the Uber papers came out about a year or so ago, that showed that as the economy minister under François Hollande’s Socialist government from 2014 to 2016, that he personally helped Uber lobby in order to get entry to the French market. I know at the time, there were talks about an investigation into this or potentially holding him accountable. Did anything ever come of that or did that just kind of die in Parliament? 

Nastasia Hadjadji: Like many, many other scandals, it died. The McKinsey one also, we don’t have any news from it. I was talking about earlier, the fact that under Emmanuel Macron, there was an unprecedented amount of public money going to McKinsey. McKinsey is not paying any, almost no tax in France. So, the influence of these private auditing firms has never been as big as now. But there’s not much scrutiny. There’s one by the Senate and Cour des Comptes [Court of Audit], etc. There is not much political outcome of this scrutiny. And same with Uber, it just fell through. We don’t hear much of it now. So it’s quite concerning to be fair.

Paris Marx: It absolutely is. I wonder, you talked about how these food delivery workers and ride hailing workers are considered contractors in France, like in many other countries. How different is that from the way that the French labor model usually works? because, obviously, as someone from outside of France, we have this idea of strong unions, a high degree of unionization within the French workforce. How different is this from how labor is usually composed in France? And does it risk further eroding those labor protections if this way of working is allowed to be entrenched?

Nastasia Hadjadji: Yes, so our labor system used to be considered as very protective towards workers. But this has been on the decline since many years now, and not only under Emmanuel Macron, as a result of this neoliberal turn during the 1980s, that has been loosening the protection surrounding workers. But we still have quite a protective system, meaning that each and every employee with a proper contract can obtain if you decide to leave the company, and under certain circumstances, State money for quite a long time, which is called ‘l’Assurance chômage,’ unemployment insurance. So, that’s very interesting. And it’s so funny, because to make a loop with the idea of the startup nation, that’s the very system that has been allowing a lot of the young startups to be funded in the beginning, meaning that the founders, this is because they can get the State money that they’re actually launching the startup. Pole Emploi, which is now called France Travail, is probably the structure that is financing the most startups in the country. A lot of young startups are being funded by France Travail, the state insurance system. 

So we have this. We used to have quite strong unions. That is not true anymore. Unionizing has been on the decline; the influence of unions has been declining for a while now. They’ve gained a bit of momentum during the pension reform social movements. So all the unions, all the major ones, actually grouped, and they were together against it. So that was quite a moment for unions in France. But apart from it, I feel like the influence of unions has been under declined for a while now. And we have an increasing lobbying by the State, but also by companies, for the alternative to this, what is called a rigid labor system. So, you can be self-employed. You can be un ‘micro-entrepreneur,’ and this path from a quite rigid contract, but with strong rights, more and more people are now self-employed, and acting as the gig economy, as contractors. So that’s a clear trend that’s happening right now.

Paris Marx: Like in many other countries, unfortunately. I know at the moment there is a push to change the rules around gig work and platform work through the Platform Work Directive at the European Union level. How has France been engaging in that? I know it’s been trying to do something domestically, in order to get in the way of anymore aggressive regulations being put forward on the EU level. So do you have any insight into what’s going on in that process?

Nastasia Hadjadji: What I know is that at the level of cities, all these instant delivery food companies such as Flink, Getir, all those companies that were big in the UK, especially, they tried to set on in France. But it didn’t last for too long, because city mayors decided to ban them because of labor conditions. But also because they were using too much space, pretty much. Also, at street level what used to be shops, the competition with other shops was not fair. So they decided to ban those companies. And it was quite effective, because in a few months, they were all gone. So now we don’t have any more Flink kind of quick commerce companies. But when it comes to the EU and bigger companies, such as Uber, I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s quite flexible for them. I mean, Uber is still operating freely in France. Same for other companies like this. So, besides those quick commerce startups to deliver your food in less than 10 minutes that were banned, also because the condition of the workers were extremely bad.  

There was a short social movement to actually denounce this. So that was effective. But besides that, I don’t see a clear trend to curb those bigger platforms. I still feel that the EU has a stronger body of regulation that most of the other countries at this level of the EU, but it’s not that protective, either. Taking the AI Act, for instance, some people say it’s a great step forward for customer protection, etc. But some others say it’s not ambitious enough. So, still at the level of the EU, we also have this quite effective policy called GDPR. That has been a step forward in terms of data protection for customers and regular people. But, there’s always a tension, people say it lacks of ambition, or they say it’s better than elsewhere, so.

Paris Marx: That’s completely fair. We’ve been talking a lot through this conversation about how Emmanuel Macron has been trying to attract a lot of tech investment into France, in particular from large multinational tech companies, but also getting things going domestically as well, in terms of getting investments for new companies and things like that. One of the things that seems to be central to France’s strategy is not just getting that foreign investment, but also building its national champions and having some degree of digital sovereignty. I wonder if these two policies are somehow in conflict with one another, trying to get that foreign investment, but also trying to build digital sovereignty so that you’re not so reliant on all of these foreign companies. How does that actually play out in the French context?

Nastasia Hadjadji: Well, there’s clearly a tension between the two in the sense that I feel like the political leaders — at the stage of the EU, but also in France — are increasingly concerned about our dependency towards bigger tech companies, such as cloud, the companies that provide cloud service, even the defense software, etc., etc. So there is a clear call in Europe, and especially in France, for more digital sovereignty. This is why there is a clear effort into nurturing national champions, especially in the field of defense. And this is also why I feel like France has been the first country to legalize the algorithmic video surveillance, because there is an economic reason for it. The economic reason is that we have national champions, and they have to become bigger. But the bigness somehow is okay when it’s French or European, but when it’s other big tech companies, they tend to be more regulated. So yes, there is a kind of contradiction in this. I won’t be too critical towards the effort to not depend too much on big tech, and especially, while be it American or Chinese, but I understand the need to not be too dependent on these companies. Because it’s becoming, as everybody knows, also a geopolitical issue for every country. And when you have your more critical industries relying on Amazon web services and cloud services, it might be an issue. So, this is the reason why there is this call for more sovereignty, and especially in Europe, yes.

Paris Marx: I completely agree with you, I think it makes a lot of sense to want to not be dependent on these major international companies. And for a long time, it was really beneficial to these companies that these narratives were were not as prevalent. The idea that everyone would just use Amazon or Google or whatever it was just taken as fact, taken as reality. And now there is questioning of that and I think that’s healthy. It’s really interesting that you say that the EU seems more focused on holding foreign tech companies to account than domestic ones, because that’s one of the things I’ve always argued as part of the reason that we get stronger tech regulation in Europe is because the Googles and the Amazons are not based there. So they don’t really lose very much from taking on those companies. But it is interesting that you don’t often hear about them going after domestic European companies, or at least not as often. But I guess part of the reason for that might be that they don’t tend to be as large.

Nastasia Hadjadji: Of course. But it’s also funny when it comes to France, that France almost invented the internet, but never succeeded. It’s a French engineer that was very close to invent what has become the internet. But for some reason he didn’t make it through. Before the internet, we had this system called Minitel — that was a major technological improvement, and achievement. But again, we didn’t make it till the end and internet, and mostly American-based internet, became the standard for what is today’s internet. But France, somewhere near the 1970s, was quite forward in terms of technological innovation. Maybe they’re referring to this lineage and period of time now with these sovereignty issues in mind. As I was saying in the very beginning, I feel like Emmanuel Macron positions himself in this tradition of like digital ‘Colbertisme,’ meaning that France has to be a strong global state. And we will reach this objective by nurturing digital champions, national champions, being aggressive in terms of trade, in terms of influence, etc. So, this whole startup nation is also a clear reference to this political tradition.

Paris Marx: I think it’s really interesting that you bring in that history, because one of the things I feel like I remember about the Minitel project was that there was also a degree of interest in having a national champion in that moment, as well. To not be so reliant on IBM, which was the major American tech company at the time, and instead to have a French computer company and a French alternative to that. And of course, it was quite successful for quite a while.

Nastasia Hadjadji: Yes, absolutely. Minitel was very successful. It was used by administrations, the press. I’m fairly sure my parents had one to be fair, because I’m born in 1990, so that would make sense in terms of the period in time. Also, Minitel was very famous as a use case for the sex part of it. It was called Minitel Rose; I think everybody knows in France what it is. But this service to have access to what today would be Tinder, I guess, and sexting, stuff like that, and Minitel became a prominent use case for this. So that was fairly successful at the time. And I couldn’t tell exactly the reason why the project declined, and was abandoned. Was it a matter of cost or influence? Because it was designed initially to be both a device, but also a service and a network. It was quite complete, but it was also very closed on itself. So, I guess this is the reason why it was a very French thing. So maybe it’s the reason why it didn’t become this international standard, such as the Internet. But I’m not 100% sure. That will be interesting to do a little bit of research on why Minitel didn’t become the internet.

Paris Marx: Absolutely. You certainly didn’t see many Minitels outside of France, and that was certainly a hindrance of it, achieving the global nature that the internet did later. I wonder, we were talking about the desire for national champions in France. Can you talk to us a bit about the industries where France is trying to build up these national champions and what it’s trying to achieve with that?

Nastasia Hadjadji: Well, I would say it’s very cross-sector. But lately, there is a big push on anything defense, cyber security, artificial intelligence. There’s actually a company called Mistral that is set to become OpenAI’s competitor. They’ve raised quite a lot of money in the field of artificial intelligence. But I would put defense and cybersecurity first, AI for sure, Web3 for the past three years was the darling of Emmanuel Macron, along with crypto companies, but also NFT-gaming companies, such as Sorare, a company that we don’t really know how they generate revenue today, we don’t really know if the business model actually exists, and how they actually survive, but well, they are part of the unicorns in France. I would say also healthcare. There’s a pretty strong company called Doctolib. There was quite a stir during the pandemic because Doctolib was appointed the one and only platform, digital platform, to have access to vaccination. So that’s a private unicorn. And there was no public system for vaccination, it was through Doctolib, a private company that the whole vaccination campaign was led in France. That’s also a very good startup nation example to be brought forward. So, I would talk about those companies.

Paris Marx: That makes a lot of sense. And it’s concerning to hear how there’s been that move into private healthcare with these tech companies, as well. Moving things into these private apps and whatnot, that would usually be something that would be more in the public system. We’ve, of course, seen that in Canada as well, where one of the biggest pushers of private health care through technology is actually a former state-owned telecommunications company here, which is unfortunate. But I think that is often how things seem to play out. This has been a really fascinating conversation, Nastasia, to learn about what has been going on in France. I wonder just to close off our conversation, how would you sum up the wider impact of the startup nation policy and Emmanuel Macron’s approach, that has been inspired by these tech objectives as you said. And is there anything that I didn’t think to ask you that you think is important for listeners to know?

Nastasia Hadjadji: From my perspective, which is obviously situated, to me, it’s an unprecedented attack on the welfare state that is being led using tech and neoliberal rhetoric as a justification. So to me, this is a net negative almost. I feel like a lot of people are very concerned, especially in the light of the recent authoritarian, right-conservative turn, that is being more and more assumed. And it’s extremely concerning. It feels like everybody knows that the option will be next election between the far-right Marine LePen and Emmanuel Macron, again, but it is more likely that LePen is going to, maybe, win the election. So we are at this stage where Macron’s tactics to prevent far-right to win the next presidential election is actually to endorse the far-right, himself. So it’s a very fucked up moment in French politics. And a lot of people are fairly concerned. 

We’ve seen, since the pandemic, social inequalities explode, public services being more and more attacked and dismantled and less functional and less efficient, even though we still have quite strong biases if you compare to other countries. But the trend towards a more neoliberal minimal state, and minimal welfare, in order to give more power to private companies, and especially the tech companies, is very concerning. So, I think we need more and more people to talk about it, being openly critical of it. So, I hope this is what listeners will understand. And also, I think more and more people are disillusioned about Emmanuel Macron. He was positioning himself as: I’m not from the right; I’m not from the left. We clearly see now he’s extremely right-wing, and right-leaning, almost far-right leaning politics. So a lot of disillusion within the population, but also, a lot of resources for those who want to fight against it.

Paris Marx: Absolutely, I appreciate you laying all that out. I think that the French example, really shows these connections between the tech industry and these neoliberal policies very clearly, in a way that might not be as evident in other countries because these things happened earlier than they did in France, because there has really been this onslaught during Macron’s presidency. It’s really been fantastic to speak with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Nastasia Hadjadji: Thank you so much, and bravo for your work, as well. I’m a very regular reader and listener of your podcast. So thank you for having me.

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Paris Marx

Paris Marx is a tech critic and host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast. He writes the Disconnect newsletter and is the author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation.

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