Technology Can Be the Foundation of a Renewed U.S.-French Alliance
Macron has prioritized a digital future. America can benefit.
As the incoming Biden administration prepares to “renew U.S. democracy and alliances,” France and America are poised for a technology-focused rapprochement. France, once thought to be destined for decline and isolation in the early 2000s, has reemerged as a central player in 21st-century geopolitics. A revitalized U.S.-French alliance, anchored in deep technological cooperation, is critical to advancing America’s interests on multiple fronts. It is also a necessary path to defend France’s global interests, and to bolster its nascent high-tech sectors.
French power is more comprehensive than many Americans realize. It is estimated that by mid-century, France’s population will be roughly on par with Germany’s, for the first time in over a century. Unlike Germany or Japan, France holds a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council and is able to project military might far beyond its borders. Unlike the United Kingdom, France is a powerhouse within European institutions. And as the only country straddling the geographic and cultural divides between northern and southern Europe, France is uniquely positioned to influence continental affairs. From the Near East to the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific, there has been much geopolitical commonality and coordinated action between France and the United States—through succeeding administrations in the past decade.
France’s sense of its own independent national role long hindered a major role inside the European Union. That is no longer so. Macron ran on an openly European platform and his administration is the most proactive ever to emerge on European issues. There is now a continuity between France’s heritage and values and a European destiny.
As a new U.S. administration looks to the future, it will be hard pressed to find a better and more capable friend than America’s first ally. This will not be undercut by the deepening ties between France and Germany, or by France’s more prominent advocacy of “strategic autonomy,” now endorsed by the European Union. The two countries move at their own pace and with different emphasis.
A Franco-American rapprochement does not mean always agreeing on everything. But in moments of great adversity, France and the United States have stood as one; they have fought for each other’s freedoms from Yorktown to Normandy. As the grandsons of Holocaust survivors (and for one of us, a combatant in the French Resistance), we know the value of liberty and justice that have long united France and America. A revitalized alliance, rooted in technological cooperation, is key to defending shared values in the future. Domestic debates on the digital age straddle both sides of the Atlantic.
These issues should not divide Europe and the United States; in a world where China’s model of digital authoritarianism is presenting a shared systemic political challenge, it is essential that North America and Europe prioritize building a secure technology space with consistent democratic norms, leading to their adoption by others.
The French government understands this. Macron has made technology a centerpiece of his agenda—even making sure to include two iPhones in his official presidential portrait. In 2017, Macron called for France to be “a nation that thinks and moves like a startup.” Two years later, he announced a 5 billion-euro investment in growing France’s tech industry and creating 25 French “unicorns” by 2025.
The French Tech Mission, a government initiative to encourage startups, has placed representatives in every ministry. Meanwhile, Station F, a 366,000 square-foot converted train depot in Paris is now the world’s largest tech incubator. Under Macron, wrote Celia Belin and Boris Toucas, France decided to “rethink its international role and reboot.” With the right attention and investment, a rebooted Franco-American tech alliance is poised to address several pressing global issues.
France is a center of advanced industries with critical technologies—aerospace, nuclear, some IT and many defense-related developments. This has made it a target for Chinese technology theft. It is the most active supporter inside the European Union of investment screening and tech export controls—resulting in the recent EU proposal of an EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council. A tech alliance with France can help protect the integrity of the Internet.
France has led the way in combating disinformation, with the 2017 French elections seeing French institutions and media outlets unite against attempted hack-and-leak operations. The following year, the French government issued the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, bringing together more than 1,100 governments, companies, and civil society actors—from Greece to Google—around a set of principles for promoting cyber peace and protecting the democratic Internet. French leadership dovetails with President-elect Joe Biden’s proposal for a Summit for Democracy that would, among other objectives, call on tech companies to “ensure that their tools and platforms are not empowering the surveillance state, gutting privacy, facilitating repression in China and elsewhere, spreading hate and misinformation, spurring people to violence, or remaining susceptible to other misuse.”
Franco-American cooperation is essential to protect the hardware layer of the Internet—the critical cables and other physical infrastructure of the online world. As China seeks to control these networks through state-backed companies like Huawei and ZTE, Europe has become ground zero in a high-stakes struggle. Paris’s recent de facto ban on Huawei building its 5G networks will bolster Italy, Germany, and other European democracies currently wrestling with the trade-off between angering a major trading partner and protecting their networks from potential espionage and exploitation. For Europe, working with the United States to secure the hardware layer of the internet from the threat of Chinese network interference is a commercial opportunity, since the continent is home to Nokia and Ericsson, the main 5G alternatives on the market. And with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development headquartered in Paris, U.S.-French cooperation could also anchor an Allied Industrial Base, a democratic bloc that preserves efficiency and competition while helping its members reduce their dependence on Chinese supply chains.
Technology will be the backbone of efforts to efficiently produce and deploy vaccines and otherwise combat COVID-19. The two countries have already cooperated on research and development of vaccine candidates: The United States provided critical funding to French pharmaceutical Sanofi. More generally, French pharmaceutical and health insurance providers are eyeing new methods to use data in order to predict and help prevent diseases— an area prime for future collaborations with U.S. companies, such as Google and Apple, that are also experimenting in this space.
France is the home of the Paris Climate Agreement, and Macron has recently proposed a referendum to integrate the protection of the environment as an amendment to Article 1 of the French Constitution. Less appreciated, however, is the country’s green tech potential. The French Tech for the Planet initiative supports innovative start-ups tackling everything from sustainable agriculture to mobility. The government’s post-COVID stimulus plan explicitly earmarks $35 billion for “the greening of the economy,” including retrofitting buildings and expanding sustainable transportation.
A Franco-American tech alliance can also combat terrorism. While the perceived threat of Islamic State-inspired attacks in the United States has faded, terrorism remains foremost on the minds of France’s leaders. The 2015 standoff at a Paris kosher supermarket and the massacre at the Bataclan theatre were deeply scarring, and France has recently suffered a series of targeted and gruesome attacks. In the past two months, extremists have murdered three parishioners at a church in Nice, stabbed two people in front of the former office of magazine Charlie Hebdo, and decapitated a French teacher, Samuel Paty, who had shown satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression.
Deployed responsibly and in a manner consistent with civil liberties, advanced technology systems might play a role in heading off these attacks. In practice, the American software company Palantir is already supplying critical data analysis to French public security. Google’s Jigsaw arm has had some success with its so-called Redirect Method, steering would-be jihadists towards content undermining extremist messaging. Though technology is no substitute for community-based deradicalization efforts, closer digital cooperation could unlock new ways of identifying and countering extremists.
Finally, technology can facilitate economic opportunity and mobility. In France, this is especially important given the risks of economic marginalization enabling agents of radicalization in impoverished banlieues, or city suburbs.“Macronomics” reforms also include facilitating on-demand services: Although controversial on both sides of the Atlantic, the gig economy is nonetheless a major provider of jobs for communities with high unemployment rates. France’s dedicated Tech Visa program has made it easier to recruit talent and contest the brain drain that has seen roughly 60,000 French citizens relocate to Silicon Valley—the most of any European country. Major tech companies including Google, Facebook, IBM, Amazon, and Salesforce have committed to creating thousands of jobs in France, where the public debate on their size and reach exists as much as it does in the United States. From 2016 to 2020, venture capital investment in France quintupled.
Nearly every recent domestic terrorist attack incident in France has been perpetrated by individuals under the age of 35. Fostering economic opportunities in impoverished communities, where young people yearn for a path to a better life, can help restore a sense of hope and belonging and, ultimately, serve as a powerful component to a long-term counterterrorism strategy. The efforts to train and invest in entrepreneurs from socioeconomically diverse backgrounds, championed by Xavier Niel, a leading French tech entrepreneur, and Roxanne Varza, the director of Station F, Europe’s largest tech startup incubator located in central Paris, offer a positive example of this at work.
Although technology cannot, on its own, address all the challenges France and the United States face, none of those challenges can be addressed without a commitment to deep technological cooperation and a common will to foster a world-spanning space of norms and standards. It was Benjamin Franklin, the Founding Father whose kite-flying experiments electrified the world, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to France. For two and a half centuries since, the United States and France have worked together in defense of freedom and democracy. Now the incoming Biden administration has the opportunity to once more capture lightning in a bottle, and carry forward that spirit of innovation into a new era of cooperation.
François Godement, currently senior fellow of Institut Montaigne (Paris) and non-resident associate of the Carnegie Endowment, has published extensively on China, and in recent years on EU-China relations.