Computing Profession

France Embraces Digital Transformation

French Minister of State for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire.
French Minister of State for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire says France is helping companies transform with digital technologies, by providing public funding and making the country more attractive to startups and foreign investment.

Over the last few years, France has focused on becoming a larger and more powerful player on the global tech scene. French Minister of State for Digital Affairs Axelle Lemaire is at the center of all this initiative. The former researcher and international lawyer was open to discussing a variety of technology topics related to digital transformation, laws and regulations, and privacy.

How does the French government view the emerging digital economy?
Lemaire: Digital business models create enormous challenges. Our bet is that large multinational companies will transform themselves, but they must change. We are backing this through public funding and by working to make the country more attractive to startups and foreign investment. We are also working to build up infrastructure. By 2021, the entire country will have high-speed broadband, mostly fiber-optic, with a minimum of 100-megabit connectivity. We expect France to be the most connected country in Europe.

What have you achieved so far?
Lemaire: Foreign investment in France last year was 12%; that shows the strategy is working. The overall growth rate in the digital sector is expected to be 2.6% for 2016; that’s enough to create jobs. Also, my digital bill (the Digital Republic bill), which the Parliament passed in January, is helping France achieve critical regulatory reforms, tax incentives, and financing models beyond the traditional banking system. This helps startups, but also larger companies transitioning to digital business.

Are there other ways you are attempting to speed digital transformation?
Lemaire: We’re working to build partnerships between large multinationals and startups. If you look at a company like Tesla, they built a car in about two years; it takes a traditional auto manufacturer about 10 years. Tesla is a software box that runs the vehicle. Businesses must learn how to innovate quickly and build relationships to move the technology and business forward.

How does the emerging digital economy impact data privacy in France? How does this affect startups and innovation?
Lemaire: We have a fundamentally different model than the United States, because we believe that the digital economy is entirely based on trust. Once there is no longer trust and people believe that their personal data will be over-exploited, the digital economy is threatened. So, when we say we want personal data to be protected, we believe this is a way to accommodate the digital revolution, not block it.

How do you make data available, especially government data, without blocking progress and compromising privacy?
Lemaire: We have created a new category of open data called "general interest." Companies that enter a concession with the state or local authorities must share data with public bodies. But shared data doesn’t mean public data; we’re not asking companies to hand over commercial data.

This is a huge step forward because we want to create Smart Cities that deliver the best services for French citizens. We just want to know how many cars pass by a certain point every day; under what weather conditions; how many people ride in the car? We can implement much more efficient public policy by using this data.

What are your views on the recent flap between the U.S. government and Apple over encryption?
Lemaire: It was a question we had to look at. Again, trust is at the center of the digital economy, and if you start to accept the fact that the government can break into private systems, such as a smartphone, it not only affects companies but the entire digital landscape. So, we believe very strongly that the French government shouldn’t break into smartphones. This would be counterproductive.

How have French economic and data privacy policies played out over the last few years?
Lemaire: Although there is a different story behind digital companies such as Uber and Airbnb, we are seeing cooperation because it is in their interest to work together. For example, Paris is the number one market for Airbnb. My conviction is that the sharing economy creates economic and social value. Digital technology creates new and often more efficient ways to do business and interact. Ten years ago, Uber and Airbnb did not exist. So, as digital transformation takes place, the goal is to balance job destruction with job growth. We are clearly in a transition period.

How do you see digital technology shaping the future of government and politics?
Lemaire: France will be presiding over the Open Government Partnership, or OGP, by the end of 2016. We believe this program will be helpful for fighting crime and corruption.

Ultimately, we believe that digital tools and technology can enhance the level of transparency and help build trust among citizens, companies and governments.

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR.

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