Innovation and risk-taking echo our country's deep-rooted history
In an interview with The Big Whale, the head of state and presidential candidate looks back at his record in Tech and details his vision for his possible second term.
An exceptional interview. With just a few days to go before the second round of the presidential election, Emmanuel Macron agreed to answer our questions on digital, cryptos and technology, topics that were little touched on during the campaign, but oh so essential. It was with The Big Whale 🐳 that the candidate decided to tackle these subjects. Both to take stock of his action and to give his vision of what his second term in office would be like. Emmanuel Macron also took the opportunity to make some big announcements about the start-up ecosystem or the European framework for crypto-assets.
THE BIG WHALE: There is more and more talk about Web3. What does this represent for you? Is it an opportunity?
EMMANUEL MACRON: A requirement and an opportunity not to be missed. It's an opportunity for France and Europe to be leaders in the future generations of the web. France has the assets and talent to do this. In a world where technological breakthroughs precede economic domination, this is essential if we are to preserve our jobs and our independence. But it is also a social and societal challenge: the acceleration in the pace of technology is already a major centrifugal force in our societies, between those who have mastered the codes of digital technology, AI, quantum, blockchain and so on, and the many who are excluded. We must ensure that technology remains at the service of society and progress.
When you arrived at the Elysée Palace in 2017, you said you wanted to make France a "start-up nation", a country capable of bringing out champions in the technological sectors of the future. After five years in office, how would you assess the results?
At the end of 2017, France had 3 unicorns. It now has 26. Investment in French start-ups has increased 5-fold in 5 years, and 2022 promises to be another record year. But what I remember most of all is the tremendous change in atmosphere we've witnessed. Today, capital is pouring in, hundreds of thousands of jobs are being created all over the country, but above all our best talents are staying in France, projecting themselves and our country into the future with optimism. This is vital. Not only from an economic point of view, but also because we need much more innovation to meet the major societal challenges of our time: the ecological transition, the ageing population, the food challenge, etc. All this is the fruit of the work of entrepreneurs and their employees, but also of a systematic support policy implemented by the government: on financing, on attracting talent, on the regulatory environment, on investment in key technologies... not forgetting the general support for innovation, which is essential, or what has been done to provide fibre and mobile coverage of the country. Ultimately, what is being built stone by stone is the technological sovereignty of France and Europe. But there is still a lot of work to do.
If you are re-elected, what vision do you have for French start-ups and French Tech? What would your priorities be? Number of unicorns, level of investment?
We need to go even further. The last 5 years have enabled us to reopen the game, but it's still not enough. The global economy and our everyday lives are still dominated almost exclusively by Anglo-Saxon and Chinese companies. That's why I've set ourselves the target of creating 100 French unicorns and 10 European giants by 2030. We need our companies to be more numerous and more powerful, and to develop in critical areas such as quantum computing, biotechnologies and the agriculture and energy of tomorrow. To achieve this, we need to scale up our efforts. That starts with talent. Digital technology is an extremely profound transition. To give our society and our economy the weapons to master it, we need to make a major effort on training. If the people of France have confidence in me, we will make learning to code and use digital technology widespread from the 5th year upwards, and we will train 400,000 to 500,000 more developers and IT experts over the five-year period. We must take advantage of this effort to put social mix and diversity at the heart of the ecosystem.
Do you consider that France and Europe are doing enough in terms of investment in technology? Do you regret that the new unicorns, Ledger or Sorare, have been financed by large American funds?
There too, things are progressing, but we need to go further. In recent years, we have focused on the growth of companies. We need to continue this, but also ensure that many more start-ups are created - and funded - each year. That's why we're going to work in two directions. Firstly, to encourage the financing of innovative businesses in their early stages by making our tax system more attractive, taking inspiration from schemes that have proved successful in neighbouring countries such as the UK's EIS/SEIS. Secondly, we need to continue structuring the French and European venture capital industry - both by launching a second "Tibi" initiative with institutional investors, and by ensuring that the commitments made in Scale-up Europe are implemented as quickly as possible, so that powerful European investment funds can emerge. Having so much foreign investment in our ecosystem is an asset in international competition - and I'm very much in favour of it as long as the start-up headquarters and the technologies remain in France - but a powerful ecosystem also means a powerful European venture capital financial industry. In addition, we will perpetuate tax measures that are favourable to innovation, such as the CIR, the CII or the JEI, which have proved their effectiveness.
France has many engineers, several champions in sectors such as data, artificial intelligence, video games or blockchain. But they still carry little weight compared with the American and Chinese giants. Aren't we running the risk of once again missing out on the new technological wave, just as we missed out on the Internet wave 20 years ago?
We are in the process of getting back into the global technology game, and if we continue to pursue the right policies, we can win it. For one simple reason: we have the best talent. Our duty is to create an environment that encourages them to stay in Europe. This is what is happening: the combination of the reforms implemented, covid and the search for a better balance in terms of quality of life are major assets for our continent. The proof is that in 2021, for the first time, Europe will have created more unicorns than China. I would also like to mention the recent adoption of the Digital Markets Act under the French Presidency: I believe this is the most important piece of economic regulation since the beginning of the 20th century. By fighting monopolies, we are reopening the game and allowing new players to emerge. In short, there's still a long way to go, but if we know how to make the necessary efforts, I'm very optimistic.
You spoke of a "European metaverse". What do you mean by this?
Web3 and metavers can represent a new stage in the web as we know it. I want Europe to be a central player, unlike what has happened up to now. In concrete terms, I want to ensure that European players master the technological building blocks associated with Web3 and metavers so that they are not dependent on the American or Chinese giants. We already have a very fertile breeding ground of players, whether in the field of virtual and augmented reality, digital twins, mastery of blockchain technologies, etc. The idea, for example, would be to support alternative graphics engines and capture technologies, or to work on future challenges, such as the creation of immersive universes that reproduce the physical properties of our world. There are many questions, and we don't know them all, but I want us to nurture a strategic approach and, above all, an ecosystem around these issues. Building a European metaverse also means producing, promoting and controlling our cultural and creative content. The metaverse has immense potential in culture and leisure thanks to its applications in music, concerts, art exhibitions and so on. We cannot think about our cultural policy in isolation from this revolution. I hope that our main cultural establishments will develop an NFT policy, for example through the promotion, dissemination and protection of twins or variations of their physical collections. Finally, France, through its language, its heritage, its towns and villages, its monuments, must also exist in the metaverse. I hope we can think about what a dematerialised museum of French history would look like in this universe: what a great project it would be to think about what a digital historiography of our collective history would look like.
Let's go back to Web3 and cryptos. Europe could be the leading continent on the subject, but MEPs have just adopted some very restrictive regulations. At the same time, some - admittedly rare - countries are making bitcoin their legal tender. Isn't there a risk of once again missing out on a major revolution, at a time when studies are showing that the French and Europeans are increasingly interested in these new currencies?
I think we need to base our approach on clear principles. First of all, there is a key issue for Europe in terms of technological mastery of these technologies of the future, which go far beyond the question of financial innovation. In this respect, we already have some leading players in France, such as Ledger and Sorare. We need to encourage others to emerge and attract the best to our country. I also note that there is a very strong appetite, particularly among the younger generation, for these technologies and the services they offer, which have enormous potential applications. But I don't believe in a self-regulated financial sector. That would be neither sustainable nor democratic. It is up to the public authorities to establish the right frameworks to enable the sector to develop in a climate of trust, while encouraging innovation. To achieve this, we need a pragmatic approach: what does the technology bring, what are the real (and not imagined) problems, and how do we respond to them? This was the philosophy adopted in the Pacte Act, which established the first balanced rules in this sector (tax, accounting, regulatory framework for service providers, etc.). We now need to ensure uniform rules across Europe to create a unified market. In this context, I am in favour of making rapid progress on the MiCA regulation, based on the balanced approach promoted by the Council and inspired by the French framework. France will be very careful to ensure that the text does not prevent innovation and remains as technologically neutral as possible. What is happening should also lead us to move much more quickly on the subject of the digital euro.
The other cultural revolution that public authorities often seem to be far removed from is that of video games. You recently made a point of broaching the subject.
Although it would be a lie to say that I've been a very active gamer, I'm part of a generation that grew up with video games - and who appreciate what they represent in terms of culture, particularly for our young people. It's one of France's assets in today's world: we are one of the great video game nations, recognised the world over for the richness of our work, the quality of our training and the dynamism of our industry. We are fortunate to have a strong French video games industry (Ubisoft, Quantic Dream, Voodoo, etc.). I'm also not forgetting the extent to which video games are involved in the issue of mastering advanced technologies. This will once again be true with Web3. Above all, video games are an important component of France's cultural soft power, of our country's image around the world. It's also part of our ability to understand our society's projections and representations. That's why I want us to take a strategic approach here too, to continue to create the conditions that will make France THE country for video games: we have adapted the video game tax credit, we want to make it permanent and continue to work on funding and training to localise and attract production to our country. Finally, I'm not forgetting esport, another area of French excellence, with teams like Team Vitality and Karmine Corp. We have a historic opportunity here: the 2024 Olympics. It's up to us to take advantage of this to make the link between the Olympics of the two worlds by hosting the world's biggest sporting events that year: a CS:GO major, the League of Legends Worlds and The International of Dota 2. If the French have confidence in me, we'll be working on this as soon as I'm elected. That, too, is France's influence.
These digital revolutions can be exciting, but they can also be exclusionary. What is your response to those who caricature you as an apostle of the "start-up nation" and of a form of technological "solutionism"
The term "start-up nation", I claim, but a "start-up nation" rooted in the territories, diverse and open to all talents. Through France 2030, I want to reconcile start-ups and industry. Innovation and risk-taking echo the deep history of our country. We owe some of France's greatest technological and industrial successes to what was then a form of 'start-up nation', at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. It was French innovation, daring and genius that made us great and successful. But you're right, we have a duty to take account of all those who feel excluded from this movement today. That's why, during my five-year term in office, I placed so much emphasis on the fight against the digital divide. Never before have so many efforts been made to roll out fibre and reduce the number of white zones. Nearly 2,000 France Services centres have been opened, and 4,000 digital advisers work with our fellow citizens on a daily basis to help them master digital tools. If elected, I will make these posts permanent and double their number: it would be absurd to oppose transformation, but we have a duty to support and train all our fellow citizens to master them.