France’s Secretary of State for Digital Affairs Mounir Mahjoubi came to CES in Las Vegas to support hundreds of French startups. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down and interview him about fake news, the French digital council, Axelle Lemaire’s law and how he plans to transform the state into a tech platform.
Mahjoubi joined Emmanuel Macron’s team as the person in charge of all things digital while Macron was campaigning to become France’s President. He joined the French government immediately after the 2017 election and has been in charge of Digital Affairs. In addition to being the go-to policymaker for the tech industry in general, he’s also working on digital initiatives within the government and the French state.
There’s also a separate video interview about French startups in general. Today’s interview was translated from French and slightly edited for brevity and clarity.
TechCrunch: Your position as Secretary of State is now under the Prime Minister. What does it change on a daily basis compared to former Digital Secretaries of State [who were working with Economy Ministers]?
Mounir Mahjoubi: Before, I would have been Secretary of State in charge of the Digital Economy, now I am Secretary of State in charge of Digital Affairs. There is a clear link between economic transformation, state transformation, inclusion and security topics. All those things are connected.
When we talk about building a ‘startup nation’, it is a nation that behaves like a startup and that fosters startups at home. What I am trying to do is to build champions for the economy and the state. It means that I want to create the best online services possible for the Government. I am responsible of a big state-owned startup that spends €10 billion [$12.4 billion] on digital projects so that we can have more flexible and accessible services that leverage artificial intelligence.
TC: The primary mission is the digital transformation of the state?
MM: That’s the first part, and it goes hand in hand with the transformation of the economy. And what is interesting is that those two things are complementary. When we grow our startups, we need to create an ecosystem that fosters champions. We’re going to create unicorns — not just three unicorns, but 20 or 100. But we also need an ecosystem of companies that get their opportunities.
First, we develop an ecosystem where everyone has an opportunity — we foster diversity and we surface entrepreneurs from everywhere because good ideas come from everywhere. Second, we need to identify tomorrow’s success stories and help them accelerate.
We want to do the same for the state. At the same time, we will take care of French people who don’t know how to use digital services — it’s useless to do all this if we leave behind 20 percent of French citizens who don’t know how to use the internet.
And finally, we make sure that the system is secure. If we can’t reach a high level of cybersecurity, no one will trust startups, no one will trust digital public services. And all of these are essential conditions for the transformation of France.
TC: What are the objectives for the digital transformation of France for the next four years?
MM: Regarding the economy, we will have startups that are global leaders, especially in specific industries, such as artificial intelligence, health, digital security, transport and the environment. I will do my best to identify and help them grow.
Then, we need to help companies from the so-called ‘traditional’ economy. We need to help them in their [digital] transformation. Today, 50 percent of all employees work for small and medium enterprises. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to meet with a hundred of those SMEs that come here to CES and discuss how we can help them in their transformation of their international offer.
As for the state, the objective that we have given ourselves is 100 percent of dematerialized paperwork by 2022. This means that we have a lot of work to create the state as a platform, create micro services that work with that kind of platform, transform administration work that isn’t digital yet, create a unified process with France’s digital services and facilitate access to the administrations. Those are the essential objectives. And the conditions for success are a high level of security and accessibility.
Eventually, we’ll also have a broader topic regarding employment transformation. How can we accompany the transformation at a large and small scale in the long run — some jobs will appear, others will disappear. That is why we have bet on training and competencies. We have invested €15 billion in the training of French people.
TC: There is a recurring question since the beginning of [Macron’s] five-year term. How far are we with the implementing decrees of Axelle Lemaire’s law?
MM: Which ones, we passed many of them already…
TC: Yes, but there are still some remaining ones…
MM: Some are remaining and they are the most complicated ones…
TC: Will they be scrapped?
MM: Nothing will be scrapped. If we scrap them, people will see it. Now, we have a National Assembly that is very competent when it comes to digital topics — it hasn’t always been the case.
There are ten remaining implementing decrees that involve complex decisions. There are also some decrees that require judicial attention because they depend on European regulation and France’s constitution. For those ones, it’s possible that we end up failing.
TC: When will the last implementing decree be published?
MM: The ones that are complicated are those where there is a problem of European compatibility or constitutional compatibility. For those ones, we might have to pass a new law or go though European organizations to reach an international solution.
TC: Can we talk about the French digital council [Conseil National du Numérique]? Marie Ekeland’s resignation draw a lot of attention to it. What happened exactly and who gave the order to change the team?
MM: There is no order. There was a miscomprehension or a misalignment between the project carried out by Marie Ekeland and France’s needs with a digital council. The council’s role is to accompany the digital transformation of France, to accompany the Government.
From the very first day after its formation, all the talks we had weren’t compatible with this mission.
TC: Did they represent too much opposition?
MM: Very quickly, the council had its own project and they weren’t here to accompany the Government in the digital transformation.
Mea culpa, we recognized that we weren’t aligned with the goal of the president [Marie Ekeland]. She chose to resign. The members said that they would resign as well because the project would stop. But some of them will be named again in the next digital council, and one of them became my chief of staff [Aymeril Hoang].
That’s why that resignations weren’t against me or the government. The resignations were the result of the end of Marie Ekeland’s project. And now we need to get ready for another project.
TC: When can we expect a new French digital council?
MM: February. In fact, France needs a digital council as quickly as possible. Net neutrality is jeopardized, the topic of artificial intelligence is on the way — there are plenty of topics that require that the council starts working.
TC: Let’s switch gear and talk about startups again. There are currently two strong indicators for the French tech ecosystem — the Visa French Tech and Station F. Those are great symbols, but how do we go further and talk about actual French startups?
MM: It all comes down to what ‘French Tech’ means. From my point of view, I would be more optimistic than you. When we hear about French Tech, France and startups, we also hear ‘very good engineers’ and ‘nice startups’. But we don’t hear about ‘powerful startups’ and ‘hyper growth’.
That’s what I want to focus on in the coming years. When you hear the words French Tech, you should think about those deep tech companies that are going to save lives across the globe.
TC: Let’s talk about Bpifrance. Emmanuel Macron promised another €10 billion fund last year. What’s the status of this fund and how will it shape up?
MM: This €10 billion fund for disruptive innovation will let Bpifrance invest hundreds of millions of euros in innovative projects every year
TC: €200 million [per year]?
MM: It will depend on the interest rate, so it can be €200 million or more. We need to finish putting everything together to make it available to the public.
This is important because we want to rethink how we use public money to invest in companies that private funds won’t invest in. It is very important to separate public money from private funds. That money should never be invested in companies that also attract private money. It should be focused on hyper risk and hyper innovation. That’s how you create sustainable investment.
TC: One last question. Emmanuel Macron announced a project against fake news to the media. The shape of that project is still unclear. What is your concrete take on that project?
TC: For that issue, there is no need to rush. More generally, we have an issue that is not only French — it is a global topic that affects the U.S., Europe, France, Germany… It’s all about removing content from online platforms and sharing the responsibility.
There is a specific issue with fake news during elections, but there is an issue around terrorist content, an issue around online harassment, cyber criminality… And we need to think carefully because all those topics are reaching a new dimension.
It feels weird to see Facebook or Twitter acting quickly to remove a nipple within a minute while it takes them a week to remove a homophobic message because they think it’s a matter of freedom of speech
What is a legal issue? What is a freedom of speech issue? What is the responsibility of the platform or the editors? What is audiovisual content? This topic of online content removal is potentially subject to multiple sets of regulation. One of the focus of the next months is to clarify regulation around that issue.
The law “confidence for the digital economy” of 2014 already deals with the responsibilities of the hosting company and the editing company. We already have a powerful tool, because some other countries don’t have that.
Today, we discovered the limits, including when it comes to fake news, harassment and insults. Some associations are very demanding, associations against homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism… There are victims that don’t understand why harassing content remains online after multiple reports.
We have areas of success, on terrorism for example — President Macron reminded this. We ask them to go even further and delete content within an hour of being reported. And this seems to find consensus and no one is against this.
But if we go down just one level and talk about online harassment, including illegal content. There are people who say that it is not the role of the platform to decide how to say if it’s infringing the law or not.
When it comes to child pornography, there has been a global consensus for 15 years. When it comes to children, the content must be deleted and we don’t need a judge. The platform is responsible and must delete immediately.
For the rest, we need to find out if we need to remove it or not. You have respectable people who say that it is not the role of the platform to decide what must be kept online or not. And if they do it they’ll do it according to their own the values — sometimes it’s not our values.
And it feels weird to see Facebook or Twitter acting quickly to remove a nipple within a minute while it takes them a week to remove a homophobic message because they think it’s a matter of freedom of speech. In France, it’s very weird — we would have banned the homophobic message and left that kind of nudity alone.
We don’t need to rush into it. The President has set some goals and now we need to reach them.