As the geopolitical picture continues to churn with uncertainty, France is making a strong and surprising bid to assume a central leadership role in fixing the hot mess otherwise known as the internet.
Following a weekend-long tribute marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I — which drew global leaders to Paris — French president Emmanuel Macron made two major announcements that underscored his administration’s determination to address the long list of problems that have cast a cloud over the internet.
The goal is to create a framework for regulating the internet and fighting back against cyber attacks, online censorship, and hate speech. The more than 370 signatories included 51 governments, though notably absent were the U.S., China, and Russia. The initiative is also backed by tech giants such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Intel, Ericsson, Samsung, Accenture, Fujitsu, SAP, Salesforce, and Hitachi.
Applauding Macron’s leadership, Microsoft president Brad Smith wrote in a blog post:
The Paris Call is an important step on the path toward digital peace, creating a stronger foundation for progress ahead. It calls for strong commitments in support of clear principles and strong norms to protect citizens and civilian infrastructure from systemic or indiscriminate cyberattacks. Similarly, it calls for governments, tech companies, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to work together to protect our democracies and electoral processes from nation-state cyber threats.
Macron also announced that Facebook had agreed to allow French regulators to “embed” in the company for six months in order to monitor and understand its efforts to fight online hate speech and other suspicious content.
“It’s a first,” Macron told the annual Internet Governance Forum in Paris, according to Reuters. “I’m delighted by this very innovative experimental approach. It’s an experiment, but a very important first step, in my view.”
The move is also one of the first major initiatives since Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s former deputy prime minister, became Facebook’s new vice president for global affairs.
“The best way to ensure that any regulation is smart and works for people is by governments, regulators, and businesses working together to learn from each other and explore ideas,” Clegg said in a statement given to reporters.
In Paris, these initiatives were just a part of a frenzied few days of action related to the future of the internet. In addition to the IGF, The Paris Peace Forum held its inaugural event over three days. And on Monday, Paris hosted the Govtech Summit, an effort to “reimagine services that place citizens at the center of public delivery, where public servants have an array of technology-enabled resources and information at their fingertips and can use new ways of delivering better, more efficient, more citizen-focused services.”
Attendees at the summit included Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and U.K. health secretary Matthew Hancock, and the event was organized in part by former adviser to the U.K. prime minister David Cameron. The gathering prompted Politico to muse: “Brexit is distracting the U.K. from a much-touted effort to digitize government — and France is only too happy to take advantage of the situation.”
These latest efforts come as France continues to press other European Union members to adopt a tax on tech giants in an effort to level the playing field for smaller startups and traditional businesses.
Taken together, the last few days underscore the remarkable rise in France’s international profile. Diplomatically speaking, the country seemed in many ways like an afterthought just a few years ago. But the election of President Macron a year and a half ago, plus the void left by the America-first stance of President Donald Trump, have created a new opening for France as it seeks to regain a central spot on the global stage.
As some look for an alternative to the authoritarianism of China and Russia and the populism sweeping much of Europe and the U.S., Macron has been happily trying to fill a leadership vacuum. Whether his calls for cooperation and globalism will have a real impact remains to be seen. But, at least for now, France has found itself once again enjoying relevance in the eyes of the world.