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The French–German conference on digital affairs: a missed opportunity? [by Guy Mamou-Mani, vice-chairman of Open and chairman of Syntec Numérique]

A Europe that is ahead in the digital agenda is not a mere dream and must be a constant objective of our politicians and business owners. Nevertheless, European strategy seems to be taking some time to implement, as usual. This is undoubtedly why France and Germany decided to take the bull by the horns in holding a conference on the digital agenda on 27 October in Paris.

Although it had the merit of demonstrating a real political will on the part of our leaders, caution remains appropriate around the impact of this major event. The conference made three major lines of decisions. The first is on the link between the industry of the future and Industry 4.0, which aims to spread dematerialisation throughout the whole economy. The second aims to increase our countries’ capabilities for funding start-ups, to allow them to grow and compete in other markets. The third seeks to provide a framework for the digital economy. So many ideas heading in quite the right direction. And yet, we see that the conference seems to have had some major oversights when we examine its conclusions a little more closely.

First, this conference did not really seek to build on what we do best on both sides of the Rhine, our SMEs and large enterprises. Large enterprises in Germany and SMEs in France are the backbone of our economies; they are where the most hiring is done. The proposals of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the President of the French Republic and the joint report by the French Digital Council and its German equivalent focus on those start-ups that we do not want to see heading for the other side of the Atlantic. The creation of an investment fund is of course a step in the right direction, but it overlooks the majority of those who bring growth to Germany and France. The same applies to the creation of a unified status for young European companies: why only include start-ups, when we know that it is often somewhat older companies that will attack neighbouring markets? The actions also focus on industry, automation and connected objects, despite the fact that, even if it means displaying a desire for independence from certain large American companies, we could have so much to offer in terms of cybersecurity, big data management and digital services, in which we are really ahead, i.e. in B2B as opposed to B2C.

The conference also saw the announcement of the creation of a French–German academy for the industry of the future. Again, the idea is excellent, but overlooks the fact that today, the main problem lies not in research so much as in vocations to work in the digital sector. It is in our schools that we must seek the engineers and doctors of computer science of tomorrow, men and (above all!) women. Another good starting point could have been to propose a French–German research and development tax credit that would be established without approval.

Our politicians also announced a desire to propose a framework for the digital economy, which would involve proposing common labelling for security in cloud computing and regulating platforms. Yet, in moving forward alone to encourage Europe to follow in their footsteps, France and Germany run the risk of isolating our economic areas, without being certain that the choices they make will enable us to achieve the objectives of protection of privacy and economic independence.

So perhaps this conference on 27 October was a launch, the dawn of an initiative that we, industrial stakeholders and civil society, will be able to enrich with our ideas and practical options to advance all 28 Member States of the European Union. Perhaps it will allow the European Union to take on a digital policy that favours growth. We hope and earnestly desire for this to be the case, but we also request that our governments listen to their industry stakeholders to create a digital strategy capable of giving the digital economy the momentum it needs.