The 20th century was an unprecedented time in the history of mankind, when scientific and technical progress helped humans take a quantum leap forward in many fields, improving living and working conditions to an extent that would have been unthinkable in the previous century. Diseases previously considered as incurable were cured, men walked on the Moon and organisms were genetically modified. But isn’t the beginning of the 21st century even more incredible? Everything seems to be accelerating at a time when opportunities are as manifold as threats. Technology is undoubtedly the key to prosperity, but also to the security of nation-states.
The race for technology, the key to the future
In the age of increasing digitization and innovation, it has become undeniable that technology plays a central role in the economy. Countries all over the world are striving to dominate the new economic paradigm, which is currently arbitrated by the world’s two superpowers: the United States and China.
In this context, France and the European Union are seeking to strengthen their position and become key players. To this end, the European Union has taken steps to encourage innovation and research, notably through programs such as Horizon Europe, designed to support the development of advanced technologies. France, for its part, focuses on strategic sectors such as defense, where it is recognized for its expertise and investment in research and development.
With its universities, research labs, “French Tech” programme, startup ecosystem and unicorns, France remains active in the world battle for the most innovative technologies. The best proof is that France ranks 12th globally for innovation, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization. In 2020, with 5.7% of total patent applications submitted to the European Patent Office, France remained in 5th position behind the United States, Germany, Japan and China. France’s share of international co-inventions is 18% higher than that of Germany. Despite these strong results, it is essential for the country to continue investing in key areas such as AI and IT to remain competitive on a global scale. This is also where the necessary complementarity with the European Union can be achieved, particularly in order to close the gap on the strategic issue of artificial intelligence.
Technology is also a key factor in the environmental transition. In this area, France is a world leader, a genuine green power, highly effective in the field of transport. The European Patent Office considers France to be the most specialized, with an index of 1.9. France is also at the forefront of international cooperation, coastal and natural preservation, nuclear energy, and water and waste management. With the “Vallée de la batterie” (Battery Valley) where four gigafactories for electric batteries have been built in Hauts-de-France, France is already a European leader.
Nevertheless, as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated, “global leadership (…) in emerging technologies is as much an economic imperative as it is a security imperative”. That is the reason why European Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton is calling for a form of European quantum leap forward, so that “Europe can harness innovative technologies to fully implement both an environmental and digital transition, while ensuring resilience and independence”.
A peaceful relationship with China
Clearly, this technological competition is at the heart of the Chinese-American rivalry, which itself is reshaping geopolitics. Neither France nor the European Union can ignore this new order.
However, President Emmanuel Macron’s message during his recent visit to China (April 2023) was clear. France wishes to maintain a peaceful relationship with China. It should be remembered that the two countries have a special bond, as France, under the leadership of General de Gaulle, was the first country to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1964. In keeping with its “Gaullian-Mitterandian” tradition, France wants to avoid new Cold War, and rejects any idea of alignment. At the G7 Summit in June 2021, President Emmanuel Macron had already declared that the G7 was not hostile to China, but rather a group of democracies that were ready to work with China on issues of common interest.
France wants a stabilized relationship and long-term reciprocity. That is why President Xi and President Macron discussed key issues regarding joint action by their industries and scientists against global warming, while preserving mutual technological interests. Discussions also focused on the challenges of financing growth, transition and debt of vulnerable economies. Ultimately, innovation remains a central issue in French-Chinese relations.
France – China: a scientific and technological partnership for the future
While the bilateral relationship has raised questions under Xi Jinping’s presidency since 2012, especially given his unabashed support to Russia in the war against Ukraine, or even the initiatives carried out as part of the so-called “lone wolf” diplomacy, the fact remains that the two countries are actively cooperating and have already implemented many joint actions.
Indeed, scientific and technological cooperation is a major instrument of this bilateral relationship, supported by research institutions such as the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research). There are currently 56 French-Chinese structures, comprising over 300 laboratories and headed by more than 2,500 researchers. The fact that these institutions are located in both countries strengthens cooperation and promotes tangible progress. Over the past five years, this collaboration has led to 18 patents being filed and more than 800 articles being published in scientific journals.
Cooperation covers various technological domains and permeates all sectors. For example, in the space sector, the launch of a Chinese-French ocean satellite in 2018 after 13 years of joint work is proof of the advances made by these two powers. France is also contributing its expertise to China’s national advances, helping to launch the Chinese Mars probe Taiwen-1 in 2020 and also participating in the launch of the Chinese lunar probe Chang’e-5 in the same year.
In the aviation sector, since 2017, the Airbus A330 and A350 finishing and delivery centres have been successively located in Tianjin, partially relocating the production chain in China as part of a technological partnership.
University agreements are also strong symbols of the two nations’ desire to develop lasting intellectual ties. Partnerships between prestigious French and Chinese universities, such as the University of Science and Technology of China, are accompanied by scholarships and other joint programs such as the “Cai Yuanpei” program, which crystallize French-Chinese efforts in the field of technological training.
Regarding the environmental transition, while France is particularly dependent on critical minerals and rare earths, France and China are working together. In November 2019, for example, a memorandum of cooperation on hydrogen was signed between French company Air Liquide and Chinese firm Sinopec, in the presence of President Macron and President Xi Jinping. This partnership aims at promoting hydrogen as a vehicle fuel, thereby helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These are concrete actions in support of innovation, growth and the ecological transition.
Evidently, France and China have established a solid scientific and technological partnership based on a long-term vision. This partnership fosters exchanges, technological advances and joint progress, while helping to meet the national, bilateral and global challenges facing both countries.
Chinese-American rivalry and Europe’s quest for sovereignty
The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the growing dependence on global supply chains and foreign suppliers of hardware and software. This reality underlined how crucially important it is for Europe to re-establish technological sovereignty in the face of Chinese-American rivalry, and stabilizing the international order.
Complex technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, Big Data, the cloud, mobile technologies, semiconductors, quantum computing and photonics, are made of many interconnected elements. European dynamics and interlinkages vary from one technological field to another, necessitating a new approach to reduce Europe’s dependence and make it a central player again in the technological race.
It seems unlikely that Europe can achieve complete digital autonomy on its own. In an interconnected world, the reality of innovation systems and economies will require international cooperation, and the European Union has everything it takes to be the cornerstone of that cooperation. Europe must therefore determine which technologies it needs to own, which to share with others and which it merely needs access to, so as to boost its competitiveness and assert its position on the world stage.
Taking a leading position within Europe would be a major opportunity for France to strengthen its sovereignty, promote its attractiveness and thus European vitality.
The road to French and European technological sovereignty requires a long-term strategic vision and closer collaboration between public and private players. Building a new technological sovereignty will not happen overnight, but requires sustained investment in research, development and innovation, as well as strong international cooperation.
In a context of Chinese-American rivalry, it is crucial to strike a balance between national interests, international cooperation and the need to guarantee a stable world order. This is even more significant with the emergence of a major new geopolitical power: the Big Five. Their technological and economic superiority is such that States are finding it extremely difficult to regulate them.
In this area, the European Union, with its market power and regulatory force, could be a key player in bringing the economy back in line with politics. In any case, it is time for Europe to make a choice. It can either become a central player in the tech race, using its high level of education, massive investment and ability to impose standards, or it can become a mere “digital settlement”.
The quest for technological sovereignty is therefore a complex but vital path for Europe if it wishes to safeguard its economic, security and strategic interests, while contributing to the establishment of a new, balanced and stable world order.
By Vincent Berthiot
Vincent Berthiot is a senior policy adviser to Anne Genetet (a French politician and member of the National Assembly) and Executive Director and Co-Founder at Club France Initiative.