The partnership between the United States and France has endured centuries of complex diplomatic, political, and economic challenges. United by deeply entrenched democratic ideals, the two nations have repeatedly overcome these obstacles and enjoyed a largely cooperative relationship throughout history. The state of Franco-American relations at the present moment, however, is worthy of attention and discussion. As President Joseph Biden assumes leadership after four years of Donald Trump’s administration—an administration that was defined in part by its influence on foreign policy relations and dynamics—it is prudent to examine the shifting and tenuous dynamics between the two historically allied nations. After various recent disputes over economic, political, and social issues, we are left to ponder where Franco-American relations stand today and where they will go from here.
French and American interests overlap in a variety of areas, from the political realm to the technological realm. The latter is a largely unexplored avenue for restoring transatlantic ties. Technology, a particularly salient topic in Franco-American dialogue in recent years—largely due to controversy over France’s active advocacy of a tech tax on large corporations—has the potential to open doors for collaborative conversations between France and the United States. In an attempt to narrow the scope of the expansive and far-reaching technology sector, this piece will focus primarily on potential opportunities for shared innovation, using the discussion of the French tech tax as a starting point to frame the future of Franco-American technological cooperation. Such collaboration may be possible at the intersection of technology and public health during the time of COVID-19, as well as in the especially relevant realm of cybersecurity and cyberdefense.
A Strained Relationship
The future direction of Franco-American relations is a question at the forefront of current transatlantic discourse. Examining the tumultuous relationship between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron offers insight into the current dynamics between the two nations. Their relationship was initially rooted in mutual respect and cooperation but seemed to quickly deteriorate throughout the four years of Trump’s presidency. Macron and Trump appeared friendly in the early days of Trump’s term. The two presidents celebrated Bastille Day together in Paris with their spouses in 2017 and Trump boasted about their “great relationship” to news outlets, referring to Macron as “a great guy. Smart. Strong. Loves to hold my hand.”
By 2020, Trump and Macron's relationship had become increasingly strained, due in large part to their failures to align on political objectives requiring cooperation, namely climate change and trade tariffs. Macron went as far as to threaten to exclude Trump from the G7 Summit entirely, tweeting, “The American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a six-country agreement if need be.” Mounting tensions drove the two leaders further apart as they continued to exchange statements both explicitly and implicitly disapproving of each other’s policy positions and agendas.
The end of Trump’s presidency signals an end to the political relevance of Trump and Macron’s strained personal relations, yet the issue of Franco-American relations at large remains. In the wake of this tumult, Biden must tackle the question of how to approach French relations after the once-solid alliance has been left to languish. While it is still early in his administration, Biden has “stressed his commitment to bolstering the transatlantic relationship.” In his first phone call with Macron as President of the United States, Biden expressed his desire to cooperate on pressing global issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden faces a myriad of issues regarding transatlantic relations and France in particular. Macron is urging Europeans to embrace the notion of “strategic autonomy,” the concept of acting in tandem with, yet independently of, the United States. With Macron seeking to assert more autonomy, Biden must find ways to re-engage with France and foster collaboration. A cooperative partnership, rooted in mutual democratic and progressive ideals, would help France and the United States to achieve their shared objectives of peace building, counterterrorism efforts, and public health initiatives among others. In turn, the re-establishment of this relationship would uplift and stabilize the democratic world order as France and the United States would be working in tandem to achieve common goals, motivated by a shared desire to confront threats of increasingly powerful hegemonic authoritarian regimes.
Building Ties Through Tech
With numerous and varied issues confronting the two nations, the domain of technology may be a valuable area of mutual interest and cooperation. In recent years. technology has been a particular point of contention between the United States and France. Concerned with the rise and dominance of “big tech” corporations, France implemented a “digital service tax” in 2019, a 3 percent tax on digital revenue for large tech companies. This tax primarily impacts large corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook that cater to French consumers but, prior to 2019, did not pay French taxes.
The US government launched an investigation in 2019 into this tax service, positing that the French tech tax “discriminates against US companies, is inconsistent with prevailing principles of international tax policy, and is unusually burdensome for affected US companies.” Trump, particularly outraged by the tax, threatened to implement 100 percent tariffs on French imports, including cheese, wine, and select luxury items. The tech tax remained a primary source of dispute between Trump and Macron until the end of Trump’s term, and it is one of the many remnants of the Trump administration that Biden must address in the early days of his presidency.
Despite the simmering tensions between the United States and France regarding the tech tax in recent years, the Biden administration has indicated interest in pursuing an alternate approach to the issue, looking to seek a collaborative, multilateral approach to the implementation of such a tax. This diverges markedly from the fierce disapproval of the prior presidential administration. French Finance Foreign Minister Bruno Le Maire welcomed the support of Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary under Biden, who has advocated for a global solution to the taxation of big tech. Secretary Yellen’s approach suggests that an international agreement could be reached. It’s possible that France and the United States will lead the way in creating a framework to uniformly tax and regulate big tech conglomerates. Le Maire expressed his hope that a multilateral big tech tax agreement would come later this spring.
Avenues for Cooperation
It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will address the tech tax issue. However, discussions over how to address issues related to “big tech” between France and the United States open up a broader conversation about how else the nations may strengthen their ties through technological means. In the search for common ground, the tech sector is a natural place for cooperation. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to ravage the globe and vaccination distribution in its initial stages, immunization technology could be an ideal issue for France and the United States to tackle together.
Macron is currently encouraging the United States to join EU nations in allocating a small share of vaccine doses to African nations. The United States will not consider the plan until a larger portion of Americans have been vaccinated, but Macron is undeterred. He has conveyed his continued desire to convince the United States to join in his initiative. Cooperating on matters of public health and vaccine technology offers yet another avenue for the restoration of Franco-American relations—the United States could be a powerful source of assistance as France pursues its own research and development projects related to COVID-19.
Reports regarding vaccine production in France have revealed a stark difference in the scientific capacities of France and the United States. French biotech companies failed to produce a vaccine, while the United States’ “Operation Warp Speed” succeeded in producing mass numbers of vaccines through the American companies Pfizer and Moderna. Macron himself referred to the failures of French vaccine development: “How do we do good science as quickly as possible? The Americans did this very well, much better than us.” As demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it could serve the American and French scientific communities well to cooperate in order to augment and optimize research and development strategies.
France and the United States may also find shared interests in issues of cybersecurity, an area of tech governance that has recently become particularly relevant for the French government. On February 18th, the French cybersecurity agency, ANSSI, reported an intrusion campaign targeting IT monitoring software and the subsequent breaching of numerous French entities. Comparisons have been drawn between this hack and one at the Texas-based SolarWinds Corp in 2020 that gave foreign hackers access to spy on thousands of American companies and governmental offices. The more recent cyberattack on large French supply chains penetrated Centreon Systems, a French IT firm. It was led by a hacking group that, according to ANSSI, employed techniques similar to the Russian military group “Sandworm.” This hack bears resemblance to the SolarWinds Corp breach, which according to American officials, was also “likely Russian in origin.”
In light of the recent cyberattack, as well as two additional attacks on French hospitals, Macron has announced his commitment to augment French cybersecurity technologies. This decision creates an opportunity for potential US and French collaboration on issues of cyber defense. The increasing prevalence of cyber threats may prompt the two countries to combine their resources and existing bilateral frameworks to address cyber crime. Considering Macron’s goals, Biden’s expressed desire “for international cooperation to strengthen cybersecurity,” and the critical nature of cyber defense, this realm seems to be both a likely and viable path for Franco-American cooperation.
Although Biden has explicitly stated his desire to begin “reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect,” it may be unreasonable to assume that Franco-American relations will return to how they were before the “America First” policies of the Trump administration. With France looking to assert greater autonomy and significant trade disagreements between the two nations, the search for common ground may prove to be difficult. However, in an age of rapid technological innovation and interconnectedness, the tech space offers a promising platform for Franco-American cooperation.