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The Uber Files Show Just How Far Macron Has Come

If there’s something the leaked Uber Technologies Inc. documents show — aside from the questionable ways in which the company sought to break into new markets in Europe — it’s just how much the European political establishment has soured on doing business with US tech firms.

Although previous years were marked by friendly encounters between American executives and European officials hoping to benefit from new jobs, the relationship these days is far from cozy. The European Union argues US tech has become too dominant, in part due to little oversight, and it’s aiming to fix that. It wants to tax companies more, regulate more heavily and build its own technology champions.

Take, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron, whose personal messages to former Uber Chief Executive Officer Travis Kalanick and other senior Uber executives feature extensively in the leaks.

Back in 2014, he was a fresh-faced minister in the Socialist government of François Hollande. At the same time, Uber was intensifying lobbying efforts to break into the highly regulated French market. Macron, per the texts shown in the leaks, sought to facilitate business for the company. He is said to have worked on amending legislation to ease licensing requirements for Uber drivers, according to revelations published by the newspaper Le Monde based on the leaks. That may sound brash to the French, but it’s exactly what most finance ministers do in exchange for jobs and foreign investment.

For a relatively unknown Macron at the time, hanging out with high-flying CEOs and playing palace intrigue to bolster his own profile and influence must have been enticing. After all, he based his early image on breaking conventions and turning France into a nation of risk-takers and innovators. The rookie mistake, however, was in failing to grasp how much social backlash the model he wanted to bring about would face down the road. 

Fast forward to Macron as president today. His pitch for a nation of startups still plays well — so long as it involves “La French Tech” and works for French unicorns, something of a personal obsession. But rather than turn the country into a subsidiary of an American tech firm, his clear goal now is getting a piece of the pie for France. Macron, who sees homegrown technology as a vehicle to modernize his economy, is aiming for at least 100 French billion-dollar startups — there are currently 28, depending on who’s counting — by 2030. He says Europe should aim to develop 10 tech giants of its own able to compete with American and Chinese technology in the next five years. 

And he has managed to wage his vision across Brussels. His government led EU efforts to make American firms operating in European jurisdictions pay more tax, while Germany, the bloc’s largest economy, was more timid in its approach. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has made minimum corporate taxation his battle horse in every international summit I can remember.  

In Brussels, which acts and thinks more French under Macron’s influence, a string of new legislation would make amends for years of allowing the US to dominate a market the Europeans did not bother building for themselves. Consider the forthcoming Digital Markets Act, which aims to curb anticompetitive behavior and could see repeat offenders be broken up in the most extreme cases, or the Digital Services Act, which would force tech companies to better patrol their content moderation or face penalties of up to 6% of annual revenue. 

There’s also the Chips Act, which aims to mobilize billons of euros to bolster Europe’s chip production. The EU has described it as a fundamental step in securing value chains for semiconductors and technologies. A key figure in getting it passed is Thierry Breton, a former French executive appointed to the role of EU Commissioner for the European single market by none other than Macron. Breton likes to take on American CEOs: He told Meta Platforms Inc. boss Mark Zuckerberg that he carries personal responsibility for the content published on his platforms. And he’s suggested that while Tesla Inc. chief Elon Musk’s radical free speech may work in America, there are different standards to uphold in Europe. Here, you have to respect the rules, he likes to say. 

To be sure, the so-called Uber Files do not make the French president look good, and the lack of transparency around the types of meetings between government officials and corporate executives that the leaks exposed should be scrutinized and fixed. But I wouldn’t assume that getting on a first-name basis with Macron guarantees an easy ride for Uber, or any tech giant, in the future, especially if they don’t play by his rules.

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