June 6, 2023

French also warn against WhatsApp, Instagram – POLITICO

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PARIS — In a typically French move, France’s top lawmakers are refusing to side with the United States and single out China’s TikTok.

This week, top members of France’s National Assembly strongly encouraged fellow MPs to “limit” their use of social media apps and messaging services, according to a damning internal email seen by POLITICO. The recommendation does include Chinese-owned TikTok — at the heart of a storm on both sides of the Atlantic — but also features American platforms such as Snap and Meta’s WhatsApp and Instagram, alongside Telegram, founded by Russian-born brothers, and Signal.

“Given the particular risks to which the exercise of their mandate exposes MPs using these applications, we wish to appeal to your extreme vigilance and recommend that you limit their use,” wrote Marie Guévenoux and Eric Woerth from Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party and Eric Ciotti from conservative Les Républicains.

France’s narrative of putting Chinese and American companies in the same basket is in stark contrast to moves by other European countries, including the Dutch government, which decided to target apps from countries that wage an “offensive cyber program” against the Netherlands, such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran.

But refusing to pick sides and follow the United States’ geopolitical lead is a long political tradition in France, which is often accused of anti-American bias. During the Cold War, French President Charles de Gaulle tried to position his country as an alternative between the U.S.’s capitalism and the Soviet Union’s communism. 

“France has not mourned the loss of its power and is trying to resurrect the so-called third way, also carried by [European commissioner] Thierry Breton,” said Asma Mhalla, a tech geopolitics lecturer at Columbia University and Sciences Po. “This will serve as a political argument to put French sovereignty and French tech back on the table,” she added, arguing that the next step will likely be to promote French apps instead.

And indeed, the top lawmakers’ letter encourages members of parliament to use French software WIMI for project management and collaborative work.

Their main issue with foreign social media apps is that Chinese and American laws are extraterritorial. The personal data gathered via the platforms — including contacts, photos, videos, and both professional and personal documents — could be used by foreign intelligence services, they argued in their email.

During Macron’s tenure, France has fought tooth and nail against the U.S. Cloud Act, a piece of legislation that allows American authorities to seize data stored on American servers even if they’re located abroad. Paris has even come up with a specific set of rules for cloud services to try and shield European data from Washington’s extraterritorial reach.

In China, an intelligence law also requires domestic technology companies to hand over data to state authorities on subjects anywhere in the world.

“The U.S. are well aware that all their arguments used against TikTok — namely that Chinese law is extraterritorial — awkwardly echo what the Europeans have been reproaching them for some time,” said Mathilde Velliet, a researcher in tech geopolitics at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

“On the other hand,” she added, “the U.S. also believes they cannot be put on the same footing as China, because they’re a European ally with a different political and security relationship, and because it’s a democracy.”

Washington and EU capitals including Paris and Brussels also engage in dialogue on data security issues and cyber espionage, which is not the case with Beijing.

In the National Assembly’s corridors, however, the top lawmakers’ decision to call out foreign platforms from both the U.S. and China was very much welcome. “It’s all starting to look like a third way, which would be European sovereignty,” said Philippe Latombe, an MP from Macron’s allied party Modem. “And that’s good news.”

Océane Herrero contributed reporting.

This article has been updated.

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