Google's Controversial—and Growing—Role in French Politics

The American tech giant is unpopular in France, so why is Sarkozy, who faces poor prospects for reelection, suddenly courting them?

hh dec16 p.jpg
Google CEO Eric Schmidt and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at Google's new France headquarters / AP

Of all the companies that might become intimately associated with a French president's reelection campaign, you might not have thought Google would take the lead. Now, President Nicolas Sarkozy has done an about-face on the company -- which he'd previously criticized -- attending a massive inauguration celebration for Google's new headquarters in France last Tuesday. Scorn is flowing from the French media over the alliance. Google, say the critics, is not just a privacy defiler, but a tax evader.

Up until last week's headquarters inauguration, Sarkozy had been relatively critical of the web giant. A year ago, reports Le Nouvel Observateur, he attacked web companies like Google for installing themselves in Ireland, advantageous for tax purposes. These companies "don't pay enough in taxes in France," he declared, suggesting further regulation. It's become such a hot topic that the French media can refer simply to a "Google tax" among the various options on the table.

But Sarkozy is also facing some tough poll numbers in the upcoming elections. With low approval ratings and worrisome economic forecasts, he's clearly looking to recapture that spirit of dynamism that carried him into the presidency the first time around. Apparently, that means courting American web companies. Thus the bizarre display described by The New York Times from the new headquarters' opening:

"Why am I here?" [Sarkozy] said during a talk with Mr. Schmidt, to celebrate the opening of the site. "Why, as president, have I come to Google? It's a big deal. It wasn't easy. But I greatly admire American vitality. I have been criticized enough."

The good feelings, at least as they were expressed publicly, seemed to be mutual, with a beaming Mr. Schmidt declaring at one Paris appearance: "We love France."

Certainly, Schmidt has been doing his part to make this rapprochement a bit easier: The Times also notes that, since the European Commission began its antitrust investigation of Google last year, the company "has stepped up its efforts to demonstrate its contributions to the French--and European--economy." It's an obvious approach: nothing effects a political turnaround like the shimmer of new jobs. And Schmidt has been eager to soothe specifically French worries about taxes, giving an interview to French paper Libération after the headquarters party, wherein he declared, "Google respects the law. We do not steal." He also got a few glowing words in about his new friend, Sarkozy.

I like him a lot. He's funny, he's got spirit, he talks a lot and smiles always at women, it's very French (laughs). But he is above all concerned in letting France remain competitive in the new, globalized world. I think he's right.

But Google isn't the only stop on Sarkozy's road to becoming the web's greatest champion. And, in case you didn't get this from the near-endorsement praise in Libération, the warm sentiments between Sarkozy and Google reported by The New York Times are nothing to the over-the-top endearments at the event, as reported by French papers. Sarkozy also apparently took the opportunity to gush more broadly about the web, about "greater transparency" and technology "without which there would be no Arab revolutions." The next day, he also received the big-shots of the French LeWeb conference at the Elysée Palace.

The message has come through loud and clear. "The battle for 2012 involves, more than ever, the digital," acknowledged Le Nouvel Observateur. "Nicolas Sarkozy has understood that." As well he should: just back in September, Sarkozy fell victim to a Google bomb campaign, where Internet users managed to make his Facebook page the top result for the search term "asshole" (in French, "trou de cul").

Sarkozy, though, is also getting some serious flak for his born-again webbism. Google may glow with the promise of growth, and LeWeb with the dream of a Silicon Valley in France, but not everyone's willing to forget the darker side of American web companies. Wednesday, law and political science professor Thomas Clay published in Le Monde a scathing review of Sarkozy's "methodical seduction of each class of voters" -- in this case, the young and digital. Sarkozy's appearance at the Google party, he writes, offered a "morally and economically troubling message." Why? "This firm is, beyond its powers of innovation, the incarnation par excellence of fiscal irresponsibility, abuse of a dominant position, and a menace to global democracy." Clay, at least, has not forgotten Google's base in Ireland -- and what he views as a shockingly low global tax rate -- its pending antitrust investigation, or its increasingly suspect search results. He writes, "Controlling the visible and the hidden on the Internet, the firm uses its power to favor its commercial interests" while claiming it is advancing "quality" on the web.

"Our information capacity online is almost solely in the hands of a gigantic advertising agency," protests Clay. "We need, in contrast to Nicolas Sarkozy, to combat this monopoly in the name of protecting our own country's enterprises against predators and [in the name of] the defense of our fundamental liberties and our democracy."

It will be interesting to see if one of Sarkozy's opponents finds a way to crib Clay's message -- and the French outrage it represents -- for their campaign.