Although France is gradually moving more of its procedures online, it still lags behind many other European countries in terms of the number of administrative functions that have to be done on paper.
Cedric O, Junior Minister for digital affairs, told The Local at a meeting organised by the Anglo American Press Association that closing the country's digital divide should be one of the government's “main priorities” for 2020.
“Digitalisation is [the source of] a huge social violence. It was at the core of the 'yellow vest' protest,” O said, adding that France might have been “too quick” to digitalise bureaucratic processes.
The digital divide in France is deep. A recent report published by the French Conseil d’analyse économique (CAE) recommended that the government “avoid the “all digital” strategy, in order to preserve the social bond” in places that have not benefited from an increasingly digital world where more and more services have moved online.
O said the report's findings resonated with what he heard when visiting the French countryside.
“People tell me ‘you are out of your mind, you are forcing us to declare our taxes online. In what world are you living?’,” O said.
Thirteen million French people don’t have internet access, according to the Junior Minister, who cautioned against deepening the gap further.
“To the 'yellow vests', digitalisation means closing down small shops in middle sized villages,” he said.
France has still has some 'zone blanche' – mainly in rural areas – where it is not possible to access the internet and many villages have frustratingly slow connections.
France needs to close its digital divide if it wants to tackle the core problems expressed in the 'yellow vest' protest movement, Junior Minister for digital affairs Cedric O told The Local.
Despite this there are an increasing number of things that are moving online – people who have a carte vitale can now access an online portal to make changes and request services and most utility firms now offer an online option.
For British people facing extra admin caused by Brexit there are also online options, the French government has announced that the processes for requesting a carte de séjour residency card and exchanging a British driving licence are set to move online – although neither website is open yet.
The residency system will have a non-online option for people who cannot access the internet.
O said immigration was “too sensitive of a topic to be completely digitalised,” and that “we need to be careful” when streamlining questions regarding nationality and residency.
One of Macron’s main pledges as he ran for president in 2017 was to turn France into a “startup nation,” a goal O said the government was now on its way to achieving.
“France is currently one of the most vibrant startup economies in Europe,” O said.
France increased its startup investments from €2.5 billion in 2017 to €5 billion in 2019. O said the government was aiming to reach €6 or €7 billion in 2019.
But, due to the digital gap pointed out by the Junior Minister, the growth in opportunities is not equally shared across the country.
“Digitalisation needs to be part of the solution, not the problem,” O said.
When asked about how the government planned on reducing the digital gap, O focused on training and skills development rather than providing internet access to the entire country.
“Social workers have a huge issue with young people. They know how to go on Instagram or Snapchat, but ask them to make a tax declaration online and they won’t know how to do it,” O said.