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Macron announces €1bn security package after cyberattacks on French hospitals

President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday promised a €1bn package to strengthen France's cyber defence, following several attacks on hospitals.

Macron announces €1bn security package after cyberattacks on French hospitals
President Emmanuel Macron as he presented the accelerated national cybersecurity strategy on February 18th. Photo: AFP

Macron said the attacks on two hospitals in less than one week revealed the urgency of the threat and that his government was making it a “priority”.

“The cyber attacks in Dax and Villefranche-sur-Saône confirm the importance of taking cybersecurity very seriously,” the president said in a series of tweets after having spoken to representatives from the hospitals by video call earlier that day.

“We need to go further, faster, to be at the forefront,” Macron said. “In total, €1 billion will be invested.”

 

The hospitals in Dax, a town in the south western département of Landes, and Villefranche-sur-Saône, which is near Lyon in the south east, were paralysed when hackers broke into their computer systems on February 9th and 15th respectively, demanding ransoms.

No ransoms were paid, but for hours patient files, phones, surgical equipment and more was blocked. Staff worked on pen and paper and surgeries had to be pushed back.

 

Is this a big problem?

Cyber attacks are a growing threat worldwide and in France the number of attacks directed at “vital operators” quadrupled in 2020, rising from 50 to 200, according to the French National Agency of Information System Security (ANSSI).

Of all the attacks last year, 27 (11 percent) were on hospitals, and in 2021 hackers continue their efforts to target the country's health establishments.

“We have one (hospital cyber attack) per week since the beginning of 2021,” Digital Economy Minister Cédric O told the French TV channel BFM on Thursday, referring to the latest report by ANSSI.

“It's extremely serious,” O said, referring to the dangers of having health systems paralysed on any day, but especially in the midst of a pandemic.

“It's a crisis within the crisis,” Macron said.

The information systems manager at the Hospital of Dax, Gilbert Martin, told French newspaper Le Parisien that “it will take days, even weeks, to get back to normal.”

Who are the hackers and what do they want?

Macron, whose party La République en Marche itself was victim of cyberattacks during the 2017 presidential elections, said the goal depends on the groups conducting the attacks.

“We're learning about these new attacks, some coming from states as part of new conflicts between nations, others are coming from mafias,” the president said.

Some cyberattacks are financially motivated, but others – like the Russian hacks uncovered in the run-up to the 2016 United States presidential election – aim to destabilise countries.

Only a small portion of all cyber attacks are ransomware, Guillaume Poupard, director of Anssi, told Le Monde.

France's national cybersecurity agency on Monday accused Russia of staging a cyber attack on French companies, after discovering links to Russian intelligence services and a hack on the software firm Centeron. Russia denied the allegations, saying they were “absurd”.

How will the money be spent?
 
Macron said his government would accelerate efforts to bolster the country's national cyber defence capacities, both by helping companies improve their own systems and by funding research.
 
Of the total €1 billion, €720 will be state funding with the goal of doubling the number of cybersecurity jobs in France by 2025, and tripling the sector's revenue, from €7.3 billion to €25 billion, over the same time frame.
 
The president promised €500 million to fund research and help companies improve their technologies and develop more robust cyber defence systems.
 
A new cybersecurity centre is set to open in the business district La Défense in Paris later this year, after being delayed by the pandemic. Spanning 20,000 square metres the centre will host 1,500 researchers, as well as public and private sector employees, to, in the president's words, “reunite all skills.”

 

 

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

As energy prices soar around Europe, France is the notable exception where most people have seen no significant rise in their gas or electricity bills - so what lies behind this policy? (Hint - it's not just that the French would riot if their bills exploded).

EXPLAINED: Why are French energy prices capped?

On most international comparisons of rising energy prices, France is the outlier – but the government control of energy prices is not in fact a new policy and was in place well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent gas and electricity prices soaring.

At present prices for domestic gas are frozen at 2021 levels and electricity prices can only increase four percent per year. According to economy minister Bruno Le Maire, without these measures French bills would have risen by 60 percent for gas and 45 percent for electricity.

Both these measures – collectively known as the bouclier tarifaire (tariff shield) – are in place until at least the end of 2022, and could be extended into 2023.

The extension of the price shield was confirmed by parliament earlier in August – part of a €65 billion package of measures aimed at tackling the cost-of-living crisis – but had been in place for much longer.

Tariff shield

The reason that gas prices are frozen at 2021 levels is that the freeze came into effect on November 1st 2021 – well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The measure was initially put in place to help people deal with the economic after-effects of the pandemic, but was extended in the spring of 2022, when electricity prices were also capped at four percent.

Price regulation

But although prolonged price freezes are unusual, the French government involvement in price-setting is completely normal and during non-freeze periods, a rate is set each month.

If you read French media (or The Local), you’ll notice regular articles on ‘what changes next month’ which include gas and electricity prices, usually expressed as a month-on-month percentage rise or fall. This refers to the maximum rate that utility companies are allowed to increase their charges per month.

The government-set rate refers to the basic price plan from EDF. Some people are on special deals or time-limited tariffs, so if their deal or payment plan ends and they go back onto the basic rate, they can see a rise above the government rate.

Around 85 percent of households in France get their electricity from EDF. 

READ MORE: Reader Question: Why did my French electricity bill increase by more than 4%

State-owned utilities

So, why is the government involved? Well, it’s the majority stakeholder in EDF, the country’s largest electricity supplier, and owns Gaz de France (Engie). 

At present EDF isn’t completely state owned – although there are plans to fully nationalise it – but it owns 84 percent.

The French state owns a lot of service and utility companies including the country’s rail provider SNCF, postal service La Poste and France Télévisions. One notable exception is the country’s autoroutes, which are run by private companies, although the government sets limits on toll charges. 

Nuclear 

France is less exposed to energy shocks than some other European countries because of its nuclear sector.

It is unusual among European nations in the size of its nuclear industry – around 70 percent of electricity comes from its own domestic nuclear power plants, although during the heatwave several plants have had to lower output as rivers have become too hot to effectively cool the reactors. There are also ongoing technical issues that have seen some of the older plants shut down or forced to lower output.

READ ALSO Why is France so obsessed with nuclear?

France is usually a net exporter of electricity, but at peak times it has to import electricity, usually via the high-priced international spot market.

It does, however, import its gas, mostly via pipeline – in 2020 its biggest supplier was Norway, followed by Russia.

The French government has launched a sobriété energetique (energy sobriety) plan to cut its total energy consumption by 10 percent this year, which it hopes will allow it to get through the winter without Russian gas. 

Riots

Even before the recent €65 billion aid package, the French government was taking a pro-active role in helping people deal with rising prices – from the price shield to fuel rebates for drivers, €100 grants for low-income households and financial aid for industries such as agriculture and logistics so they could avoid passing prices on the consumers.

Cynics say this happened for two reasons – because there were elections in April and June and because the French would riot if their utility bills suddenly doubled.

There’s a kernel of truth in both – cost of living became a major issue in the April presidential elections and one that far-right leader Marine Le Pen very much made her own from early in the campaign, leaving Emmanuel Macron slightly on the back foot, although in truth his government had already introduced several measures to ease the burden on ordinary voters.

It’s also true that the French have a robust approach to holding their government to account, and high living costs have previously inspired noisy and sometime violent protests – the ‘yellow vest’ movement of 2018 and 19 began as a protest over living costs.

But it’s also true that the French State is generally quite involved in people’s everyday lives – as evidenced by those monthly gas and electricity price rates – and taking a laissez-faire approach such as that seen in the UK would be unusual for any French government, even outside of election season.

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