France moves to take global retailer offline over safety issues

The French government has called on search engines to de-list a popular e-commerce site and threatened to ban it altogether over safety concerns, just the latest example of strict measures to regulate online businesses.

Generic photo of someone holding a credit card while they order products online
Photo: Pickawood / Unsplash

France has never been afraid of taking on online businesses – it has a history of introducing legislation to curb their influence in numerous areas, and fighting them in court over tax or data issues.

Now it is calling n search engines to de-list the Wish website and app, which is accused of selling products, including toys and electronic devices, that do not meet safety standards.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, Small-businesses minister Alain Griset and Digital minister Cédric O “instructed the main managers of search engines and mobile app stores to de-reference the Wish e-commerce site and its mobile application”, in a statement released on Wednesday. 

“One week before Black Friday and one month before the seasonal holidays, this decision illustrates the government’s action to protect consumers and fight effectively against unfair competition from economic operators,” Le Maire said in the statement.

He also told FranceInfo that he was ready to ban the Wish site from France “if it does not protect consumers more”. 

Ministers decided to act following an investigation by the Direction générale de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes (DGCCRF). The probe studied more than 140 products sold on the site.

“The investigation revealed the sale of a large number of non-compliant and dangerous products, with particularly high hazard rates among certain product lines,”  the Ministry said. 

It found 95 percent of toys and electrical items involved in the study did not comply with safety standards in France. In total, investigators considered 45 percent of toys and 90 percent of electrical items bought from the site as part of the investigation were dangerous.

Despite the de-listing on search sites, users can – for now – still access the site directly.

France has a history of taking on internet commerce giants. Last month, a law was passed imposing a minimum delivery charge for books bought online, in an attempt to protect independent book stores from competition from the likes of Amazon.

French law has long prohibited free deliveries of books ordered online, but Amazon and other big online operators have so-far circumvented this by instituting a 1 cent delivery charge. Local book stores typically charge about between €5 and €7 for delivery.

Amazon said the legislation, which has yet to come into effect, punishes people living in rural areas who cannot easily visit a bookstore and rely on delivery. “Imposing a minimum shipping cost for books would weigh on the purchasing power of consumers,” Amazon said in a statement at the time.

The minimum fee for delivering books ordered online has yet to be confirmed.

In 2019, French politicians approved a tax on digital giants, to the dismay of the US administration at the time which threatened tariffs on French  exports to America.

“France is honoured to be leading on such subjects,” Le Maire told MPs before the 2019 vote, saying that the draft constituted a “step … towards a fairer and more efficient taxation for the 21st century.”

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Despite its nickname, the tax was not limited to American web giants Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. It took in about 30 companies with a worldwide turnover on their digital activities of over €750 million and a turnover in France of more than €25 million. 

But, despite claims from the French government that the tax would not impact consumers, Google recently announced a 3 percent increase in advertising rates on its platform from May, to cover what has been termed the ‘GAFA tax’ in force in both countries.

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OPINION: Macron’s speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In the wake of Emmanuel Macron's (unusually brief) speech to the nation and an orgy of blame and speculation, John Lichfield takes a look at how the turbulent months ahead are likely to play out in France.

OPINION: Macron's speech revealed his long game for France, but is it a game he can win?

In eight minutes on Wednesday evening, we saw the best of Emmanuel Macron and the worst of Emmanuel Macron. In his TV address to the nation, he was confident; he was solemn; above all he was brief.

He accepted that the hung parliament elected last Sunday reflected “deep divisions” in the country. He said that France  must “learn to govern differently…We must build new compromises…based on dialogue, open-mindedness and respect”.

But he failed to admit any share of responsibility in the impasse which voters have created. He said that he still had a “clear mandate” from his Presidential victory in April. He called for compromise but said that some of his own promises – no new taxes, no increased debt – were untouchable.

Hear more analysis from John and The Local team in our Talking France podcast.

In April, Macron acknowledged that he had won partly through the votes of people who disliked him but feared Marine Le Pen more. He promised to govern with them in mind. He hasn’t.

His alliance drifted through the parliamentary campaign without strongly defending Macron’s presidential programme, let alone coming up with new ideas to appease the voters, of Right or Left, who supported him on April 24th by default.

That is not the only reason for the mess that France is now in. Other factors played a part: voter fatigue; inflation; the perpetual French instinct to demand “change” but resist all changes; a campaign which largely ignored the gathering threats in the world outside.

France now finds itself, by accident, in a world which the present generation of French politicians have never known – a German, Italian, Spanish or Belgian world of coalitions, compromise and shifting alliances.

This was the world – a world of revolving-door governments –  which Charles de Gaulle devised the Presidency-dominated Fifth Republic to replace. Some argue that the return of parliamentary power will be A Good Thing.

It will generate more profound political debate and a culture of constructive compromise. I doubt it. The new National Assembly – with nine political groups, including large blocs from the Hard Left and Far Right – will be more bear-pit than Periclean Athens.

There has been a witch-hunt going on in the French media about who is “responsible” for the fact that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National leaped from 8 seats to 89 in the new Assembly.

READ ALSO Is there really a ‘voter surge’ to the far-right in France?

The Left, both in France and abroad, has blamed President Macron’s Ensemble! alliance for failing to give clear advice to its supporters last Sunday to vote for the Left in two-way, second round contests with Lepennist candidates. As a result, they say Le Pen won at least 30 seats which might have gone to the Left-Green alliance, Nupes.

They fail to point out – and the French media has only belatedly started to point out – that exactly the same thing happened, only more so, with those Left voters who faced second round races between Macron and Le Pen candidates. Almost 60 percent of the Far Right victories – 53 – came in two-way contests  between the Rassemblement National and Macron’s Ensemble! alliance.

Exit polls vary but all of them suggest that voters of the Left  abstained, or even voted for Le Pen candidates, to “screw Macron” more than Macron voters abstained or voted Le Pen to “screw” the Left.

In effect, the Macron alliance and the Left-Green alliance shot themselves collectively in the feet by abandoning the so-called Republican Front against Le Pen. Each might have won at least 30 extra seats if both had voted for one another. The Macron alliance might even have just scraped a majority – which is presumably what Left-Green voters wanted to prevent.

A similar hue and cry is in progress against the Macron camp for its alleged willingness to work with Le Pen and her deputies in the new parliament. There has been some loose talk by some Macron allies. Most senior Macron lieutenants have ruled out deals or alliances with the Far Right bloc.

But what of Macron himself, who asked Marine Le Pen when they met on Tuesday whether she would contemplate joining a government of national unity? He asked the same of most of the party-leaders he met.

All refused and as Macron said in his eight-minute address, the idea is impractical and unjustified.

Why raise it at all then? Especially with Le Pen?

Partly, I think, because Macron believes that as President of the Republic he cannot pretend that the 89 Far Right deputies do not exist. Partly, I believe that Macron is playing a would-be clever waiting game.

He sees no real prospect of a long-term alliance with the 64 centre-right deputies. He expects in the short term to conduct  urgent business – including a new anti-inflation package  -through ad hoc alliances with the centre-right and moderate Left.

In the longer term, he believes (and maybe hopes) that such cooperation is doomed to fail. He wants to be seen to have given all combinations of parliamentary peace a chance before he “declares war” and calls a new legislative election next year.

Hence last night’s message. What are all the groups in parliament – including the three Macron-supporting ones – prepared to concede to allow the vital business of government to continue?

It might have been smarter politics if Macron had said, more clearly, that he also is ready to make concessions and listen to other people’s ideas.