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24th Oct 2021

Opinion

How French firms captured the French EU presidency

  • In 2020, the German Presidency of the EU rejected the idea of accepting corporate sponsors. France seems unwilling to follow Germany. (Photo: Florent Le Gall)
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Coca-Cola branding, fleets of BMW cars, logos of Big Tech and fossil fuel companies ... in the past, countries taking the presidency of the EU Council have been criticised by citizens, MEPs, and the European Ombudsman for taking corporate sponsorship.

As of 1 January 2022, France will lead the Council and coordinate many important discussions on climate change, digital market, the Covid recovery, and the status of platform workers, among others.

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Worrying early signs indicate that the French government is willing to accept sponsorship and is preparing this crucial moment in close partnership with France's biggest corporations.

In 2020, the German presidency of the EU rejected the idea of accepting corporate sponsors. On this point, France seems unwilling to follow Germany.

On the contrary, it is toying with the idea of accepting "loans" of electric cars for instance, according to the French secretary of state for European affairs.

Sponsorship enables corporations to promote their brands and products in the context of the Council presidency, and it is worrying that the French government is considering getting into bed with the car industry or any other industry in this way.

But sponsorship is only the tip of the iceberg. French big business and their lobbyists have already organised many confidential events with key players in the French presidency.

Consultancy Athenora, whose members include the biggest French companies such as TotalEnergies, Orange, Bouygues, Renault, and AirFrance-KLM, has had confidential meetings with the secretary general of the French presidency of the EU and a private training session with the head of the EU unit of the French prime minister. 

Corporations have been offered access to key players in the preparations of the French presidency by the government itself.

In July the French permanent representation to the EU co-organised an event with two lobby groups: France Industrie (one of the three main French big business associations) and TECH IN France/Syntec Numérique (the French digital business lobby).

The press contact for this seemingly official event was thehead of Schneider Electric's lobbying office in Brussels. This is a sign, among many others, of a deeply engrained confusion between the public interest and private corporate interests.

While French corporations may be in the loop as to how the presidency preparations are going, the public are not.

In early June, a hearing at the French National Assembly with key officials about the French presidency remained behind closed doors, without any answer from officials as to why public viewing was not allowed. 

Recently, the European Ombudsman raised concerns over revolving doors, the recruitment of former EU officials by corporations, and vice versa.

She has said "there is too much of a cultural acceptance of it, and there isn't a realisation of the damage that it can potentially cause."

Despite this, the French government has allowed revolving door appointments in some of its key EU roles. France is represented at the top of the European Commission by former Atos CEO Thierry Breton, who continues to meet with his former Atos colleagues.

Meanwhile France's former ambassador to the EU, Pierre Sellal, is now a senior advisor for August Debouzy, a leading law firm whose corporate clients remain unknown.

Sellal also sits on the board of French companies Areva (nuclear energy) and EDF and is the President of the Siècle, an elite network of key politicians, journalists, and corporate leaders in France.

But revolving doors are not limited to the highest levels: several advisers at the French representation in Brussels come from corporations such as TotalEnergies or Veolia, while some of their former colleagues have gone the other way, to work as lobbyists for companies such as Engie after their time in the public service.

French president Emmanuel Macron's presidency of the EU comes at a key time, for Europe and for France itself.

It is vital that the government sets an agenda and conducts itself in the interests of the public interest, of climate action, of social well-being.

Instead the early signs are worrying and indicate that the French government is too close to corporations and their leaders.

It is not too late but the upcoming French presidency needs an urgent change of approach. Refusing any kind of corporate sponsorship would be a first step.

Author bio

Vicky Cann is a researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory. Olivier Petitjean is a journalist working for Observatoire des Multinationales. The report on which this article is based can be read here.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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