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Macron's push to drop CIA code turns serious as Trump calls EU foe

Paris

JUST weeks after Emmanuel Macron took office last year, his team went over the French state's most sensitive activities. What it found provided a wake-up call. The team learnt that the country's intelligence agency - which, among other things, tracks French citizens for home-grown terrorism or anarchist activities - uses software from a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) backed startup.

Its code is provided by Palantir Technologies Inc, a data-mining company that started out working for the Pentagon and the CIA. The use of US technology deep inside the French state is not unusual, but for the tech-savvy team of the 40-year-old president, it was a sign that the country needs to make technological independence a top priority - a sentiment that has become even more urgent after US President Donald Trump called the European Union (EU) a "foe".

"No French company was able to provide the work," Laurent Nunez, the new chief of France's domestic intelligence agency, told Bloomberg News in July on the sidelines of a conference to present a new anti-terrorism system. "Now, we are working to foster a French or European offering. We're looking toward an objective of launching a tool for all intelligence agencies. And many companies have stepped in."

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The push to find local solutions for mission-critical or sensitive operations is yet another departure from the assumption that the US and its technology would remain a constant ally to Europe.

As old alliances are questioned, France and Europe are turning to self reliance in technologies that may drive the economies of the future.

On Friday, the French Defence Minister Florence Parly will unveil in a speech at the National Space Agency in Toulouse her strategy to ensure France's sovereignty in space with new technology-upgrade plans.

Mr Macron's push to make France more technologically independent is being overseen by intelligence veteran Pierre de Bousquet de Florian. In July, an armaments engineer, Thomas Courbe, was appointed to lead an agency to protect and bolster French companies.

A government adviser, Renaud Vedel, is tasked with compiling a list of software developers that can enhance counter-terrorism efforts, finding solutions for French or European face recognition, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data. AI specialist Emmanuel Chiva was named head of a new military innovation body on Sept 4.

The state is backing its intentions with funding. It has opened the credit taps, using a buckshot approach to find winners. Of the 57 billion euro (S$91.2 billion) investment programme for modernising France, 13 billion euros are being earmarked for funding innovation, with 4.6 billion euros for segments such as artificial intelligence, big data and nanotechnologies. Also, the French army has injected an extra 100 million euros for military-tech research.

The EU is also backing projects to make critical operations secure and less reliant on foreign technology. Under its Horizon 2020 plan currently underway, it is backing research and development in industries from biotechnology to space with 80 billion euros over seven years.

Mr Macron is calling for money to be invested in fewer, targeted areas, with better coordination between European companies on technological priorities. Overcoming narrow national interests remains among the region's toughest challenges.

In one of its biggest industrial projects since Airbus in the 1970s, Europe is developing a global positioning system to stop relying on the US's GPS. Built by the US Defense Department to help troops and ships navigate, the GPS network is now used widely. With Galileo, Europe is looking to avoid having to rely on the US's GPS, Russia's Glonass or China's BeiDou, all of which could be disabled by their operators at any time. In July, French Defence Minister Parly said that regaining "autonomy" was "imperative" as she detailed a plan to modernise military equipment. She lamented that French "dependence on components is too high".

Yet when a multi-year French defence ministry contract with Microsoft was renewed last year, Ms Parly defended the decision. "A kind of dependence is inevitable, the state doesn't make and maintain all the software it uses," she said. She vowed to evaluate using open-source software in the future. BLOOMBERG