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Amid antitrust brawls, France’s competition chief stays in his lane

In a world of blockbuster antitrust enforcers, Benoît Cœuré is an anti-hero.

Soft-spoken, bookish and with 10 years under his belt as a staid central banker, Cœuré — who took over as head of France’s competition authority in late January — is as strait-laced as European Commission competition chief Margrethe Vestager and U.S. Federal Trade Commission chairwoman Lina Khan are headline-grabbing. Where other antitrust agencies are seeking to expand their powers to cover everything from privacy violations to how companies pay taxes, the French Autorité de la concurrence, under his leadership, is likely to narrowly focus on its original raison d’être.

“Staying in your lane is a democratic principle,” the 53-year-old Frenchman said in deliberate and considered English over cups of Italian coffee in a sun-drenched cafe in London’s Canary Wharf financial district last week. “You’ve been given a specific remit and you need to deliver.”

Cœuré’s ability to deliver is about to be tested. On Tuesday, his agency agreed to commitments from Google in its long-running battle with French publishers over how the search giant should pay media organizations whenever their content appeared on the tech giant’s services.

France already fined Google €500 million for failing to live up to its promises under the European Union’s so-called copyright directive, claiming the tech company abused its dominant position to treat publishers unfairly. Cœuré has been an avid supporter of Australia’s decision last year to force the likes of Google and Facebook to pay the country’s media outlets — legislation that Australia’s competition agency wholeheartedly supported.

The commitments announced Tuesday required the search giant to negotiate “in good faith” with local outlets about how much they should be paid, as well as provide more data so these media organizations can better understand how their content is spread online.

“There are occasions where competition instruments are the only ones you can use,” he said before Tuesday’s announcement, adding his agency would likely turn over the day-to-day oversight of whatever decision is made this week to an industry regulator. “The competition case for Google to apply the copyright directive was massive.”

Big Tech vs. industrial policy

Taking on Google — or any of the growing number of Big Tech cases, including one involving Apple’s new privacy rules, now on Cœuré’s desk — may be as easy as the French official has it during his five-year term. Cœuré’s predecessor, Isabelle de Silva, fell out of favor with local politicians after blocking Paris’ attempts to create both French and European industrial champions.

Given such industrial policy goals are baked into the mandate for French President Emmanuel Macron’s second term, it’s almost certain that the French competition agency will face a decision on whether to allow greater consolidation — either with the digital or wider economy — in the name of promoting the country’s industrial policy, or stick with wider consensus within Western competition circles that favors blocking such game-changing mergers.

For Cœuré, who peppers his language with central-banking jargon and appears more comfortable discussing broader trends than specific cases, there’s also a more immediate challenge: sky-rocketing inflation and a global macroeconomic downturn in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Others, notably the European Commission’s Vestager, have played down competition authorities’ role in tempering eye-watering price increases, saying such hikes aren’t directly linked to overzealous consolidation. For her French counterpart, it’s not that simple. Yes, there’s only a certain amount that authorities can do. But in times of crisis, including an impending global food shortage, agencies need to be open to companies working more closely together than they typically would be allowed to.

“In facing a food crisis, you need to be flexible to allow the industry to find solutions,” Cœuré said. “The economy is in a transformation. It’s a combination of COVID-19, the war in Ukraine and as a consequence of inflationary pressure.”

Focus on digital

The French competition head would not be drawn on his take on creating industrial champions. But one thing is for sure: A narrower focus on mostly American tech companies and their dominant position within Europe’s second-largest economy is almost certainly in the cards. On June 20, Cœuré is meeting with Jonathan Kanter, the U.S. Department of Justice’s top antitrust official — and an advocate for a tougher line against Big Tech — in Paris.

He welcomed the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), a revamped digital antitrust playbook, as a means for both making day-to-day enforcement more mundane and stopping potential bad behavior before it gets out of control. Where current antitrust investigations can take years — and often fail to rebalance dominance in specific industries — Cœuré hoped the new standards would make these cases less Hollywood, and more straight-to-video.

“There was a pattern of anti-competitive behaviors that needed to be dealt with in a significant way,” he said when asked about the scores of Big Tech cases, both at the EU and national level, that had been started over the last decade. “The DMA is now a certainty. It will take time, but it’s a certainty. It will change the behavior of platforms, even now.”

Unlike Andreas Mundt, his counterpart in Germany who is pursuing a case against Meta, Facebook’s parent company, in Europe’s highest court over claims it unfairly used people’s data to favor its own services, Cœuré was adamant that a move into privacy regulation was not in the cards for the Autorité.

Yet as competition investigations increasingly blend with potential data protection violations and infringements on consumers’ rights, the French official said he was looking to rejigger how French authorities worked with each other to respond to this broader trend.

In the United Kingdom, where Cœuré was visiting to speak at a conference organized by the country’s Competition and Markets Authority, policymakers created the so-called Digital Regulation Cooperation Forum, a coalition of privacy, competition, media and financial regulators to avoid problems falling through the cracks. It’s a model, Cœuré added, that could be worth replicating across the English Channel.

“I would see the case of some form of coordination on digital matters, and there are lessons from the U.K. framework that we could learn from,” he said over the noise of the bustling London cafe, alongside bankers and local construction workers on an unseasonably warm morning. “A priority is to build on our existing collaboration with the [French] privacy regulator.”

This article has been updated.

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I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief tech correspondent, and if you enjoyed this story, check out Digital Bridge, my weekly newsletter on EU-US digital politics.

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