France makes high-profile push to be the A.I. hub of Europe setting up challenge to U.S., China

French President Emmanuel Macron attended the country’s premier technology event Viva Tech. Macron told CNBC France will “invest like crazy” into A.I.

Nathan Laine | Bloomberg | Getty Images

PARIS — France is making a major push to position itself as Europe’s hub for artificial intelligence, throwing its weight behind the fast-growing and much-hyped technology.

“I think we are number one [in AI] in continental Europe, and we have to accelerate,” French President Emmanuel Macron told CNBC’s Karen Tso last week.

Countries are looking to position themselves as AI hubs, because the technology is seen as revolutionary and therefore of strategic importance to governments around the world. AI is viewed as impacting industries from finance to healthcare, but has also been caught in the middle of the broader technology battle playing out between China and the U.S.

Hype around AI has been partly sparked by the viral nature of U.S. firm OpenAI’s ChatGPT chatbot.

AI was the phrase on everyone’s lips at France’s annual technology conference Viva Tech, from startups to established technology firms, along with companies from industries as diverse as cosmetics and banking.

Macron, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Digital Minister Jean-Noel Barrot attended the event, adding the government’s backing to France’s tech push.

“We will invest like crazy on training and research,” Macron told CNBC, adding that France is well-positioned in AI due to its access to talent and start-ups forming around the technology.

French President Emmanuel Macron calls for global A.I. regulation

While the U.S is seen as the leader in AI by many measures, France hopes to catch up.

“Believe me this is clear that the U.S. is number one, for good reason because it is a huge domestic market … I want us to clearly bridge the gap and invest much more, develop much more and accelerate much more,” Macron said.

Paris’ ambitions face tough competition even within the European Union.

“France definitely has a chance to be the leader in Europe, but it faces stiff competition from Germany and the U.K.,” Anton Dahbura, Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy, told CNBC via email.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in the past week made his pitch for Britain to become a global AI center.

Dahbura said that, for France to find success, it will need to “use AI to build on the economic areas it’s already strong in,” such as manufacturing and pharmaceutical.

“It’s a key time to be strategic to identify specific areas of distinct competency and invest heavily in AI to build an edge,” Dahbura said.

French A.I. companies in focus

U.S. companies currently dominate the conversation around AI, with names such as Microsoft — which invested in OpenAI — and chipmaker Nvidia staying top of mind.

France doesn’t have an AI giant like the U.S., but wants to create two or three “big global players” in the technology, according to Macron.

it is banking on its startups to grow quickly. Underscoring the potential and hype of AI developments, four-week-old French startup Mistral AI raised 105 million euros to fund the company. A number of other local startups were showing off their wares at Viva Tech.

Global A.I. regulation in focus

Part of France’s pitch to be an A.I. hub leads on regulation around the technology.

The European Parliament greenlit the EU AI Act, a wide-sweeping first-of-its-kind regulation on artificial intelligence. It is not yet law, but, if passed, would bring a risk-based approach to regulation across the EU.

France has typically been seen as a proponent of strong regulation on technology — but it has taken issue with parts of the EU AI Act related to generative AI, the type of technology that underpins OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which it sees as too stringent.

“My worry is that in the recent past few weeks, the EU Parliament … has taken a very sort of strong stance on AI regulation, using, in some sense, this AI act as a way to try and solve too many problems at once,” Barrot, France’s digital minister, said on the provisions around generative AI.

France needs to work with the U.S. on A.I. regulation, finance minister says

France desires a global regulation on A.I., which it hopes to achieve through the G7 group that includes the U.S. and Britain, as well as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“From my point of view … I think we do need a regulation and all the players, even the U.S. players, agree with that. I think we need a global regulation,” Macron said.

U.S. seen as frenemy

France sees the U.S. as both a rival and an ally. French and European companies will try to compete with U.S. giants like Microsoft and Google, but Washington’s by-in is required for any kind of global regulation .

“Competition is always a good thing. So we have a very close cooperation with the U.S., but we also want to get access to our own AI intelligence and companies. So I think that having a fair competition between the U.S. and Europe and also a co-operation on some key devices is good for the U.S. and good for Europe,” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, told CNBC.

“On regulation as well, I think this is absolutely vital to have an in-depth discussion with the American authorities on the best way of regulating artificial intelligence.”

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