There’s nothing junior about Cedric O’s job.
As France’s junior minister for the digital economy waits to be renewed in his role, the country’s strategy for all things technology-related has never seemed so important.
The coronavirus not only converted 8m French employees to remote work overnight, it also made virtual consultations with doctors the norm and propelled tracking apps to the top of diaries in government meetings.
True, when a cabinet reshuffle was announced earlier this month, entrepreneurs were disappointed that digital affairs didn't get their own full-blown ministry. Instead, Cedric O is likely to be renewed into his more restricted existing post as junior minister, or secretary of state, with an announcement due soon.
It's also true that the 37-year-old has largely failed to get the virus tracking app StopCovid to really take off.
But, according to people close to the French government and O, he has otherwise steered clear of big mistakes in his year and a half on the job. And more importantly, he has won plaudits from founders. The view from entrepreneurs and investors who spoke to Sifted is that O has been an ally to France’s bubbling startups ecosystem, before and through the Covid crisis.
Now, even with his job title unchanged, O's biggest challenge lies ahead. The former advisor and long-term staffer of Emmanuel Macron will have to make good on his promise that the digital sector would be a key part of France’s upcoming stimulus package.
As the government drafts those plans, to be presented later this summer, the country’s tech ecosystem has its eyes peeled for whether building a “startup nation” remains at the heart of Macron’s presidency. And making that happen will fall on O's shoulders.
Macron’s money man
With O’s rather discrete style, it took a while for the business school graduate to get attention from French people for something other than his one letter surname (his father is South-Korean).
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In Macron’s entourage though, Cedric O has been a familiar face for many years.
About a decade before Macron was elected president, O was already part of a team of political boy wonders revolving around Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who at one point was seen as a potential presidential candidate. That group almost entirely moved on to support Macron’s launch into the presidential race.
When Macron ran for office, O played a key role as his treasurer, at a time when newly founded political party En Marche needed to raise money as well as drum up support.
What about startups?
Macron kept O on as an advisor after the 2017 election, working in the shadows to feed into France’s positions on digital alongside then-junior minister Mounir Mahjoubi. There, O contributed to France’s push into doing more to promote local innovation and startups with foreign investors, building ties with the startup community.
He was instrumental in helping Macron gain his tech-friendly credentials, first as economy minister, on roadshows with VCs and at events like the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. From 2014, France made a push to rent booths there for startups and promote the “French Tech” label.
That became a part of a broader cheerleading strategy by the government — one that has born some fruits, and that O helped implement, first in the shadow of Macron and more recently in his role as junior minister. His Twitter feed has a lot of pom-pom shaking, applauding when founders raise money, startups get taken over and investors set up funds.
Coronavirus gave O a chance to step up his game. Mid-March, less than 24 hours after Macron announced school closings and other measures that would lead to a full lockdown, O was on a live Facebook event with entrepreneurs answering questions about government support.
Founders and investors have raised their hats to the state-backed support of all kinds that poured in to help startups pull through the Covid-19 crisis.
O’s other coronavirus-related project hasn’t received such a warm welcome: he’s been the flag-bearer for virus tracking app StopCovid.
In recent months, as Google and Apple pushed out their tracing architecture on a global scale, he was there to say no thanks on behalf of France and instead assemble a grouping of research labs, big corporates, as well as startups, to build alternative software.
The project didn't get unanimous support around Macron, but O pushed through and StopCovid launched on June 2. The app gathered more than 1m downloads in the first week, which made it seem like it was off to a good start.
Since then though, downloads have stagnated north of 2m, which isn’t much relative to a population of 67m. The app has sent out barely more than a dozen notifications to warn people they’d come into contact with a Covid-infected person, raising questions about how useful it really is.
To top things off, privacy watchdog CNIL this week ordered the government to fix data-related irregularities in the app.
Looking forward, O has promised the digital sector would get a key piece of France’s stimulus package, which is currently being discussed.
The plan boasts a global envelope of €100bn. France's prime minister has already listed industrial development and ecological transition as major pieces, which together amount to more than half of the total budget.
For startups, the plan could include short-term booster measures as well as address more structural aspects: themes including financing, promoting job creations by startups and bolstering France’s place on the global tech scene with homegrown innovation, according to people familiar with the matter.
It's unclear whether that will be enough to help the digital sector get over the disappointment of not having a dedicated minister, especially as the number of ministers and delegate ministers in France grew from 19 before the reshuffle to 31 people now. Junior ministers in turn rank below in administrative terms and their powers are more limited.
That has raised questions about whether Macron's focus so far on entrepreneurship and innovation still holds for the rest of his term. As a result, how much money goes to digital will be the subject of intense scrutiny by French founders and the country's tech ecosystem.
On that front, “junior” just won’t cut it.