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Can France Lead the G7 in Bridging the Digital Divide?

Liam Bekirsky, G7 Research Group
March 26, 2019

France is emphasizing the fight against rising inequalities on a global scale as the central theme of its 2019 G7 presidency. Outlining France's G7 priorities, foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves Le Drian highlighted the fight against the "digital gulf that threatens segments of [France's] population," and focused on the need for digital empowerment and efforts to acquire digital skills. Nonetheless, the French presidency did not draw a connection between the digital divide in France and education. It was mentioned only in the context of international development both in Le Drian's speech and on the Elysée's G7 website. Does France's education policy position it to assume a leadership role promoting the digital economy within the G7? And can France reduce the digital divide by helping workers of the future acquire the skills they need to participate in the digital economy?

Last year Canada chose preparing for jobs of the future as one of the main themes of its 2018 G7 presidency. In the Charlevoix communiqué, the G7 members affirmed their commitment to "promote innovation through a culture of lifelong learning among current and future generations of workers," with a focus on the need to prepare for jobs of the future through an "expansion of market-driven training and education, particularly for girls and women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields." In its public engagement paper on "Preparing for Jobs of the Future," Canada emphasized the creation of pathways to help workers "to continuously learn and strengthen their skills." This notion of lifelong learning was echoed in the much-anticipated report Donner un sens à l'intelligence artificielle: pour une stratégie nationale et européenne under the direction of Cédric Villani, who argued that "in an automated society, continuous training will be a necessity." The report was commissioned by French prime minister Édouard Philippe to lay out paths toward a French and European artificial intelligence strategy.

Indeed, in a 2018 policy brief on the future of work, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) noted that "14% of jobs in OECD countries are highly automatable [and that] another 32% of jobs could face substantial change in how they are carried out." Nonetheless, the OECD warns that "training is not working to offset these risks as participation in training is significantly lower for workers in jobs of high risk of automation than for other workers." The brief also noted that the risk is particularly high for youth, as entry-level jobs are the likeliest candidates for automation.

Although the 2018 Charlevoix Summit and 2019 French presidency commitments on this front are reassuring, the G7 has historically accorded very little attention to the link between future technology-oriented employment and education and skills training. The G7 Research Group's Brittaney Warren writes that the G7 has paid little attention to the link between technology and employment, with only one commitment since the 1990s — made at the Taormina Summit in 2017 — addressing the link explicitly.

Transformation and innovation in the education and training sector are notoriously slow in France as in other G7 members. The disruptive effects of digital and new technologies that have transformed almost every other major sector have been far less present in the world of education. Indeed, 96% of French citizens polled by PwC and Ipsos in 2018 considered the development of digital technologies to be crucial to the French economy, yet two thirds of respondents also feel that French schools are behind their foreign competitors when it comes to digital skills, a deficit most attribute to the state. Within the G7, France has a very high rate of digital disengagement, with only 70% of the 16–74-year-old population using the internet daily versus 88% in the United Kingdom and 75% in Japan. France even trails the OECD average at 74%.

Beyond popular perception, however, the French government has acknowledged the difficulties it faces regarding the expansion of training in new and digital technologies. In its 2010 "Le numérique à l'école : le Haut conseil de l'éducation propose un plan Tice au ministre," the Haut Conseil de l'éducation of the Ministry of Education acknowledged that France's information and communications technology (ICT) training is structurally behind its neighbours despite numerous experiments.

France faces some critical economic challenges related to education and digital competencies. One of the key issues is a lack of digital competence among its workforce. According to Nicolas Teisseyre of Roland Berger, although the digital sector in France had 850,000 workers at the end of 2015, 42% of French businesses reported having difficulty recruiting specialists versus 38% for Europe overall. Moreover, according to Direction de l'animation de la recherche, des études et des statistiques (DARES), 50,000 jobs will go unfilled in the digital sector (including some 20,000 for developers) and 191,000 for the period 2012–2022, representing 0.7% of total employment.

A 2017 report by Roland Berger and Google suggested that France also suffers from a critical lack of digital education at school, in terms of both physical presence and training. Data from the European Commission highlighted that just 21% of high school students had a teacher who had passed a mandatory digital training course, suggesting that French teachers do not have sufficient training in ICT. Although France's performance surpassed that of Italy at just 4%, it was well behind that of Lithuania (74%) and of Denmark (47%) and below the average of the European Union (24%). This trend applied across primary and secondary schools.

A 2016 report by the OECD confirms this, with only 25% of French teachers reporting that students frequently used ICT for projects in class, versus 40% on average across OECD countries, and behind all other G7 countries except Japan. This indicator seems to be strongly correlated with teachers' self-declared participation in professional development around ICT (40% of French teachers reported having participated in such a training over the previous 12 months, versus 52% on average). The apparent lack of integration of digital competencies and use in France's teacher training and classroom work risks setting future workers back even further if they are not equipped with the digital skills necessary to participate in the work of the future.

The issues facing France's "digital gulf" are structural and deeper than those for most other G7 members. Without successful reforms to ensure competitiveness in an increasingly digital workplace, France will not be able to be a leader in the world of technology.

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Photo of Liam BekirskyLiam Bekirsky is an education and digital policy specialist and master's student in new and digital technologies and public policy at Sciences Po. He is also a certified teacher and earned his teaching license from York University in Toronto.

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