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L’Affaire Atos: European Sovereignty Put to the Test

Atos is a considerable French IT giant with more than 100,000 employees operating in over 70 countries. It specializes in cloud computing and cybersecurity — and is responsible for the IT data management and security at the upcoming Paris Olympic Games.

But Atos is also near bankruptcy, saddled with enormous debt. This month, the company turned down a buyout offer from a Czech billionaire in favor of a French offer, sending shares tumbling. It must now decide whether to accept a French government offer to inject €700 million in exchange for control of the company’s cybersecurity, supercomputing, and military divisions.

In rhetoric, President Emmanuel Macron argues that European-wide “sovereignty” represents the continent’s best hope of competing against China and the US. But the French government’s push to nationalize part of Atos suggests that French — not European interests — reign supreme.

Atos’ woes date to 2008, when the group embarked on an aggressive acquisition strategy, ultimately tripling its size and securing its place in France’s CAC40 index of top companies by market cap. Atos even won a contract to build Jupiter, the continent’s first exascale supercomputer. It was, in some sense, set to become a real European competitor to American and Chinese tech incumbents.

Instead, the company’s rapid expansion led to financial implosion. By 2021, Atos’ market valuation had plunged by almost 90%, from €5 billion to just €588 million. In an ironic turn, Thierry Breton, the CEO who led Atos through years of breakneck growth, graduated to the post of European Commissioner responsible for forging Europe’s digital strategy.

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Atos’ descent rendered it ripe for takeover. The firm holds €5 billion in debt, approximately ten times its valuation. Would-be buyers included French and non-French suitors, including the Czech billionaire Daniel Křetínský, whose holdings include power plants, supermarkets, and logistics companies. Křetínský argued that acquiring Atos would ensure that “a European actor” filled the role of “providing essential services to Europe’s citizens and industry.”

But in the end, the Macron government preferred a French solution. A report produced by the French Senate dictated that any Atos takeover deal should give preference to French industrialists, to “preserve competitiveness.”

Unsurprisingly, a group led by the French businessman David Layani won out over the Czech billionaire. According to Le Monde’s Olivier Pinaud, who has been covering the company’s travails, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire “preferred a French solution.”

Investors are unhappy. Atos shares fell around 12% after the firm said it had chosen the French-only rescue deal. Atos declined to comment for this story.

Another challenge is whether the new owners will accept the French government’s offer to nationalize the three “sensitive” sectors of Atos’ business deemed vital to the country’s strategic interests: cybersecurity, supercomputing, and military technology. The government’s €700 million offer falls at the bottom of the previously indicated range of possible valuations.

Understandably, Atos represents a sensitive case. Its software manages France’s network of nuclear power plants, generating more than 70% of the country’s electricity. But if all 27 European Union member states insist on retaining national control over key industries, it will limit their ability to achieve the “European sovereignty” that President Macron has articulated as the continent’s defining challenge.

Since the founding of the EU, France has sought to shape supranational European governance in its image. The ownership of a struggling tech firm falling on hard times could be the tip of the iceberg. From energy sovereignty to tax policy, national leaders’ incentives may diverge from the bloc’s stated objectives.

The implications for European unity are clear. If France’s current centrist, free-market-minded government can’t abide foreign ownership of a major IT company, it is doubtful whether Europe’s new class of extreme-right parliamentarians — and perhaps soon, a French government led by them — will commit to its vision of a united, sovereignty-aimed Europe.

Jeremy Epstein is a Paris-based journalist. He graduated with master’s degrees from Sciences Po and UCLA.

Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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