PARIS — When the most prominent new face in France’s effort to oversee the new economy speaks, her pronouncements may be followed almost as closely in Silicon Valley and Seoul as in Paris.
Fleur Pellerin, a deputy finance minister, is the point woman in President François Hollande’s campaign to stimulate innovation. But in trying to put a French imprint on the digital economy, she has been drawn into a growing number of disputes with U.S. technology companies like Google, Twitter and Amazon.
In South Korea, it is Pellerin’s personal story that fascinates. Abandoned on the streets of Seoul as a newborn, she was taken in by a French family who raised her in the suburbs of Paris. While more than 150,000 South Korean children have been adopted by foreign parents since the Korean War, only Pellerin has risen to the top ranks of the French government.
In one of the clearest signals yet from the French Finance Ministry that the government is intent on making the Internet conform to French law and custom, Pellerin last month waded into a dispute involving Google, whose advertising had been blocked by a French Internet service provider, Free.
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The move was widely seen as an attempt by Free to force Google to pay for network access. As a preliminary step, Pellerin ordered Free to restore full service, but she made it clear that she thought the French company had a legitimate grievance.
The appointment of Pellerin last May, after Hollande’s election, prompted talk of a new orientation in French technology policy, where mistrust of foreign companies has sometimes been the guiding principle.
Pellerin, 39, is the first French government minister of Asian extraction. Although she has never visited the land of her birth, in French technology circles her rise fostered a perhaps naive hope: Might Pellerin transform France into a European version of South Korea, where ultra-high-speed broadband is ubiquitous and electronics giants like Samsung and LG have become worldbeaters?
“I would like to make France one of the top nations in terms of digital innovation,” Pellerin said during a recent interview in her office at the Finance Ministry, which juts out over the Seine in eastern Paris like a giant, modern version of a medieval river toll barrier. “If we don’t act in the next few years, it will be too late.”
Yet anyone expecting a drastic break with French governing traditions might be disappointed by Pellerin. After her unusual arrival in France, her upbringing and rise through the system were largely indistinguishable from that of many native-born members of the French administration.
In her new role in government, Pellerin has become the central figure in Hollande’s drive to establish “digital sovereignty” — the principle that French rules should apply to international Internet companies, which sometimes hover elusively beyond the reach of the national authorities. This has prompted clashes with a growing number of American technology companies.
Overseeing investigations of these companies on taxation and other matters, even while wooing them to invest in France, is a balancing act, Pellerin acknowledged.
“It’s not a crusade against Americans,” she said. “We are just trying to put everyone on a level playing field.”
As for growing up with the knowledge that she had been abandoned and adopted, Pellerin said this was something “I hardly speak about.”
“I really consider myself French,” she said. “What is important to understand about what I’ve done is how I was brought up by my parents.”
Far from shielding her from criticism, Pellerin’s compelling personal story and the formidable résumé she has assembled before age 40 sometimes seem to draw special scrutiny.
During a radio interview last year, shortly after she had been named to her post, the host, Daniel Schick, led off this way: “Do you really know why you were chosen? Is it because you are a beautiful woman from a background of diversity?… Because you are a strong signal to the Asian markets? Perhaps also because you are competent?”
Pellerin parried the provocation deftly, laughing sarcastically and adding: “This is starting very badly.”
She has clashed with U.S. technology companies, including Google and Amazon, over the strategies they use to minimize European taxes. By routing their French sales through low-cost jurisdictions — Ireland and Luxembourg, respectively — these companies largely avoid paying taxes in France. The companies insist this complies with European Union law, and Pellerin acknowledged that getting them to contribute to the French Treasury might take time.
And though the resolution of the faceoff between Free and Google fell in Google’s favor, she made it clear that she sympathized with Free, which says its network is burdened by high traffic volume from videos on YouTube, which is owned by Google.
“Google takes advantage of the bandwidth and the creative content of the Internet,” she said, “but never contributes to the financing of the infrastructure or the content.”
And then there is Twitter, a forum Pellerin herself is fond of using, but one whose largely untethered expression sometimes clashes with French sensibilities.
A French court is investigating whether the company should hand over the account details of users who posted anti-Semitic comments in October.
The company removed some of the postings after complaints that they violated French laws against hate speech but says it will not divulge user information without a court order in the United States, where Twitter is based.
Pellerin’s take? “We really would like to welcome Twitter in France,” she said. “But the question is, How can you let people on social networks violate local laws?”