The Limits of Law? The Multifaceted Approach of the French Legislation to Tackle Foreign Election Interference through Digital Disinformation

As France is traditionally opposed to electronic voting, foreign election interference could take the form of disinformation disseminated online. This paper first studies the foreign election interference that occurred in France, during the 2017 presidential campaign, and that targeted more particularly the future president of the republic, Emmanuel Macron. This paper then analyses the new laws on the fight against the manipulation of information, adopted in reaction to the 2017 electoral interference. It studies how those laws aim to react to manipulation of digital information before general elections and national referenda. The French regulatory broadcasting agency may suspend, interrupt, or refuse broadcasting of false information by audio-visual media controlled or influenced by a foreign state. A new judge sitting for urgent matters may order the suspension or suppression of digital false information. The powers of the regulatory broadcasting agency and the new judge are however restrained by the need to respect the right to freedom of expression. This paper then studies how the new laws aim to prevent manipulation of digital information. They give users of online platforms more means to critically assess digital information and be less influenced by it. Thus, online platforms must be more transparent about the information they host, especially during electoral campaigns. Furthermore, information and media literacy are strengthened. Finally, this paper concludes that the efficiency of the new legislation to react to foreign election interference through disinformation remains modest. It argues that the fight against foreign digital misinformation should focus on the empowerment of online platforms’ users. Facilitating the detection by those users of foreign disinformation spread online is the way forward to diminish its impact in electoral campaigns.