French antitrust chief ‘surprised’ to be removed from post


France’s antitrust chief has expressed her “surprise” and “disappointment” at President Emmanuel Macron’s decision not to renew her mandate in the middle of a review of a far-reaching broadcasting merger and several competition cases against US tech giants.

Isabelle de Silva, who won plaudits after imposing two penalties against Google for a combined €720m, said she found out last week that she would not be nominated by the French president for a second five-year term, and will therefore leave on October 13. The Elysée has not commented on the decision.

“Until a few days ago I was quite confident that I would be renewed although you never have absolute certainty,” she told the Financial Times. “So it came as a bit of a surprise.”

“I would have liked to continue, but obviously I respect the decision and hope a new person will continue the work I have started. It is a personal disappointment for me and my team to have to come to terms with.”

The decision comes six months before presidential elections, in which Macron is seeking a second term, and at a time when the regulator is reviewing several large national mergers. One of them is the tie-up between TF1, France’s largest broadcaster, and smaller group M6. Tf1 is owned by construction billionaire Martin Bouygues and its 8pm news programme is the most watched with about 6m viewers on average.

The new group would control about 70 per cent of the French TV advertising market but the government has signalled it regarded the merger positively.

Other large combinations under review include the merger of water and energy utilities Veolia and Suez, as well as that of book publishers Editis, owned by Vincent Bolloré’s Vivendi, and Hachette, controlled by Lagardère.

De Silva said that the agency would continue to review the TF1 -M6 case with its in-depth and “serious methodology”, which meant that “there is no possibility that changing the president (of the competition authority) will change the outcome.”

She added: “I felt that it was not necessarily a good thing to change to the captain in the midst of such an important and difficult case.”

De Silva, a Franco-American lawyer who spent her entire career in the French civil service, was appointed in 2015 by then president François Hollande. She became a prominent advocate for stricter oversight of tech companies and carried out antitrust investigations against Google, Apple and Facebook. In addition to fining Google, she managed to extract a pledge from the search giant to make changes to its advertising business.

The competition authority is still working on probes into Apple and Facebook, and De Silva had also worked closely with the European Commission’s antitrust watchdog.

More recently she had been building ties with the Biden administration’s new antitrust chief Lina Kahn, who is also pushing for more technology regulation. She has been a powerful voice in the discussion of new draft legislation in Brussels set to curb the power of large technology companies.

Such international co-operation “must be preserved and built on” if regulators were to effectively oversee big tech companies. “To tackle those digital platforms we need to really come together and work as a team,” she said.