Macron Calls for Regulation of Social Media to Stem ‘Threat to Democracy’

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Macron Calls for Regulation of Social Media to Stem ‘Threat to Democracy’

PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron called for international regulation to curb the spread of ideological extremism in Western democracies, chiding tech companies and political correctness for allowing it to flourish.

Speaking to a group of reporters inside the Élysée Palace, Mr. Macron said the storming of the U.S. Capitol was a sign of the West’s failure to rein in social media platforms, allowing them to become incubators of hate, moral relativism and conspiracy theories.

The French leader chided tech companies—without naming them—for giving former President Donald Trump a platform to “spread hate” for years before taking action. Twitter Inc. banned Mr. Trump’s personal account in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, citing the risk of further incitement of violence. Facebook Inc. announced a temporary suspension of Mr. Trump after the riot before extending that action indefinitely.

“All those who allowed President Trump to succeed waited until they were entirely sure that he had no power left to then wrap themselves in dignity and now say ‘Let’s take away his whistle,’” Mr. Macron said. “Why didn’t they shut down his accounts before all this happened?”

Images from the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were shocking, Mr. Macron said.

Photo: jim lo scalzo/Shutterstock

Mr. Macron said governments had delegated too much authority to tech companies by expecting them to act as stewards for Western democracy. “This is an issue for real international regulation,” Mr. Macron said.

The French leader delivered the remarks in his first meeting with the international media since he contracted the coronavirus in late December. Mr. Macron sat in a gilded ballroom at the center of a table that stretched the length of the room, wearing a black turtleneck.

An antique mechanical clock ticked as Mr. Macron waxed philosophical on how Western democracies under the influence of social media were undergoing “a form of anthropological mutation.”

Mr. Macron said it was shocking to see images of an extremist clad in a far-right costume inside the Capitol “in the heart of power.”

“But the spread of this image has the effect of replication—like the virus,” Mr. Macron said, referring to the pathogen that causes Covid-19.

A memorial in October to slain French teacher Samuel Paty.

Photo: Michel Euler/Associated Press

Mr. Macron said France was grappling with similar upheavals, from the yellow-vest protest movement to its yearslong fight with Islamist terrorism. In October, a middle-school teacher was decapitated after class by an 18-year-old Russian of Chechen origin. The attacker went to the school after viewing a video on social media of a Muslim parent railing against the teacher for showing his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“Political correctness has today endangered the primacy of the citizen over the believer”

— French President Emmanuel Macron

In recent months, the Macron government has shut down mosques and other associations it suspects of practicing “Islamist separatism,” which Mr. Macron considers a sustained campaign by religious extremists to undermine the institutions of the French republic. Opponents of the crackdown have accused Mr. Macron of stigmatizing France’s Muslim community, which is one of Europe’s largest.

Mr. Macron said he was acting in defense of France’s model of citizenship. What makes a person French, he said, is an acceptance of reason, freedom and other values from the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment.

Islamist ideologues are seeking to drive a wedge between members of France’s Muslim community and the French state, Mr. Macron said, adding that French people sometimes compromise their Republican values out of sensitivity for religious belief.

“We have a real crisis in France’s model for integration,” Mr. Macron said. “Political correctness has today endangered the primacy of the citizen over the believer.”

Mr. Macron also weighed in on tensions in the Middle East, saying France could play a role in engaging regional powers like Israel and Saudi Arabia to support any push to revive the 2015 international accord to curb Iran’s nuclear program. In 2018, Mr. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the agreement, further hobbling its implementation.

Mr. Macron said time was running short, because Iran is due to hold presidential elections in June. “There’s a window of opportunity between now and the elections. I think we need to seize it.”

Big Tech’s deplatforming of former President Donald Trump has sparked a debate about the future of content moderation on social media. WSJ speaks with a disinformation and moderation expert about what comes next.

Write to Stacy Meichtry at stacy.meichtry@wsj.com and Noemie Bisserbe at noemie.bisserbe@wsj.com

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