On January 12, 2022, former European Central Bank official Benoît Coeuré was appointed President of the French Competition Authority (“FCA”) following his hearing by both houses of the French Parliament.[1] He was unanimously appointed by members of the Commission for Economic Affairs of the Assemblée Nationale, while the Commission for Economic Affairs of the Sénat displayed a more balanced distribution of votes (only 12 in favor out of 22 votes cast).

Mr. Coeuré follows in the footsteps of Isabelle de Silva, who chaired the FCA from October 2016 to October 2021, and whose mandate was not renewed. Since 2020 he had been heading the Innovation Hub of the Bank for International Settlements, designed to foster international cooperation between central banks on topics relating to innovative financial technology. Prior to that, Mr. Coeuré served as an executive director at the European Central Bank and deputy director general and chief economist at the French Treasury between 2009 and 2011. From 2007 to 2009, Mr. Coeuré worked as France’s Assistant Secretary for Multilateral Affairs, Trade and Development. He was also the co-chair of the Paris Club, and G8 and G20 Finance Sous-Sherpa for France. Before that, Mr. Coeuré trained as an economist at École Polytechnique and graduated with an advanced degree in statistics and economic policy from the École nationale de la statistique et de l’administration économique (ENSAE), and a bachelor’s degree in Japanese.

Mr. Coeuré’s hearing was meant to confirm before Parliament his ability to fulfill his duties as head of the FCA, his understanding of its cases, and reaffirm his commitment to promote competition on the merits. In that regard, Mr. Coeuré stated that he would endeavor to promote the FCA’s independence, in particular against private interests and political power,[2] by fostering a culture of open debate and collegiality. He also indicated that the corollaries of independence are accountability, transparency, and strong ethics.

Mr. Coeuré then highlighted three key priorities for his term, starting with the strengthening of the FCA’s independence and responsiveness. On that front, Mr. Coeuré intends to pursue the authority’s current efforts to reduce the time needed to process cases as well as toughen ex-post monitoring of commitments. He also indicated that the FCA should lead on current competition policy debates, including on topics related to the digital economy and sustainability issues.

Competition law enforcement in the digital economy is the second priority of his mandate. He acknowledged the difficulties raised by the fast- changing evolutions of the sector and suggested that the FCA anticipate those by instituting a dialogue with stakeholders, allowing the FCA to better understand the impact that large platforms have on market equilibriums. Furthermore, Mr. Coeuré expressed the view that the authority should invest in modern digital tools, for example, to detect price-fixing, as well as strengthen dedicated staff, referring to the UK’s Competition and Market Authority’s digital unit.

His third priority is ensuring that competition enforcement serves as a tool to support the French economy and its competitiveness. In particular, his view is that competition enforcement should not be perceived as going against industrial policy and should instead strive to rebuild France’s competitive advantage globally, acknowledging that the French economy is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. He warned against the risk of market power in certain sectors, in particular that of everyday products (e.g., hygiene products, household appliances, laundry detergents, dairy products) which were already subject to the FCA’s prior scrutiny.

Separately, on the topic of killer acquisitions, he indicated that he was in favor of using Article 12 of the Digital Markets Act,[3] together with Article 22 of the Merger control regulation,[4] which enable national competition authorities to refer transactions to the European Commission that would normally fall below jurisdictional thresholds. He also stressed that both the Commission and national competition authorities should be involved in competition law enforcement and ensure a proper dialogue in pursuit of that objective.

When questioned on ongoing cases, such as the high-profile proposed combination of France’s number one and two TV networks TF1 and M6,[5] he acknowledged the fast-paced evolution in the sector as well as the growing influence of platforms in the advertising and broadcasting sectors, cautiously concluding that he would reserve his judgement until the results of the market test are made available.

[1]      See FCA’s press release of January 21, 2022, available at: https://www.autoritedelaconcurrence.fr/en/press-release/benoit-coeure-appointed-president-autorite- de-la-concurrence.

[2]      See http://www.senat.fr/compte-rendu-commissions/20220110/ecos.html#toc4.

[3]      Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on contestable and fair markets in the digital sector (Digital Markets Act), COM/2020/842 final, December 15, 2020. This provision would require gatekeepers to inform the European Commission of their intended concentrations involving another provider of core platform services or of any other services provided in the digital sector, irrespective of whether such transaction would meet the legal filing thresholds.

[4]      Council Regulation No. 139/2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings (the EC Merger Regulation), OJ L 24, January 20, 2004. See also, Cleary Gottlieb’s Alert Memo, European Commission Implements New Policy To Investigate Transactions That Would Otherwise Escape Merger Review, April 23, 2021, available at: https://www.clearygottlieb.com/-/media/files/alert-memos-2021/20210423-european-commission-implements-new-policy-to-investigate- transactions-that-would-otherwise.pdf; Cleary Gottlieb, European Commission Announces New Policy to Accept Member State Referrals for Merger Review Even if EC and National Thresholds Are Not Met, October 12, 2020, available at: https://www.clearygottlieb.com/news-and-insights/publication-listing/new-ec-policy- anticipates-merger-referral-even-if-national-thresholds-not-met.

[5]      See, TF1’s Press release of May 17, 2021, available at: https://groupe-tf1.fr/sites/default/files/communiques/communique_de_presse_groupe_tf1_-_les_groupes_ tf1_et_m6_entrent_en_negociations_exclusives.pdf.