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Édouard Philippe at l’X: Four key world challenges and the need to look way ahead

Invited to speak at École Polytechnique by the student association "Les Tribunes de l’X", French former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe set out four major worlwide challenges that France will have to grasp over the next decades. He called for a collective answer to these challenges that need to be tackled all together.

Edouard Philippe à l'Ecole polytechnique

Looking beyond the next French presidential election and even the 2030 Recovery Plan, outlined by French president Emmanuel Macron on October 12, Édouard Philippe called for a long term national or even a European strategy to tackle the demographic, climate, geopolitical and technological challenges currently facing the world.

Regarding the "demographic challenge", Édouard Philippe recalled that the world population had almost quadrupled between 1800 and 1970 to reach 3.7 billion people before doubling in the next fifty years to 8 billion. "By the end of the century the world population will have exceeded 10 billion people" he noted, stressing that this absolutely massive increase is accompanied by major disruptions in the geographic distribution with a clear slowdown in the demographic dynamics in Europe and China but an acceleration in Africa. It also goes hand in hand with growing urbanization and a push towards the coastlines.

"The demographic ratio between the north and the south of the Mediterranean sea is currently 1 to 2, with 500 millions people living in Europe and about one billion in Africa. In 2050, the ratio will be 1 to 5 and the population of Nigeria alone will be, in 2030 and perhaps even earlier, greater than that of the United States," noted Édouard Philippe.

The growing number of people generates pressures on natural ressources and well being in a number of areas  around the world, he said stressing that those who suffer most seek to escape through migration.

Referring to climate change, Edouard Philippe said that it is probably one of the most publicized topic, even if it is also necessary to take into account the reduction of biodiversity, reflected in "an increasing humanization of life".

"The multiplication of extreme climate events, the fear of temperature increases and their effects, the difficulty of access to water resources, all these issues can create a feeling of vertigo," summarized the former French PM.

In terms of geopolitics, Édouard Philippe identified three threats: the growing power of China, which leads to an almost inevitable conflict with the United States, and a tilting of the world's center of gravity towards the Pacific, leading to a peripheralization of Europe. At the same time, Europe does not seem to be willing to respond to this peripherization threat with an assertion of its own power that other States such as Russia or Turkey implement at least on a regional scale.

For the former French PM, there is a third geopolitical threat, more insidious but just as real, linked to the questioning of the Western model in international relations.

"Basically, the pillars of our model in international affairs have been a strong attachment to the principle of democratic freedom as the best way to guarantee stability and prosperity and a recourse to multilateralism allowing powers that have become medium-sized, such as France, the United Kingdom and others, to keep their rank globally," recalled Édouard Philippe.

"Is democratic freedom perceived elsewhere than in Western Europe and even in Europe as the best way to guarantee both prosperity and stability, this is not clear in view of the fascination exercised by enlightened authoritarian regimes or directive regimes that confine freedom to the most private sphere," he said.

As for multilateralism, it has been constantly questioned and weakened for the past ten or fifteen years, he said, attributing its decline both to the rise of strong states that no longer wish to bother with defining common rules and to a fairly widespread disengagement.

The fourth key challenge mentioned by Edouard Philippe is the speed and magnitude of technological change with the potential impact of artificial intelligence on the notion of work and therefore on the social model of western developed countries. He also questionned the consequences of biotechnologies on the very heart of our humanity and those of the acceleration of new technologies as a whole on security and sovereignty.

"In the post-industrial world in which jobs are mostly in services, is there any space left for work in the face of the considerable development of artificial intelligence?" he wondered, recalling that our current notion of work is intrinsically linked to our welfare system and to the wage that every worker is earning.

Biotechnology questions "the essential part of our humanity that is likely to be transformed, challenging notions that are deeply rooted in our societies," he said, referring to concepts such as "enhanced man" or "transhumanism.

Édouard Philippe finally questioned the meaning of the concepts of security and sovereignty referring to the risk of propagation of cyberviruses potentially more devastating than the coronavirus or the implications of the processes of monetary creation related to the blockchain on the links between currency and sovereignty.