Although I am a fervent defender of digital sovereignty and a user of the search engine Qwant, recent information has shaken my technological and ethical certainties about its interest, cost and usefulness for the national community. Indeed, Qwant is actually on the verge of a financial collapse, and it seems to me that it is urgent to ask why and how this company got to this point.
I remind you that Qwant is a French search engine, launched in 2013, which proposes not to track its users, nor to sell their personal data to protect and guarantee their privacy, and which wants to be neutral in the display of its results.
The recent affair of consulting firms in general and McKinsey in particular, brought to light by an exhaustive and rigorous Senate investigation, has shown that the proper use of public finances is a fluctuating concept, subject to the most whimsical political assessments and which does not spare itself from basic questions of cronyism and sharing of the cake on the backs of taxpayers.
Of course, the pre-election political context reminds us that the stink-bowl throwing is back. But the current political campaign is also there to make us seriously question the public policies conducted over the last decade, to ask ourselves the right questions about the proper use of public money and, in the case of Qwant, to ask ourselves if we are not on the verge of a new large-scale budgetary and political scandal.
These are the questions I wish to share with you today, by submitting for your free appreciation a certain number of factual elements that are publicly available and that speak volumes about a certain French inability to move from a good idea to an industrial and technological success.
Qwant faces its founding myth
What could be more attractive than a French team developing a French search engine that cares about our personal data, that shows a desire to create a true digital sovereignty free of American influence and that could compete with Google in its main market niche? The poster was tempting, but in reality, since its launch, Qwant has relied on Microsoft’s technologies to exist. As early as 2013, an anonymous blogger, going by the pseudonym Lucien Theodore, discovered troubling similarities between Qwant’s results and those of Bing, which is Microsoft’s search engine. Wanting to correct the situation, the creators of Qwant admitted to using Bing’s programming interfaces, and then switched to their own indexing, supplemented by other sources.
The Qwant team explained that only a part of the searches were based on Microsoft’s Bing engine, but that a large majority came from their own internally developed crawlers.
However, it is this imperfect search engine that has been imposed on all French administrations, even though it is only a meta-search engine using almost exclusively the Bing API. This structural sin was easily revealed by experts like Olivier Andrieu who, in 2019-2020, during a contest organized by Qwant itself. He was able to demonstrate, having banned Bing bots on some pages used in the test, that it was indeed Bing crawlers that were solicited and not specific Qwant crawlers. In a way, Qwant was a bit like the Bernard Madoff of the search engine; a kind of poor man’s Ponzi scheme that wanted us to believe that its technology had nothing to do with those of GAFAM.
Of course, the trick did not escape the attention of the government, which created Qwant, and this strong dependence on the Microsoft group was highlighted by the Interministerial Directorate of Digital Affairs (acteurspublics.fr) in a confidential memo that Cedric O, Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, was quick to forget to publish in its entirety, as he had promised to
The official excuse was that Qwant was still only a prototype and that a new version should arrive soon, a priori in May 2020. But in April 2022, this is still not the case. Sister Anne, don’t you see anything coming?
Like the reform of public procurement in southern Italy, the redesign of Qwant is still in progress (WeDemain.fr) and the only positive point was the technical side; this search engine, while not sovereign, nevertheless protected the privacy of Internet users.
However, other media highlighted the fact that search results were often dated and raised questions about the Qwant index (NextImpact) and its relevance, as many users have experienced.
But this file does not stop at this lie about the real sovereignty of this search engine, many questions emerge about its financial structure and the abysmal losses that concern the company Qwant.
Qwant, a financial scam on top of the technological one?
If the financial scam is proven, it could be just as damaging to the powers that be as the McKinsey affair, even if it is not at all a comparable financial and political environment.
Indeed, Qwant, despite its limited effectiveness and many shortcomings, continues to enjoy financial support from the state. Qwant is supported by the French government (Le Libre Penseur), with the added bonus of a capital injection from the Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations (CDC) in early 2017, backed by then Minister of the Economy, Emmanuel Macron.
The CDC currently holds 20% of the company’s capital. But Qwant’s losses are abysmal considering its size. The amounts advanced for 2017 were 10 million euros, then 11.2 million euros in 2018. It should be noted that in May 2020, the company had still not published its 2018 accounts, deviating from all the usual accounting rules, but without a priori worrying either the CDC or the government.
In 2020, the financial takeover of Qwant by the CDC was accompanied by the dismissal of its CEO, Eric Léandri, one of the company’s co-founders, as well as a number of senior executives. Then came the thunderbolt of Mediapart, which brought to light that Mr. Léandri was, until the end of 2016, the subject of a European arrest warrant in the context of an investigation into a fraud in Belgium. This affair in itself was enough to cast doubt on the financial management and mismanagement observed at Qwant. But the person concerned prefers to talk about a plot against his company… As a result of these revelations, the fight raged within the CDC between the pro and anti-Léandri. This episode showed above all that it was the protection he enjoyed at the highest level of the State that led to such misguidance.
According to the survey conducted by Le MediaTV, the relationship between the government and Qwant raises questions. Everything continues as before when the new secretary of state for digital, Cedric O, takes office and supports Qwant at Vivatech 2019. It should be noted, because this is not anecdotal, that this same Cedric O, was the treasurer of LREM during the presidential campaign of 2017. Is there a link between this campaign and Qwant? What are the consequences for the company? And for the campaign accounts of candidate Macron?
The terrible thing is that the troubled ties between Qwant and Emmanuel Macron are known and long-standing. While he was still only Minister of Economy, another French entrepreneur proposed a French search engine, Xaphir. It was Eric Mathieu, founder of the company Xilopix. At that time, needing funds, he tried to multiply the meetings at the highest level of the State. For him, the doors will remain closed to end up being bought by Qwant for a pittance, for lack of funds.
If only Qwant had used this Xilopix technology to integrate it into its engine? But no, the Qwant adventure was not aimed at creating a French champion. In this case, what were the objectives of such an operation?
If we believe a complaint sent to the president of the Cours des Comptes, Pierre Moscovici, and to all the deputies by Marc Lango, founder of one of Qwant’s competitor search engines, Premsgo.fr, the accusations are heavy, but substantiated, as explained in the pdf file attached to this article.
Marc Lango denounces the role of Qwant and he believes that a state scandal, where the government would have shown lightness in its management of public funds of the CDC, in this complaint addressed to the Cours des Comptes. The transmitted document includes 219 pages and we find elements mentioned above in the various articles published on the subject Qwant.
This document presents disturbing financial elements that corroborate Mr. Lango’s questions. What is surprising is that this document, made public on March 27, 2022, has not been the subject of a major media coverage. This is all the more surprising since, in addition to Qwant and its managers, it clearly implicates personalities at the highest level of the State for their attitude in this matter, such as Cédric O and Emmanuel Macron.
It is therefore very surprising to note that in this case too, key authorities, such as the Court of Auditors, and even the financial prosecutor’s office, have not taken up the subject.
This affair raises many questions that will have to be answered, about the functioning of the State, about its initiatives supposed to promote our industrial sovereignty, about digital sovereignty. In a different register, this case reminds us of the Alstom affair. This new episode, if the elements are true, allows us to see why France has such a poor ranking in terms of the fight against corruption.
We are just a few days away from the 2022 presidential election, and it would be good if this subject could be put into the public debate, to ask the right questions and determine if France wants to put an end to methods that remind us of bad practices from the past and the murky links between politics and business. Is the new world predicted in 2017 just a pipe dream?