How the French Government’s “French Tech” label affects French startups

Dec 17, 2013
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Last month, Fleur Pellerin announced a government initiative to create a “French Tech” label in order to help French startups get more international recognition. The applause and criticisms came out from people for & against the initiative, and I’ve been sitting, digesting the announcement, trying to figure out what exactly irked me about this announcement – something in my gut told me there was a problem, and it turns out, there are a bunch of problems with the “French Tech” label.

1) I’m pretty sure I invented the “French Tech” label

If you’ve been keeping score at home, you’ll know that “French Tech” was not the first name that Pellerin announced for such an initiative. Last year she announced “Paris Capitale Startup” & “Paris Capitale Numérique,” which I quickly shot down as a “big mistake” – In fact, if you Google “Paris Capital Startup,” my article still comes up as the first result, so it isn’t surprising that the name wouldn’t do.

Between that article and the November announcement, I wrote one of my more supportive articles “10 reasons to be proud to work in French Tech,” accompanied by #FrenchTechPride. We’ve since used the hashtag intermittently on Facebook & Twitter, and I wouldn’t say it’s become a defacto French startup scene hashtag, but it raised large enough awareness for, say, the cabinet of a Junior Minister to take notice.

Of course, the label is generic, and could’ve been thought up by anyone; however, the fact that it changed every time one of our articles about it reached peak Google positioning and that our positive title subsequently got chosen leads me to think that I may be doing more of the Minister’s work than I originally thought

2) The Government is the problem with French startups’ image

The “French Tech” label is very directly inspired by UKTI and the “Tech City” label (also inadvertently invented by a blogger); however, the UK has a very different relationship to its private sector than France does. Take, for example, LeWeb, which saw three French expatriated entrepreneurs debating with a Minister over how the government is hurting France’s international image.

When’s the last time you saw Cameron, or even Boris debating with entrepreneurs about how the UK is seen abroad?

The problem isn’t the startups – Dailymotion does a fine job when the government isn’t involved, and Deezer is kicking ass by distancing itself from the public sector as much as possible – the problem is the government policy. And no label is going to change that. Smoke. And. Mirrors

3) French startups don’t need a label.

The big success of the French government is convincing French people that, whenever there is opportunity in the private sector, there is a way for the government to improve said opportunities with ‘free’ initiatives. The truth is that French engineers don’t need a reputation boost – they may need to learn a bit more about storytelling, but the French government is hardly the one to manage that process.

I’ve been trying since I arrived in Europe to adapt David Cohen’s “just stay out of our way” attitude towards government to a more “European” relationship with the government, but I have yet to hear one solution that didn’t make me think “Complete waste of time.”

4) They are just running out the clock…

I think my real problem with Fleur Pellerin up until this point has been that the startup scene had such high hopes for her, because she spoke of action; however, she continues to speak of action, against protectionism, for startups, for women in tech, for internationalization, for… it turns out, if you keep on promising, you never have time to deliver.

As someone who occasionally makes appearances at events & conferences, I know that there is an indirect relationship between how much work you get done and how much time you spend being a public figure. Pellerin is 100% public, which means she’s 0% work.

French Tech feels to me like another “you’ll see, you’ll see” initiative that is meant to run out the clock until the next election, or distract from the real problem. The government has work to do, and it’s spending more time talking about the solutions than implementing them.

This will not stop French startups from succeeding

The more important message is that, regardless of what the government says about its relationship to innovation, or the initiatives it proposes in order to tie itself to the digital economy, none of this will stop French engineers from innovating – there is a persistence to the French culture that is undertold, undersold, and underappreciated as a result.

People often look to the Silicon Valley for tips on improving the culture of a startup ecosystem – I think the only solid point to take away is that no Californian startup is based in California (Delaware company, you say?) and no successful founder has ever said “Thank god for that government initiative and grant money; we wouldn’t have succeeded otherwise.”

France will continue to see examples of startups succeeding despite the government – it doesn’t necessarily have to be otherwise, and there are few great examples of successful government-startup relations (Ireland, maybe the UK).

Fleur, if you want our #FrenchTechPride label, you can have it – all we need are great French founders: and for that, we’ve got plenty.