Dear LaFrenchTech: Let’s never stop learning

Dec 16, 2014
Vote on Hacker News

Arguably at one point the hottest tech conference on the European continent and still undisputably one of the top tier events, LeWeb took place last week and brought leading international entrepreneurs and investors like Phil Libin, Hiroshi Mikitani, Kevin Rose, Yossi Vardi, Tony Conrad, David Hornik, Jeff Clavier, and Fred Wilson to Paris. The conference also helped bring to light those inspiring ventures which not only make smart business sense but also change the world for the better (I’m thinking of you, Andela).

As they so often cleverly do, Organizers Loic and Geraldine LeMeur succeeded in convincing French politicians to participate and courageously confront what can occasionally be a hostile crowd. In contrast with the 2013 conference — where France’s then-Minister of the Economy Arnaud Montebourg elicited boos with his stance of “innovation is good as long as it doesn’t disrupt the incumbents,” and Digital Affairs Minister Fleur Pellerin cleaned up the mess with reassuringly forward-thinking words — this year’s conference played out in reverse. First, the current Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron, drew thunderous applause with his pragmatic position on the VTC disruptors and his “Succeed and get rich” message to young people (thank goodness France seems to have an Economy Minister who gets it). It was Madame Pellerin’s successor, Axelle Lemaire, who triggered disappointment with her interview in La Tribune in which she boasted that France does not have any lessons to learn from Silicon Valley.

not_listeningDisappointment is the appropriate word here, because early indications of Madame Lemaire in her new ministerial role were very encouraging. I still recall her inspiring discourse at France Digitale Day and the Connected Conference back in June where this rare French politician who actually spent time living and learning outside France appeared at pains to reconcile her scripted government speech with her spirit of open-mindedness.

With Madame Lemaire’s fresh thinking as the backdrop, reading in the press that she summarily dismisses the notion of learning anything about tech ecosystems from Silicon Valley felt like someone jammed a USB stick in my SCSI port.

Granted, Silicon Valley is not perfect. The rising cost of living resulting from the tech boom produces undesirable side effects, like pushing those without stratospheric incomes farther and farther away from the center and potentially laying the groundwork for class warfare. I also submit that trying to replicate Silicon Valley verbatim in other parts of the world is futile, as I’ve written about before.

However, to declare that France’s digital economy has no lessons to learn from Silicon Valley is to close our minds to innovation. To paraphrase one accomplished Silicon Valley VC when I prodded him for a reaction, let’s forget about Apple, Facebook, Google, and Uber. France obviously has nothing to learn from these companies (sarcasm intended).

I know that your English is admirably impeccable, Madame Lemaire, but for your less fluent colleagues I’ll be explicit about this in French:

Je regrette Madame La Ministre, il ne s’agit pas de recevoir des leçons ni d’en donner d’ailleurs, mais simplement d’ouvrir les yeux sur le monde, de se comparer, de se confronter à des modèles à succès, et de s’en inspirer parfois. Un pré requis à toute innovation, est de bien connaître ce qui existe déjà ou est déjà fait ailleurs.

It feels like the pendulum in France is swinging too far the other way. Wallowing in victimization from the attacks of the evil international tech press bent on “French-bashing” used to be in vogue (even long after the foreign press stopped caring). Now the fashion is ultra-arrogance.

Between self-flagellation and excessive arrogance lies a happy middle: confidence. I hope France can find it.