This Thursday evening, ‘Startup Minister’ Fleur Pellerin will welcome members of the French tech community as she gives her voeux, a tradition in France akin to New Year’s Resolutions, during which she will talk about what she wishes for the French tech community in 2014. In addition to plaisanteries, Pellerin will officially announce La FrenchTech, an initiative & a label inspired by UK Tech City that will look to accomplish three goals:
- A “Stamp of Approval” given to cities who incorporate digital innovation in their budget – having the Label will allow them to unlock extra funding on a federal level
- Acceleration: identifying private initiatives that encourage the acceleration of startups and supporting them financially; they will also serve as a back-door to getting funding from BPIFrance
- Attractivity: supporting efforts to create a more attractive image of FrenchTech internationally (pretty much anything will be an improvement from the current state)
This all sounds pretty standard for government support, so I sat down with LaFrenchTech’s director David Monteau & pressed him about whether this was the same old game with a new name, or whether this would actually produce different results. Speaking with Monteau, the word that continued to come up was suivre, that is “follow.”
The FrenchTech initiative is not France’s attempt to grab the ecosystem by the reins and steer it – at least, not in theory. Instead, the initiative creates a set of criteria, and those who check the boxes are enabled to do more of what they are doing.
Specifically for Attractivity, we can expect to see less Pellerin, and more entrepreneurs taking the microphone to talk about what it means to be in La FrenchTech.
Aligning the conversation with the discourse
Up until now, France’s policy around communicating its attractivity to the private sector has revolved around 1) promoting its strengths and 2) avoiding any mention of its weaknesses. The following result has produced:
Journalist: “Can you tell us about the difficult employment & taxation issues that startups face in France?”
Gov. Rep.: “Our R&D is fantastic in France – companies have access to hundreds of millions of euros in funding for R&D. Here’s a list of people who use it…”
Journalist: “Yes, but… heavy taxation and burdensome employment?”
Gov. Rep.: “R&D!”
You can imagine how, in any other context, one could easily come to the conclusion that the person(s) responding to this question are actually insane – it’s as if there had been two discussions going on, like you crossed telephone lines and overheard another conversation while having your own.
The private sector doesn’t react well to people dodging questions; everyone has something to hide, but the key is to paint a different picture of the situation, not to turn the lights off in the room where the painting is.
It’s pretty easy for France to combat the two most common attacks; however, you won’t hear a Minister say the following:
On Taxation: You can essentially reduce your taxation to nothing just in R&D reimbursements. Set up an office in France with anywhere under 50 employees (it gets complicated after 50) who are all engineers, and the French Government will essentially pay for your office. Hell, bring international talent over if you’re worried that French Engineers will give you trouble
On Employment: In France, all employment contracts come with a renewable trial period that lasts up to 3 months – that is, you have 6 months to decide whether you want to keep your employee. If your startup needs more than 6 months to decide, then your issue isn’t employment, I promise you that.
The Other France
Here we’ve got the Government on the defensive – not in a position of strength. France’s cultural distaste for talking itself up has put it at a big disadvantage in the past; however, LaFrenchTech represents an opportunity to give the voice back to the private sector (remember: the government ‘follows’). In the private sector, here’s what people say about France:
French Engineers are the smartest on the planet
Ya, that’s not an hyperbole. There’s a reason Apple’s original European headquarters were in Paris – because Jobs loved French engineers, French designers. If you’re a mathematician, you get pretty good at pronouncing French names because every theorem up until the 20th century comes from the French – and beyond that, Americans & Germans just joined in the game. In the valley, French engineers are a currency of their own – France teaches its engineers to take existing parts and imagine the next logical step given those parts. That is, innovation is built into the way engineers are taught.
Eiffel Tower, Red Wine, Fashion, Art, les Françaises
When given the option between sitting on a bus from San Francisco to Mountain View for 3 hours a day in order to live in a city and work in a tech company, and walking through the Marais to my office as I do every day, I choose Paris every time. In San Francisco, six figure salaries for engineers means they can just barely afford to go out to a French restaurant in the city and pay 170$ for a bottle of wine – in France, every corner has a Nicolas selling better wine for about 5% the cost – paying 9€ for a bottle of wine in France calls for celebration, and my favorite bottle is 7€ and is sold next to the bakery, butcher, and hipster market that is 100 meters from my apartment. When’s the last time you had real meat in the valley?
Here’s the thing about France: people want to live here, but they assume that there’s a catch. No jobs, or no companies, or little salary. My best friend works at Mozilla in Paris – their office is a former palace built by the Austrian Empire in the middle of Paris’ startup district – he commutes about 15-20 minutes by metro in the morning, and makes a “competitive salary.” During his evenings and weekends, he’s in Paris. Not Mountain View, but Paris.
In the US, money buys culture, art, finesse, class, luxury, and anything else. In France, it comes with the package – the buildings are art, the women are luxury, the lifestyle is finesse, and the food is class.
If France stopped trying to sell its attractivity between 9 to 5, and started selling its attractivity during the other 70% of the time, I think it would be easy to convince Silicon Valley engineers to come work for Dailymotion, Deezer, Criteo, Blablacar or any of the multinationals – Paris is the “semester abroad” for adults. Attracting international talent isn’t about convincing someone to pick up their life and commit to lifetime aboard; it’s about making a clear enough elevator pitch that people say “I’ll try it out – what do I have to lose?”
We’ll see if LaFrenchTech manages to embody this message, or a message of similar pull, but one thing is for sure: the French Government is making mistakes, learning, reiterating, and trying again. Most startups don’t even get that right.