The Truth About French and Belgians

If you don’t already know, the French and the Belgians have a bit of a love-hate relationship. Kind of like the Americans and the Canadians. Who better to poke a bit of fun at than your northern neighbors, eh ? Plus, given Belgium’s rather intricately over-complicated political situation, the southern, French-speaking half of Belgium – yes, Wallonia – is often half jokingly considered a French département. So where better to head as the Editor of TechCrunch France than Belgium’s HQ ? (Yes, that means Brussels.)

Startup baguette or startup with fries ?

Before leaving, I honestly throught that Belgian entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t really be that different than French entrepreneurs. I was pretty sure that I’d find a smaller-scale France but perhaps with a bit of a Belgian twist – like site translations in French and Flemish or something. And that would really be about it. I mean, we’re all in Europe, half of Belgium speaks French and we’re all looking across the Atlantic when it comes to inspiration, right ? But, even though I was only in Brussels for something around 24 hours, what I saw made the Belgians and the French look about as different as, well, cats and dogs.

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Europe.

So first off, I attended an event run by the infamous Betagroup (@betagroup) upon arrival. Seems like this is THE local event, there must’ve been something like 200 people in the room and apparently half the gang was missing because of some simultaneous event at Google. In addition, I was rather surprised to find such an international crowd – I think something like 1 or 2 of the 5 startups we saw were actual Belgians. Even better though is that everyone pitched their startup in English. Guess that naturally makes sense though, if you consider the hostility between the northern Flemish speakers and the southern French speakers.

Belgium, you look so cute in the morning.

But even though Belgium has a king, lots of beer and chocolate and is the home of the saxophone, let’s not forget its also an itty bitty market compared to France. We’re talking a country that’s the size of Paris that doesn’t even speak a common language. Or at least they don’t like to admit it. But English pitches aside, I also found that more entrepreneurs pitch their ideas as “the next European this or that” from the get-go. The Belgian market is too small so naturally they think beyond the +32. French entrepreneurs definitely think international as well. Yet, as a general rule of thumb, I find that French entrepreneurs tend to think France and then an English-speaking market, like the US. Some launch in several European markets but very few actually pitch as THE European je ne sais pas quoi. Well, other than Meetic.

Ladies first.

I was a bit disappointed nonetheless to see that there were even fewer women in the Belgian tech scene than in France.  There were something like 3 women in the room at Betagroup. Thankfully there was Getyoo‘s Marie du Chastel and Brussels Girl Geek Dinners‘ Clo Willaerts, amongst others.

Money in the bank.

The other thing that I thought was rather interesting was the funding scene. Belgium seemed a little void of funding possibilities compared to France, which sometimes seems like its kind of full to the brim with cash these days. Many Belgian entrepreneurs were self-funded or angel-backed – and looking to raise with foreign VCs, because there are hardly any Belgian VCs (other than Gimv) that fund over 1 million euro rounds.

(For any French speakers, this is an excerpt from a terrific Belgian movie, Dikkenek)

“Chaude comme une baraque à frites.”

Ok, so Belgian lingo is a little different from French lingo as well. One Belgian expression, “elle est chaude comme une baraque à frites”, even compares a hot girl to a hot fry stand. Cute and not sure how this would go down in France. Anyhow, even though this idea may sound a bit ridiculous, some of the startup ideas I came across were surpringly original and well-executed. I actually saw very few start-ups that relied on the social web – which I found unusual – and more that seemed to have rather classical e-commerce or standard business models in place.

“The Belgians are coming.”

Like the French, the Belgians also have their eye on the Silicon Valley. They’ve even teamed up with SF New Tech to put on an annual event called “the Belgians are coming”, which is essentially a presentation of Belgian start-ups in the Silicon Valley. I guess the nearest French equivalent would have to be the French Tech Tour, which is organized by UbiFrance and run by my dear friend Gaetan Gachet. But we’re talking about 2 very different events in terms of orientation and scale.

Ne me quitte pas ?

Ultimately, I found there to be certain aspects of the Belgian entrepreneurial scene that were extremeley positive. But it also solidified by pre-existing belief that French entrepreneurs do have it easier than other European markets – especially when it comes to market-size, funding and what not. Yet, some Belgians also leverage the French market to their advantage – like Jacques Brel, Cécile de France, René Magritte, etc. Sometimes, we forget they’re not French because they are as sensational in France as in Belgium. But hey, it’s not like French entrepreneurs don’t do this for French-speaking markets (Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, etc.). I mean, there may be slight differences but it’s all one language after all.

Name a famous Belgian.

I met quite a few interesting companies – all on Twitter and added to my Twitter list @roxannevarza/belgiantechstartups. There’ll surely be more to come and feel free to suggest names to add. Now, who can name a famous Belgian ?

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17 thoughts on “The Truth About French and Belgians

  1. As a side note: Actually, “chaude comme une baraque à frites” is used in France too.
    Last time I heard it used was actually one hour after your Q&A session at the Founder Institute event last week 🙂 .

    Though I guess it’s probably indeed much less used than in Belgium.

  2. Pitching in English has nothing to do with the so-called hate which is portrayed by some press, it’s a practical thing. On many occasions we’ve tried the “everyone speaks his own language”-principle. Turned out that many don’t even understand the other language! When you add all the foreigners living in Brussels (not even 50% has either french or dutch as mother tongue here!), speaking english is the right thing to do.
    It’s surprising to see how important the language part seems to be in an article that basically should be about tech startups.

    • Exactly, it’s a practical thing. The ‘hate’ is mostly a high-level political or low-level gutter phenomenon, emphasised by sometimes sensationalist journalists.
      English is the lingua franca of business in Belgium. Which it is definitely not in France 🙂

  3. As a Dutch-speaking Belgian, I think you got it mostly right. Your view is probably a bit skewed since you only got in touch with francophones (and ‘internationals’?) so you completely ignore the Belgian-Dutch rivalry which also exists and is also a lot like the US-Canada thing.
    Belgium is one of the original founding members of the EU (the Benelux is in a sense a precursor) so we are naturally Eurocentric (Brussels is our capital after all). The lack of any significant national pride is an advantage in that sense. One which I hope we won’t lose by playing silly provincialist political games.
    I think that any tech startup claiming to target only the Belgian market would be viewed as lacking in ambition. And, in effect, there are two markets in Belgium for a great many things: Flanders, and Wallonia. Oh yes, and Brussels. Makes it a great testbed for new products, though. If something catches on in Belgium, it’ll probably catch on elsewhere in the EU.

  4. Dear Roxanne,

    Love your article.

    Alas, I think we must say that Belgium is just a label, as we are either Vlaming (Flemish) or Walon (Walloon). The place you were was Brussels, a true melting pot of it all plus Europe plus world plus European Union plus Nato …. No wonder you hardly met any “Old Belgians”.

    We “Belgians” do not have a true VC culture apart from the concept of using your own and family’s money and some angels. In Belgium you only ask money to the bank when you can give proof you don’t need it. It is much easier for a young couple with a simple job to get a loan for a house than for a businessperson to find funds for his company. This is the bank-culture. This complicates business development. On top, we are heavily taxed on all our activities, … not a good mix. Staff is unaffordable : try to find a secretary you can afford … she costs her weight in gold. This is not the start-up place resembling Silicon Valley. Starting a company is a nightmare these days.

    If you travel deep into the flat land, where there speak Flemish …. you can find many companies, subcontractors in high tech like biochemistry, or very specialized ones. No huge names, just silently doing business well. Jansen Pharmaceutics (Now J&J), Bekaert, Picanol, … Maybe we are not so much into social networking, we might be more product-people. We manufacture, as we did for so many centuries. Call that old-fashioned if you want. In general we don’t know how to sing our national hymn, we care less about the flag even, so we sell easily our companies to foreigners like Cote d’Or Chocolate (is now Kraft), …. This is evident for us, since we are not chauvinistic at all. That makes a huge difference when you do business. Compare with our nearest neighbors : Heineken is the best beer in the world and Renault by far the best car – as we all know :-).

    When are you coming back ? We can show you with pleasure what was hidden.

  5. Wow, thanks for all this wonderful feedback !

    Yes, I would’ve loved to meet more Flemish companies but I didn’t have the opportunity to this time around ! I hope I’ll have the opportunity to very soon.

    I also emphasize language in this article as I’m saving the juicy tech details for TCFR, naturally. 🙂 And PLEASE don’t get me wrong – I didn’t mean to let on that English was used simply because of the conflict – but rather that it was a positive by product of the cultural differences within the population.

    Oh, and one thing I left out – Belgian Humor. Absolutely adored the light heartedness of all the Belgian Entrepreneurs. The mere fact that an event organized by Belgians can call itself “the Belgians are coming” is just terrific, in my humble opinion. 🙂

  6. Dear Roxanne, chère Roxanne,

    French and Belgians are at least cousins. The former French generation may have joke about our neighbours but it seems to me that it is over.

    From Brel to Hergé or large groups managers, Belgians are in many cases sources of inspiration/reading/dreaming for the French people.

    Lot of fun and news in your new HQ.

    All the best,

    JD
    PS : Je confirme que “chaude comme une baraque à frites” se dit aussi parfois à Paris. jusqu’à un certain âge 😉 JD

  7. Oui apparemment vous connaissez tous nos bonnes vieilles expressions outre atlantique même celles comme “chaude comme une baraque à frites” LOL. Très bon article en tout cas

  8. Pingback: From TechCrunch France to Infinity…and Beyond! « TechBaguette

  9. I honestly do not understand what you are talking about when you say that Belgium is the size of Paris. Even if you are joking, Belgium is not so small as far as European countries go and our history is very illustrious. We do in a sense have a common language but we have several older languages so we get off our asses and we go to school and learn to speak Flemish and English or French and English depending. German is not included and Germans in Belgium almost always speak either Flemish or French. I am 26 years old in the French speaking south and I speak unaccented Flemish ( both dialects) I speak English perfectly and I also speak the strange French dialect of Luxembourg. We are not pushy sales people and we do not turn our noses up at Brits or Americans. If anything, we avoid dealing with the French. I did not like this article — it was annoying to me.

    • Thanks very much for your honest feedback.

      I naturally was exaggerating about the size of the country, but I think it’s actually an advantage to be smaller. For example, countries like Denmark with only 5 million people – their startups are thinking internationally much earlier than in countries where the local market is larger.

      Belgium is linguistically divided so it’s sometimes 1 market, sometimes 3 or even 4…I think it’s really fascinating. Even if you happen to speak all 3 languages (and I worked for the Belgian government in a former life so I know that there are 3 official languages), companies want to appeal to the larger audience – so they cannot always afford to “speak” all languages. That is what I was getting at.

      And I by no means meant to belittle the country’s history or achievements, I absolutely love Belgium – and I tell every Belgian this every time I meet someone from there and make fun of the French who forget that Magritte and Brel and some of their favorite “French” stars are actually Belgians.

      • Hey, as a Belgian I found your article incredibly interresting and well thought. I never felt like your were trying to demean us in any way, so I’m not sure what that “Kaylin-Vicente” is talking about :3

        Cheers

  10. “chaude comme une baraque à frites”… par analogie on dira aussi “chaud boulette”, mais pour des sujets nettement moins triviaux que l’évaluation de la plastique d’une jolie fille.

    Excellent article, ce fut un plaisir de le lire ^^

  11. Thank you for this great article, Roxanne!
    I truly enjoyed reading it!

    One important thing though: Flemish is not a language. Just like American or Australian aren’t languages, nor Austrian or Mexican. The official languages in Belgium are Dutch (7.5 million speakers), French (3.5 million people) and (perhaps not known to everyone) German (a very small minority of 75,000 people in the so-called East Cantons that got annexed from Germany after World War I). And the official language in Flanders (‘Vlaanderen’) is, of course, exclusively, Dutch (‘Nederlands’). Flemish is the adjective relating to Flanders, its people, and its culture. For instance, I am Flemish (from the city of Antwerp) and I speak Dutch.

    To make it more interesting: the capital of Belgium is Brussels, the capital of Flanders is Brussels, yet the capital of Wallonia is… not Brussels but the much smaller town of Namur (‘Namen’ in Dutch), because Brussels always has been and still is a Flemish city, despite the ‘Francization of Brussels’. It lies completely within Flemish territory (albeit as an enclave with its own ‘statehood’ within the Belgian federation) and it even was the largest city in the former United Kingdom of the Netherlands when the ‘northern’ Netherlands and ‘southern’ Netherlands (i.e. Belgium) were one country (until the separation in 1830, which a growing number of Flemish people regret, in hindsight)

    Flemish can only, in most cases, refer to a distinct pronounciatian or accent variation(s) of standard Dutch, and is in some cases even being considered a ‘dialect’ or rather, a multitude of ‘dialects’, although experts are still undecided on this issue. Just like American English or Austrian German, Belgian Dutch has a little, distinct vocabulary of its own, sometimes bordering on slang.

    The ‘Nederlandse Taalunie’ (the Dutch Language Union) is a public organization managed by the Dutch and Flemish ministers for culture and education. It is responsible for both standardizing the Dutch language in The Netherlands, Flanders, and the former Dutch colony Suriname and the six Dutch Carribean islands that are part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. See: http://taalunie.org/dutch-language-union – Dutch and Flemish share the same ISO 639-2 and ISO 639-1 codes which officially denote them as one and the very same language: Dutch (‘Nederlands’). Therefore, Flemish is not a language.

    • Sorry did I say Flemish was a language somewhere ? I know it’s a dialect of Dutch. But this was written quite a while ago so maybe there are mistakes. Sorry about this !

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