Should France even want to be another Silicon Valley anyway?

If there’s one thing I have a low tolerance for, it’s France-bashing. Sadly, it seems to be a default sport for many journalists. Whenever they have nothing better to write about, a little critique of the oh-so-traditional French Republic will surely fill up the sapce. Take The Economist, for example. It’s a magazine that I actually still highly admire. But I remember reading this one article not too long ago about how London was just all the more attractive for the young, French population – because “France itself is hardly booming.” Uh, right.

Having second thoughts ?

(Some  anti French-bashing humor to lighten the mood)

But then, as if the magazine had suddenly woken up to reality, it decided to follow-up with an article on how startups are actually helping to jump-start reform in the economy. Yes, the media actualy finally picked up on what the article refers to as France’s “silent majority.” This is “the France that does not go on strike…” the France that casually gets ignored whenever the press discusses anything even mildly France-related.  And even better, the article even includes a nice little interview (in English with a twist) with Vente-Privée founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon to prove that yes, good ideas and determination can make big companies – even in France. Now, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but if the rather traditional Economist is going to change its view of France (even ever-so slighly), maybe it means something.

Still not your average piece of cake.

That being said, France is still not an entrepreneur’s heaven. It’s got its fair amount of administrative headaches and complications. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: US entrepreneurs have it easy. Sure, there are some that think that France will never be like Silicon Valley – but then there are some, like serial entrepreneur Gilles Babinet, that would argue that it is in fact possible.

More than on the right track.

Gilles published a fantastic article in Les Echos -just after the French Government awoke to the fact that Internet companies were responsible for over 700,000 jobs in France -where he made some bold suggestions on how France could help local entrepreneurs make the country an industry leader. Some of his suggestions include developing official university courses dedicated to the Internet industry and multiplying public and private partnerships between universities, research centers and small and large companies. Most of what he proposes actually isn’t foreign to France – it just isn’t as developed or valued as it should be. For example, 3 of France’s top entrepreneurs obviously recognized the need for university cirriculum dedicated to the Internet industry – which is why Xavier Niel, Marc Simoncini and Jacques-Antoine Granjon are launching the Ecole Européenne des Métiers de l’Internet. But in such a centralized State, some of these initiatives may need to be actively promoted by the local administration.

No longer dreaming about Silicon Valley.

But Gilles doesn’t just draw on inspiration from the US to make his suggestions – but from other international models as well (like the Ministry of International Trade and Industry in Japan). Silicon Valley, as incredible as it may be, is not necessarily what France should be trying to be. In fact, France – like all other European countries, currently including the UK – has already tried to make its own Silicon Valley (see the video below, in French).

Fortunately, the country seems to have now recognized that you cannot just cut and paste what works in California on the sunny French Riviera. Therefore, some initiatives – entirely unique to France – have been put into place and prompted innovation and investment in their own way. Some of these include the Crédit d’Impot Recherche, the Statut Jeune Entreprise Innovante – and maybe even the weath tax (ISF) credit for investing in a startup. It takes a little bit of trial and error but I can’t say that these initiatives haven’t had a positive impact in one way or another. But if there is one thing I don’t get, it’s why the Government likes to change some of these startup-oriented benefits on a rather regular basis.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Sure, the Silicon Valley does seem to provide a lot of inspiration for the tech world, whether it be product innovation or stories of rags to riches. France has definitely taken some of the models that have worked abroad and tried to adapt them to the local environment – it’s only natural. And slowly but surely, they seem to be tweeking them to fit the local environment.

Euhhhhh, it’s better when it’s (not only) French.

If there is one thing that the French often take a lot of heat for, it’s being “too” French. I remember in the US, many entrepreneurs used to tell me “but isn’t France is only for French people?” As a foreigner who has known many foreigners in France, the answer is simple: no. There are some hot-shot US entrepreneurs that have left the States to launch projects in France. I also know of some very successful local entrepreneurs and investors that are not of French origin (Spanish, Moroccan, etc.). France may seem somewhat less cosmopolitan than London, but the integration model is also very different and mirrors that of other continental European countries. The entrepreneurial crowd is unique and recognizes the value of being more internationally oriented.

I’ll leave you with a quick word on a new initiative I recently got involved with – because I think it’s a nice way to show how the local tech scene is coming out of its shell. It’s called Le Bridge and it’s an organization that aims to help connect the various European entrepreneurial scenes through events (in English!) and whatnot. For now, it’s primarily targeted towards bridging Paris and London but additional European cities will likely follow. And I wouldn’t be surpirsed if an interconnected European startup scene doesn’t catch the eye of our friends in Northern California…

PS/ Yes, Axelle’s article is what prompted me to write this – but I think deep down inside she was trying to communicate a similar message 🙂

8 thoughts on “Should France even want to be another Silicon Valley anyway?

  1. Roxanne,

    I really enjoyed this article. I came across your conversation on Twitter after I saw your reaction to Axelles’ post.
    Which led me here. Just before I read this one I also read your post on the French education system and how students can never get an A. Which creates all sorts of problems for some smart kids I know here who are trying to get into american universities, but that’s a different story.

    I really liked the fact you nuanced the whole debate and stopped the “hey they suck they are French’ rampage.

    I work with entrepreneurs, startups. Some are French, some are American, so I see both sides of the coin.
    I have lived abroad all my professional life and although I now live in Avignon I can say I have a pretty good idea of what it means to run a business in N.America and in France.

    There is one simple rule: it just isn’t easy. Anywhere.

    If there was an easy country to have a startup, we would know about it. I believe countries produce what they need. Europe isn’t the US and why should they try to emulate it.

    Your example of Sophia Antipolis is spot on. It is important to look at the local business culture and again exporting foreign models don’t work. Period.

    Thanks for the link to the Bridge.

  2. Roxanne,

    Thank you for the article, it’s always interesting to get your take on the French entrepreneurial scene.

    The situation in France as I see it : there are speed bumps along the way at EVERY stage, and those speed bumps are very often created by people who just do not want to get out of their way to channel innovation, or to do it efficiently. And this tendency that I have personnally witnessed (maybe I was unlucky ?) is often backed-up by an administration that has other plans for their funds…

    Anyway, I think the main problem resides in the educational system, and in the fact that nothing is done to push students towards innovation. You wrote an article about this, and the fact that failure is not permitted in France : I am sure this could be changed in our schools and universities, the problem is I don’t see it coming.


    Thank you for your educated feedback.

    You say that it is hard everywhere to start a company. I completely agree with this, but I am sure that there are ways to simplify the life of the entrepreneurs. The concentration of facilities, services, talents, funding and whatnot that can be found in the valley is certainly a huge facilitator in the early stages of a start-up. True, competition is very tough but doesn’t a great idea carried by a talented team have more chances of becoming real in SF than in Paris ?
    I believe this is the idea we have to get out of the head of French entrepreneurs, but it’s not so easy !

  3. When I think I suspected you of French-bashing once, Roxanne… 😉 Kudos for the great post and my apologies for having misread one of your earlier posts.

    To my defense it’s a subject where it’s easy to be misread. It happened to you; it happened to Cedric and I think it happened to Axelle today as you pointed out in your PS.

    We all agree France is not that bad for entrepreneurs and at the same time we all feel more can be done. And pressing for action sometimes feel like undeserved criticism to those of us working silently but with passion to make things change.

  4. Great article,

    Though I guess we can write one for Spain / Italy / Ireland / Germany / etc… Each country has great potential, and is migrating to the new economy… None will match the US for the entrepreneurial spirit, it’s historical / political …

    We can all move as long as we have fun … 🙂
    (start in France go to the US or reverse…)

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  6. I echo the thanks above, and add a thanks for the echos article… 🙂

    “Il est temps de faire de l’Internet une grande priorité nationale.” Gilles’s is point-on, and sounds very présidentiel, if I may so. I didn’t know the ministère de l’internet was also taking care of nucléaire as well… talk about a challenging job! And to top it off… a google tax! Oh, it’s an exciting ride these days.

    Specifically, I’d be interested to see if you or one of the chèrs readers might have heard of a more complete comparison of how the SBA and other American entrepreneurial laws/tax cuts/subsidies compare to French ones such as the Crédit d’Impot Recherche, the Statut Jeune Entreprise Innovante etc.

    Definitely looking forward to learning a new recipe this friday!

    Cheers, brad

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