Does France need a Startup Visa?

On June 9th, the Economist published an article on how the US government needs to issue more visas to foreign entrepreneurs. The article went on to cite a few examples of countries that are far more welcoming to foreign innovators, including the UK, Chile, Canada, New Zealand and Singapore. Naturally, the  US – a country known practically as a country of immigrants –  has many foreigners to thank for much of its success stories. But how about France?

Remember the Startup Visa?

Since 2009, numerous Silicon Valley and US-based entrepreneurs and investors stepped forward to promote the need for a Startup Visa, with more flexible terms for those who want to help create jobs in the US economy. While the US is yet to adopt the proposed bill, the advocacy around it has been very eye-opening. Just prior to the publication of the Economist article, Techcrunch published an article by AOL founder Steve Case on why the US needs to seriously urge Washington to pass the Startup Act 2.0. But perhaps nobody has been more dedicated to the cause than The Foundry Group’s Brad Feld. I’m yet to see such high-level entrepreneurs come together in a similar way in any other country to promote more flexible immigration terms for foreign job creators.

$100,000-$150,000 and 5 jobs created…

Foreigners in France.

Since 2007 (when I first began working for the Invest in France Agency in San Francisco), I have been regularly contacted by people around the world – from Australia to Canada – who want advice on moving to France and setting up a business. Unsurprisingly, the numbers have picked up in recent years. “What visa do you recommend for an entrepreneur?” or “how can I launch a startup in France?” are questions I get asked A LOT. People love the country and many of them – believe it or not – actually want to work there. But the one common fear that everyone has is the infamous visa.

Compétences et talents.

In theory, France does actually have an entrepreneur visa known as the  “carte compétences et talents” (CCT, literally translating to the “skills and talents card”), which was introduced in 2006. Essentially, this 3-year visa is meant for anyone with a viable project that is to benefit the country – and without a doubt entrepreneurs fall into this category. On paper, the card looks like the perfect startup visa. Anyone who obtains the card can essentially do whatever professional activity they like that is somehow related to their predefined and approved “professional project.” Family members of those who obtain the CCT can also apparently obtain a temporary visa as well. But despite the number of entrepreneurs and foreigners I know in France and who want to come to France – those who would be ideal for this type of scheme – I don’t know a single person who has obtained this visa. Ever.

“You need money, we just won’t tell you how much.”

Unlike other countries, no minimum investment is required for an entrepreneurial project other than “sufficient financial resources” (wtf does this mean?). Officially, this amounts to annual minimum wage or €13,200/year – though in practice, I’m sure it’s actually very different. The UK’s entrepreneur visa requires the entrepreneur to invest £200,000 – though exceptions are made for entrepreneurs with £50,000 in funding from a reputable organization. If France wants to be able to compete to attract foreign entrepreneurs, it will most likely have to lower the threshold – given that the non-English speaking country isn’t necessarily the first on every entrepreneur’s list.

UK leading the way?

Seedcamp’s Reshma Sohoni: “The UK has beaten the US”

In Europe, other countries have similar requirements to that of the UK. For example, Germany’s minimum investment amount is apparently €500,000 with a minimum of 5 jobs created. In Ireland, the minimum amount drops to €300,000 and the company only needs to employ 2 people within the entire EEA (EU countries plus Norway, Switzerland, etc.). But if I were a tiny company with limited resources, I’d probably still opt for the UK if I had so-called “reputable investors.”

“Create 50 jobs and we’ll let you in.”

Lucie Brocard, who is a lawyer working with foreigners in France, confirmed that the carte compétences et talents is the main visa for entrepreneurs but that there are other options. One option is more or less similar to the CCT but valid for a shorter duration and the other option requires a €10 million investment or creation of 50 jobs in France. Sadly, this option is not for your average startup and is way out of sync with the UK’s requirement of £5 million over a 3-year period or the creation of 10 jobs (1/5th of what France requires). PS: Unless you’ve got a nice sum of money saved up in the bank, bootstrapping is clearly not an option.

Over 3 years, only 551 visas accorded.

The fact that I don’t know a single person with a CCT doesn’t mean that they aren’t being given out. Still, it got me curious as to what the exact figures were. Figures are currently only available for 2007-2009. In 2007, the first year the CCT was available, only 5 were accorded to foreign entrepreneurs. In 2008, the number increased almost 37 times to 182 visas. And in 2009, 364 visas were given out. This amounts to a whopping 551 visas over a 3 year period, which quite frankly, is a little sad given that it covers all sectors of innovation.

The best innovation is global.

Look at some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. Sun Microsystem’s Vinod Khosla, Paypal’s Max Levchin, Google’s Sergey Brin or even Ebay’s Pierre Omidyar all came from abroad. Given that Europe also struggles with a highly fragmented market, only good can come from allowing foreign entrepreneurs easier routes to innovation. France may not have a particularly good track record of treating its qualified foreign-born population with care – but we are starting to see changes with the new government.

Now, is it just me or is it about time France got a proper startup visa?

Thank you to Lucie Brocard for her help in making sense of France’s visa maze.

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