Afterthoughts on Lunch with the French President

Quick disclaimer: this is not a recap of who said what and that sort of thing. This is more about my overall thoughts post-lunch.

As many of you know, I had the incredible honor of being invited to a lunch with the French President earlier this week alongside some of France’s biggest names in tech. That’s right, little American me was invited to discuss the state of the French ecosystem. If you’re thinking “huh?”, don’t worry, I was too 🙂 I was sat around the table with the likes of Jacques-Antoine Granjon (Vente-privĂ©e), Marc Simoncini (Meetic), Marie Ekeland (Elaia Partners), Fleur Pellerin (Minister of Digital Economy) and other people I beyond admire. Oh, right, and then there was the French President himself.

Hollande

The usual suspects.

I admit, the topics discussed during the lunch were the essentials but also nothing out of the ordinary. We focused on the difficulties, challenges and the ways in which the government could help make France’s ecosystem more startup friendly. You know, like can we ease-up on the taxes, make better fiscal incentives for investors, get coding into the education system, and the likes. I supported more or less everything single thing that was said around the table, and it was nice to see the French President taking such an interest in better understanding the issues at hand. But none of it was new.

Shhhh…

Liste

Here is a list of some of the guests.

However, I found myself in a situation that I very rarely find myself in: quiet. I was naturally a little intimidated by the setting and the people around me – and it was one of the few times that I was very conscious of the fact that I was not French. But actually, I also was a little frustrated by the discussions. Even though I agreed with everything that was said, there was a message I wanted to articulate but couldn’t put into words. (Or maybe I could but I didn’t want to come off as the American kid telling the French government what to do.) And then, post-lunch, it hit me…

France needs to lead and set the example.

Now, let’s be realistic; I am perhaps one of the most optimist people when it comes to talking about France’s ecosystem (here is proof) – and I have always been this way. I have always been impressed by the local startups and entrepreneurs and to be honest, I’m not certain that things are necessarily more difficult here than they are elsewhere. That said, France’s ecosystem is by no means setting the example in any of the areas that make an environment startup-friendly. While it is amongst leading European countries in innovation, it is not the clear-cut leader in terms of fiscal incentives, investment, visas, or whathaveyou. And this is why it consistently looks like France is trying to catch-up to neighboring countries (a bit like the situation with Paris Capitale NumĂ©rique). Why can’t France – just for once – introduce an incentive (whether it be visas, investment, legal, whatever) that is clearly the most advantageous in Europe or in the world ?

Not attractive enough.

The country actually needs to send a very strong statement to both the local and international startup community to show that it is really looking to support its entrepreneurs. Simply listening and adhering to requests, in my book, is no longer enough. Loads of young, French entrepreneurs are already eyeing the US or other countries to set-up businesses. And unlike London and Berlin, there are not loads of foreigners flocking to set-up startups in Paris – even though many may like to. France needs to send a strong message in order to change that, and it needs to happen fast.

1000startups and counting.

France’s ecosystem is actually really lucky that it has people like Xavier Niel to launch initiatives like Kima Ventures, Ecole 42 and 1000startups. It keeps the entrepreneurs rather optimistic and confident about their ecosystem. But these bold initiatives are not enough to build a leading startup ecosystem on their own – they need to be accompanied by additional strong initiatives from the government. Otherwise, those 100 startups funded by Kima or those 1000 startup housed in the Halle Freyssenet are going to have the same struggles as before…and there will be no more people staying and no fewer people coming from abroad.

Visas: get ’em while they’re hot.

By now, a lot of you know my personal struggles with getting a visa to live in France – and despite my love for this country, there were times I was ready to call it quits because the procedure was so painful. But without going into my own story, I think that France could really benefit from actually striving to welcome foreigners for a change. In fact, for me, this is where they should start because they could very easily take the lead. The UK has done a fabulous job at marketing its “Entrepreneur visas” – although they are not as easy to get as one claims and I find it to be terribly heavy on PR  (remember the said “London Visa” ? What a joke…). France actually has an “entrepreneur visa” – except they gave it a ridiculously ambivalent name (“carte compĂ©tences et talents”) and it’s not really adapted to entrepreneurs (like the UK entrepreneur visa for seeking investment, that one was rather impressive). Or even the UK student-entrepreneur visa – do you have any idea how many people come to France to study and could potentially stay and contribute to the economy? The administration has announced an “entrepreneur visa” for 2014 that will speed up the process – but this is really the bare minimum they could do. I think developing several visas for different types of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in different situations may be more beneficial. In addition, enabling more qualified foreigners that want to work in startups to get visas more easily would also be a massive advantage to the local ecosystem, especially in building international businesses.

Investor haven.

One of the topics that doesn’t seem to get old is the limited funding for startups in this country. Which is quite ironic given that so many rich folks from around the world dream of living in France. I mean, if people like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt can live here, surely it shouldn’t be too hard to find other wealthy and famous individuals that want to as well. France has not focused enough on encouraging investment – and it’s going to become a huge problem. What if there were incentives in place that encouraged more wealthy foreigners to move here in order to invest? But I digress…

No really, France needs to lead by example.

I just thought I would say this one more time, because it’s my main point. In my honest opinion, the government should really try to push itself, go out on a limb and make a really big statement to encourage entrepreneurship – it could be visas, it could be tech education, it could be investment. But seriously, let’s take a risk and put all the debate about who is best to rest 🙂

You can check out the (French) video recap of our lunch and discussion on the Elysée website here.

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