France’s Greatest Strength Might Just Be Leaving France

“The attraction of the American revolution transported me suddenly to my place. I felt myself tranquil only when sailing between the continent whose powers I had braved.”
—Lafayette, Letter to the Bailli de Ploën.

France has been shaped by its own history. One of the most overlooked aspects of the French history is how important Lafayette was. He rallied the French army to fight alongside the American people during the American Revolution, drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and inspired the French revolution.

Today, French entrepreneurs are moving abroad much more easily. All they have to do is board a plane, be lucky enough to obtain a visa and leave much of their lives behind them. Yet, they are making a sacrifice, and many people tend to forget that — it’s hard to get out of your comfort zone.

Following Liz Alderman’s article in the New York Times, a debate has been going strong — why do French entrepreneurs leave France?

Many people answered this question. Some said French people should stop bashing their own country. Others said French people should stop obsessing about entrepreneurs leaving France.

I believe there is a much deeper cultural explanation. The Silicon Valley-shaped definition of entrepreneur is incompatible with France’s entrenched value of universalism.

When it comes to the tech world, this newfound mobility is France’s greatest strength. Entrepreneurs leave because it’s smart for them. And we should celebrate these courageous entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs Leave To Become Great Entrepreneurs

When you hear about French entrepreneurs doing great things in San Francisco, New York or London, the natural reaction is to wonder why they didn’t do these great things in France. But it’s a chicken and egg problem. These entrepreneurs are doing great things because they left.

It wouldn’t have been possible for them to build the same startups in France, because timing wasn’t right, investors looked the other way, or early adopters were elsewhere.

I’ve spoken with many French entrepreneurs who are now based in the U.S. They all have different reasons for leaving, but these reasons are valid.

Ilan Abehassera stayed in New York to start Producteev, because he felt New York was a better environment at the time — in 2008, French VCs were still recovering from the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Mindie moved to San Francisco because they couldn’t find investors in France. Algolia moved to San Francisco because they were accepted into Y Combinator. Curioos founder Matt Valoatto moved to New York because it is “the epicenter of digital art”. Pierre Valade and Jeremy Le Van started Sunrise in New York because they were already living there, working for Foursquare.

There are countless other examples. All these people have one thing in common, they didn’t leave because they felt like leaving. They left because it made sense for their companies. Can you blame them?

At the same time, when talking with them, they don’t blame France for anything. They grew up in France, learned in French schools and still sound annoyingly French. They can feel this special connection with France when they meet in the U.S., Berlin or London.

In most cases, They wouldn’t have become great entrepreneurs in France. Different ecosystems are looking for different startups. Investors, early adopters and talent pools can help these French entrepreneurs. They shouldn’t pass on this opportunity.

France’s Soft Power

French entrepreneurs, engineers and designers now come and go from France all the time. It greatly contributes to establishing a new sort of soft power. High-skilled French workers learn many things by working with talented entrepreneurs and engineers in the U.S. Sometimes they come back and raise the bar in development, design or growth hacking.

By forcing yourself to adapt to a brand new way of thinking and working, you learn much more rapidly. In the end, when these people come back, they contribute to the French economy.

But what if they don’t come back? They are defending our values abroad. A French engineer is different from an American one, because the school systems are different and they don’t have the same background.

It’s a great asset for American companies. That’s why you will find many French engineers in Silicon Valley’s most successful companies. In a report for French minister Fleur Pellerin, Tariq Krim highlighted 100 developers who were key in many tech achievements.

These engineers work at Google, Apple, Pixar and Box. These engineers shaped Debian, Open Stack and VLC. These engineers founded Docker, Criteo, Dailymotion and Eventbrite.

Recently, Partech Ventures associate Corentin Kerisit told me that you can find a great French engineer in every tech company in the U.S. (including TechCrunch with Nicolas Vincent). He’s involved in While42, a very efficient French tech engineers alumni network founded by Julien Barbier. In San Francisco, they meet regularly and often hire each other for different projects.

Once again, this is one of France’s key strengths. The reputation of French engineers is impeccable. People are working hard to make the tech ecosystems in New York or San Francisco as welcoming as possible toward French entrepreneurs, engineers and designers.

France’s Greatest Strength

In fact, many great tech successes are in some way linked to France. For example, Jean-Marie Hullot started working for Apple in 2001. He is the one who convinced Steve Jobs to work on a phone. Apple built a secret team in Paris to build prototypes of new Apple devices. In 2005, when Apple decided to bring back the iPhone team back to Palo Alto, he decided to quit and stayed in France.

Finally, I personally am very passionate about these issues because I left France to come and work for TechCrunch in New York. I wanted to be as close as possible to one of the teams in New York or San Francisco. I needed to learn what blogging meant. My writing would be much worse if I didn’t make the move. I recently moved back to France and am trying to contribute to the French tech ecosystem as much as I can.

When you are lucky enough to have the chance to easily move from one country to another, you should jump on the opportunity. You will learn a lot. French people in all the major tech cities will welcome you. And you can always come back to France.

Of course there are some drawbacks, including leaving a comfortable life in France. So it’s not an easy choice. But seeing that more French people are making the leap is a great sign. It’s a refreshing hands-on, pragmatic approach. Lafayette was a forerunner, and we’re now all following in his footsteps. And in fact, being flexible enough to move abroad is becoming France’s greatest strength in tech.

Image credit: Lafayette and Washington at Mt. Vernon (Louis Rémy Mignot, 1784)