I spent last week on a junket in Paris, paid for by the French government, visiting the various hubs and spokes of the burgeoning French startup scene. I don’t think they’ll invite me back, after they read this. My considered assessment is that the French government, and to an extent the larger French tech scene, lacks ambition, boldness, and confidence, and their technology strategy is doomed to failure.
Among our many meetings was one with Axelle Lemaire, Minister of Digital Affairs for the (spectacularly unpopular) current French administration. She, personally, impressed me greatly; but her ministry’s policies did not. Their stated aim was to foster tech startups in France in order to support France’s largest companies. The idea is that the startup ecosystem will act as a kind of farm team, the best of which will be incorporated into the big businesses, to transform them into the kind of digital disruptors that can compete with the big American Internet companies.
This is, to put it mildly, quixotic. It seems far more likely that big French companies will only slow and stifle whichever startups they partner, invest in, or acquire. This strategy stands in striking contrast to the Silicon Valley ethos that startups should devour and replace legacy dinosaurs, not prop them up. And it bespeaks a curious lack of ambition, as if the ultimate goal of any self-respecting tech startup is to become a division within LVMH or Total or Peugeot, rather than an Uber or Google or Tesla in their own right.
Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, the French government’s attitude was echoed by most of the French companies, and incubators, and hubs, and conference planners, and venture capitalists, with whom we met. The general attitude was that startups were minor-league players competing to be acquired by big-league multinationals. Almost nobody thought big enough to imagine startups so successful that they changed all the rules of the game.
Instead, almost everyone seemed to take it as a given that relationships and partnerships with big companies were, in and of themselves, extremely important and exciting. In fairness, the Valley makes a similar mistake when we celebrate funding rounds, rather than actual achievements — but still, can you imagine an early-stage AirBNB excitedly trumpeting a joint venture with Marriott, or a young Uber desperately seeking a partnership with Yellow Cab?
This French attempt to turn Paris into a startup hub is admirable, but treating a startup ecosystem as an end in and of itself smacks of cargo-cultism, even if your intent is to harvest them for big-company talent. World-beaters do not grow in a petri dish of low ambitions; with the wrong messages and incentives, you risk accidentally pushing your best people and companies towards excellence elsewhere, leaving stagnant mediocrity behind.
The good news is that, outside of the government, the French tech scene is decidedly in the middle of a sea change for the better. As a former Paris resident, I can assure you that the cultural attitude towards technology has been transformed. Ten years ago, tech was anything but cool. And we did encounter two extremely fast-growing French tech companies with admirably high and global ambitions, even if one of them — the long-distance ride-sharing platform BlaBlaCar — still claims, incomprehensibly, that the USA is not a good market for them. (The other is Sigfox, which I wrote about last week.)
Another beacon of francophone hope is Xavier Niel, the multibillionaire who last decade singlehandedly overturned the government-approved order of things in the French mobile-phone industry. Niel has since created and continued to fund the genuinely revolutionary engineering school 42, a branch of which will soon open in California, and is now constructing a vast complex in Paris to house 1,000 startups. Yes, you read that correctly. And yes, that too sounds a little cargo-cult. But it’s also an example of the expansive ambition that the French —and European — tech scene badly needs.