A walk around Station F with Emmanuel Macron

On Thursday evening, the world’s biggest startup campus officially opened. Around 3,000 people are going to work in this huge building. TechCrunch walked around the building with the President of France Emmanuel Macron and other officials.

“We called this building Station F, like Station France, Station Femmes [ed. note: women in French], Station Founders or Station Freyssinet because Freyssinet was a great architect and a great entrepreneur,” French billionaire and Iliad founder Xavier Niel told Macron.

While Station F was originally built in the 1920s by Eugène Freyssinet, it was supposed to be destroyed in 2011. In 2013, Niel had a crazy idea. He thought he would acquire the building, renovate it from the ground up and turn it into a ginormous startup campus — 366,000ft2 or 34,000m2.

A few years later, the massive building is still there, but with thousands of desks, giant walls of glass, bright lights and Mediterranean trees. “It looked nothing like this. It was an abandoned train station with dark ceilings,” Niel said.

Starting on Monday, 1,100 startups are moving in. Many of them get selected by Station F’s partners. There will also be 20 VC firms with a small space there, a post office and a giant restaurant in a few months.

A focus on diversity and foreign talent

After this short introduction, Macron and Niel immediately started talking with some of the entrepreneurs who were there to visit the building with him, starting with Zenly’s co-founder. The Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, France’s digital minister Mounir Mahjoubi, Station F director Roxanne Varza and Brigitte Macron were also here.

Later on, Macron started speaking with an entrepreneur in English. The entrepreneur said that he came to France to start a company through the French Tech Ticket program. Macron mentions the recently launched French Tech Visa, a special visa for entrepreneurs, engineers and investors.

“We call each space like this a village,” Varza tells Macron. “There are around 60 desks per village. And they’ve been specifically designed to foster collaboration.”

Another entrepreneur then greeted Macron in English then started talking in perfect French. Macron asked him if he was French or a foreigner. “I arrived in France to study at [Niel’s coding school] 42. I was studying biology and I moved here after watching your video,” he said.

Niel then joked with Macron, saying that he’s heard there are a few former students from 42 who are now working with Macron at the Elysée.

Varza explained the newly launched Fighters Program. Under-represented founders will be able to get a free desk at Station F. “They will sit next to people in the Founders Program, we wanted to mix them together,” Varza said.

While Station F is already a $230 million investment (€200 million), Niel is also spending another $57 million (€50 million) on a residential building in Ivry-sur-Seine. 600 people will be able to live there. “It’s the same model as 42. We know that parents are not there to help them, we know that housing is an issue for them,” Niel said.

Somebody working for Station F then stopped the president and asked him to record a 10-second video. “We are here today in Paris in Station F. So if you want to invent, invest and develop your startup, you’ll have to come here,” Macron said. After shooting the video he handed back the phone and apologized because he ended up talking for 32 seconds:

The group then headed back to the stage so that Varza, Hidalgo and Macron could give a speech. 2,000 people were waiting to hear the speeches. Macron shook hands, took a few selfies and then went on stage.

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Xavier Niel lets others introduce Station F for him

The content of the speeches wasn’t as interesting as the way it was structured. Varza first took the stage and talked about Station F’s partners (Facebook, Zendesk, Vente-Privée, HEC, Microsoft…), people who helped the project in one way or another (Anne Hidalgo, Jean-Louis Missika, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, Station F’s team…). She also said that entrepreneurship should no longer be all white, all male — and Station F is going to contribute to that.

But when she thanked Xavier Niel, the audience went crazy and applauded for a few minutes. It felt like a concert with the audience waiting for the encore.

It’s clear that Niel has become the role model for a generation of young entrepreneurs. He got rich with a telecom company, started a coding school, started a seed fund with Kima Ventures, invested in some of the most famous Silicon Valley companies (Square, Nest, Snap, Airbnb, Uber…), acquired newspapers and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on buildings for startups.

And yet, Niel didn’t speak on stage.

The Mayor of Paris talked about what Station F means for Paris. “We wanted Paris to be something else than a museum city,” Hidalgo said.

And finally, Macron took the stage. He started by making a comparison between his own political career and the life of an entrepreneur, saying that people don’t necessarily believe in you, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.

“The thing that is bringing us together today is that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “Many people wanted to tell me what kind of life I should lead, and I decided something else. You don’t want someone else to lead your life for you.”

Macron then talked once again about inequalities, using the same narrative as the one in his speech during VivaTech. According to him, entrepreneurs need to be as inclusive as possible. It should help society as a whole. If the tech community divides the country, it would be a failure.

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Station F’s real start

Over the coming days, thousands of people are going to move in here at Station F. While it took years to get there, this is only the very beginning.

It’s hard to know for sure if Station F is going to drastically change the face of the tech ecosystem in Paris. But there’s one thing for sure, it’s a great communication move and it makes France more attractive than ever.

Eventually, Niel wants to create a foundation so that others can invest in Station F. He says that he doesn’t want to make any profit from this venture. But it sure is a great move to convince the startup community that he’s on their side.

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