French Entrepreneurism is On the Rise

President Emmanuel Macron is making big efforts to increase startups.

While visiting France recently, I made a point of looking into entrepreneurism in that country. Although current attitudes toward it seem to range from skepticism to indifference, there are some interesting signs that the country is about to step up its game.

Outside of a few fields, France does not have a big history of international entrepreneurial success. The country is the world leader in fashion — think Coco Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, Louis Vuitton — and wine, and competes successfully in the banking world, going back to the days of the Rothschilds.  And Marcel Bich parlayed his global success in selling disposable Bic pens and lighters into mounting several America’s Cup challenges.

But these are not new names, nor new industries. With a few exceptions — such as Evan Spiege, co-founder of Snap and at one point the world’s youngest billionaire, or Isabel Maxwell of Magellan — there is limited French presence in the technology arena. Startups in France lag behind other European nations on a per-capita basis.

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The consensus is that the No. 1 culprit is the overall French culture of work.

“There is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit among the French,” observed business writer Scott Scheper, “mainly because the population depends largely on salaried jobs.”

With wages generally high, benefits much higher (universal health care, a minimum 35 paid days off per year, just for starters), and strong worker-protection laws, there is considerable motivation to stay in the job lane. Yes, they just raised the retirement age from 62 to 64 (and the unrest from this is ongoing, I can tell you from personal experience), but overall, it’s a pretty worker-friendly environment.

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Entrepreneurs, of course, get none of the above.

“I have things that need tending to every day,” noted independent farmer Robert Gordon. “For me, a day off is a day with no revenue.”

Even someone who is willing to work more hours and days still must contend with all those who are not, ranging from government offices to suppliers to customers. Plus, all the benefits that workers receive by law create high costs for business owners, potentially a debilitating problem for a startup.

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Which makes it ironic that “entrepreneur” is itself a French word. Current French President Emmanuel Macron is very pro-entrepreneur and is increasing government programs and funding to support more opportunities. In this context, the situation seems poised to improve considerably.

For example, Credit Agricole, the nation’s largest bank, has established an incubator hub called Le Village, offering a wide variety of training, services and workspace. Program participants are also connected with the bank’s large clients.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the rising French entrepreneurial wave is a massive new incubator facility in Paris called Station F. Created and funded by Xavier Niel, one of the richest people in France, it covers 366,000 square feet in three connected buildings. French media, in their typically restrained fashion, have named it “the best in the world” for startups.

The focus is very much on the tech sector. The majority of France’s tech firms have a presence there. They in turn provide potential entrepreneurs with everything from technology training to introductions to future tech and the attendant opportunities. A fabrication lab supports prototype development.

Station F’s flagship program is Launchpad, which brings an idea from concept to operating business in nine weeks. Along with all the startup aspects, the program includes direct connections to investors and even potential customers.

For French businesses ready for international expansion, Fernanda Arreola, a professor of entrepreneurship, pointed out that French is the national language in other countries, like Belgium and Switzerland, which are adjacent. “These are obvious opportunities, especially during a startup’s early months and years,” she suggested.

Clearly, key players in France see this as a time of entrepreneurial opportunity, and given our area’s centuries-old ties with that nation, perhaps that means opportunities for local businesses to find new partners and markets.


Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

 

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