NEW YORK — France is known worldwide for its wine, food and culture, but under its new president, the French are aiming to be the new global hub for tech startups. President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants to build a version of Silicon Valley in France. His administration has launched pro-business initiatives that are loosening government restrictions and encouraging entrepreneurs to launch their startups in the country. “The tradition has been in Europe and in France to invest in big, traditional companies and not specifically [in] tech startups. So we will dedicate a €10 billion fund to the investment in tech startups in France,” said Mounir Mahjoubi, France's Secretary of State for Digital Affairs. Both public and private investments will factor into Macron's vision of France as a “country of unicorns” — the term popularly used for tech startups valued at $1 billion or more, said Mahjoubi, who recently was in New York City for “La French Touch” conference, where he discussed France's strategy for attracting the tech world's best and brightest. In the French tech world, all eyes are on the privately financed Station F, which is set to open this summer in Paris. Billed as the world's biggest startup campus, the 34,000-square-meter space already has major tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Ubisoft signed on. The companies will develop their products, as well as host and mentor startup founders in incubator programs. One thousand individual startups are expected to set up shop at Station F.
Seeking global appeal
Silicon Valley has attracted tech talent from all over the world. Now France hopes to do the same for those beyond its borders. Initiatives like the “French Tech Ticket” and more recent “French Tech Visa” are designed to bring startup founders, employees and investors to the country through a combination of mentorships, grants and subsidized work spaces. The French Tech Visa fast-tracks a process for participants to obtain a renewable, four-year residence permit. Not to be left out are the locals in France's poorer, outer suburbs, the banlieue. The new administration is aiming for social diversity through inclusion initiatives that foster entrepreneurship, said Mahjoubi. “We decided to create hubs in the private area[s] of France,” said Mahjoubi. “There might be entrepreneurs over there that believe that it's not for them, because they couldn't afford to not having a salary for a year of entrepreneurship … we created the condition so they could receive money from the state, to have a salary during these 12 months [to] push their project to the highest level they can.”
Unemployment at 9.5 percent
The encouragement of entrepreneurship is a novel sentiment in a country where traditional attitudes and strict labor laws have long dominated work culture. With a national unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, venturing out on one's own to start a business can seem too risky. But with the success of French unicorns like ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar and network provider Sigfox, attitudes appear to be shifting; 68 percent of French people aged 18 to 25 aspire to run their own business one day, according to a 2015 Ernst & Young survey. “I think the ecosystem, the government, have done a very good job to do some marketing about entrepreneurship and I think it's very important because when we compare our situation to the U.S., in the U.S. there is a lot of storytelling, everyone is super enthusiast[ic] and it brings a momentum that is super beneficial,” said François Wyss, co-founder of French startup DataBerries.
Wyss and his co-founders recently secured $16 million in their first round of funding for his digital marketing startup. “There is a lot of funding now in France, so it's great. We have the chance to have world-class engineers, which are far cheaper than in the U.S. So a lot of companies are developing their core product and R&D in France before exporting it overseas,” said Wyss. “French tech is all about having roots in France and having a vision for the world,” said Mahjoubi. “The French tech startup scene is an international startup scene.”