PARIS, France – I’m just back from the Le Web 2014 conference, which remains one of the country’s biggest international tech gatherings. During the week, I got to see and hear a lot about the French tech scene, good and bad.
Overall, it’s clear that the startup scene in France is gaining momentum. But the country still faces some major challenges.
Here are five things I think make the case that startups in France face some serious hurdles. (But you should also read “5 ways France is totally killing it with the whole startup thing.”)
1. French bashing: It seems like much of the world has gotten over the stereotypes of the French being lazy, or its government being too heavy-handed, or it being a place that’s terrible for entrepreneurs.
Well, just about everyone except the French.
In his talk at LeWeb, economic minister Emmanuel Macron said the French need to celebrate successes and stop being their own worst critics. Too often, he said, it’s the French who promote negative views of France.
“We have to speak more highly about the successes,” he said. “I want to stop with the French bashing.”
2. Expats: While France has some notable and fast-growing startup successes, the impression remains among many that the first thing they must do if they want to succeed in tech is to leave France. When I visited “42,” the free programming school in Paris, many of the students I met said they were focused on finding jobs in Silicon Valley.
And in an interesting bit of timing, Lending Club, which was founded by a French entrepreneur in the U.S., held its IPO last week during LeWeb. This was the source of some pride, but it also provoked a debate about whether such success was possible in France for French entrepreneurs.
3. No exits: Speaking of IPOs, the biggest lament heard around the conference was the lack of M&A activity and companies going public. France has several well-known unicorns, including Deezer, Dailymotion, Parrot, and Pretty Simple. Macron was asked about the French government’s decision to block a sale of Dailymotion to Yahoo, and he used the opportunity to also talk about the need for more exits so that venture capitalists would get returns and continue to escalate their investments.
4. Mixed messages: Macron and digital minister Axelle Lemaire are trying hard to make bold statements about the French government’s support for startups. But at times, that messaging gets a bit muddled.
Early last week, Lemaire was quoted by the French media as saying the country has nothing to learn from Silicon Valley. At LeWeb, she tried to clarify those remarks. Even so, it seems many in the Paris startup scene only heard the original remarks, which left even her fans shaking their heads.
5. Culture: The impression remains, fair or not, that the French are afraid of risk, that they are afraid to think ambitiously, and they are afraid to be driven to make large amounts of money. And more than that, it’s taboo in many ways to even discuss such things.
To that end, one audience member goaded Macron into saying out loud a phrase he hoped would lift the taboo: “I’d like you say, ‘Frenchmen, get rich!’ That’s a revolution.” After a short hesitation and a smile, Macron replied: “Frenchmen, succeed and get rich!”