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 also still faces some major challenges.
Here are five things I think make the case that startups in France are headed in the right direction. (But you should also read, “5 ways France is totally blowing the whole startup thing.”)
1. French government: It’s been difficult to know in recent years just how the country’s government feels about the whole startup thing. But at Le Web, the new-ish economic minister, Emmanuel Macron, tried to deliver an unmistakable message: France is all about the startups now.
“To be clear about the French momentum, we are accelerating,” he said. “They key question for us is how to accelerate, and how to help create new businesses. … My job is to be sure that in the coming years we create thousands of new businesses to replace the old ones. … My job is to protect people and allow them to be innovative and take risks.”
2. French government, Part Deux: The government also is trying to put its euros where its mouth is. To that end, early last week, the government announced it had created a $250 million fund to invest in startup accelerators across the country. The initiative is part of the government’s La FrenchTech initiative, which seeks to support nine startup ecosystems around the country.
3. The Big Mo: As this report from Index Ventures and Paris accelerator The Family notes, France had 86 companies in the most recent Deloitte Technology Fast 500 index of EMEA’s (Europe, Middle East, Africa) fastest growing companies. That’s more than any other country.
4. 42 school: During the week, I got to visit the “42” school in Paris which opened last year. We’ll have a longer story on this soon, but here are the basics: The school opened last year and is training 1,000 programmers each year. For free. There are no formal classes. Instead, students who are accepted are assigned projects and teach each other, with some guidance from staff. The center is open 24/7. It’s one of the most audacious experiments to address the skills gap and to provide opportunity for young people who want to get into tech.
5. Xavier Niel: He’s the founder of Iliad, the telecom company that has been disrupting France’s broadband and wireless industry through its Free mobile and Internet company.
That 42 school? Niel is paying the entire $70 million tab that it will cost to run it for 10 years. Oh, and he’s also the main backer of a project to renovate a former Paris railway building and turn it into the world’s largest startup incubator.
In short, Niel has done exactly what Macron said France needs more people to do: start a company, get fantastically wealthy, and then give back to the French tech scene in a big way.