France’s next president will inherit a country deeply unhappy with the state of its public and economic affairs. But amid that angst there has been a major bright spot in recent years: the emergence of a surging tech and startup economy.
The French go to the polls on Sunday in the first round of voting for their next president. The two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to a second round of voting on May 7.
The winner next month will have to decide the fate of “La French Tech,” a program started more than three years ago by the current Socialist Party government to encourage development of the tech sector. That program includes a wide range of political and economic support designed to boost entrepreneurship and attract investors.
One can debate how much credit the program actually deserves, and whether France’s tech ecosystem can stand on its own. But it’s clear that France’s tech economy is enjoying tremendous momentum at the moment.
That got me wondering where the candidates stand on the question of tech.
With just days to go, the polls are tightening. There are five major candidates, and four of them have a realistic chance of getting enough votes to advance to Round 2. According to the latest compilations of polls, centrist Emmanuel Macron has 23 percent, just a hair above right-wing contender Marine Le Pen.
Just behind them, tied at 20 percent, are conservative candidate François Fillon and insurgent far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who has seen a late surge of popularity. Far back is Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon, at 8 percent.
Here’s a look at what these five have said in their platforms about technology policy:
It would be fair to say that Macron is the most popular candidate among France’s startup set. He served as Economic Minister for two years under the current Socialist government and was an outspoken proponent of entrepreneurship and the need to embrace the ongoing waves of technological disruption, rather than falling back on protectionism.
After quitting the government last year, Macron created his own independent movement, “En Marche!” using Obama-style organizing and digital strategies. His belief is that there is a new center in French politics, located between the traditional left-right divide of the Socialist and Republican parties.
He is also the most pro-European, pro-EU major candidate. On the other hand, his support for labor reforms has made him deeply unpopular with France’s unions.
“I want to recreate an economic and social mobility through research and innovation, work and entrepreneurship,” he writes. “The digital revolution changes our ways of producing, consuming, and living together.”
- Spending $52 billion on job training, environmental programs, and digitizing the paper-based French government.
- Reforming work and social benefit laws to make it easier for the French to register as independent workers and entrepreneurs.
- Extending unemployment benefits to entrepreneurs.
- Simplifying government services and making them available online to accelerate the country’s notoriously slow bureaucracy.
- Creating a digital database for groups charged with approving new businesses, such as a hotel or chauffeur’s license, to make the process faster and more transparent, hopefully making it easier for French startups to compete against foreign tech companies.
- Continuing to push for a unified digital market across Europe and to contribute to a European-wide risk capital fund.
- Pushing expansion of high-speed fiber and wireless networks.
- In general, continuing to promote entrepreneurship as a critical cultural and economic force for reshaping France.
Marine Le Pen
Yes, she’s the voice of France’s intolerant, anti-immigrant, far-right National Front Party. But it’s also worth noting that part of her appeal is that she is an economic populist, one who wants to pull France out of the EU and off of the euro. Like Trump, she strikes a chord with some working class voters through promises to focus more on those who have been left behind by economic disruption. Current polls have her facing Macron in Round 2, and — given his unpopularity with unions — it could be a closer contest than many expect.
In terms of her tech platform, she promises to:
- “Support French companies in the face of unfair international competition” through “intelligent protectionism.”
- Reduce administrative and fiscal burdens for small businesses.
- Create a Research Tax Credit for SMEs and startups, and tax incentives for venture capital and startups, and for large companies to create their own venture funds.
- Prohibit the importation and sale of products from abroad that do not comply with regulatory standards imposed on French producers.
- At the same time, support “Made in France” with mandatory, clear labels indicating the origin of products and commodities marketed in France.
- Guarantee freedom of expression and digital freedoms through their inclusion in fundamental freedoms protected by the Constitution, while strengthening the fight against “cyber-jihadism and pedophilia” online. At the same time, simplify grievance procedures for victims of defamation or insult.
- Create a charter of constitutional values that will include the protection of French personal data, with an obligation to store this data on servers located in France.
- Establish an additional tax on the hiring of foreign employees in order to effectively ensure national priority for employment of the French.
- Ensure the protection of strategic and promising sectors by controlling foreign investments that damage national interests, through an Economic Security Authority. Create a sovereign fund with the dual mission of protecting companies from “vulture funds” or “hostile takeover bids” and taking ownership interests in promising sectors.
- Create a government minister dedicated to economic change under the Ministry of Finance in order to anticipate changes in the forms of work related to new technologies (“Uberization, robotization, sharing economics, etc.”). In cooperation with the sectors concerned, establish new regulations to preserve fair competition.
- Encourage innovation in France by preventing local companies from being sold to a foreign company for a period of 10 years, in the event of a public subsidy. Promote strategic areas of research and innovation by increasing the tax deductibility of donations. Increase the public research budget by 30% (to 1% of GDP).
- Reduce administrative and fiscal complexity of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with a “dedicated one–stop-shop” for such companies.
- Offer greater access to social benefits for the self-employed.
- Support French startups to modernize the health system.
- Support investment in infrastructure, particularly in rural areas for expansion of high-speed internet and wireless coverage.
Fillon is a conservative former prime minister and was the surprise winner of the Republican primary, beating out a more moderate favorite. Conventional wisdom initially held that Fillon and Le Pen were the two most likely candidates to reach the second round, giving the French a choice between far-right and further-right candidates. But then Fillon became embroiled in a scandal involving his British wife, Penelope, in which he was accused of giving her and other family members phony public jobs where they did no work. “Penelopegate” sunk him in the polls for a time, though he has rebounded as of late.
Fillon has made a show of wanting to be a new French Tech champion. He traveled to CES in Las Vegas earlier this year and declared that he wanted to make France a “smart nation” by investing in and supporting greater connectivity and entrepreneurship. He has called himself a “geek” and notes that he likes to fix computers.
“I want to modernize our country,” he writes. “Digital, it’s not just one sector of the economy among others, or a few futuristic startups in a garage. It is a veritable industrial revolution that is taking place before our eyes and confronts us with major challenges for our culture, our values, our economy, and even our sovereignty. But also to immense opportunities! We need to have a real digital policy. I want all French people to benefit from this revolution.”
His tech platform:
- Accelerate the deployment of the Very High Fixed and Mobile Broadband by 2022 by refinancing the Very High Speed France Plan, reorganizing it, and initiating a “5G Plan.”
- Expand e-democracy and e-government services.
- Expand use of open data and APIs in national, regional, and local governments.
- Create more protections for private data.
- Invest and deploy telemedicine and e-health services to modernize the health care system. Embrace use of connected objects to allow for more health monitoring over distances and to make patient care more effective and efficient.
- Support, in partnership with Germany, the development of new European industries, such as autonomous cars and connected buildings.
- Start a program to identify and support projects that would make Europe a center of innovation in the field of artificial intelligence and blockchain.
- Increase cybersecurity requirements for businesses and governments.
- Increase digital training and education at all levels, including adding a “digital culture” program for middle school students, recruiting and training more digital teachers, and developing digital training programs for higher education.
- Reform tax laws across Europe to prevent tech giants from choosing locations that let them avoid taxes.
- Create new and expanded funding mechanisms for key technology sectors in France.
A former Socialist Party member who quit in 2008, Mélenchon has also created his own independent movement, dubbed “La France Insoumise” or “Unbowed France.” In recent weeks, he has moved from being a fringe candidate to being atop the polls, even attracting 70,000 people to a rally in Toulouse last weekend.
His most notable embrace of technology has been his use of holograms for campaigning:
He has also been gaining traction with some entrepreneurs. Here’s one example (in French). And his return to politics was helped last year by this speech, which became a bit of a meme in France:
- Initiate a dramatic reform of the European Union. If the fundamental structure can’t be re-renegotiated to be less favorable to pro-business interests, he’s willing to call for a referendum to take France out of the EU, though he makes it clear he believes in some kind of European-wide cooperation.
- Make massive public investments in environmental industries and technologies to revive France’s industrial economy.
- Raise the minimum wage and reduce the work week.
- Make massive public investment to accelerate deployment of high-speed internet.
- His series of “Made in France” proposals would seem to make it pretty difficult for many Silicon Valley companies (Uber, et al.) to do business in France without dramatically changing their work rules. He says any foreign company must give workers the right to unionize and must abide by other French work standards.
- He believes the economic obsession with lowering the cost of goods and services as the primary goal of progress ignores the larger economic and social impact of such a policy.
- He proposes that “a public service to support independent contractors and small businesses will be created, with priority being given to companies less than three years old. It will be composed of accompanying experts with different clusters of skills: law, management, human resources, taxation, eco-responsibility, innovation, etc. It will allow entrepreneurs to remove legal, commercial and administrative barriers to their projects and will be available free of charge to anyone wishing to create, take over or run a small business.”
Hamon is the candidate of the Socialist Party, but the affiliation does not seem to be doing him any favors. He was a member of Hollande’s progressive government after it was elected in 2012. But he left after Hollande decided to shift to a more centrist agenda. Hamon scored a surprise victory over Manuel Valls, who had been the Prime Minister under Hollande.
But it appears his push to be the progressive voice in this election has been overtaken by Mélenchon. And, as such, his support has been in the single digits. Still, he soldiers on, hoping that the larger number of undecideds will swing his way this weekend. And who knows, maybe his use of Snapchat will change things:
Anyhow, in Hamon’s tech plan, he says he will:
- “Ensure the appropriation of digital uses by all.”
- “Deploy a strategic investment program.” He adds that he will facilitate access to financing for small and medium-sized enterprises.
- Expand the French national bank’s ability to finance a business financing operation on its own.
- Reform tax credits for those investing in new businesses and research.
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