The launch of a new European blockchain accelerator in Paris this week is one of many indicators of just how dramatically the climate for cryptocurrency technologies has changed in France over the past few months.
Chain Accelerator, which claims to be Europe’s biggest accelerator dedicated to blockchain startups, will be based in Station F, the mega startup campus that opened last summer. The accelerator aims to attract blockchain startups from around the world.
“At a time when the president and the government want to make Paris the capital of the ICOs, Chain Accelerator is positioning itself as a key player,” said cofounder Nicolas Cantu, in a statement. “By setting up a global and operational network in Paris, it brings together the best talent, extends the circle of contributors, and prepares for disruptions to help blockchain projects develop protocols in all sectors.”
Cantu isnt exaggerating when he says the government of President Emmanuel Macron wants to make Paris ground zero for the cryptocurrency revolution. What’s remarkable is that the government’s full-throated embrace of blockchain comes less than a year after Macron’s own economic minister, Bruno Le Maire, expressed deep skepticism about cryptocurrency and called on other major economic partners to consider strict regulations.
Fast-forward to this year, and Le Maire has been singing a radically different tune. In March, he penned an editorial for a French startup blog declaring he was all in on blockchain and cryptocurrency:
“A revolution is underway, of which Bitcoin was only the precursor. The blockchain will offer unprecedented opportunities for our startups.”
Le Maire announced that he had appointed a commission to come up with ways to build “an effective legal framework” to encourage initial coin (ICO) offerings and attract cryptocurrency entrepreneurs.
On May 15, Le Maire was quoted as expressing regret about his previous positions:
“I was a neophyte a year ago, but now I’m passionate. It took me a year. Let us show a lot of pedagogy with our fellow citizens to make France the first place of blockchain & crypto-active innovation in Europe.”
"J'etais néophyte il y a un an, mais à present, je me suis pris de passion. Mais cela m'a pris un an. Faisons preuve de bcp de pédagogie avec nos concitoyens pour faire de la France la première place d'innovation Blockchain/cryptos en UE" @BrunoLeMaire ce matin. Il se passe qch!
— Alex Stachtchenko (@StachAlex) May 15, 2018
So what changed?
Le Maire’s earlier attitude initiated a quiet campaign by the nation’s entrepreneurs and investors to persuade him to rethink his position. That tweet above is from Stachtchenko, president of La Chaintech, a French association for blockchain companies and entrepreneurs. Stachtchenko said in meetings with Le Maire that the economic minister was persuaded in part by the potential the technology held for helping French startups raise money, an issue that has improved by remains a stumbling block for later-stage startups in the country.
But more than that, advocates made the case that by sitting on the sidelines, France was going to miss an opportunity to shape a technology with potential to disrupt industries across the board.
“If tomorrow we imagine a world where people use those crypto assets and blockchain for everyday use, and we don’t have the right regulatory framework, it’s like missing the internet,” Stachtchenko said.
With a new, friendlier blockchain regulatory structure under consideration, the country’s cryptocurrency community and entrepreneurs are feeling more optimistic about their chances of driving the technology rather than being stuck in the caboose.
To that end, earlier this month La Chaintech and France Digitale, an association that represents tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, released a report analyzing the blockchain landscape, along with a set of 10 principles it hopes the French government will embrace as it develops regulations.
Those principles include a transparent regulatory process for initial coin offerings, programs to encourage adoption of blockchain technologies, no taxes for cryptocurrency exchanges, and recognition of the validity of blockchain IDs for transactions.
Nicolas Brien, managing director of France Digitale, said when he first heard the government adopt an anti-blockchain posture, he worried that officials didn’t understand the implications for sovereignty.
If blockchain gains widespread adoption, it could impact the ability of any country to collect taxes or enforce regulations. And if the companies or actors that become dominant in the blockchain world are setting the rules elsewhere, France may wind up feeling the same sense of powerlessness it does now under the influence wielded by U.S. tech giants.
“It will be what happened with the world wide web,” Brien said. “We thought it would be a neutral platform. But today we realize with the end of net neutrality and tech giants controlling the infrastructure, the internet is not neutral.”
Brien said he’s glad to see the government’s change of heart on blockchain. Now he’s hopeful that France can not only create a more encouraging environment at home, but also take the lead in creating a common framework across Europe. And he believes the time is right for more European cooperation before larger companies emerge and countries are tempted to protect their hometown favorites.
“We believe that France could be a showcase for the European Union,” Brien said. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it well. If we don’t have a good regulatory framework, once you have national champions emerge it will be harder to do. So let’s take this opportunity and build a true single market around this.”