Are the famously socialist French now embracing an entrepreneurial future?

The French president campaigned on reforming the French economy: a task that the public has long resisted. But this time, the country seems to be on board, with some even enthusiastic, to embrace the start-up spirit

Bertrand Guay/Reuters
France's President Emmanuel Macron (c.) and his wife, Brigitte, (l.) speak with French entrepreneur and businessman Xavier Niel (r.) during the inauguration of start-ups incubator 'Station F,' in Paris in June 2017.

The cavernous converted train depot of Station F, now the world’s largest start-up campus, was under construction well before Emmanuel Macron clinched the French presidency in promise of a bright, entrepreneurial future for the Fifth Republic.

But the vibe here – the youngsters huddled around laptops and taking breaks at video game portals and foosball tables – meshes perfectly with Macron’s brand as a start-up president. In fact, to walk into this space very much feels like stepping back into his campaign headquarters, albeit on a different scale: Station F is the length of the Eiffel Tower, with space for 1,000 start-ups.

Serendipitously for both the president and Station F, the latter opened just weeks after the former’s stunning victory last spring. And together they’ve helped reinforce a new image for France, from a place covered in red tape and restricted by workers resistant to any change, to one called “scrappy” and full of “hustle,” as one entrepreneur here put it.

Perhaps more fortuitously, both have been buoyed by the goings-on in the rest of the world. With Brexit, for example, Macron has stood – as he did yesterday afternoon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – as the champion for a stronger Europe with France at its heart; Brexit has also beckoned London-based entrepreneurs to the relative safety of France, in what is now a reverse migration across the channel.

Bertrand Guay/Reuters
A view of the interior of business start-up incubator 'Station F,' in Paris in June 2017.

“I think [Macron] changed completely the image of France…. He has given France a pro-start-up, pro-entrepreneur image beyond our borders that we did not really have,” says Xavier Niel, the tech billionaire who started Station F with a 250 million euro ($312 million) investment, in an interview with foreign journalists at the incubator Wednesday. “At the same time that perhaps England doesn’t seem very stable with Theresa May, perhaps that Germany doesn’t seem as fun with a leader whose [mandate] is getting old, maybe because the United States with Donald Trump doesn’t seem very welcome to foreigners … we, in the midst of this, are not doing badly.”

Choosing France

In reality, the start-up culture in France was thriving before Macron. It was the unpopular previous president, François Hollande, who broke ground on this space just off the Seine in October 2014, well before Macron was even considered a presidential contender.

But perceptions matter, says Niel. And Macron has pushed fast-forward – particularly this week as world leaders gather in Davos – on trying to foster entrepreneurship, lure in investment, and prove that France is not the bureaucratic nightmare that managers picture it to be. So far the French seem to be going along with their president's new tune.

Macron has already pushed through labor reform, despite union attempts to thwart it, making some hiring and firing easier, and offered tax cuts to spur more investment and boost employment. This is happening as growth has finally returned to the eurozone, after a decade of recession and then stagnation.

On Monday, ahead of the opening of Davos, Macron invited 140 business executives to the Sun King’s palace at Versailles to pitch the country as the new place to be. It was, fittingly, called “Choose France.” In addition, executives from Facebook and Google were in attendance, and both announced new investment in artificial intelligence in France.

Optimism that France is a good place for business has increased significantly since Macron won, nearly doubling among executives of international firms in France, according to an Ipsos poll in November, from the year before.

Not all French are buying it. If Macron is a darling of the global elite, the French public is far more guarded. Macron’s popularity stands at 50 percent, while 49 percent say they are dissatisfied, according to an Ifop poll this month. He’s been dubbed the “president of the rich” by the left, and while Station F is buzzing, outside many workers are locked out of the market or stagnating in jobs, afraid to leave the security of ironclad benefits.

Philippe Martinez, boss of the hard-line CGT union, repeated as much in a recent interview with foreign journalists. He derides the undoing of social protections in favor of profitability. “The Anglo-Saxon model, countries like the UK and US, are Macron's model,” he says.

‘A hustle mentality’

But despite that dissent, the French streets are relatively quiet. And that goes back to impeccable timing. Catherine de Wenden, a political scientist at SciencesPo in Paris, says that the ending of the economic crisis has not enamored the French of their president, but it has given him space to try and effect change. “As the economic situation is better … people are ready to accept some reforms,” she says.

Macron campaigned on a mentality shift that he reiterated in a speech in Davos yesterday afternoon, delivered in English and then French, backing a “nation of entrepreneurs,” he said. “In France, it was forbidden to fail and forbidden to succeed. Now it should be more easy to fail, to take risk.”

There is no better testing ground right now than Station F. Modeled after an American campus, the group is now building a housing unit with space for 600 entrepreneurs to live. They have brought bureaucratic services inside to help with taxes and visas. Twenty-five percent of the start-ups are not created by the French. Niel speaks of a mixing of cultures and social background – similar to Macron’s message of openness – to spark ideas and creativity. A new program called “Fighters” is designed only to support entrepreneurs from disadvantaged situations.

Roxanne Varza, who is an American and the director of Station F, says that there is a lot of international appeal. One of the programs they run drew applicants from 50 different countries, from as far away as Jamaica and Nepal. “But the countries with the most [applicants] were the US, UK, China, and India in that order,” she says.

Christine Foote, who grew up in Utah, spent that last eight years in San Francisco. There she joined the software start-up Lead.ers, whose team was majority French but started in California. The team relocated operations to Paris and are now housed in Station F. “San Francisco feels more established. There are more rules, and I think people in Paris are starting to have more of a hustle mentality. Or they are a little bit scrappier, in a positive way,” Ms. Foote says.

“I had the same stereotypical idea that French people have so much vacation and they don’t love to work or have the same work ethic that Americans have,” she says working with her team after hours. “But I found the opposite to be true.”

Ms. Varza says there is a “Macron effect” that is on display at Station F, and in France. “It is a catalyst effect,” she says. “He did not create what is happening. But he came at a very good time.”

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