Liberte, Egalite & Entrepreneurship

By Michael S. Malone           

             The entrepreneurial impulse is awakening in the land of liberte’.

            Let’s face it, when you think of entrepreneurship and high technology start-ups, the one country that probably never comes to mind is France.  It is, after all, the philosophical heart of the European Union (with its genetic distrust of human individuality), the home of the weekly transportation or farmer strike, and the nation where philosophy always trumps practicality.

            Eastern Europe maybe.  Ireland for sure.  But France?  Impossible.

            And yet, a recent trip to Paris, to attend a conference in – of all places – the Louvre, shocked me out of my prejudices.  If France, that once-archetypical example of a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, can re-awaken its entrepreneurial spirit, then it can happen anywhere . . .and the desire for human economic liberty is indeed universal.
            I didn’t start out so optimistic.  The occasion was the first annual conference of the French-American Society of Entrepreneurs (FACE).  And when I heard that it was to be held in the Louvre, and I was to be the emcee, I could hardly say no.  Nevertheless, I expected it to be more of a boondoggle than a success – partly because of the distraction of the surroundings, but mostly because I had a hard time believing that there were enough French technology entrepreneurs to fill a small café on the Rue de Rivoli, much less a convention hall.

            I had, in fact, met a couple French entrepreneurs.  But one of them, Renaud, is an old neighbor of mine in Silicon Valley who had been infected with the entrepreneurship virus while living in Sunnyvale and then gone home to Paris.  He is now in the midst of quitting his corporate job and starting his own company specializing in helping U.S. companies navigate through the minefield of European value-added taxes (VATs).  A brilliant idea for a business, but whenever Renaud enumerated all of the regulatory obstacles in his way (paperwork, taxes, the fact that you can’t fire anybody, etc.) I found myself wondering why he even tried.

            Renaud’s brother-in-law, Cyril, is even more of a classic high-tech entrepreneur, and has started a new company with a revolutionary Web-based intelligent bookmarking technology (that’s only part of it, but I’m not allowed to discuss any more).  But, tellingly, Cyril is now spending half of his time talking to VCs and advisors in Silicon Valley – and his partner/chief technologist is in the midst of moving to Palo Alto.  So that’s hardly a vote of confidence for French entrepreneurship, either.

            If that wasn’t enough, the trip to Paris hardly began on a positive note either.  I found myself in a cab hurtling through the streets of the city, talking with my French-Algerian driver.  When I told him that I was in Paris to run a conference on entrepreneurship, he seemed surprised, then shrugged.  “Entrepreneurship?” (his English was excellent) “We don’t have that here.”

            I asked what he meant by that.  “This isn’t America,” he replied, “where if you work hard you can make your dreams come true.  It doesn’t happen like that here.”

            But haven’t you ever wanted to start your own company? I asked.  Run your own life?  Take the risk and maybe get rich?

            “Oh yes,” he replied.  He had long dreamed of buying a small fleet of taxis and managing other drivers.  But that had proved impossible.

            “Why?” I asked.

            “Look at me,” he said sadly, “My father came to France in 1947.  I was born here.  I am a French citizen.  But when a banker looks at me, he only sees a North African.  This isn’t America.”

            This isn’t America.  His words were still ringing in my ears the next morning when I made my way to the Louvre. 

            The walk along the Seine to the Museum raised my spirits, but not my hopes.  Paris, I don’t have to tell, is the most beautiful city in the world.  But it is also a shrine to Empires and bureaucracies, not least of which the magnificent Bourbon edifice of the Louvre itself.  It’s a magnificent edifice, but its implicit message is:  This is what government can do . . .and you presume to compare yourself to us?

            Even the descent beneath the elegant Pei glass pyramid was oddly oppressive:  its elegance and taste the antithesis of the messy, improvisational reality of life in a start-up company.

            Oh well, I told myself, enjoy the food and beauty, drink a lot of good wine – and try not to say anything insulting.  I set my expectations on ‘low’ and walked into the hall . . .

            I could not have been more wrong.  What I encountered in the hall absolutely shocked me – and made me reconsider almost all of my preconceptions about the native French desire for economic freedom.

            The first clue came during the opening remarks.  Unlike the desultory comments from the U.S. ambassador (itself a reminder of reminder of the dangers of government by the highest donor), the words from the French Economic Minister, Christine Lagarde, were not only thoughtful but astonishingly humble.  It was if she, representing the new business-friendly politics of the Sarkozy government, was trying to convince the audience that her ministry was not only pro-business – and but even more remarkably – pro-new company creation.

            But what was most remarkable about Lagarde’s speech was not its tone, but the reaction of the crowd.  Sensing it had the upper hand, the audience sat back and listened with polite skepticism.  That part I hadn’t expected, nor the fact (as I learned through the course of the day) that this crowd was positively ferocious – a lot more aggressive and Silicon Valley in its style than, say, the more polite British entrepreneurs I deal with at Oxford University.  These folks hadn’t come to kill a day at some elegant, but ultimately meaningless, conference.  They had come to advance their new businesses — learn the tricks of the trade, network with potential investors and pitch their company to any one they met. 

            In a moment of inspiration, I told the crowd to come back after lunch with a one sentence elevator pitch for their new company or product and I’d let anyone who wanted to take the microphone and state it.   Then, at one point in the afternoon, I stopped the panel discussions, left angel investor Reid Hoffman (the founder of Linked/In) and venture capitalist Jeff Clavier on stage, and handed the microphone to the audience.  Eighty entrepreneurs took me up on my offer. 

            What my experience in Paris taught me is that even in France, buried beneath all of that bureaucracy and regulation, an entrepreneurial heart is still beating. Millions of French men and women – from high-powered professionals to the most anonymous cab driver — quietly dream of economic liberty, of building their own companies.  They are merely waiting to be liberated and unleashed – and some, like Renaud, Cyril and the attendees at the FASE conference – refuse to wait.  If President Sarkozy really wants to reinvigorate France — economically, culturally, and even morally — here would be a good place to start.

            Michael S. Malone is editor-in-chief of Edgelings.com