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06 January 2014

Creating a Gallic Culture of Risk 

Can France embrace the start-up culture? That was the question posed by President François Hollande last autumn at a gathering of technology industry insiders convened to discuss how to encourage entrepreneurship.

With high unemployment, a sluggish economy and an aging population, France faces fundamental challenges. Its big corporations are global technology innovators, but they alone cannot solve the nation’s problems.

The wealth and productivity gains from hi-tech entrepreneurship could invigorate the economy, but first the government needs to overturn the perception that it is difficult to start a business – and to stay in business – in France.

Regulation, taxation and suspicion of business are variously blamed for a shortage of start-ups. Workers enjoy generous vacation benefits, a short working week and high job security. Start-ups, by contrast, require long hours and a willingness to take risks.

In fact, there are plenty of French start-ups, making smartphone apps and helping people buy jewelry online. October’s Blend conference in Lyon brought together Web entrepreneurs, investors, recruiters and developers to share ideas and inspire each other’s efforts. Paris could grow as a hub of hi-tech entrepreneurship if more of France’s well-educated engineers stayed at home rather than heading for Berlin, London and Silicon Valley.

Encouraging that trend is the job of Hollande’s Deputy Finance Minister for Digital Innovation, Fleur Pellerin, who persuaded the president to lunch with the technology entrepreneurs. But more will be needed.

Tax incentives, the slashing of red tape and more accommodating visa rules to encourage foreigners to build businesses have all worked elsewhere. There is no reason to believe these efforts cannot be replicated in the country that invented the word ‘entrepreneur’.