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Maybe France isn't quite doomed after all

Ben McPartland · 11 Oct 2015, 13:19

Published: 10 Oct 2015 12:14 GMT+02:00
Updated: 11 Oct 2015 13:19 GMT+02:00

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We all know about the record high unemployment, the public debt, the economy that’s ground to halt.
There are the farmers whose livelihoods are crumbling around them and an increase in poverty and inequality that is threatening France's social cohesion.
We're told that France has been the sick man of Europe for as long as we can remember and, speaking of sick leave, those two execs who had their best suits ripped off their backs have just been given a week off to recover from the trauma.
The country has been in a pretty bad way for a while, with magazines such as Newsweek ("The Fall of France") and the Economist ("France is a ticking time bomb at the heart of Europe") lining up to predict the downfall of the country at one stage or another in recent years.
But there was a different message coming out of the country this week from both American and French business leaders, that makes us think -- perhaps things are not as bad as they are made out to be.
On Thursday boss of American tech giant Cisco Systems John Chambers took everyone by surprise when he said France was the next Silicon Valley.
He didn’t stop there.
“France is the future,” he said and then came the words that must have knocked the wind out Britain’s right-wing, French bashing press.
“Germany and the United Kingdom, all these countries are following in France’s footsteps.” In other words France is the place to be right now.
Chambers was talking about the digital revolution rather than, for example, labour relations which clearly could do with some improvement.
His words were laughed off by many and met with incredulity by others, including many in France.
Surely he’s been set up to wax lyrical about France in exchange for a cut in payroll charges.
But on Friday the heads of France’s newest and brightest companies backed up what he said and not only that but echoed his positive view of France’s Socialist government.
“The French government is doing everything they can to help entrepreneurship," Frédéric Mazzella, founder of ride-sharing company BlaBlaCar, told the Anglo American Press Association in Paris.
"They are changing laws and the environment as fast as is humanly possible. They are doing super work," said Mazzella, whose company was recently valued at €1.6 billion and is considered the toast of the French start-up scene.T
"They realise the importance of being positive about the things they can be positive about."
"We want to make people understand that things are changing in France. We want people to talk positively abroad about France," Mazzella added.
“There's a change in spirit here."
Mazzella is not the only member of the new wave of French business leaders preaching this line.
"Clearly, something is happening in France," Jérôme Lecat, head of Franco-American start up Scality told Europe1 radio.
"We feel there is a new curiosity. Investors are coming to France at least, to see what is happening.
"One of them said to me recently, your teams are working like in Silicon Valley." 
Lecat and Mazella say that all talk of companies in France being held back by the inflexible labour market and strict employment laws are exaggerated and no longer accurate. 
Both say the 2008 reform that allowed "rupture conventional" or amicable partings between staff and companies was a major step forward, as was a 2013 law that allowed companies suffering from economic difficulties to temporarily reduce working hours and salaries.
Story continues below…
"I no longer have any problem with the French labour laws," said Lecat. 
Gui Mamou-Mani, president of Syntec, which represents those in the France's digital industry added "France really is a Silicon Valley. And I am happy that this point of view is finally being recognised by foreign investors."
And there's some facts to back up their analysis.
Figures show Paris and the suburbs are home to 12,000 start-ups, which makes it top of Europe's capital cities. Sentier, an area of the second arrondissement where many of the start ups are growing in specialised incubators, has been nicknamed "Silicon Sentier".
Granted, France has a lot to do. Those in charge of attracting foreign investment recognise that France's ever changing tax laws and red tape are still a turn off.
Oh and there's record high unemployment and the public debt and the farmers.
But for once at least the message is positive.
Maybe France really is the place to be. 

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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