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Is Entrepreneur the New France?

ARTICLES - 12 December 2017

Two centuries ago, François Guizot, a French member of government, who advocated liberal, middle-class and reformist values, could have uttered the polemic sentence Emmanuel Macron claimed in 2015: “Young French people should dream of becoming billionaires”. In the words of his time, Guizot had advised French citizens to “enrich themselves by working and by saving”. Different times, same morals…

The analogy between these two chronologically distant statements is tempting, as if political power had understood at times that regime stability was based on material wellbeing and the hope for progress of a growing part of the population. The “Guizot moment” is a liberal one, which was first muffled by the Revolution of 1848 and later by the establishment of the Second Empire, liberal yet authoritarian. What about the “Macron moment”? Is “entrepreneur” the new France?

Digital, Startups, Entrepreneurs…

When Emmanuel Macron was a Minister serving in the Socialist government (this was before he even became a party leader or candidate in the presidential election), he already relied on civil society. He always had a special mention for entrepreneurs, which to him are the key players able to trigger the revolution the country had been needing for so long. Such companionship goes back particularly to the first moments of former President Hollande’s mandate. Back then, digital entrepreneurs had sounded the charge against the fiscal policy that was being introduced and found a sympathetic ear in the person of the secretary general of the Elysée. This person, of course, was Emmanuel Macron! As a result, Jean-David Chamboredon, founder of the French “Pigeon” movement, did not hesitate to sign a petition to support the “Macron law” in January 2015.

This is more than an alliance of circumstance. To the French President, the entrepreneurial initiative is a powerful engine that must be fueled. He was very vocal about it before his election, and it remains still at the heart of his public expression. His speech at the VivaTech conference held in Paris on 15 June 2017, featured the heartfelt phrase “Entrepreneur is the new France!”, which he repeated a couple of weeks later, on 29 June, during the inauguration in Paris of the largest startup incubator in the world, baptized Station F.

His enthusiasm for these initiatives is real and communicative. Again, at VivaTech, he claimed: “Your challenge is to become the new Consumer Electronics Show. I want you here, in Paris, to succeed in creating this international meeting of innovation, business creation, entrepreneurship in the world!”. He had made the same kind of exhilarated statements on conquered ground, in January 2016, during the French tech party organized at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Already back then, he had repeated his favorite catchphrase: “France is back!”. After the election of Donald Trump, the candidate Macron published a video aimed directly at US entrepreneurs, researchers and engineers working on climate issues, to welcome them warmly to France: “France is your nation”.

The President’s ambition for entrepreneurial, technological and digital projects is not without boundaries. His affinity with tech appears indeed to be a patriotic one, as it focuses first and foremost on the development of French tech and seems to lack European perspective. At VivaTech, he came almost empty-handed, limiting his commitments to the creation of a venture capital fund with Germany and Italy... Could it be that Macron privileges  the “Made in France” approach above anything? If this were the case, it seems to me that his vision runs the risk of being too distant from the the scale-ups and growth-related issues at stake for French tech companies today.

Nicolas Colin, one of France’s best digital economy connoisseurs, believes that “Emmanuel Macron has all the qualities required to be one of the leaders of the new age”. At the same time, he expresses a hint of skepticism and worries about the “dissonance between his future-oriented discourse, entrepreneurs and new models, and the fact that he is very supported by the old world”. A look at the first files treated by the power in place in France seems to verify this concern. Macron started off his mandate by rescuing both Arc International, the industrial world leader in tableware, and GM&S, an automotive supplier, and by nationalizing the shipbuilding company STX. To me, it looks like the State has chosen to deploy a traditional arsenal…

The President’s discourse carries yet another ambiguity. In a country that is so geared towards the State and the public sector – let’s not forget that this is very much ingrained in Emmanuel Macron’s culture – how should one interpret his apology for entrepreneurs? Is this a cultural revolution of the same magnitude as the one that occurred in Great Britain at the time of David Cameron’s Big Society ?  A project planning and organizing the withdrawal of public facilities as soon as civil society and the private sector are able to take over? Private initiatives are continuously praised: “Neither a president nor a government radically change things (...) it is you who will carry this success. And when I talk about France being entrepreneurial, I’m talking about you, what you did, what you are doing, startups, SMEs, large groups that have decided to accompany and carry this event”. This was claimed, again, at VivaTech.

Yet his humility does not go so far as to call into question the place of the State. On the contrary, Macron seeks to make it ever more efficient, ever more advanced. In his preface of Yann Algan and Thomas Cazenave’s book “L’Etat en mode start-up” (Eyrolles, 2016) – “The State in startup mode” –, he even states that “to be at the top is to maintain the full sovereignty of public power”. He insists on “the capacity of public authorities to innovate and to adapt to today’s new technologies”, because it is “the condition for their sovereignty, their proximity and their openness”. This is far from the implementation of Cameron’s Big Society, which focused on empowering citizens to reduce the size of the State.

Macron is almost the only president to have taken up the cause in France. As a matter of fact, President Sarkozy did attempt to seize the issue in 2011 by organizing an e-G8 summit. Maurice Lévy, CEO of Publicis, was entrusted with the arrangement of this event and managed to bring together the “essentials” of the tech world, from Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos. Gathering French, American and G-8 digital actors to draw the concrete lines of a civilized Internet seemed like an interesting idea, but what impact did it have in the end of the G-8? The summit ended up taking very little account of the topics that had been discussed in the e-G8. 

Six years later, the French, the Germans and more generally all Europeans, are still trying to induce American digital groups into respecting their tax standards. Macron seems to have taken the measure of the necessary European dimension of the digital industry: “Only at European level will we create champions. We can create a European Google, but a French Google will never exist” (speech at Humboldt, Berlin, January 2017). 

So far, Macron has ensured the consistency of his speech on digital issues ever since the beginning of his political career. As if to respond to his frustration with former Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ decision to bury his “NOÉ” bill - his second big law project as Minister of the Economy on new economic opportunities -, he became the spokesperson for entrepreneurs, considering himself the only one able to understand their expectations and needs. In the campaign, however, he had to share with right-wing candidate François Fillon the attention of this demanding audience.

Generational congruence with young entrepreneurs, fine understanding of the economy, better command of English than previous French presidents... Emmanuel Macron ticks all boxes enabling him to benefit from startups’ and entrepreneurs’ trust.

Revolution in governance

Macron’s entrepreneurial spirit takes other forms, and goes far beyond the apology of startups. It is for instance present in his will to spark a “revolution” in State governance. Such ambition manifested itself as soon as he arrived at the head of the State, in at least two ways. The first is based on the “roadmap” method: Ministers and their cabinet directors are obliged to adopt objectives, some in the short term, others in the medium term, and to report results at the end of both terms.

The second novelty came from his decision to adopt a new recruitment strategy for Ministers. The gender balance was respected and another balance was promoted, that between members of the political society and members of civil society. Moreover, Macron’s Ministers were essentially selected based on their competence, at least hat which their professional career seems to suggest. After the resignation of François Bayrou, the Minister of Justice, in came Nicole Belloubet, who was not chosen because she had been part of government networks (she knew neither the President nor the Prime Minister), but because she was a distinctive Law Professor and member of the Constitutional Council. The Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was not recruited for any Macronism of his, but because he directed the very powerful directorate general of school education, Dgesco, as well as a large business school, ESSEC. To the centrist government, it did not matter if the former had also been mayor-deputy socialist of Toulouse and the latter a high official appointed under the right-wing government… It could have been the opposite, or neither one nor the other. The Prime Minister acts as a Director of Human Resources suggesting to his CEO, the President of the Republic, to hire the most qualified to manage the country.

Some right-wing commentators have appreciated this new entrepreneurial governance. Some others, rather on the left side of the political spectrum, see it as an additional sign of Macron’s submission to major economic interests, as “president of the wealthy”. All agree at least to consider that, with rare and marginal exceptions, such a conception and its implementation mark a deep break with the usual way of governing France.

Digital revolution, startup revolution, revolution in corporate governance… On top of these “Macronian” revolutions, another important innovation ought not to be omitted, one related to what Jean-Marie Dru has called “the art of disruption”. Dru refers to American consultant Jim Collins, co-inventor with Jerry Poras, Professor at Stanford, of the idea of “genius of the AND”. It rejects the “fact of posing a problem in terms of alternative, A or B, [which] reduces the field of possibilities, encloses the thought in conventional approaches, slows down any hint of innovation. As soon as we are confronted with an alternative, we must (...) get rid of it, we must think that the solution is elsewhere. (…) Transgressive”.  The complexity of Macron’s discourse (the concept of “en même temps” – “at the same time”) has nothing to do with an undecided maybe-yes-maybe-no approach, nothing to do with a soft centrist consensus, not even with a compromise between antagonisms. In Macron’s language and strategy, “en même temps” actually means the opposite, and is based on the invention of “solutions of rupture, disruptions” – on the title of his campaign book in short: Revolution


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