‘La French Tech’ Arrives Under Macron, but Proves No Panacea

PARIS — In full Steve Jobs mode, President Emmanuel Macron of France donned a black turtleneck in January and took to Twitter to celebrate the creation in France of 25 “unicorn” start-ups — companies with a market value of over 1 billion euros, or almost $1.1 billion.

He declared that France’s start-up economy was “changing the lives of French people” and “strengthening our sovereignty.” It was also helping to create jobs: Unemployment has fallen to 7.4 percent, the lowest level in a decade.

The start-up boom was a milestone for a young president elected five years ago as a restless disrupter, promising to pry open the economy and make it competitive in the 21st century.

To some extent, Mr. Macron has succeeded, luring billions of euros in foreign investments and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs, many in tech start-ups, in a country whose resistance to change is stubborn. But disruption is just that, and the president has at the same time left many French feeling unsettled and unhappy, left behind or ignored.

As Mr. Macron seeks re-election starting on Sunday, it is two countries that will vote — a mainly urban France that sees the need for change to meet the era’s sweeping technological and economic challenges, and a France of the “periphery,” wary of innovation, struggling to get by, alarmed by immigration and resentful of a leader seen as embodying the arrogance of the privileged.

Which France shows up at voting booths in greater numbers will determine the outcome.

In many Western societies, the simultaneous spread of technology and inequality has posed acute problems, stirring social tensions, and France has proved no exception. If the disenchanted France prevails, Marine Le Pen, the perennial candidate of the nationalist right, will most likely prevail, too.

Worried that he may have lost the left by favoring start-up entrepreneurship and market reforms, Mr. Macron has in the past week been multiplying appeals to the left, resorting to phrases like “our lives are worth more than their profits” to suggest his perceived rightward lurch was not the whole story.

He told France Inter radio that “fraternity” was the most important word in the French national motto, and said during a visit to Brittany that “solidarity” and “equality of opportunity” would be the central themes of an eventual second term.

The pledges looked like signs of growing anxiety about the election’s outcome. After several months in which Mr. Macron’s re-election had appeared virtually assured, the gap between him and Ms. Le Pen has closed. The leading two candidates in Sunday’s vote will go through to a runoff on April 24.

The election will be largely decided by perceptions of the economy. In Mr. Macron’s favor, the country has bounced back faster than expected from coronavirus lockdowns, with economic growth reaching 7 percent after a devastating pandemic-induced recession.

The most significant cultural transformation has come in the area of tech, where Mr. Macron’s determination to create a start-up culture centered around new technology has brought changes the government considers essential to the future of France.

Cédric O, the secretary of state for the digital sector, wearing jeans and a white dress shirt, no tie, admits to being obsessed. Day after long day, he plots the future of “la French tech” from his spacious office at the Finance Ministry.

Five years ago, that may have seemed quixotic, but something has stirred. “It’s vital to be obsessed because the risk France and Europe are facing is to be kicked out of history,” Mr. O, 39, said, borrowing a line often used by Mr. Macron. “We have to get back into the international technological race.”

Toward that end, Mr. Macron opened Station F, a mammoth incubator project in Paris representing France’s start-up ambitions, and earmarked nearly €10 billion in tax credits and other inducements to lure research activity and artificial intelligence business. A new bank was created to help finance start-ups.

The president wined and dined multinational chief executives, creating an annual gathering at Versailles called “Choose France.”

Since 2019, France has become the leading destination for foreign investment in Europe, and more than 70 investment projects worth €12 billion have been pledged by foreign multinationals at the Versailles gatherings, said Franck Riester, France’s foreign trade minister.

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April 10, 2022, 5:40 p.m. ET

In the past four years, IBM, SAP of Germany and DeepMind, the London-based machine learning company owned by Google’s parent, Alphabet, have increased investment in France and created thousands of jobs.

Facebook and Google have also bolstered their French presence and their artificial intelligence teams in Paris. Salesforce, the American cloud computing company, is moving ahead with over €2 billion in pledged investments.

“Macron brought a culture shift where France was suddenly open to the world of funders,” said Thomas Clozel, a doctor by training and the founder in 2016 of Owkin, a start-up that uses Artificial Intelligence to personalize and improve medical treatment. “He made everything easy for start-up entrepreneurs and so changed the view of France as an anticapitalist society.”

François Hollande, Mr. Macron’s Socialist Party predecessor, had famously declared in 2012: “My enemy is the world of finance.” As a result, Mr. Clozel said, securing funds as a French start-up was so problematic that he chose to incorporate in the United States.

No longer.

“Today, I am thinking of reincorporating in France,” he said. “The ease of dealing with the government, the consortium of start-ups helping one another, and the new French tech pride are compelling.”

Among the start-ups that have had a significant effect on French life are Doctolib, a website that allows patients to arrange for medical appointments and tests online, and Backmarket, an online market for reconditioned tech gadgets that just became France’s most valuable start-up, at $5.7 billion.

They began life before Mr. Macron took office, but have grown exponentially in the past five years.

“I have made 56 investments in the last two years, and 53 of them are in France,” said Jonathan Benhamou, a French entrepreneur who founded PeopleDoc, a company that simplifies access to information for human resources departments.

Now funding new ventures and focusing on a new start-up called Resilience in the field of personalized cancer care, Mr. Benhamou credits Mr. Macron with “giving investors confidence in stability and creating a virtuous cycle.”

Talented engineers no longer go elsewhere because there is an “ecosystem” for them in France, Mr. O said.

Mr. Macron has insisted that opening the economy is consistent with maintaining protections for French workers and that the arrival of la French tech does not mean the embrace of the no-holds-barred capitalism behind the churn of American creativity.

Despite the president’s overhauls, France remains one of the most expensive countries for payroll taxes, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with hourly labor costs of nearly €38, close to levels seen in Sweden, Norway and other northern European countries.

“We know that we have to go further,” Mr. Riester, the foreign trade minister, said in a recent interview. “We still have some brakes that could be taken off the economy, and we have to cut some red tape in the future.”

“But we are also convinced we will maintain a different system than in the United States,” he added. “It’s our culture and history, and at the end of the day, we think it could be better for attracting talent from all over the world.”

Before Mr. Macron was elected, unemployment hovered around 10 percent, growth was anemic and a wealth tax, among other fiscal measures, had deterred foreign investment. France was widely perceived as an anti-entrepreneurship nation.

Mr. Macron cut France’s corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 33 percent and introduced a 30 percent flat tax on capital gains. He simplified the labyrinthine labor code, making hiring and firing easier. His government channeled billions of dollars into retraining programs and made it tougher to keep receiving unemployment benefits.

These policies have spurred the economy while generating much hostility toward the president in a France still deeply wedded to its system of social solidarity. It is a country that tends to believe that if work has its place, quality of life should hold a greater place. The anger and alienation that set off the Yellow Vest movement in 2018 still lurk just beneath the surface.

Mr. Macron’s campaign proposal that the retirement age be raised to 65 from 62 — rejected by Ms. Le Pen — has been greeted with widespread outrage.

While entrepreneurs are creating new companies faster than ever, many jobs are precarious. Delivery workers for UberEats, Deliveroo, Amazon and other online shopping portals have little income security and scarce benefits. A number of French industries remain troubled, despite Mr. Macron’s vows to forge a manufacturing revival.

The troubles in these parts of the economy are deeply felt, and that is where Mr. Macron is vulnerable.

An abrupt rise in the cost of living, driven in part by Russia’s war in Ukraine, has quickly become one of the biggest issues facing candidates.

During a recent visit to a working-class area of Dijon — one of very few campaign stops by a president who has often seemed more concerned about discussing the war in Ukraine with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia than talking about the looming election — Mr. Macron was hectored by the crowd.

“You don’t realize,” said one man. “Put yourself in the place of a French family. Shopping, paying for gas, it’s horrible!”

Asked by a woman how it was possible to survive on the minimum government handout of about $620 a month, Mr. Macron said, “I have never thought that giving a check to people in distress was the way to solve their problems.”

Rather, he said, the essential thing was to find ways to help them back into the workplace.