The French Kiss Business Hello

The entrepreneurial impulse is awakening in the land of liberté.

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. But, tellingly, Cyril is now spending half of his time talking to venture capitalists 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."

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