Axelle Lemaire

Axelle Lemaire, the French minister of state for the digital sector and innovation, tells Sebastian Shehadi why France is emulating the US to think globally in its bid to boost its fintech sector at home and abroad.

Q: Post-Brexit, Berlin is making concerted efforts to lure UK tech companies and start-ups. Will Paris follow suit?

A: 'Berlin verses Paris' – it is a mistake to put innovative ecosystems against one another; there’s no need to [go on the] offensive. Of course, the system is inherently competitive, but we should base our policies on co-optition because pure competition doesn’t work.

We’ve done a lot to modernise France. Access to talent is essential for start-ups, and France has pools of engineers. We’re the number two country for the number of software engineers being produced, recognised for their quality and skills.

Like the US, we’ve implemented a dedicated visa system called the ‘French tech ticket’. The visa comes with seed funds and a place within one of the hundreds of accelerators across France.

[Regarding] access to funding, European start-ups say there’s a problem, not for a lack of access to venture capital [VC] but because foreign investors tell them: 'We’ll fund you if you move to the US.' So we are incentivising VC [through tax cuts] to co-invest with the public investment bank. Although Berlin has cheaper rent and a countercultural spirit, Paris houses both traditional financial services and fintech.

Q: Why is supporting French tech abroad so important for you?

A: French enterprises often don’t think globally, and they should, because that’s how start-ups grow quickly. [As is the case with the rest of Europe], we missed the train of the internet, web and platforms. The US has taught us to be open to new forms of innovation, and to think globally. We have promoted 24 ‘French tech hubs’ abroad, [which are] communities for French entrepreneurs.

This is a global strategy, connecting the French ecosystem so they think globally. Global innovative companies create economic value if the exchange is fluid, flexible and easy to cross countries. So creating that bridge is hugely important. The headquarters will be based in France.

Q: Does France have an attractive regulatory environment for start-ups?

A: The regulatory environment is the number one challenge. Our system has been designed to protect consumers and to deal with huge banks. We need to change our culture and approach when dealing with start-ups.

We’ve created the ‘innovation forum’, where all Parisian actors of the ecosystem can express their needs with the regulators. It’s a fast-track process. Start-ups’ requests and requirements will be dealt with more quickly and flexibly.

We have also launched a fast-track procedure for UK-based companies wanting access to the French market. We are also the first country to allow companies to use a mini-bonds exchange based on blockchain technology. Investors are saying that clearly something has changed.

Q: Is language a barrier in attracting foreign tech and start-ups to France?

A: A big barrier. American investors go to London because first, they know people, friends and family. Second, they know the language. It’s not the same to deal in a foreign language.

Third, the legal environment – not because there are more constraints on the continent, but because France is unknown territory for investors, a different set of rules to Anglo-Saxon laws. [France] needs to make its laws clearer, more easily understood and adapted to flexible and small structures, such as start-ups.

We have done this with the ‘work law’ [that has encouraged] company decisions at a local level. This is a real change for unions as it gives more communication and flexibility to adapt.

Sadly, many French people don’t use their English out of insecurity as French education sanctions errors and praises perfection. This isn’t good for innovation.

Q: Post-Brexit, what are you doing to reassure French tech companies in London, especially regarding ‘passporting’ rights?

A: For me, and the French president, freedom of movement is extremely important, especially in this digital age. It’s a condition that we will always put as a starting point for negotiations.

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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