France: a new world of young tech entrepreneurs

France hasn't balanced its budget for 40 years, so can youth drive through the change it needs?

France has an international outlook and a desire to grow.  Yet, according to The Economist, the average French firm employs just 14 people as a result of employment-constraining laws.  It's expensive to hire, and almost impossible to fire incompetance. 

Ashford in Kent, England, is awash with French businesses keen to take advantage of laxer UK staffing legislation and lower corporate and personal tax rates.  They started arriving in Ashford over a decade ago.  The Independent in 2000 noted "the town centre is signed "Centre ville" and the new office blocks boast "Bureaux à louer". In the market place a baker is advertising his wares from behind a heap of croissants and pains au chocolat - "Venez, messieurs-dames, profitez-en!"  Ashford International rail station is the first UK stop for the Eurostar from Paris, with a journey time of only 1hr 45mins.

The French passed a law recently creating eleven new seats in the Paris parliament for expatriates.  One such constituency covers the UK, Irish Republic, Scandinavia and the Baltic states. According to The Times, "102,470 French voters are registered in the UK, compared with 22,071 in all the other countries that make up the seat, and authorities believe that the real number of French residents in Britain is at least double the official figure". 

Yet something is changing in France.  By 2015, according to a study by McKinsey, a consultancy, France’s digital economy could nearly double in value and create 450,000 new jobs, reports The Economist.  The newspaper says that in a recent study on lifestyles by the Foundation for Political Innovation, a think-tank, 64% said they had no confidence in unions, and 53% regarded international trade as a good thing for France. On the strikers:  “I’m not against what they were doing, it’s just not relevant to me,” says Olivier Desmoulin, the 28-year-old founder of SuperMarmite, a start-up based on sharing home-cooked meals,  says The Economist article.

These young people admire American tech giants, not cumbersome, bureaucratic, conservative, subsidised and protected French state enterprises.

Whether the success of French tech start-ups ultimately drives changes to employment and tax law will depend on the political clout which follows the wealth and influence of their founding entrepeneurs.  Then, maybe, the Kent-based French firms can repatriate their businesses home.  

The vibrant London-based French community might refrain from going home though.  The Economist maintains "Paris-on-Thames" is buzzing.  "The archetype is a banker with children at the Lycée Français in South Kensington, the established hub of the community (“the 17th arrondissement”), who misses the food and weather of home. The City, a bigger financial centre than Paris, is keen on French workers, especially traders—products of an educational system that turns out mathematics whizzes in droves."

But the food has improved hugely in London of late.  As far back as 2001, Zagat Survey of London Restaurants, which surveys thousands of customers, was claiming that the UK capital had the "top two, three or four" places in the world to dine out.  That news inspired The Independent to report that "London is a more interesting place to eat out than Paris." 

How much longer can France rely on dealings with its former African empire?  Or lavish hand-outs and heavy subsidies from the cash-strapped EU, or support from their friends the Germans.

There's a dire need for root-and-branch societal change.

It'll have to try to live by generating profits at home.  Which will mean that political, fiscal and economic change is inevitable.  It's only a matter of when.  However, is there enough consensus amongst the people, the bureaucracy, or aloof Grandes Écoles-educated political elite to effect change earlier rather than later?

After prolonged periods of inactivity in history,  France has finally changed when revolution engulfed Paris then filtered out to the provinces. Charles de Gaulle was acutely aware of this propensity, which is possibly the reason for his departure from Paris in May 1968 as the students and workers hit the streets. He held a referendum, which he won, and took the wind out the protestors' sails.

Will technology drive through change this time?

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