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Why France needs fewer geeks

France’s talent pool is all about top notch mathematicians and engineers. That’s great — but it’s not enough.

By Marie Mawad and Adam Green

This article is part of a series taking a deep-dive into the French tech ecosystem. For more, read the latest Sifted Intelligence report.

Exceptional technical talent is one of France’s biggest strengths — and that needs to change.

France has been betting a lot on homegrown brains in science-based fields like AI, robotics, and biotech, which should give it a competitive advantage in the world of deep tech

But the truth is that, according to founders, there’s only so far the ecosystem can go with brilliant scientists. 

The unbalanced talent pool in France, leaning too much in the direction of science and not enough towards business skills, is seen as one of the country’s growth constraints.

France is weaker in branding and product marketing. It’s also lacking individuals who have experienced this hyper scaling in the past and aren’t faced with it for the first time, a chicken-and-egg conundrum for any emerging ecosystem. 

“We lack people that have experience, huge scale and that are creative and have worked in a big company at the beginning, like Snapchat employees, Instagram employees,” says Yubo’s Sacha Lazimi. “The engineering part is strong, but in creative, marketing and branding, we don’t have that many people.” 

He adds that one downside of the country’s tight-knit and collaborative community is a hesitance to poach talent from domestic rivals, leading the company to hire more from foreign countries or remotely.

Reforms

Changes are already being implemented to encourage diverse international talent to come to France.

Key changes in recent years include eliminating the wealth tax outside of property, introducing a flat tax on dividends, simplifying the process of winding down businesses and introducing a special tech visa for non-EU startups, founders and investors.

In 2020, France changed its stock-options rules to expand the existing fiscally advantageous scheme (so-called “BPSCE”) to foreign businesses with employees based in France.

The change came as entrepreneurs across Europe, in a bid to help startups attract talent on the global stage, rallied behind the “Not Optional” campaign for a new pan-European stock options framework. For startups, attractive stock options schemes are often a way to compete with the more generous salaries of bigger companies to hire the best talent.

“The French government has created a more pro-business environment and worked hard to simplify the visa process for foreigners,” says Roxanne Varza, the director of Paris startups campus Station F. “While the visa is easier to obtain, arriving in a foreign country is never easy. This is perhaps where more can be done to improve the experience.”

Covid-19 influx

The permanent changes wrought by the pandemic could also play into France’s hands. The forced transition to remote work has changed how some companies look at talent acquisition and opened up their geographic horizons.

A banner of Sifted's The Sift report about French tech

“Recently we’ve started to see a massive influx of global tech talent, including experienced entrepreneurs leaving some of the more mature ecosystems like Silicon Valley, New York and London,” says Varza. “Today, the Station F community is one-third international, with the US, China, Morocco and South Korea amongst the best represented countries on campus.”

Pierre-François Thaler, chief executive of EcoVadis, says that thanks to Europe’s vibrant ‘tech for good’ ecosystem he sees a growing number of North Americans who now want to work for European companies, including in France, and that the French diaspora is more keen to come home, partly to deploy their talents solving social and environmental problems.

A stronger talent pool is likely to accelerate the development of tech hubs across France too, away from the capital city.

“[Already] the growth of the French ecosystem has been in cities all across France: Bordeaux, Marseille, Lile, Nantes,” says Paul-François Fournier of state-backed investor Bpifrance. “Out of 4,000 startups a year, 25% of them are not in Paris. Startups have access to talent from all over the country. This is one of the key assets of the French ecosystem: it will not remain on a single front of Paris”.

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