French President Emmanuel Macron hosted more than 100 entrepreneurs at his presidential palace on Monday evening, where he laid out his government’s plans to dedicate an extra €7bn in funds to support startups and the digital economy.
He cited artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and quantum computing as priorities for where the government will spend its money. Of the announced €7bn, €3.7bn will go to reinforcing startups financing, including through Bpifrance, Macron said.
“We need breakthrough innovation, and we can’t expect only private investors will make that happen,” Macron said. “Quantum, AI, cybersecurity need state money, because they’re capital intensive as well as critical.”
Macron also hailed French entrepreneurs’ resilience through Covid-19, and expressed congratulations to the ecosystem for closing part of the gap with the UK on financing. French startups raised €2.7bn in the first quarter, he said.
“We’ve shown we’re a country that can spawn startups as well as grow them into unicorns,” Macron said. “You, as entrepreneurs, showed great resilience through Covid, and with bigger rounds we’ve caught up part of our lateness, including relative to the UK.”
Founders in the audience included billionaire telecoms tycoon Xavier Niel, Alexandre Yazdi of recent unicorn Voodoo, BlaBlaCar’s Frederic Mazzella, and Alan’s Jean-Charles Samuelian.
Under the painted ceiling and gold mouldings of the Elysee’s ballroom, or “salle des fêtes” (literally the festivities room), Macron first listened to presentations by founders, took notes on a piece of paper, and nodded to some parts, like Innovafeed’s Aude Guo’s tale about how she intertwined her insect-farming startup into the already established French agriculture industry.
Gathering with the president is one of the perks that French entrepreneurs have enjoyed under Macron, now for the third year in a row. And for the leader who built the first part of his presidency on the promise of turning France into a “startup nation”, keeping founders happy is also key.
That positive aura linking Macron to startups was reinforced at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. France’s bailout budget proved more generous than most in Europe and people in the ecosystem raised their hats to the state-backed support of all kinds that quickly poured in.
Macron in turn hasn’t shied away from asking a lot of tech and startups. His vision is that more and more startups should be creating jobs and boosting the overall economy, as well as helping more traditional industries accelerate their shift to digital.
But all that love threatened to turn sour earlier this year when hope was shot down that digital matters would get their own dedicated ministry in Macron’s government.
Founders and investors argued the government should upgrade the current digital junior minister role to a full-fledged ministry. That seemed a natural evolution, especially as coronavirus converted 8m French employees to remote work overnight and made virtual consultations with doctors the norm. Digital indeed never seemed so important to the French economy.
Still, Macron stuck to renewing the junior minister for all things digital, Cedric O, in his existing post. Macron also changed prime ministers and shifted his priorities to talk more about rural France, raising questions about whether the president’s focus so far on entrepreneurship and innovation still holds for the rest of his term.
That raised expectations ahead of Monday evening’s event.
“It makes me really happy to see all these familiar and new faces here,” Macron said. “You’re not a category that asks for government’s financial help — you ask for stability and you show resilience.”
France this month unveiled a €100bn envelope for its stimulus package, meant to help the country’s economy bounce back after Covid-19. It’s split into three categories: ecological transition, boosting the competitiveness of businesses, and more cohesion between French regions.
Digital affairs and startups are only sub-subcategories. And how the money is going to get into entrepreneurs’ pockets exactly has yet to be detailed.
Elysee said on Monday that, of the €7bn, €3.7bn will go to reinforce France’s tech ecosystem financing and help new leaders emerge. State-backed investor Bpifrance will play a key role in distributing this money, it said.
Another €800m will be dedicated to deploying telecoms infrastructure in rural areas and training people on digital skills, it said. The rest will be spent on upgrading technology in government, which should involve some contracts with startups.
Macron, in turn, argued that much of the €100bn will actually come back to startups, albeit indirectly.
“Digital, of course, is not a single sector,” Macron said on Monday. “A large part of the €100bn will actually get you all involved.”
Marie Mawad is Sifted’s French correspondent. She also covers AI, and tweets from @Marie_a_Paris