Does French tech have any future at all?

 2nd March, 2010

America remains, puzzlingly, the world’s only truly innovative economy

In the 1980s, there was for a while a widespread perception of American decline, perhaps best popularized by Lester C. Thurow’s best-seller The Zero Sum Solution[1]. This was believed to be evident in the industrial sector and not offset by any marked achievement in other areas. With Europe mired in what was then termed eurosclerosis, the emerging Asian economies were seen as the obvious winners of the future. Twenty-five years later, things have not turned out entirely as expected. Admittedly, Asia has emerged immensely strengthened: the recession following the 2008 financial crisis has left it virtually unscathed, in sharp contrast to what had happened in previous economic cycles. Yet while American debt has reached unprecedented levels, decline is hardly the appropriate word to describe the US economy over the period between the end of the Reagan administration and the beginning of the Obama one. One word, or rather one neologism, explains why America remains the modern, relevant, constantly-innovative cornerstone of the modern world: tech.

For all their dynamism, the Asian economies have done nothing more than apply technology that they had not themselves invented, relying on their undoubted capacity for hard work and a flexible regulatory environment to achieve spectacular economic growth. Their deeply-entrenched inability to innovate has been matched by the emergence, since the early 1990s, of an entirely new field of American expertise, building on existing knowledge developed by a handful of companies in the days of computer mainframes and targeted at a small number of large corporate users. This model, which was already losing steam by the late 1970s, was completely turned around by two developments that radically changed the rules: the invention of the personal computer in the 1980s, and the popularization of the Internet in the 1990s.

The personal computer and the Internet: a more radical revolution than anything since the printing press

The combination of these two factors has wrought the most radical change in the way in which we handle knowledge since the invention of printing, giving each private individual — providing, of course, that he has access to those technologies — a previously unthinkable access to information. And the demand created by this technological shift logically brought forth its own supply: with barriers to entry removed almost at a stroke, in a sector hitherto reserved for only the largest corporations, a myriad of small entrepreneurs emerged, constantly stretching further and further out the limits and range what it was possible to do with that new technology.

And in this constantly-shifting world in which today’s solutions will become obsolete in six months, institutions such as MIT, Stanford, Berkeley or Georgia Tech have provided America with a never-ending stream of talented, inventive and technologically-knowledgeable individuals who have fed the tech revolution with ideas and solutions to meet, and even to anticipate, every need.

France: is her retreat from scientific prominence into a cultural Disneyland inevitable?

Living in a dual cultural environment, straddling the Channel and the Atlantic, I have since childhood been incessantly engaged in comparing America and Europe. Over the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been increasingly puzzled and disappointed by Europe’s relative failure to follow, let alone to match or beat, America’s embrace of new technology. And the biggest and most inexplicable let-down, for me, has been France.

France has traditionally been a friend of technology. The Bourbon kings took a personal interest in science, especially Louis XV who was passionate about astronomy, and his grandson Louis XVI, who sponsored numerous scientific experiments: one of his last regrets, just before his death at the hands of the revolutionary Convention, was that no news had been received from the La Pérouse expedition that he had sent out to the Pacific. The Revolutionaries and Napoleon built considerably on the achievements of the Ancien Régime: the great French engineering institutions, École polytechnique, École nationale des ponts et chaussées, École des mines, to name but the most prestigious, nurtured a vast number of first-class minds who went on to accompany France into the positivist, ruthlessly optimistic nineteenth century: from photography to nuclear fission, from the motor car to supersonic and spatial flight, there is not one area of human progress in which France has not been a leading player, sometimes a precursor.

These achievements in science did not in any way impede the arts: French letters continued to rule supreme until their strange death around 1960 and, largely through the opulence and assertiveness of official sponsorship, Paris remained, until about the same period, the undisputed capital of the visual arts. Now that the boulevard Saint-Germain has been taken over by Armani shops and by antique dealers catering, essentially, to tourists, and that the average French literary prize-winner cannot even construct a grammatically-correct sentence, you would have expected France to have retained a leading edge in tech: after all, for the past forty years, the brightest French schoolchildren, whether interested or not in maths, physics and chemistry, are judged entirely on their ability to comprehend an equation: Virgil and Plato but also, to a large extent, Mauriac and Baudelaire have effectively vanished from French curricula in the thirty years since the 1968 cultural revolution, leaving science as the only subject that is still seriously taught in good French schools, though it has to be said that it is taught very well. In the mean time, France has been teetering on the edge of becoming a mere cultural Disneyland, as epitomized by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain: a gigantic, pretty museum, irrelevant to the challenges of the modern world.

Is a French Stanford still possible?

Why, then, has the forced diet of mathematics not fuelled the emergence of a string of French Stanfords, MITs and Georgia Techs? Why do clever young French people I meet have zero knowledge of, or interest in, information technology? And, most puzzlingly of all, why is new technology not seriously taught in France’s best engineering schools, whose graduates are mostly ignorant of even basic programming skills? Why, in fact, has France’s departure from the cutting edge of technology compounded her recent decline? There are a few very rare exceptions, of course, of which my friends at Dailymotion, with its small, savvy Paris-based team, are perhaps the best-known. Perhaps, actually, the best-known because it is the only successful French startup.

The appointment of my delightfully-clever erstwhile Finance Ministry colleague Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, now a member of the French Government specifically responsible for the tech sector, came at the time as a pleasant surprise to me: I have since watched this exemplary product of the educational system described above quickly adapt to the challenge, as witnessed by her blog, quite a good one by French standards, and her active twittering. There is still strong resistance to technology within the French government and administration, though the recent decision to apportion €4.5bn of France’s grand emprunt spending programme to the digital economy shows that there is some awareness of the issue. It would be especially encouraging if at least part of that spending were channelled towards the teaching of technology rather than just infrastructure. Time will tell whether any of these funds are spent at all, let alone whether they are so wisely. At any rate, this is a subject that deserves to be closely watched, and the bets are still on as to whether France will end her recent and puzzling feud with technology.