When entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Mark Bivens first moved to Paris in 2001, he regularly introduced himself as someone who had started three software companies in the U.S., two of which had flopped. That’s a badge of honor in Silicon Valley, where failure is viewed as a rite of passage. Not in France. One day, a French colleague took Bivens aside and gave him some friendly advice: if you want to reassure people, stop talking about the companies that didn’t work out. “I soon realized that failure carries a stigma,” Bivens says.
The Great Debate
Last weekend, after years of failed negotiations, the “P5+1” nations — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China) plus Germany — finally appeared to be on the verge of a deal with Iran regarding curbs on its nuclear program.
In France these days, every new industrial investment is welcomed with open arms, so when the Japanese machine-tools manufacturer Amada announced in mid-September that it was putting an additional $50 million into its existing production facilities, no fewer than two government ministers showed up for the signing ceremony. Much to their embarrassment, however, the chief executive officer of Amada, Mitsuo Okamoto, gave an interview that morning to a national French daily in which he castigated the national business climate, and said that if the company hadn’t already been in France for 40 years, “we would think twice about investing here for the first time.”
The French like to refer to the Champs Elysées in Paris as “the most beautiful avenue in the world,” and 300,000 people stroll up and down it every day to see for themselves, many of them tourists looking to shop. No surprise, then, to find that retailers from Nike to LVMH are willing to pay premium rents for space on the avenue, which runs in a straight line from the Place de la Concorde up to the triumphal arch at Etoile.
The body of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s wily finance minister, is encased in a marble tomb in the Church of Saint Eustache in central Paris. But if you believe Arnaud Montebourg, the enfant terrible of French politics, his spirit is still very much alive, 330 years after his death, and about to spark a new, digital-age industrial revolution in France.
Within hours of Detroit filing the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history on July 18, French TV and other media followed up with the reassuring message that, in France at least, such a turn of events would be impossible. Under French law, municipalities are required to balance their budgets, and the national government can — and occasionally does — intervene to force them to comply.
Arnaud Montebourg, a member of the French parliament, has a problem with the iPhone. He thinks consumers in France should pay more for it than they already do. Why? Because, he says, the iPhone is made by “exploited” laborers in China who are taking away the jobs of French workers and the best way to redress that is by putting in place trade barriers and taxes that will stop “excessive imports.”
His political allies wrote him off as a lightweight, “a pedal-boat captain in a storm” as one memorably put it. European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, have gone out of their way to avoid him, and the markets have been unimpressed by his declaration, to the City of London, that “I am not dangerous.”