With Sarkozy out, French startups throw a tantrum

Well, that didn’t take long.

It’s just a few days since the French presidential election, in which Socialist François Hollande triumphed over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, and already the crème de la crème have the knives out for the new man in charge.

Newsdesks around the continent were no doubt grinding into action as soon as the result was announced, but now that the dust is settling it seems that the startup elite of Paris are preparing to leave in their droves.

First, the Wall Street Journal finds out that many French entrepreneurs are wary of their new president, including Loic Le Meur, organizer of Le Web conference:

Le Meur was worried by “the ambience against financial success that surrounded Hollande’s campaign. He said himself, ‘I don’t like the rich’ and ‘my No. 1 enemy isn’t Sarkozy but the financial markets’. If you succeed you should be rewarded for your success. Nothing wrong with this.”

Some were afraid of Mr. Hollande’s favoring of the public sector and a general perception that he didn’t understand the private sector.

“Mr. Hollande was supported by civil servants and trade unions. Simply put, that doesn’t help start-ups, who are by definition in the private sector and don’t have unions or means of having their voice heard by the powers that be,” said Gabriel Hubert of Teleportd, a real-time photo-sharing service.

Meanwhile Bloomberg Businessweek, looking at the same subject, details a number of individuals who are preparing to pack their bags and leave the country in the wake of the election. Their problem, it seems, is that they feel that rich are stigmatized by the French — particularly by Hollande’s proposed 75 percent tax on incomes above €1 million ($1.3 million).

“Seen from abroad, France is the last country where an entrepreneur wants to go,” Marc Simoncini, the founder of French dating site Meetic.com, said in an interview on BFM TV yesterday. “I don’t know of any British person who’s come to set up a business in France. But I know plenty of young French people who’ve gone to London to do that.”

The attacks on the moneyed class intensified during the presidential race, leaving entrepreneurs and other wealth creators feeling like pariahs, said Michel Collet, a tax lawyer at Paris-based law firm CMS Bureau Francis Lefebvre.
“The rich are fed up with being stigmatized,” he said. “Beyond the expectation of higher taxes, another important reason why our clients say they want to move abroad is that the negative perception of wealth has mounted in the past weeks.”

Sure, 75 percent seems crazy — and in fact it is: insiders say the chances are that Hollande’s campaign rhetoric was about the old-fashioned job of winning an election, instead of some deep-rooted adherence to radical socialism (in fact, he is so middle of the road that he is known as “Mr Normal”.)

Truth is that he’s much more likely to work alongside German chancellor Angela Merkel than to fight her, and the financial markets are actually anticipating free market-friendly policies and appointments.

So is the fear-mongering justified?

Only time will really tell us the answer to that. But I suspect the reality is that the problems that French businesses are faced with have almost nothing to do with party politics: Sarkozy, after all, who instituted a number of anti-Internet policies and claimed the web required “civilizing.”

The attitude of many of those interviewed in these stories also ignores the broader societal movement going on here: that there are a lot of people losing their jobs and their savings — and their dreams — because of poor financial practices happening much higher up the chain. To turn your nose up at ordinary people who are hurting while you hunt for a multimillion dollar exit for your social media business smacks of (yes) a “let them eat cake” sort of attitude.

In fact, in some odd way, you could argue that Hollande’s strategy of growth over austerity is pretty in tune with startup mentality. And it’s already clear that European investment is currently dominated by public funds. So, done right, French startups could find friends in the most unexpected places.

Still, it will be interesting to see how many of the entrepreneurs threatening to quit actually go ahead and do it — and how many are still complaining about the same old problems the next time a new President rolls into the Elysee.

Photograph of Hollande used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user jmayrault