Text published as an opinion piece on Maddyness on 26/01/2021.
Playing catch-up to a handful of increasingly powerful American and Chinese tech giants, French Tech, including Gymglish, has struggled to move beyond the nation’s borders. It’s time to broaden our horizons, move on from national myth-making, and embrace pragmatic policy at the European level.
French companies excel in the food, health and fashion industries. There have never been so many products and services bearing the tricolor “Made in France” label. While popularity in these sectors can rightly be explained by a demand for quality and economic solidarity, it is clear that the new technology sector does not abide by the same rules.
Over the last decade, our dependence on technology has virtually become a form of submission, not to other governments, but rather to private companies. Software and data circulate faster than goods, exposure to international competition is immediate, and the monopolies of North American and Asian startups have become increasingly powerful.
While providing us with an immense range of powerful tools and services, the way that these empires market and manipulate our data is unregulated: they are not only able to influence what we like, see, and buy, but also turn economic structures upside down, and yes, even disrupt democracies. In this context, technology “Made in France” has strived to resist this tendency, highlight our engineers’ expertise, support our own companies and remind ourselves that in terms of technology, we can very often find what we need in France. It’s an attractive idea, but one country should not attempt to monopolize solidarity and independence at any cost.
If American startups are successful, it’s not because their engineers are better, although we should note that they come from all over the world. Silicon Valley giants test, develop and finance their innovations through an initial market of more than 320 million people locally, fellow citizens of the same country, equipped and connected in similar ways, subject to the same general cultural influences, consumer habits and trade regulations. The same goes for Chinese companies and their local market of 1.3 billion consumers. In the world of professional networking sites, LinkedIn, now owned by Microsoft (to whom we voluntarily give a gold mine of details regarding our professional relationships, skills, updates and opinion) has crushed its main European rivals, Viadeo (France) and Xing (Germany).
Again, this is not because American technology is inherently superior. It is simply a matter of numbers, with the big fish eating the smaller ones. Individual European countries, such as France with 66 million people, or Germany with 83 million, are never going to be a match for countries five to ten times their size. But the continent of Europe could be a match.
At the crossroads of technology and health, and outside of any business interests, Europe was recently unable to collaborate and agree on a joint Covid-19 tracking application. Each country preferred to develop its own software, in somewhat nationalistic fashion. The virus is circulating freely, but cooperation stops at the border it seems. One nation cannot overcome a global challenge alone. On numerous economic, societal and health fronts, however, Europe can accomplish a great deal.
The EU must be the initial market for any French startup
Europe has a population of about 450 million people, with tremendous linguistic and cultural diversity, but one that is relatively homogeneous in terms of equipment and consumption habits – especially when compared to Asian and American Internet users. Europe also has a single currency, an EU-wide VAT system and regulations in common. While some think the European Union has too much power, others think it does not have enough. In any case, the EU provides companies with a framework to trade, and in terms of accessibility, there is no reason for French start-ups not to regard the European market in the same way a Californian startup regards the American market.
Having European regulations may not seem appealing initially, but within this framework lie shared values. For example, it is thanks to Europe that we have the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the only concrete response to the invasive use of personal data without user consent to date. Through these regulations, and numerous lawsuits, the European Union appears to be the only public institution currently standing up to the Silicon Valley giants. Europe also represents the Schengen Area, and this is not insignificant.
At Gymglish, our engineers are not only French, Swedish, Romanian, German, and Moldavian, but also Israeli, Cameroonian and Chinese, attracted to France by a European work visa. In addition to the engineers, our team of around 50 people includes 15 different nationalities, 8 of which are European, who between them speak 17 languages. We would not have been able to develop the way we have without the Schengen Area and the possibility of hiring Europeans as easily as we can hire French people.
Towards European Tech
Certainly, at the city and regional level, there are numerous initiatives and efforts to develop networks of local communities. However, beyond the national level, things are not as busy. European certifications are rarely promoted and little known. In 2015, Emmanuel Macron, then Minister of Economy, invited us to Bercy with our peers from the French technology sector to promote French Tech, praising the excellence of our engineers, schools, laboratories and startups with Champagne and canapés.
But there wasn’t a word about Europe, and nothing about the less excellent technology sectors of our German or Scandinavian neighbors, for example. Not a word about the value, especially in technology, of collaborating and developing solidarity among Europeans. Nor was there any question of comparing French “excellence” to any other country, which would have been considered unpatriotic.
We are a “Made in France” company, no doubt about it, and we are proud of it. But that is not all we are! We are also Europeans. In times of Brexit and the worrying rise of populism, surely Bercy could invite us again, this time with our European colleagues in the tech sector, to celebrate under a new name, perhaps “European Tech”?
French Champagne and canapés are of course welcome, but so would a less nationalistic dialogue. Battles aren’t won by crowing. In technology, perhaps more urgently than other fields, our expertise, solidarity and the control of our destiny are more than ever a matter to be considered at the European level.
Benjamin Levy, Gymglish co-founder
Learn more about Gymglish