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The rise of French Tech

Tom Forth, .

Kat Borlongan’s mandate as Director of La French Tech has finished. Her blog post detailing what the organisation achieved under her leadership is concise and precise. I would add little value in summarising it. I won't translate it since Google Translate works brilliantly.

But I can add to it slightly. Importantly.

France has transitioned in seven years from one of Europe’s digital also-rans, to its digital leader.

Axelle Lemaire.

The transition started when Axelle Lemaire became Minister for Digital Affairs in April 2014 under President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls. She was joined in government later by a name that more of you will recognise. In August 2014 a young Emmanuel Macron became Minister of the Economy, Industry, and Digital Affairs.

That French government, a socialist government, kicked off a pro-business, pro-data, and pro-digital transition that continues to this day under a government that is, in name at least, less socialist. In the National Assembly people like Paula Forteza and Éric Bothorel add much.

A series of Ministers followed Lemaire. Mounir Mahjoubi and Cédric O have been, in their different ways, excellent ministers of state. All three were notably considered important and their work promoted more thoroughly by their Presidents and their Prime Ministers than our equivalents in the UK. Though perhaps it was just because we had little time for anything else but Brexit.

French Tech.

French Tech has been a French government priority.

Étalab, the French government’s digital transformation incubator has achieved a lot. Those using digital, and non-digital, services in France will grudgingly confirm that they are getting better. They are still not great.

Data.gouv.fr is Europe’s leading government open data portal, truly world-leading in the quality and quantity of its data and the engagement of its community. In the UK we dream of an open address system, and an open register of land ownership. Many other countries have it. France has it brilliantly. Even Insee, France’s national statistical office and not yet a competitor with the ONS, shows signs of modernising.

The great success of covidtracker.fr in presenting France’s excellent Covid open data is just a visible example of digital and data excellence that is increasingly widespread in France. Guillaume Rozier has his well-deserved knighthood. But his success is just one of many. France has hundreds of people doing similarly great work, empowered by the French state, but not always employed or controlled by it. Like Gael Musquet for example.

And French Tech, led by Kat Borlongan, has been a very visible part of that.

La French Tech.

I have written before about the challenges that the UK has had in creating something similar. Today, after a brief effort at decentralisation to two locations, the UK’s Tech Nation is a single central non-federal monolith.

French Tech is far from that. Its greatest presence is in Paris. But from Lille to Toulouse and beyond the brand of French Tech unites France’s cities and regions in a way that gives them autonomy and flexibility. They can innovate at their own pace and succeed together with a great brand, a listening centre, and a shared mission.

I know enough French people to know that they think Germany does it better and does it in a less centralised way. For every value of “it” except food. The data says that they don’t when it comes to tech. Sweden maybe does, but it’s cold and small and their wine is expensive.

But even if Germany did do better, and do its tech promotion in a more decentralised way, comparing yourselves to a federal state on decentralisation is daft.

So I urge the French to compare yourselves to the UK, look at how so much here is controlled from London compared to France. You love to complain, but you are doing pretty well. Maybe take some time to celebrate people like Kat who have given so much to bring your country so far so quickly on digital.

France is always a bit shy to think that it still inspires the world. But it does, even if you have to press Google Translate to read this blog post.

Thank you Kat, and everyone else, for continuing to inspire us in the UK to do better. I know that you search for lessons from the UK too. I hope that we can continue to provide them.

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