Six months ago, Emmanuel Macron was a relative unknown. A former investment banker, Macron had pivoted to launch a new political party--called En Marche (Onwards)--as recently as last year. Now he's ascended to president of France, and is widely expected to win a majority in parliament.
His first order of business: advocating for startups.
"To put it in one word: Entrepreneur is the new France," Macron insisted, speaking at the VivaTechnology conference in Paris on Thursday. The president addressed thousands who'd gathered in the nation's capital to discuss the future of technology and innovation across the euro zone, and as Germany prepares to hold elections in September. "What we have to do is change in depth our model," Macron continued. "I want France to be a startup nation, meaning both a nation that works with and for the startups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a startup."
The French economy--the third largest in Europe--has struggled in recent years, as the U.K. and Germany have made relative gains. The country faces a sovereign debt crisis, strict labor laws, and high unemployment, factors that have caused many entrepreneurs to move their offices overseas. Today, more than 1.6 million French nationals live abroad, up more than 60 percent since 2000, according to the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. "France is a country that doesn't have the best image in terms of competition and business," noted Julien Verdier, the founder and CEO of the Paris-based marketing firm AdYouLike, in a previous interview with Inc. Verdier runs his startup from the U.S. for part of the year, and recently celebrated the birth of his son stateside. "I'm always happy to come back to the U.S.," he continued. AdYouLike did €9.7 million in 2015 sales.
Macron has a number of proposals aimed at making France more business friendly. He has suggested cutting the corporate tax rate from 33 percent to the E.U. average of 25 percent, for example, and wants to loosen national labor laws so companies can have more freedom to negotiate working hours and pay. Meanwhile, Macron announced on Thursday a new, four-year tech visa to encourage foreign entrepreneurs to start up in France. The visa will be open to founders, employees, and investors, and streamlines the process of obtaining a residence permit, Macron explained at the conference.
"I know a lot of you have heard about failures in our system," Macron conceded. "We are at the beginning of a new momentum."
Although some have compared Macron's unexpected rise to that of U.S. President Donald Trump--inasmuch as both leaders identify as political outsiders, and advocate for some degree of nationalism--the politicians differ starkly in their policies. While Trump has called for the construction of a border wall to limit immigration, for instance, Macron says he sees the future of France, and of entrepreneurship, as remaining "open."
"At a time when some people think that walls are a solution, we do think that openness is the right path," Macron said, in a thinly veiled jab at Trump. "Because the challenges we face are global, we need to think global." (The majority of Macron's speech was given in French, though he switched over to English at the end to better communicate with global audiences.)
To what extent Macron can make good on pro-business promises will, of course, depend on how many seats he's able to win in parliament. After the first round of elections last week, polls indicate that his party could take as many as 425 of the 577 positions. That would be the biggest win for a French president since Charles de Gaulle in 1968--and indicates that French entrepreneurs have reason to take his ideas seriously.