Wave Of Capitalist Optimism Sweeps Across Paris

Jan 15, 2018
Originally published on January 31, 2018 5:40 pm

The city of Paris does not exactly have a business-friendly reputation. Strikes, red tape and a rigid labor market have seen to that. But things are changing. France now has a young, pro-business president. And across the city there's a growing climate of capitalist optimism.

A renovated 1920s train station in the middle of Paris is now a modern hub for startups. Newly elected President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated Station F last June, but the hub was actually conceived before he was elected.

Rachel Vanier, communications director of Station F, gives me a tour of the cavernous 366,000-square-foot space. There are giant art works by Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei, and space for a thousand startups.

"Basically, we call ourselves a startup campus because we actually have 28 different incubators, but also a ton of services," Vanier says. "In a few months we're going to have a housing extension so entrepreneurs from everywhere in the world will be able to come, attend a startup program, live, eat, meet other entrepreneurs."

Station F is privately financed by French telecom billionaire Xavier Niel, who invested about $300 million to acquire and renovate the train depot. Microsoft and Facebook are just a few of the multinational corporations sponsoring incubators here.

Briton Tom Pullen is one of Station F's 3,000 entrepreneurs. He says Paris is booming these days.

"I think within Europe at the moment it's the place to be," Pullen says. "Look at the amount of investment that's been raised over the last year, which has hit record levels. Look at the level of confidence for startups in France at the moment. I think what you see is a real wave of positivity, of optimism."

Pullen says even a few years ago he would've never imagined London in such difficulty, with Paris enjoying a business renaissance.

Across town, Christian Noyer describes how his job has gotten a lot easier since Macron was elected last year.

Noyer was once head of the Banque de France and vice president of the European Central Bank. Right after the U.K.'s 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union, the French government under then-President Francois Hollande put Noyer in charge of convincing multinationals that were planning to leave London to relocate their operations to Paris. The competition includes cities like Dublin, Frankfurt and Luxembourg.

"At the beginning they were afraid to come to Paris," Noyer says. "Because of perceptions about a rigid labor market and an uncertain tax system. Or they were saying, 'We'll increase a little bit, but we don't want to take the risk to make the hub (in Paris).' Now that's changing."

Noyer credits the election of Macron with much of the change. The French president is quickly following through on his promise to transform the country. He's overhauled notoriously rigid French labor laws, making it easier to hire and fire. And his government is preparing a raft of pro-business measures. Noyer says today France has the highest labor flexibility in continental Europe, and Paris is now an obvious destination.

"It's the only big, comprehensive city where you find all sorts of activities — like in London," he says. "Good international schools, plenty of housing and adequate office space. And Paris is the only place apart from London where you have the whole financial ecosystem — the banks, the insurance, the asset management, the fintech. There is no other place where you find that."

With its already-huge pool of talent, Noyer says, Paris is also able to attract the kind of young, talented workers that smaller or regional cities just can't.

Station F is working to facilitate life for its young entrepreneurs. In answer to France's infamous business red tape, the hub has brought dozens of public administrations in-house.

"If you need to deal with taxes or visas, everything is here," Vanier says.

Station F, which is nonprofit, is also trying to give a boost to entrepreneurs from underprivileged backgrounds. It is launching a program called "The Fighters," which will provide a free incubator and home to those chosen. Vanier says there were 2,500 applications from entrepreneurs in 50 different countries.

Karen Ko has raised about $1.2 million in France for her senior-care startup. But she says being in Paris is about more than business.

"I actually spent 13 years of my life working in New York city before deciding I needed a change in lifestyle and came to France," Ko says. "And no regret whatsoever in doing that! From a quality of life standpoint, it is huge."

Ko says there is a work-life balance in France that keeps entrepreneurs from burning out.

Banker Noyer says the appeal of Paris might best be summed up in a recent tweet by Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, who lauded the commitment of "strong" government and business leaders to economic reform and wrote: "Struck by the positive energy here in Paris. ... And the food's good too!"

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When France elected a new president, Emmanuel Macron received the most attention for what he was not. He was not the far-right nativist candidate he defeated. Now that he is president, there's more room to ask who Macron is, or more important, how he wants to change France. He ran on a pro-business platform in a country that's often criticized for hardly seeming pro-business at all. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: A renovated 1920s train station in the middle of Paris is now a modern hub for startups. Rachel Vanier, communications director of Station F, gives me a tour of the cavernous 110,000-square-foot space that houses a thousand startups.

RACHEL VANIER: Basically, we call ourselves a startup campus because we actually have 28 different incubators but also a ton of services. In a few months, we're going to have a housing extension. So entrepreneurs from everywhere in the world will be able to come, attend a startup program, live, eat, meet other entrepreneurs.

BEARDSLEY: Station F is funded by a French telecom millionaire. Microsoft and Facebook are just a few of the multinationals sponsoring incubators here. Briton Tom Pullen is one of Station F's 3,000 entrepreneurs. He says Paris is booming these days.

TOM PULLEN: I think within Europe at the moment, it's the place to be. Look at the amount of investment that's been raised over the last year, which has hit record levels. Look at the level of confidence for startups in France at the moment. I think what you see is a real wave of positivity, of optimism.

BEARDSLEY: Pullen says even a few years ago, he would have never imagined London in such difficulty with Paris enjoying a business renaissance.

CHRISTIAN NOYER: Ah, (unintelligible).

BEARDSLEY: Christian Noyer was once head of the Banque de France and vice president of the European Central Bank. Since the Brexit vote, Noyer's been in charge of luring multinationals planning to leave London to Paris. The competition includes cities like Dublin, Frankfurt and Luxembourg. Noyer says Paris was a hard sell at first.

NOYER: At the beginning, they were afraid to come to Paris or they were saying, well, we'll increase a little bit, but we don't want to take the risk to make the hub there. Now it's changing.

BEARDSLEY: Noyer credits the election of Macron. The French president is quickly following through on his promise to transform France. He's overhauled the country's notoriously rigid labor code, making it easier to hire and fire. And his government is preparing a raft of pro-business laws. Noyer says France has the highest labor flexibility in continental Europe, and Paris is now an obvious destination.

NOYER: It's the only big, comprehensive city where you find all sorts of activities. It's the only place, apart from London, where you have the whole financial ecosystem - the banks, the insurance, the asset management, the fintech. There is no other place where you find that.

BEARDSLEY: Back at Station F, entrepreneur Karen Ko says she's raised a million euros in France for her startup. But she says being here is about more than business.

KAREN KO: I actually spent 13 years of my life working in New York City before deciding I needed a change in lifestyle and came to France - and no regret whatsoever in doing that. (Laughter) From a quality-of-life standpoint, it is huge.

BEARDSLEY: The appeal of Paris might best be summed up in a recent tweet by Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs. After a recent visit, he tweeted, struck by the positive energy, and the food's good, too. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, as in a previous Web version, we say the Station F space covers 110,000 square feet. In fact, it's 366,000 square feet. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.