France's digital minister Axelle Lemaire is on a mission to make the country more appealing to startups, introducing the "French Tech Visa" for foreign entrepreneurs and talking up Station F, Paris' soon-to-open startup hub.
All that good work is at risk if far-right politician Marine Le Pen wins France's upcoming presidential election, which will kick off on April 23.
Le Pen is anti-EU, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation, all of which runs contrary to the way tech companies and startups thrive.
In an interview with Business Insider, Lemaire said:
"I am concerned, this is what is at stake in the next presidential election. In a way, the choice that will have to be made by the French people is similar to the one that was presented to the American people. So I'm concerned because I think that in the end, the people supporting Marine Le Pen might be misled. Because open borders, without being naïve, and free trade have shown that they are bringing improvement to people's lives. What we have to fight against is inequalities — and it is true they've been growing as well."
She added that this message, coming from someone who is a qualified lawyer and friendly to the tech industry, may come across as "elitist."
"This is not what I am, but the challenge is to succeed in passing the message on."
(AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Lemaire was in London to promote the first UK-France Data Summit, born of the entente-cordiale with her UK counterpart, Matt Hancock. Other prospective cross-Channel projects include examining ethics in technology, and an open banking standards initiative.
Lemaire is keen to collaborate, rather than talk about the competition between London and Paris to attract the best tech talent. But she said French startups in the UK were "worried" by the populist politics developing in the UK after the Brexit vote.
A poll of around 300 people from French Tech London found that 54% had been impacted by Brexit in some way. Despite that, few have solid plans to quit — fewer than one in four have made arrangements to leave.
"People are worried, but many of them would like to remain in Britain because a large proportion want to acquire British nationality," said Lemaire. " I don't think it's worth entering into a fight between Paris and London."
Jack Taylor / Stringer
When it comes to Le Pen, Lemaire said she had "never been so worried" since starting out in politics, a move she attributes to Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine's extreme right father. "When I saw the image of Jean-Marie Le Pen on my TV screen in 2002, I thought I must do something," Lemaire said.
One reason for promoting the data conference, she said, was to highlight the importance of data in policy making. She linked hospital closures and the NHS staffing crisis to Brexit, saying: "This to me is an example of how important it is to base political arguments on facts. Of course, facts and evidence can be debated, but showing evidence in the first place is important. This whole alternative facts [idea] being put forward ... scares me."
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